Monday, December 13, 2010

Enlightment And A Change Of Direction

A few days ago I had an epiphany which has been difficult to put into words.  It was fostered in large part by this post from Lurking Rhymically, a smashing rebuttal to a post on Trollsmyth's site that, sadly, I find myself having to link here

The critical 'eureka' moment, however, occurred with the comments on my last post, specifically this one from Wickedmurph:
"Good roleplaying, I think most people would agree, is acting in a manner consistent with that of your character, including making bad decisions."
Now, I don't know Jeremy all that well. He disagrees with me occasionally here, but he offers thought-out arguments when he does.  I think he's probably a stand-up guy, and I don't want anyone to get the idea that this post is about him. I would recommend reading the above quote in context, which you can find in the comments section of Screw Average.

Out of context, the line above caused me to jerk awake (the second time I read it), remembering the last act of the character Delfig in my online campaign. Definitely a 'bad decision,'  in my opinion, since it was his last act.  But it was an act that the player believed that the character would do in his situation, and roleplaying in the player's mind trumped 'winning.'

The last two relevant matters I wish to bring to this discussion come from my always being told that D&D is a "game" and that it is meant to be "fun."  That D&D is a game is usually used as an argument against making things too complicated, usually with the adverbial addition that it is "only" a game.  That D&D is meant to be fun is usually used as an argument for virtually anything the individual wants it to 'prove' ... since 'fun' is a highly subjective discription of a wide range of activities pursued by a remarkable variety of personalities.  'Fun' truly is the most pervasive, consistent and least meaningful argument advanced, though it is certain to be advanced by 90% of the gaming community almost immediately once the subject of the game's quality or nature is placed on the table.  It is rarely considered that what may be fun for the individual advancing that self-same argument may be extremely dull or juvenile to the listener ... but that is of no nevermind to the advancer.  The game is meant to be fun.  Period.  No other arguments are needed.

Very well.  I have no interest in denying either argument.  D&D is a game, and it is meant to be fun.  Let that be clearly and certainly understood by every gentle reader out there.

If I may be so bold, I'd like to propose that the players of D&D have steadily gathered into two camps.  There are those for whom the mechanics of the game are the thing: dice rolling, accumulation of wealth, advancing in levels - with the ideal of applying increasing skills to increasing challenges.  The second camp would be those for whom the roleplaying aspects of the game are the thing: imagining a character, living vicariously through the life of that character in a strange and wonderful world - with the ideal that creative thought shouldn't be limited by mechanics.

I don't suggest in any way that there aren't people who have chosen to embrace both camps, or that there aren't those who live in either camp interchangeably and comfortably.  Nor do I wish to dismiss that there are also many who find aspects of either camp fascinating, or who would argue that both camps have both good points and bad, depending upon one's personal perspective.  I think I must say that, for myself, I believe in the roleplay/mechanic blend.  But nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that there are those who reside firmly in one camp or the other, and who believe passionately that they are in the right, while the other is in the wrong.

Why is this so?  Why is it that the roleplaying camp finds itself under seige by those who insist upon mechanics, while those in the mechanic camp find their game degraded in some manner by those who love to roleplay?  And why is it that both camps feel they must defend the belief that, in the beginning, their particular style of play was the original intent of the game?  Why does it matter?

I don't want to become embroiled in an argument about original D&D.  But I do want to describe what I think was the motivation for the roleplaying camp, since that establishes the confession that is the core of my epiphany.

I believe that for a fair portion of the gaming community, something more was wanted than a game about hacking and slashing.  The game, it was argued, ought to be about more than swinging my weapon and hauling away loot.  If I may put myself in the place of that argument, I would think that I'd want to spend each session dwelling upon a more worthy pursuit: living the life of the character, to be specific.  After all, my pleasure derives from pretending to be someone that I am not, in an environment I could never hope to be part of otherwise ... so why should I not invest myself into the character fully?  My character, therefore, will think before blindly entering combat.  My character will have higher motivations than loot.  Perhaps I will play someone who eschews coin, who seeks to resolve problems through insight or cleverness.  If, after all, I am able to rescue the princess through my wits rather than by my sword, that is every bit as laudable as hacking my way through dozens of mooks ... more laudable, in fact, because I am using my brains over brawn.

