Monday, January 28, 2013

The Intractable

Given that you do not want to railroad your players by insisting that they work through the maze in the manner you insist, it still remains to be said that your players are not in control of your world, nor should they be.

Over the weekend I stumbled across this post by the Retired Adventurer, John Bell.  It's a good article, though somewhat unclear in its use of academic buzzwords which are generally used to obfuscate when simpler, more direct language would make the point better.  The other failing is that it hinges on an article that requires a password to read, which adds to the pretentiousness of the whole. 

Bell defines his "anti-narrative" stance thusly:

"I mean that my primary focus as a referee is not on "telling a story," moving PCs from rising action to rising action until an emotionally cathartic climax is attained, but on presenting interesting and meaningful choices with escalating consequences, and pushing the PCs to decide which option to take."

This more or less relates to what I've always tried to say on this blog.  But of what Bell has written, it is the word 'pushing' that I think is the most interesting.

My last post on Rail Rodders, the players who must ride the rails the DM creates, emphasized that there shouldn't be a railroad at all, not even one that is hidden.  However, this is not to say that the players are defacto placed in charge of everything that happens in the world.  Far, far from it.  The players may make choices, as Bell says, but the players must also put up with obstacles.

Where it gets easy to create a narrative as a DM is in that many, many things which happen to players are entirely out of the player's sphere of control.  This is true with all of us in our daily lives.  Count how many things - particularly dangerous, life threatening things - have nothing whatsoever to do with our choices, but which are pushed on us from outside by the chance of events.

You are sitting in your car on a road, dutifully stopped at a stop light.  A driver moving perpendicular to the position of your front bumper is hurrying to work and has no stop sign to contend with.  However, the night before a service truck passed by here leaking oil because the worker who was supposed to fix the leak was at the hospital attending to his wife who was injured falling on the kitchen floor.  The temperature this particular day is just right to give the oil the right amount of slickness for the tires on the other driver's car, so that the driver loses control.  A moment later, you're seeing his car skid towards yours ... you have seven tenths of a second to react before a large white bubble explodes in your face.  Next, you're staring at a hospital ceiling, aware only that someone is holding your hand ...

Not every action we experience is a 'choice.'  A vast number of experiences we have everyday are anything but choices, and it must be realized that in the fundamental construction of a campaign, there will be many times when events must conspire to force players to take the only rational action and hope for the best.  When faced with a lava flow, there is only one direction to go.

Moments of the game are going to be like that.  A host of goblins are simply going to be intractable.  The motivations of the local overlord are going to be intractable.  Fact is, many people ARE intractable, and imposing them into your D&D world can be a satisfying experience for a party.  You don't always get what you want.  You don't always get your way.  Sometimes, you get screwed and you learn to get over it.  This undermines that part of your players that make them haughty and pompous and on the whole intolerable.  Humiliation - at the hands of a speeding car, or an implacable enemy or a force beyond their ken - causes people to suck it up, sort themselves out and reidentify the world as something that simply cannot be 'got around' in the same old way.  Humility in turn breeds character.

This cannot be done by endlessly offering players a way out of every crisis simply by being smart enough.  Like the car accident above proves, we're all mortal - no matter how puffed up we are, there's always a moment when something unexpected can cut us down a notch.  Accepting this about the world is what makes us human ... and anything that humanizes your players will deepen your world.

So now and then - not all the time, not even as often as rarely - you have to give a three-card monty game to your players that they cannot win.  You have to choose these moments very, very carefully.  You have to make sure they apply to every person in the party, fairly and equally.  You have to design them so they seem to have happened from a place outside your decision-making process.

I shall try to give you an example, created by a writer, which John Bell above might describe as an unfair narrative, but which I would describe as the only possible result of these two characters interacting with one another.  This is what makes good writing - when the narrative has nothing to do with what the author wants ... but which merely describes a circumstance occurring in the only way it CAN occur.

The film is Hair.  In the clip below (starting at 5:15), the character George Berger tries to talk his way onto an army post.  Berger, being what Berger is, as defined by the movie, simply cannot understand why he can't simply do as he wants.  The guard, in character a million miles from anything that could begin to understand what Berger is or what he wants, cannot act or be any other way that how this guard acts.  There are no choices here.  There could never be a choice here.  Not in terms of this interaction.

Of course, Berger does find a way around it.  With very, very bad consequences. Berger doesn't find a way to win, he finds a way to lose more profoundly.

Once again, you cannot argue with a lava flow.  You can only avoid them.


  1. Yes, life sometimes leaves you without a choice (or your choice is do this or you die), but in a roleplaying game... when you have no choice, you are basically creating a cutscene.

