Thursday, March 12, 2009

Think Inside The Box

Recently, Carl of Three Hams Inn made a remark that I do not run an easy game. That is undoubtedly true. And I think he also spoke correctly when he suggested that players occupied in what he called “snipe hunts,” where they waste time following up useless details, are trying to think outside of the box, to get whatever advantage they can.

I think the failing of this is in the DM, in that it is possible to think out of the DMs box most of the time. Because let’s face it, DMs are generally pretty stupid.

I want to give an example from my own experience as a player, when I did a lot of that; but I have to confess that my best example does not come from D&D. It comes from traveller.

We had a referee for that game, a fellow named Irwin (yes, we were all nerds), who invented his own system of trade based upon his limited conceptions of it. If you play Traveller, you know that owning a ship is a major pain in the ass, as the things are prohibitively expensive and require constant effort to make the monthly payments. As such, if you intend to travel around and adventure, you have to take advantage of the various services Traveller suggests: carrying mail, carrying cargo and speculating.

We were pretty smart guys, and it didn’t take us too long to figure out the flaw in Irwin’s system, or how to exploit it. That was 27 years ago, so I don’t remember exactly what the flaw was, but if we took specific routes and used specific character traits jointly, we could pretty much guarantee 400 – 1200 per cent profits every time we jumped.

While Irwin couldn’t get his shit together, we had pretty much paid off our ship and made ourselves gazillionaires. When I say that Irwin had to get his shit together, I mean that he had to develop a backbone. Because every time he would say, “This can’t be right…this just can’t be right,” we would exclaim loudly and defensively, “It’s YOUR system!” Which did just the trick. Irwin took all of the responsibility on his shoulders and let us get away with murder. Eventually the campaign collapsed, when Irwin didn’t want to play anymore.

What’s interesting is that yes, it WAS Irwin’s system…which meant he could have called a halt to it and redesigned it promptly. But he didn’t. Somehow he got it into his head (with our help) that having brought out the system, it was “unfair” to change it in midstream…an attitude we exploited to the full.

I don’t know what it is that makes DMs dumb in this way, but they are. They can usually be gotten around in a variety of ways—none of them having to do with rules lawyering, a pretty sad way to manipulate the DM. It’s much more fun to play on the DM’s generosity, guilt, sympathies, naiveté or innocence. A party I led once seized a school (again in Traveller), methodically butchered all the children within and got away clean with the ransom simply because the DM was so easily shocked that he found himself uncomprehending that we could even imagine such a scheme.

There’s no way I’d have let a party get away with that…the press would have been there within five minutes and we would have been waxed soon after. But I’m not easily horrified.

If I run a tough world, it is because I run a tight ship. It is very hard to “think outside the box” because the box is big enough to anticipate most of what a party might do. Thinking outside the box means outthinking me, and I’m not that easy to nail down. My motives are unclear (mostly, I have no motives, as I run a world, not a moral play), and I avoid creating circumstances the party can’t just walk away from. I don’t put princesses into towers and draw maps to those towers in straight lines. I create mazes that parties can avoid easily by having no interest in anything, but which get sticky the more the party cares about a particular thing.

In other words, as I’ve often said, the party makes the story. I’ll throw in details that have nothing to do with the party, because “news” is interesting. But I won’t insist a party follow up on those details and get involved in that particular mess. If they high-tail it elsewhere, I’m fine with that, because as I say the world is big, and there are other pieces of disconnected detail that I’ll invent for wherever they wind up.

That sounds pretty arrogant. I guess it is. I like when a party thinks of something I haven’t. It gives me ideas. But in almost every case, that thinking of something will happen INSIDE the box…not out of it. After all, when it comes to Earth, thinking “outside” the box is really a misnomer…it just means getting enlightened about something that was always there.

I hold my world to the commitment of being as close to that as possible.


Ryan said...

Honestly, I'm enjoying your DM style so far. Yes, the world is hard, but I've been gaming for seventeen years now and I'm a little over the "straight line to the tower" approach, as you put it. I like being able to pursue or ignore rumors as I see fit, instead of it being understood that the rumor we overhear is what we are "supposed" to pursue. I like the fact that not every single thing we see or encounter is somehow linked to what the party is doing. I also like that we could travel in any direction and you will accomodate that, rather than just transplating the story/dungeon/whatever we were supposed to follow, or even worse, hit us with some kind of "invisible wall" of circumstances that prevent us from leaving the area you have detailed.

Run your world. I like it. More and more, I'm starting to like the free roaming approach as opposed to yet another Campbellian-Monomyth-On-Rails.

KenHR said...

Ryan just said what I was going to say, far better than I was going to say it.

Your method of DMing is very much how I like to run my own games, though I don't think I do it quite as well as you from what I've seen so far. I can see this game becoming a kind of education for me as a DM (not to mention as a player, which I almost never am).

Carl said...


For the win!

I'm going to appropriate that gem for my own use, Ryan. Thank you.

Good article, Alexis. It's too bad there isn't some kind of RPG-focused publication that would pay you by the word for stuff like that.

I want to address something you brought up in that piece about being a Dumb DM that caves to players. I do this -- that is to say I cave. I'm a somewhat Dumb DM.

I know that the players are trying to game the system by putting this kind of pressure on me, convincing my wife to join in at times(because they know I'll cave to her) and crying out, "That's not how we did it before!" or bringing up the same bad rule that we've house-ruled a dozen times and then whinging and blustering when I point out that they're bringing up something that's already been discussed to death and it still doesn't work out to their advantage.

I know when I'm being worked. I can see it coming pretty far off, too. Sometimes I stand my ground and sometimes I give. Why? Because what the players are doing is part of the game just as surely as rolling the dice, in my view. It's meta-role playing. If I'm a hardass, the game isn't fun for anyone because it turns into work. If I'm a pussy it's not fun either because there's no challenge, so I have to choose my battles or risk losing the game. When the players are trying to work me in one direction or other, it's usually because they were on the verge of not having a good time. I'm sensitive to that, but I won't take any ordinary bullshit either. If you have a meta-game point to make, it better be good, or the smack-down is coming for you.

The consistency argument is a powerful one on any DM. Arguing that, "It's YOUR system!" is very powerful. By not helping him correct his system, you killed that game. It sounds like Irwin was trying to keep you guys happy so you'd keep playing. I suspect that unsaid in your argument was, "and if you change it now, we'll all quit." I have a feeling that if he had corrected the system you'd have all ganged up on him again and maybe stepped up the pressure, too.

Me? I'd have let you guys keep your money. I'd have probably let you keep using the trading system that was netting you so much cash. Then the game would have gone one of two ways: 1) Pirates. You're rich and have an amazing trading system. You'd start paying 50-60% of your profits in protection money every time you made a trade, or you'd find yourselves walking a Zero-G plank. 2) The Navy. Obviously, your amazing gains were made through criminal means and likely hacking into at least one starport's brokerage computers. Fucking around with interstellar commerce is akin to treason. Maybe even more severe in the eyes of the Imperium, since treason is circumstantial.

But for all my bluster and self-confidence now and that comes from years of experience as a DM and a human. In high school I probably would have caved to you guys, too, just like Irwin, until the day it was no fun to play at all anymore because I realized you guys were playing me for a fool and was tired of it.

I'm glad those days are gone. Keep writing, Alexis.