The problem, which has been apparent for decades to anyone who has applied this sort of play to the game, is that the mechanic as written contains no reward for playing the game in this fashion (excepting the pecuniary benefit, which does not always occur).  Those few paragraphs or words contained in the early volumes of the game, from the various boxed sets up through AD&D, suggest firmly that the brains-over-brawn roleplay option is certainly included in the game's concept, but no actual hard rules are included for how said behavior might be compensated.

This has led to the firm and steady divide between the two camps: the hard-bitten mechanics who argue that since there is no reward, the roleplayers must either cave in and swing a sword once in awhile, or at any rate accept roleplaying as its own reward; and the frustrated roleplayers who have for three decades struggled to incorporate some kind of meaningful reward mechanic for roleplay that is not based solely upon the DM's personal bias.  To this I would add a hardcore element of the roleplayers who have increasingly taken the position that no reward is necessary, and that no-reward D&D is the 'true' path of the future.

It is in the matter of mechanics that I find myself motivated to write this post.  If I return to the argument that D&D is a game, then I must consider that the fundamentals of any game - and please understand, I really do mean ANY game - are the mechanics of that game.  Most games do a great deal with the mechanics of a game which are, substantially, roleplaying.  If I am a linebacker rushing my opponent at football, and I am trash-talking the fellow I'm face-to-face with in those few seconds before the ball is hiked, I am roleplaying.  I would not naturally say those things in any other environment.  But in that place and in that time, I want to taunt my opponent in some way so as to put him off his game, make him rush me ahead of the snap, get him offside or even anger him to the point where his team takes a penalty for unnecessary roughness.

By way of using my own experience as a metaphor, I used to be pretty good at this.  The reason I used to be pretty good came from two things:  I've been ridiculed for everything from my appearance to my behavior for most of my life (used to it); and I am a lot smarter than most dumbass football players.  My eyes, my stance, the tone of my voice, the manner in which I emphasize certain words or my observational skills that tell me when I've pushed a button - with my talent for finding multiple ways to keep hammering that fucking button once I've found it - would all work at the time to initiate a chase scene as I ran from the scrimmage to keep some part of me from being broken.  And to gain five yards for my team.

Roleplaying in football, or many other games, is used as a means to take advantage of the rules as written by encouraging others to break those rules.  Intimidation is used to discourage opponents and reduce their focus.  Misdirection is used to undermine their strategy, or cause them to waste resources and energy.  Out-and-out lying about my intentions can trick others into fumbling mistakes, even when they think my lie is a lie - since my wanting them to think I'm lying is also a kind of roleplay.  None of these strategies are written into the rules, but they are just as relevant as the actual skill of the contestants.

This post at A Paladin in Citadel's demonstrates profoundly the lack of comprehension that many players have about the application of roleplaying in a competition.  The question revolves around which of two armwrestlers (in the game) would win, if both had a 13 strength.  The general consensus is that a mechanic should be applied: the players should roll to see who wins.  Of course, the only mechanic considered in the comments is the strength of the two opponents.

I made the point that the obvious winner would be the one who wanted to win ... a comment that was lightly cast aside.  It shows a lack of experience - actual armwrestlers know that there are many factors at play beyond just strength.  Appearance, for one thing: competitors work hard to create an image that is impressive and suggests power; they stamp around to show their confidence and authority; they develop a steely glare, solely to intimidate doubtful opponents.  The competition is won and lost in the head.  The winner is usually the most conceited, egotistic, baddest motherfucker imaginable.  The only other competitor who wins is someone too thick-skulled to be intimidated.  Competitions are never won by people who just happen to be strong.  Everyone there is strong.

