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.