Thursday, January 25, 2018

Dice Rolls are a Threat

Now, if you can keep the last post in your mind, I believe the ground work has been laid for this post.

I was told by François Laroche the other day that, "I guess my difference of view also comes from the fact that I do not value "randomness" as being inherently better than predictability (or "control," as you call it).

Well, since it is my post he was commenting on, and the word predictability means something totally different from control, I think I will continue to use "control" as the word that means what I mean.

Laroche's argument is the sort of false equivalency that I was describing.  When he says, "I do not value randomness ..." he is clearly using that description as though all the forms in which a role-playing system can be played randomly is equivalent in value to every other system; that there is no distinction between this system and that.  He has played in a few systems, where randomness was employed, and he's convinced.  Randomness just isn't that big a deal.

Those experiences are certain to be extremely limited, for reasons I described in the last post.  It takes months to get the hang of a DM's campaign.  Even if our good Mr. Laroche has played in thirty such campaigns over the last ten years, three different campaigns for four months each, that's still just thirty campaigns.  There are tens of thousands of campaigns out there: who in hell knows what is going on, if the participants aren't broadcasting their style on the internet?  There are probably dozens of overtly sexualized campaigns, with players participating in the nude, that none of us will ever discover.  After all, if you ran such a campaign, would you blog about it in this internet climate?

So we're all ignorant.  That is a given. Those who insist we're not are just kidding themselves, hoping for a badge of professionalism that isn't really deserved (though how would that be inconsistent with normal human prestige?)

But rather than continue in this line of reasoning, the best I can do is try to highlight how one type of random series of dice can differ considerably from another.

Let's take the situation with the bridge that is happening with the online campaign.  You, dear Player, are standing at one end of a bridge more than 100 feet above an uncertain watery floor.  The water could be deep enough to catch you, or it could be inches deep and completely irrelevant.  You are 1st level and have no magical powers or items that will carry you across.  And I am your DM.  How do I handle this?

"Control" dictates that the character has the ability to simply cross the bridge.  You, as player, argue that you're a hero, or at least a willing adventurer, you're not like normal people, you don't know the meaning of fear, and therefore you walk across it.

However, I argue thusly.  You and I can easily walk along a sidewalk, without there being any chance of "falling off" onto the grass.  But if a force comes along and suddenly raises that 4-foot-wide sidewalk a hundred feet in the air, what would you do?  We both know the answer, though perhaps I'm the only one to admit it in the game setting, since the player knows that admitting it undercuts the argument.  Both of us immediately fall flat on the sidewalk and pray not to die.  The idea of going along such a sidewalk, with a hundred feet on either side, would be too scary to contemplate.

Why?  Why do we have this response?  Why are we afraid?  Is it our character?  Our constitution?  Our lack of wisdom?  No.  It is our survival instinct.  Our construction as beings says, "Don't walk across that bridge when the drop will kill you, stupid!  What, you want to die?"

So we freeze.  Even heroes freeze.  No "brave" persons saunters across such an obstacle and to argue that one can is to throw out everything that matters about describing an immersive condition for the players to inhabit.

Many who argue control hate that immersive conception.  The last thing they want to do is admit frailty, or hesitation, or anything that reminds them of their real selves, which a great many players dislike intensely.  However, I think the "fun" of the game is to experience, just a little, what it is like to be moving along a narrow pathway a hundred feet over death.  And I know there are others who also feel this way, because quite a lot of us jump or feel creeped out when the camera in a movie pans over the drop and gives us a good feel of what it would be like to be there.


[the maker of this video clearly has a balance or sure-footedness skill a 1st level shouldn't have]

If we discard automatic success, then, we are now stuck with a die roll.  And here is how most DMs handle it: "Roll a die. Success indicates you make it across."

How do I know "most" DMs do it this way, with my lack of real experience of other DM's games?  That is how the modules are written; and the modules are celebrated, gushed over, repeated, bought, sold, treated like fetish objects and thoroughly pitched and pumped to players who have never played them, night and day, on bulletin boards, blogs, vlogs, animations and every other form of RPG communication between participants.  And no one ever, ever says, "Oh, but when you come to the place with the bridge, don't just roll a dice to get them across.  Come up with something more interesting."

No, what they do is they roll two athletic rolls and then everyone dies on the vines.  And the commenting audience is good with that, and everyone says it's "fun."

Yeah, pitted against that, I'd pick "control" also.

If we want a better random approach, we have to take control into account ~ and here is what everyone misses when making vast equivalency statements about randomness.  Some of the situation can be controlled, and some of it cannot, and it is up to us to decide which is which.

We can get the answer for that one by training ourselves to deconstruct the situation.  [That's not how I thought of it when I was 15 and running my first games, but it was what I was doing, having trained myself to do that through many other means, such as learning how to write, fish and make cabins].

First, the character has to begin.  Then the character will become aware they are over the drop.  Don't laugh.  Many's a time we've started something, only to get a little way in and think, "Wow, this is really awful," forcing us to take a breath and pause, deciding if we dare continue.  Following that, there's a moment of triumph as we realize we've reached half way.  And then there's a moment of dangerous overconfidence when we think we've done it, letting down our guard before we should.

Anyone in a rescue profession can see all of these at work.  People freeze up and can't start at all.  People don't think, start off, then realize where they are and freeze up.  People get halfway across, get confident and stop being careful.  People get almost to safety, then look back because they want to prove to themselves that they really did it, and then fall.

All of these are a potential die roll.  Some of them could be suspended for the sake of abilities or dexterity, or personal knowledge, like a thief vs. a fighter or a mage.  Some, with a very low wisdom, might have to roll at all four points.

But so much for randomness. What about control?

Because, again, as anyone in the rescue profession can tell you, there are strategies for each of these as well.  People can be supported.  They can be coached.  The high wisdom cleric can be placed behind the low wisdom bard to give moral reassurance.  Packs can be lightened.  Salt and other materials can be spread on the path to counteract dampness or ice.  People can get down on their hands and knees and crawl.  These are all possible options.  Some might be a little humiliating, such as having your big tough fighter crawl across the terrifying gorge, but you know what ~ in reality, in the military, brave, tough fighters cry.  In fact, it is perfectly all right.  As any veteran could tell you [though they probably won't, because this is kept inside the brotherhood].  If the reader needs it, I know a military NCO from Canada who would be happy to come make comment, arguing the validity here.  Or you can believe Simon Sinek.

It is about a million times more interesting if the party remembers when the fighter got down on his knees and crawled, with the attitude that they would fight to the death anyone who dared say it was true ... because that is fucking real, people. That is life. That is where this game could be.

Randomness isn't dull.  Randomness is a threat.  It is a gun pointed at your head.  It is a bullet that says, "If you don't figure this shit out as best you can, I am going right through your skull."  That is not boring.  That is not something that we describe with equivalencies and statements like "we all play different games."

No, I am playing for stakes on a field you can't even find.  This post is describing one simple bridge, in one simple situation, and I play this way for everything that happens in my game. Your role as player is to try to control every situation to the point where you don't have to roll ... and ultimately to accept, sooner or later, there are going to be rolls you can't sidestep, that you will have to choke down.  And as your hand reaches for your die, you're going to realize something you've never realized while playing an RPG before.

Your hand will be shaking.

1 comment:

Fuzzy Skinner said...

There's kind of an unspoken rule I've seen at a few tables, where the players don't ask the DM "Do I need to roll for this?" ...because the DM might say "Yes."

But the way you've written this, the fear goes beyond "I might fail a die roll" and lodges itself firmly in "my character could fall screaming to their grisly death". Nicely done.