I include all of this side-bar about roleplaying in other games to make a point about D&D - it, too, allows for intimidation, manipulation and misdirection ... only in this case, between the DM and the player.  The DM has a lot of power, and can level that power however he or she wishes, when he or she wishes, for reasons that can be utterly indefensible where the game mechanic is concerned.  The player, if they are to survive within this personalized jungle, must adapt and overcome as best they can.  Even the most tyrannical DM imaginable will find players who enjoy playing in the dynamic of that DM's world ... for the challenge of surviving, if nothing else.  They will think that it's 'fun.'

I don't think, however, that where it comes to the community we are looking to hold up tyrant DMs as a template for how everyone would play.  This is why, I think, people would want to 'bolt' on rules as measures to restrict the manner in which a DM would conduct their world ... and it would be hoped that DMs would consider the source of said measures.  Naturally DMs could feel free to disregard anything of that kind - do they not have players, are they not playing the game, are they not having fun?  Of course they are.  So fuck others and their rule measures.

As a player, I have less options than the DM about the rules.  I may creatively trash-talk the situation, I may obscure my motives or casually manipulate the DM ... but I must consider that DM's patience with me and the mechanics of that DM's world.  Roleplaying will only carry me so far.  When the rule is invoked, I'm back to rolling dice.  Just as when the ball is snapped, I have to stop relying on my roleplaying skills and I will have to throw myself bodily against the other fellow.  Hopefully, I'll have disconcerted him enough that I'll go right through him.  Hopefully I have controlled the situation enough that when the die roll doesn't go my way, I won't die.

But there comes a point when the player is free to ride roughshod over the DM, because the player is more clever, because the DM is less inclined to tyrannical behavior, or when both player and DM are so unfamiliar with the rules that those mechanics that would stop one and support the other are simply forgotten or overlooked.  And here we come to the point of my epiphany.  D&D has so many rules.  it's easier to circumvent D&D's rules than it is the rules of football or armwrestling.  And what do we call it when one player so bamboozles the other gameplayers that they get away with things outside of the rules?

Cheating.  We call it cheating.

It seems odd to me that after all this time playing the game, I have never given any serious thought to the matter of cheating except where it is applied to the mechanics of the game, specifically the dice.  And I have always been an advocate of bending the rules, as in taking advantage of the DM's limited knowledge of the books.  I have been vilified on this blog for being candid about doing exactly that.  Under the title of 'A Harmless Bit Of Deception,' no less.

And I begin to see where I am wrong, and have been wrong, for many years.  Call it a late spurt of maturity, call it a clarification of ideals brought on by years of writing on this blog now ... but I have begun to feel in these past few days that players have a responsibility towards the rules that I hadn't considered before.  It isn't that I would advocate strongly for the death of a character if I thought of a reason where the DM did not - though that might come, who know? - but I wonder if using my personality to dominate the game is necessarily a valuable asset to the overall game.

It is certainly fun for me, but just how much fun is it for others?

In the wider picture, I begin to question the whole roleplaying camp.  I certainly appreciate the argument of brains-over-brawn, but my experience has been that the more likely scenario has been brains vs. brains ... specifically, the ability of the player to successfully ignore the rules - or more to the point, to reinvent the rules any way they please in order to get the results they want.  Rules which, as I say, may be read in a variety of ways, if at all, and rules that are constantly changing and being rewritten to suit the players of the 'game' to ensure more 'fun.'

When it ceases to be a game where the contestants play by the rules, and becomes a game where the players reinvent the rules ad hoc, it ceases to be a 'game' at all.  It may still be 'fun' ... many things that are not games are fun, including thrill rides, music concerts and sex.  'Fun' is not a relevant argument defending a method of playing that, really, isn't 'playing' at all.  It is people sitting around a table playing mind-fuck with each other, according to agreed upon limits of discourse.  It isn't D&D.

But then I must ask, why is it fun?  Why have I found it fun, when I've done it?  Well, I'll be honest: it's a pleasure to best other people at thinking.  It is pandering to one's own ego.  There is pleasure to be gained at drawing attention to oneself, in pompously conjuring up a "great character" at the expense of the game.  It feeds a person's vanity to demonstrate how well we can talk the lingo, how fast we can think on our feet, how quick we can throw others off their stride and have our way ... and be praised for it by our little group of friends, who are each striving to satify their own prideful appetites.

