Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Two Camps

Be sure and hear this podcast, to which I was invited.

Meanwhile, let's tackle this, from Silberman on October 22nd:

"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)?"

Do be sure to follow the link and read the whole comment.

The question above has been more and more prevalent these last ten years ~ I believe because the continued lack of proper design towards aiding the DM in constructing the actual game has been lacking, and because many of the people who began their participation more than 20 years ago have had their input compromised, leaving many new people without proper mentorship in how to DM.  That said, however, I'll address the question.

As Silberman words it (and everyone words it the same way), this is an either/or question.  That is how it is argued on bulletin boards and blog comments throughout the internet.  So they say, "My game is story-based" as opposed to the use of dice to determine outcomes: "Role-playing" vs. "Roll-playing."  These two camps support one option or the other, slinging stones at each other across an invented no-man's land, where no compromise is possible.

Silberman's question is related to a very sarcastic post I wrote about DMs who clearly feel it is in their mandate to regulate what happens in a game, to ensure the best possible experience for the player.  My post responded to a series of loaded questions clearly deriding positions such as following the rules, killing characters with low-level monsters, painstakingly rolling appropriate dice for situations and not fudging those dice.  As such, I took Silberman's reference to the predictability of storytelling as a DM prepared to fudge dice, ensure player survival and cheat the rules in order to sustain their vision rather than the game.

But people do take it farther than that.

On the 15th of last month I proposed a means of charting a game adventure, based on character motivation, with the idea of the DM creating obstacles that would serve as causes, eliciting responses which would drive the characters through the adventure.  While some hailed the clarity of this procedure, declaring that they'd not heard it put so succinctly, the post also drew condemnation as a pursuit of the DM's narrative, bordering on (tolerable) illusionism and, in general, not necessarily the best way to approach the campaign ideal.

Basically, the two camps.  And whereas one camp stands on their right to force the story, the other can be just as dogmatic in enforcing the rules: any deviation from strict randomness is seen as a game sin, a philosophy that creates situations which, as Silberman notes later in his comment,
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."

Every game DM who has tried to follow the rules faithfully, most often in their uncompromising youth, had that experience ~ not just once, but many times.  It is an awful situation to manage: particularly if one is 12 or 13, knowing nothing about the nature of humans and how to motivate even people of one's own age.  Without tools, without perspective, without a mentor to guide them and without wanting to quit playing, many a young or new player makes the decision that, "No, I'm not going through that again."  And how easy it is to fudge the dice and ensure that.  How easy it is create a merchant's brother, who happens to know everything the merchant knew; how easy it is to roll a die and change the rat bite's infection to a mild, passing illness; how easy it is for the party to find food; how easy it is for the DM to make it stop raining.

From there, it is just as easy to change a crit to an ordinary hit, or a hit to a miss.  It is just as easy to remove ten hit points from the enemy's pile.  It is all the more easy if this can be done behind a screen, where no one can see, where there is no check or balance on the DM's behaviour, no quality assurance, no measurable second witness to hold the DM accountable for anything.

So which is it to be?  Either/Or, yes?

Strict adherence to the rules does create a problem, there's no denying it.  The real criminality here is, however, that the first and most obvious solution to the problem, the easy solution, is execrable.  However, it is so damn easy, so damn ready to hand, so pervasively supported by the industry, the presence of computer screens and from of the most prestigious voices among the participants, putting an end to it reflects taking up arms against the sea with a broom.

However, there are hard solutions that will also manage the problem.  For example, understanding how causality works; understanding how to motivate others without adversely challenging their agency; stretching the mind to be more creative in adventure building and problem solving; understanding how reaching for easy expositional devices paints a party ~ and an adventure ~ into a hopeless corner, by making the whole adventure depend on one participant, such as a mage, or on one contact, such as a merchant.  In other words, learning how to manage the damn game.

Research.  Diligence.  Experience.  Open-mindedness.  Work.  And a willingness to see that changing a 17 to a 16 on a d20 matters.  A little thing called honor.

And here, yes, I sound like an old man.  I am an old man; and as such, I can game any of these young punks under the table, without cheating and without forcing a story down anyone's throat.

[Admittedly, I seem to have an online problem with players who distrust me, apparently because the series of events I've envisioned is so rational it must be a scam.  Ah well]

For anyone who wants to take the hard path, I can help.  Want to write better adventures?  Familiarize yourself, first, about what makes a bad story.  Open every folder, one by one, and read every link.  Yes, every link.  And when you read that such and such a link says that a key plot point of one of your favorite movies is a piece of bad writing, change your fucking mind about your favorite movie and recognize that it's true.  Because if you can't change your mind, on evidence, about something you love, you'll never be a good anything, much less a good DM.

Changing your mind about something you love doesn't mean you have to stop loving it.  It just means you have to learn to love it for what it is, not for what you wish it was.  And that is fucking hard.  If that is too hard for you, you're welcome to go back to cheating your friends.


Pandred said...

I can't speak for any of my fellows in Juvenis, but I still miss that game and think of it often. It was an exciting time, even when nothing particularly "exciting" was going on we always seemed to be right on the verge of another catastrophe/adventure.

I mean, that's the game, so we WERE always on the verge of another catastro-venture, but it's one of the very few games I'd been fortunate enough to play in that really ignited that excitement for me.

I hope I expressed my gratitude for it at the time.

Alexis Smolensk said...

We're not done.

Drain said...

You can at least speak for me on that regard, Pandred. I too itch and dwell often on the ritual that was checking the campaign's progress. We're nearing on the anniversary of its beginning, here's hoping for a holiday special and greater things to come.