Saturday, October 21, 2017

Give Some Insight Here

Someone tagged me on a reddit post, where they are insufferably arguing story vs. rules, in the same old way, with the same old arguments.  I noticed because it brought a flood of attention to a post I wrote seven years ago, pushing it to the top of my stats today.  But I addressed my opinions on that specific subject just lately, so I won't go there now.

Instead, I'd like to address some questions that one of the reddit commenters put forward, because I think they serve as an example to the mindset of many players in D&D.  I quote from Team_Braniel:
  • What do you find fun in blindly following the rules?
  • Do you always stick to monster stat blocks?  Or do you fudge them to make the monsters fit the encounter better?
  • Do you allow a trash monster permakill a caster on an unlucky crit?
  • When a player gets bored and goes all asshole and tries to kill the npc quest giver, do you let him or do you pull a deus ex machina to stop him or save the quest giver?
  • Do you roll all travel encounters while players are trecking [sic] a 2 week long journey to the quest destination?
  • Where is the line that the rules become tedious and you start to blur them for the sake of continuing the game?

Naturally, the internet habit is to answer the questions directly, saying yes to this and no to that, with perhaps a little explanation.  But I frankly find that a little boring and, anyway, I've already answered all these questions in tens of thousands of words.

Recently, I have been far more interested in deconstructing this sort of thing than in giving my perspective. The questions themselves are revealing, in their intent, but more importantly in their design.  These questions are loaded ~ not purposefully, I'm sure, but rather due to long experience with the role-playing community and the assumption that "speaking with bias" is the same as "speaking with those in the know."

This, I think, is a common issue.  We ~ me included! ~ tend to hand-wave explanation for our points of view on the grounds that everyone already knows a lot about the frame in which we're speaking, and therefore it isn't necessary to specifically outline our context.  However, I also feel that is it easy to drift into a bubble where that context becomes fraught with assumption.

Take the most glaring example, the first question.  It ought to be, "Do you follow the rules?" Straightforward, clear, designed to produce a personal, non-confrontational response.  Instead, the first question has been loaded with the clause, "What do you find fun ..." ~ and thereafter, the word follow has been qualified with the adverb, blindly.

Or consider the phrasing of the second question: "Do you always stick to monster stat blocks?"  That word stick ... most interesting.  Different from "keep to" or "respect" monster stat blocks.  Stick is a word we associate with something that resists movement, such as trying to pry open something that sticks or a person who is content to remain in an abject, unchanging state of mind.  Similarly, "stuck up" is a phrase we associate with "offensively conceited, assuming an unjustified air of superiority."  So it is implied ~ most likely without the questioner thinking about it ~ that following the monster stat blocks is indicative of stubbornness or evidence of smug authority.

Question, then, the actual meaning of "monster stat blocks."  Whose?  We're all in the process of designing our own monsters and there's nothing that argues that any of the stat blocks can't be redesigned by the DM. The monster stat blocks in every edition have been subjected to shifting, adjustment and straight-up change through endless modules, personal views and self-directed bias, so there's plenty of justification to argue that all stat blocks, whether officially printed in a particular book or publication, suffers from definition drift.

Clearly, then, the questioner has in mind a specific "official" stat block in mind, like people who refuse to play backyard football because no one happens to have an official NFL football handy.  Yes, such people exist.  Unfortunately, the questioner doesn't take the time to define which official stat block he's describing, so it is actually certain that no, I don't, because I literally haven't seen any official stat block printed since 1984. 

I am curious about part B to the second question: "Or do you fudge them to make the monsters fit the encounter better?"  Plainly, the qualifying phrase at the end of the question implies that not fudging the official stat blocks makes it impossible to better fit the monsters to the encounter.  I am wholly at a loss for why this is.  There are hundreds of monsters of every size and form, and more if I want to invent them on my own ... as such, it seems to me that "fitting the monsters" to the encounter should be easy.

Still, not sure how changing a given monster from 3 HD to 4 HD can be defined as "fudging."  I'm perfectly in my rights to throw a 4 HD monster at a party; how is it that throwing a giant eagle with 4 HD against a party isn't cheating, but throwing a hippogriff (normally 3 HD) with 4 HD against a party is cheating?  I'll have to think about that.

Moving on.