And how much the worse when that vanity transforms itself into visual representations of mages and fighters, when we spend more time making our clothes than in learning to play the game ... in the same way we realize that a mohawk and a bad attitude go farther to winning the armwrestling championship than a strict attention to the rules.  Better, in fact, for a well-placed tattoo on my thumb can distract the judge's attention long enough for me to cheat my grip - just as a wizard costume can intimidate other players at the convention table and convince them that I am the better player.  Just look at how I am dressed!

Roleplaying is not a bad thing.  It certainly has a place in the game.  It does not need to be strutting, preening vanity.  Where roleplaying adds to the mechanic of the game, where the swing of the sword accompanies a cry of victory, where a practiced word accompanies the reaction role ... roleplaying can be a rewarding experience for every person at the table.  It is only where roleplaying is represented as an alternative to mechanics, rather than as a augmentation, that the problem arises.

I apologize for my previous support for that sort of behavior.  I will, in future, struggle to curtail my tendencies in that direction.  I wouldn't suggest this means I'm going to become a nicer person - this blog isn't a game, and when I defend myself it's because I believe in things passionately (even when I find later that I've been wrong).  But I will change my behavior at the table.


A Paladin In Citadel said...

All well and good. One of your Player's characters enters a arm-wrestling competition. He faces off against an NPC, controlled by you. As the DM, how do you intend to resolve the match?

Stephen Simpson, CFA said...

Maybe this is a very simplistic comment given the length of depth of the post ...

... but I think a lot of comes down to who you're gaming with. Somebody who does things "in character" while everybody else is min/maxing is going to drive them crazy.

Likewise, somebody who's all mechanics at a table of role-players is not going to fit in.

Wickedmurph said...

Ouch. Contested Charisma rolls, perhaps?

I didn't think your post warranted a passing shot like that, Pally. It was more about mechanics than roleplaying - which, if I'm reading this all correctly, Alexis is saying should be the "ultimate authority, to be obeyed at all costs" (previously known as my wife).

I'm glad something constructive came of my posting. Trying to prompt some thoughtful reflection is really all we can do here.

I'm a little unclear as to the final revelation here though. Is it "outthinking the DM and/or other players is a dick move, and therefore analogous to cheating on your dice roll?"

Alexis said...

I seriously meant no shot at you, Murph; it's certainly not something I haven't done myself.

I'm coming around to the thought process that gratuitously outthinking the DM ought not to be the goal - that if you approach the game from that perspective then yes, it's a dick move. Thinking your way out of the situation is perfectly fine, but if it comes down to how you play the DM, rather than the game ... it is exactly analogous to cheating on the die roll.

It's not something I'll do again.

ChicagoWiz said...


*sigh* Not one of my more wiser decisions, especially since it put a regrettable rift in between us. I have always valued your thoughts on D&D and the nature of being involved in D&D, whether I agreed with it or not. At the time, I felt a compulsion to roleplay Delfig in a specific way. I was not accurate to the time and the probably mindset, as you pointed out, but there was this "itch" that had to be scratched and I did and... well... it was dumb. I carry regret on that decision for it's outcome and my responsibility to that outcome that went beyond just being Delfig.

So whether it was "good roleplaying" or not, it was what I felt compelled to do. I just am sorry for the resultant fallout.

For what it's worth, I've gone back to reading quietly, out of respect for the bad feelings it left. It was never my intent to cause harm to the game and that's probably the biggest lesson I learned - that while I can be "true" to the roleplaying, I also am just as responsible at the table for what happens between us as the rest. I knew that in terms of being a dick to others, but I learned how that can happen with things I do to my own character.

Alexis said...


Please understand that I am sincere when I say that I am no innocent here. I have done just as much as anyone else has on this subject. It was Lurking Rhythmically that brought me up short, and Murph that clued me into why. I'm not looking to settle old scores, and I have no idea why you wouldn't go on commenting on this blog. Your input is too valuable.

ChicagoWiz said...


Because 1 - I felt ashamed of my actions and 2 - when I feel responsible for something and get "stuck" in a neverending loop in my head of how to address it, I tend to lock.

It's a problem I've had in the past and the anonymity of the Internet makes it easier for me to slide into the "dark corner".

Anyway... back to roleplaying.

Anonymous said...

@alexis: interesting post. if i understand you correctly, up to this point, roleplaying was just another opportunity to manipulate or dominate people. i'm sure you will enjoy the change.

@chicagowiz: no need to be ashamed. none at all. ending the game wasn't what you intended and i think you presented your motivations well.

@both of you: i truly enjoyed reading those last few actions of the campaign and will certainly try to read as much of it as i can.

well played by both of you, and your discussion about delfig's personality show the great passion you both have for the game.

Anthony said...

Awesome post. Now the corollary, how does this epiphany translate to a table where you are the DM?

steelcaress said...

I much prefer roleplaying to simply rolling dice and playing with numbers, but the system does matter. If I am forced to deal with the system, then it better make sense. This is where a love/hate relationship with D&D began, until the Old School Revival, where I was able to make my own D&D, one that made a little more sense to me, as it were.

I've been in groups where the point of the game seemed to be to move minis along the map, and I've been the GM to players who seemed determined to wreck the campaign and mess with the GM.

IMHO, those are far more destructive to fun than anything I can think of. And when I say "fun," I mean fun that the general group can have. Fun where everyone gets along, and is having a jolly old time over pizza and Mountain Dew.

Barad the Gnome said...

An interesting read, and an interesting topic. There is much there on which to comment but since there is so much it is hard to step in. Obviously there is something much more personal for some of you, which is best left alone by those not involved.

I must commend you on your willingness to question your own thinking publicly.

I can say that years ago I took pleasure in the game within the game; aka this player out playing the DM or other players. I play with friends, and over time I came to regret messing with my friends minds and spoiling the DM plans upon which they worked so hard. The momentary pleasure gained was not worth the bad feelings caused by my actions. I suspect I even chased away a friend who gave up the game; I cannot be entirely certain it due to me but at least I contributed. I have come to regret those actions, which I now view to be quite selfish.

Regarding the two camps - I wonder if those that are committed to one side or the other are in a vocal minority. I'd like to believe that most of us like the blend of role playing and game advancement. Most of the time I try to temper my characters role play decisions with some game mechanic logic. He does wish to live, as much as I want him to. However, there are times when core beliefs cause him to take action that is not the wisest if his goal is survival & advancement. I would be sad if he perished, but hope to take solace that he died for his beliefs, being true to himself as I have defined him and pulled his strings.

Perhaps it is rationalizing, but I am much more comfortable with a character perishing due to an intentional role playing risk vs. a game mechanic misstep.

Anyway - thought provoking post.

Wickedmurph said...

Oh, not to worry Alexis, I know this post isn't a shot at me. It's too personal an epiphany, for one thing, and lacks sufficient attacks on my character, for another!

Seriously, though. It's a good conclusion to come to - having players at that table who take that attitude raises the enjoyment of the game for everybody.

DMing might be a different story, though - a really good DM sometimes has to be that guy.

Anonymous said...

It's like watching Scrooge wake up a new man on Christmas morning.

"God Bless us, everyone!"

All we need now is to get the Bavarian campaign rolling again...


Nicholas said...

The distinction I see made in this post is a difference between roleplaying as defined by getting into the mindset of one's character and "roleplaying" which is the first defense of rebellious players.

I always saw roleplaying as living within the gaps between the mechanics of the game. The rules layout all your choices, but the choice you make can be made in one of three ways: oneself as a modern day human, oneself as a meta-gaming player, or oneself roleplaying as the character. It is possible for a clever roleplayer to lead a GM astray, but that should not be one's intent.

Good post.

Strix said...

There's nothing in the rules (of any edition) that says the player has to stand up, address everyone at the table and perform a totally improvised but inspiring 30 second soliloquy in perfect iambic pentameter to have his characters "raise moral" check succeed.