I looked for a definition for "trash monster" without much success.  "Trashmonster"  is a word coined by a group of guys stationed together at Peterson Air Force Base who apparently love to party for no particular reason.  It would seem that describes virtually every human being.  "Trash monster" also turns up a lot of examples of monsters made of trash, including the otyugh, includes people who live in caves that will eat anything, and according to one page is the ultimate in Nordic LARP.  In this context, I think I know what it means: what I have lately been described as vermin.  But without a solid definition, I don't see how we can be specific as to whether or not there's a dividing line on what monsters have the right to kill casters with crits and those that don't.

Two things:  why "casters" in particular?  The specificity of the question seems to imply the casters are more valuable than other players, who ~ because they were left out of the question ~ can be freely killed by crits without any hesitation whatsoever because we are only concerned with casters being killed.  The question, "Do you allow ...?" seems to imply that it is specifically unfair to kill casters with status-challenged monsters living on the streets with little or no income, unless I do so without actually rolling a crit (since we're being specific about that too).  I'm a little confused as to why we don't just make a house rule that crits don't count against casters when produced by monsters of low social scale, so that I can at least count them as normal hits and still do a little damage.

As well, are there such things as "lucky crits"?  I mean, there are, those rolled by the players, but I presume I'm allowed to kill a caster with a lucky crit, if only I knew specifically what one of those might be.  It is puzzling.

We can move on now to the phrase, "When a player gets bored and goes all asshole ..."  Great phrase. Great.  Goes right to the core of the thing; we've seen it, we know exactly what the questioner is talking about.  Still, there's something about the opening adverb, "when."  Clearly, since we're not saying "if," we're presupposing this is absolutely going to happen.  Apparently, it is something we can do absolutely nothing about.  Players are going to get bored.  When they do get bored, going asshole is definitely a possibility. Apparently.

Clearly, when the player does, as a DM I have just two options: I can let the player go asshole or I can go asshole myself, using my magnificent powers as a game moderator to alter time and space so that the player is helpless to perpetrate a murder.  There is nothing else I can do.  I see that.  It certainly makes it a perplexing question.  Honestly, this one is just too hard for me to make up my mind, given my minimal experience with players getting bored and going all asshole.  I'm just going to have to wait and see what I do when it happens, then report back on that when I have a verified answer.

Now.  Do I roll all travel encounters while players are trekking a 2 week long journey to a quest destination. Okay, good, I can deal with this.  There's no need to quibble about the constraints of the question: I'm sure it is also fairly asking if I roll all travel encounters if the journey is three weeks or five weeks or one week or even just one day.  I am sure that the actual length of the journey has been in no way used in this question to stress the illegitimacy of rolling a die multiple times to see if an encounter occurs.

Still, I have to ask, what if the players are not on a journey to a quest destination?  Surely, that was a very important part of the question that can't be overlooked.  If the players are just travelling along, without any specific purpose, surely that changes what I do as a DM regarding the manner in which encounters must be rolled, diligently or otherwise.

Mish mash, I'm just not sure.  Let me break this down a bit. Do I roll all travel encounters.  Well, plainly, given recent posts, no I do not.  Sometimes, I give encounters to players that are travelling without rolling first.  I feel, perhaps wrongly, that the process of creating a quest includes the opportunity for some of the events of that quest to occur while the players are, in fact, travelling.  So if I already intended to have the players meet something on the way to the quest, before even inventing the quest, then it would be pretty silly for me to roll to see if that encounter occurred, right?

Oh, oh, wait.  I think I may have misunderstood.  It's possible the questioner is asking if I bother to roll "all" the travel encounters, or if I just skip some, because the journey is long and it is very arduous to have to roll 14 dice.  Ah, well, yes, that's a different way of looking at it.

I have recently been reading about the difficulty of having to roll the chance for a series of possible encounters from other sources lately and this seems to be a big problem.  I presume these people have been met by a rule structure that argues a very strict adherence to the encounter rolling necessity: thou shalt not fail to roll to see if an encounter occurs, no matter how many hours or days or weeks shall pass affecting the movement of the party while questing, or something to that effect.

I suppose, if rolling a lot of dice does seem like an uphill struggle, the quest destination could be moved closer to the party's present location.  And given that the actual distance of the quest is determined by will of the DM, it seems equally reasonable that the exact number of encounter rolls that might occur in the space of an arbitrary time period is pretty arbitrary, however any given rule might be written.  I'm not sure if this particular question is very clear about whether or not I follow "rules."

Given that I live in a complex society that adjusts laws according to a wide range of circumstances, which in turn become precedents which, in fact, become the law, I'm not sure how adjusting the rule to fit a change is circumstances is, in fact, not still playing by the "rules."  I'm probably missing something.

But then, I'm kicked right in the face by that last question: "Where is the line that the rules become tedious and you start to blur them for the sake of continuing the game?"

My dictionary defines "blur" as an English rock band that was formed in London in 1988.  It also defines "blur" as to make or become unclear or less distinct, or a thing that cannot be seen or heard clearly.

Now, thinking about that, I would be hard pressed to consider the sounds produced by Blur as music, as it seems largely to be about playing musical instruments with a very clumsy, note-challenged incompetence, specifically to appeal to a particular kind of angst-driven teenager who, with little effort, can themselves produce very similar results with just a few months effort using drums or a guitar of some kind, while scrubbing baffling lyrics from vocal chords to emphasize one's personal privilege to be a successful band-member without any evidence of training.  As such, I consider Blur, the band, to be the very height of accurate labelling.

Rules, as I understand them, are pretty distinct.  That, I've come to understand, is pretty much quintessential in the reasoning behind having rules ... and where it comes to living with rules, in the real world, I am almost absolutely definite that having them be fuzzy and indistinct is exactly what people do not want where it comes to rules doing anything for the sake of anything.

Sometimes, it help to ask the question using a different collection of nouns, just to see if the sentence works grammatically.  Let's try that.  "Where is the line that the manner in which I am paid by my employer becomes tedious, and I start to blur the manner of my being paid for the sake of continuing to work for my employer?"

Nope, that didn't help.

Fundamentally, I'm fully unclear ~ blurred, we might say ~ on how the game is continued in some superior way once a rather vague line is crossed, one that I'm being asked to define at the start of the question.  See, the whole point in the law setting precedents about things is that it stops arguments, like neighbors killing each other with stone clubs, allowing them to live within a few feet of each other and pass politely on the street without malevolence or fear.  It seems to me that those places in the world where the rules become blurred are largely places I don't want to visit, much less live there.

I know the question is trying to get at some point, but I just don't know what.


Fuzzy Skinner said...

This is one of the biggest sticking points between me and some of my friends. They insist that I need to focus less on the rules in a roleplaying game, and just relax and have fun; I insist that games have rules, and adhering to those rules is what produces the game as such.

That being said, when most people refer to "the rules" in an RPG, they mean the rules in the glossy and colorful, yet poorly made books sold at exorbitant prices by the "official" publisher of the game. No matter how unwieldy the scope of the "official" rules becomes, and no matter how many gaping holes exist that must be hastily corrected over Twitter (and that prior publishers were smart enough to patch over 35 years ago), the "official" rules are law. "House rules" are looked at suspiciously, and the very idea of running scenarios that aren't found in one of those brand-new books that are already falling apart is labeled "homebrew" and accompanied by the same raised eyebrows.

Obeying the rules verbatim is good. Abandoning the rules altogether is good. But changing the rules, and playing by those changes, is bad. It's not surprising to me that, as you've accurately pointed out before, so much of the dialogue about the game goes in endless circles. Nor is it surprising that some of the people who "fudge" the rules at their tables tend to play fast and loose with real-world rules when given a leadership role; when a person gets [bored/frustrated/sarcastic/dissatisfied] with the leader and "goes all asshole" (by whatever yardstick that's measured), the Club Master feels well within their rights to "pull a deus ex machina to stop [them]".

(Addendum: A player is more likely to "[get] bored and [go] all asshole" if they feel that their choices don't matter, or worse, that they actually have no choices. I've experienced this urge in campaigns where the party were run on rails into their roles as Chosen Ones, and even in video games where an entry took a steep dive in player agency from the previous entry in the series. But saying "The hippogriff over at X is stronger than normal, and has an extra Hit Die" is very different from secretly adjusting the to-hit rolls or AC of a creature mid-battle to prevent it from being killed - or from killing a party member, and I appreciate the distinction both as a player and as a Referee.)

Silberman said...

Following your deconstruction lead, I'd say these questions are trying to craft a freedom-constraint dichotomy out of what are really two different meanings of constraint. There's the constraint of "the rules" that say, "The die is cast, now deal with it," and there's the constraint of the DM's preconceived evening's entertainment for the players (so many unexpected events might unravel the proceedings).

I can go further and invert the opposition: Does the DM's pursuit of her narrative liberate the game from the stodgy rules, or do the interactions of multiple die rolls and player moves liberate the game from the predictability of one participant's storytelling (most likely a pastiche of assorted genre fictions and past runnings)?

The more I look at it, using rules to play out the consequences of decisions and chance seems like the open path, with the closed way being the DM judicious curation of all outcomes back to the Story. (Maybe this game isn't the proper platform for the DM's creative impulses. What the storyteller wants here isn't a world free of rules. It's authority and clarity.)