All the player is required to do, by the rules, is roll a D20.

Are you suggesting that the player who stands up and performs the scene should be punished for going outside of the rules in some vain attempt to persuade (cheat) the DM?

Anonymous said...

Strix, I think rather than what you describe the post deals more or less with out-thinking the DM in terms of either rules-mastery or recognizing and exploiting some inconsistency in the "in-game" reality.

For instance, a player might tell the DM that their character wished to open and walk through a door that the DM previously told the party was locked. If the player does this believing that the DM has forgotten about the condition of his or her own door, then Alexis's opinion appears to be that it is cheating on par with fudging a die roll.

Alexis said...


I didn’t play as a player for fifteen years, and only began having those experiences again about a year ago – and maybe only six or eight times. As a DM I never had any trouble playing without bias, since my position doesn’t improve by virtue of my actions. I’m in control, and I have a responsibility towards the players having a good time. It’s only now that I see how important it is to curtail yourself as a player, too.


There’s no trouble whatsoever with roleplaying ... unless you want to do it in lieu of rolling the die, also. The die has to be rolled. The trouble begins when the player’s performance is so achieved as to cause the DM to say “Forget the die, you live ... and people are so impressed they give a thousand g.p. besides.”

How fair is that to those who can’t deliver the impromptu genius on cue?

Strix said...

James, I was suggesting that the player in question was performing the scene in an attempt to avoid rolling the dice. In retrospect, I could have been clearer.

Alexis, I was mostly concerned with some thoughts you gave at the beginning and near the end again that didn't quite jive in my head.

Thanks for clarifying :)

Anonymous said...

Strix, I see that now. sorry for the confusion.

Carl said...

This is all well and good, but we still have no mechanic for charisma/intelligence/wisdom in the DMG.

I fully-support slow-witted players running super-genius mages. This is a fantasy game afterall, and every player should be allowed to indulge their fantasty. But how do we handle the problem-solving situation that's bound to arise? Do I as the DM decide that the character is smart enough to see the solution to the puzzle, even if the player cannot, and then essentially take control of their character for a moment along the lines of, "Wiznor glances at the pieces on the chessboard for only a moment before moving a single pawn and declaring, 'Checkmate. Now, tell me where the princess is being held.'"

I have a personal system for this kind of thing, and it works reasonably well in my group, but there's nothing in the DMG or PHB corresponding to it. Is that the answer then? You, the DM, must come up with your own mechanic and hope that your players embrace it?

Nicholas said...

I read one idea I liked for intelligence based challenges. Basically, if an individual character has an intelligence based challenge that is really difficult for the player (but easy for the character), then it would be a good idea to open up the challenge to all the players. Ultimately, the character (and the player running it) should have their own agency over the challenge, so they get the final say as to what they finally do. But (hopefully) the other players do not know the secret to bypassing the test, so they can aid the player who is struggling without risking a meta-gamed answer.

If all the characters are involved in the challenge, it was suggested that a simple opposed intelligence check can be used to determine which of the many characters actually speaks the answer, regardless of which player.

ChicagoWiz said...

@Nicholas - that's an interesting comment, only because I never assumed that the players would not help one another. I would encourage it if I didn't see it happening.

In the situations where someone is not obviously going to know the answer, or where failure is an interesting option, I'll do my 3d6/4d6/5d6/6d6 attribute checks - roll equal/under your attribute and you "succeed". By doing things that would help in your favor, I may shift one way or the other.

Nicholas said...

I think there is a time for players to step in with help and a time for them to step back. Most of the time, people know which is which, but not always.

Alexis said...

If the player was selected for a competition, then the intelligence/interactive problems of that competition would have to be solved by the player, right? Obviously, the opponent and the watching audience would not appreciate the kibbitzing.

Anthony said...

"I’m in control, and I have a responsibility towards the players having a good time."

Well spoken, it seems like you've already had the corollary epiphany for DMing a long time ago :D It took me many years to reach that one as well.

Wickedmurph said...

Yes, that's the responsibility of the DM alright. Some DM's interpret it differently than others, though.