But I have to acknowledge that players get frustrated--as DM, I get frustrated--when bad decisions and bad luck draw out the players' pursuit of a once-clear agenda to the point of stagnation. The fighter went asshole and killed that merchant who hired the party, so nobody knows who their contact is in the next town; the wizard is dying from an infected giant rat bite; it's been frigid and raining for the past week; everyone is out of food and starving. Around the table, every die roll is accompanied by a mumbled, "Whatever."

If only I could just say, "Alright, it's ten days later when you stagger into the big city, barely alive. A messenger runs up and hands you a note from your contact. You're to meet her at the Golden Squire just off the market square." For better or worse, that would cheer them up!

More and more, I've been thinking about these debates that get framed as The Rules vs. The Story as matters of scale or zoom distance. As you say, if I don't want to deal with a three-month journey, why am I only telling the players about interesting things going on in distant locations? But even if the next destination is a day away, I can quickly end it all in tears by beginning the trip, "You're ten feet out of town. There are dogwoods growing here. A squirrel stops in the middle of the path and looks at you nervously. The trail continues ahead. There's a robin's nest in a nearby tree." A mile or so of that and I can assure you my players will be spearing squirrels and burning down the forest.

When the players desperately want to get from City A to City B, there is often this tension over scale and how closely we're zoomed in on the action. This can feel like a resistance to systems for supplies, wilderness survival, unexpected encounters. Maybe. But maybe the real problem is that I keep throwing squirrels in the path.

There are some guidelines for this sort of thing in the various editions of D&D, but they tend to take the form of distinct "Dungeon" and "Wilderness" scales. I wonder if there's a place for a more flexible "Narrative" scale. What if, instead of setting the level of zoom based on the in-game length of the journey, I said, "Barring catastrophe, the players should reach City B by the end of tonight's running. The expenditure of resources, the appearance and resolution of threats, changes in the weather, will all be evaluated at that scale."

Instead of narrating the trip at all, I could present them with a bill on arrival: 20 hp, 15 arrows, 2 healing potions, 13 rations. If they decide they want to forage for robin eggs and feed the squirrels along the way, fine, we'll do that, but if they want to get where they're going, maybe we can zoom out along the way without chucking "The Rules" out the window.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly, Silberman (with you too, Fuzzy, though I have nothing specific to add there). I would need it explained to me how this ~

"If only I could just say, 'Alright, it's ten days later when you stagger into the big city, barely alive. A messenger runs up and hands you a note from your contact. You're to meet her at the Golden Squire just off the market square.' For better or worse, that would cheer them up!"

~ breaks the rules. So long as the bill comes due at the end, as you say Silberman, I haven't any issue with it from a player agency perspective or from a scarcity perspective.

Ozymandias said...

It seems to me that Team_Braniel's questions are part of a larger conversation playing out in the online D&D community. If the reader doesn't know the larger context, the questions break down under the slightest scrutiny, as demonstrated. But in order to know the conversation, the reader has to wade through literally tens of thousands of words on Reddit and D&D blogs, most written with the same logic as Hubbard's Dianetics.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, Ozymandias. It's habit for these fellows to presume you have read through the tens of thousands of words; that's why they feel justified in loading the questions as they do. Everyone already knows what the answers ought to be, right? We're just trying to catch those people, with these questions, that don't fit our perspective and out them.

Ozymandias said...

Silverman, offer them the choice before they make the trip: deal with each encounter (or event or random description or whatever you decide they see) individually or skip it all like a cutscene, excepting any event that isn't trivial. I've started doing this with my game and the players appreciate it. Sometimes they want to deal with the minutiae of exploring the wilderness; other times they have an agenda and prefer to ignore everything else along the way. Unless a particular encounter won't let them, I feel they have enough wherewithal to avoid anything.

Maliloki said...

Neither here nor there (and please forgive me, or don't bother posting this comment, if I missed the sarcasm), but trash monster is referring to, at its basic levels, random encounters or, at its most extreme, anything that is not viewed as "essential" encounters to the "story" being told - ie, "boss fights".

Alexis Smolensk said...

No issue, Maliloki. I figured that's what it meant. But it's not exactly defined, being the point I was making.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Oh, and in the interest of giving insight, Maliloki, the entire post is awash in sarcasm. That, too, was rather the point.

Maliloki said...

I assumed as much, but I couldn't stop myself.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yeah, neither could I. I'm almost OCD in my need to slam people in the game community.