    I'm not saying that's a bad thing, necessarily... sometimes cutscenes are important to advance the story or to convey a point. But it's the difference between playing a game and listening to a story.

  2. No, no, you misunderstood me.

    It's not a story. It's not a cutscene. It is SETTING.

    You have to try to understand that a particular circumstance, a particular social element, is as solid and immutable as a stone mountain.

    The insistence that it shouldn't be there is the very hubris I'm saying needs to be broken out of you.

  3. Striking the right balance here is fundamental to the art of DMing. Call it a cut scene or call it an intractable element of the setting, I think the underlying and generally accepted truth is that players both need to feel empowered as actors within the setting while occasionally being reminded that there are other, more powerful actors as well.

  4. Thanks for the mention and analysis!

    The article wasn't behind a paywall / restricted login when I first posted it. It's unfortunate it's jumped behind one since.

    I don't think our visions are all that different here. I'd read the situation you present from Hair as being one of low agency on the part of the PCs (if we read George Berger as a PC). There's little or nothing they can do to get control of that situation (except maybe withdraw from it, which is itself a choice to me).

    I'm not opposed to low agency situations for similar reasons to the ones you lay out. The core concern of the post is really to make this kind of variance of agency - in both directions - an explicit concern of referees by calling it to their intention and discussing some relevant factors that cause that variance.

  5. I honestly think moving from "narrative" to "emergent" might be the most difficult and most vital transitional period for DMs as they develop their skill sets.

    It seems to me like the difference between buying flowers and growing them. They definitely achieve the same end (pretty flowers) but one requires maintenance, a very watchful eye, tending and pruning but when someone looks at the results of either they look remarkably similar.

    I went through this same transition where I was used to giving stories to my players and they liked it well enough...but as I've developed I've been worrying less and less about narratives, their paths or conclusions. Now, I just worry that my players want to do things. As long as they are motivated to act as their characters and do so while navigating a world they can understand & impact, amazing stories arise.

    I also don't see the situation in Hair as low agency at all. Low agency would mean that there would be NO way for Berger to get onto base because the DM would stone-wall all methods...even reasonable ones. There is nothing anti-agency about an intractable guard. He is merely one possible gate-keeper...the ultimate gate-keeper is the DM. That is why it is of vital importance for the players to believe that the DM has no bias in regards to what they do. Additionally, that has to be true on the DMs part.

    To be fair, Berger tried little more than his Charisma against the guard...he tried one solution and it failed. He could have tried to intimidate the guard...or bribe him...or an elaborate lie...or he could have run the guard post and driven past. Etc etc. A PC with access to magic has even more options at their disposal.

    An intractable situation only becomes anti-agency when the DM is intractable rather than the game element being intractable. This is an important distinction and it is one that requires trust from the players and fairness from the DM. Too often the former is in abundance and the latter is merely a facade abusing that trust.

  6. I don't think 'agency' is the appropriate word here, either. I think the issue is that Berger can't have what he wants - which is to breeze through doing anything he pleases, as he does through the entire film. Berger's character is substantially that of a free man who cannot reconcile his need for freedom against a world which does not treasure nor accept it.

    The completely positive scene, earlier in the movie, where Berger gets on the table at the party demonstrates Berger's flat willingness to blow past the rules and have his way, whatever the consequences. The difference of the guardpost is that now they have guns. Even Berger recognizes that blowing past the guard post as he did the party will not be a minor jail term, it will be a hail of bullets and death (they WOULD absolutely have shot him dead, that was the nature of the military headspace at the time of that film).

    The fact that Berger cannot get it into his head that this is an absolute is the tone of the film. You CAN try to be totally free. You WILL lose. If you want life, you will recognize that you will need to compromise your freedom, which we all do. Berger's "genius," as the final music goes, is that he's too stubborn or perhaps enlightened to compromise ... and he is martyred for it.

    The whole of the film is a difficult mind-fuck, which I don't believe most people get (but how introspective are people, anyway?). Where it is relevant for the players is that they, too, to live in anything like a meaningful challenge/tactical game is the recognition that HERE is the mine; step HERE and you die. NO ifs, ands, or buts. You can throw yourself on the mine bravely and stubbornly, but you will die and tough luck.

    This is a sentiment that "fantasy" pundits fail to recognize - that in games, you LOSE sometimes. Not just because you chose wrong, but because the game is rigged that way.

    No one says life is fair. If you want your character to live, it must obey that same law.

  7. Ah.

    I'm reminded of something my dad said..."If something is screwing you over, you either find a way to screw IT over to get your way or you accept it and go screw. Crying won't change it."

  8. I think what you're referring to is called "radical acceptance".

    It's not easy even in real life to admit that there's things you just need to accept; I suppose the question lies in whether you want a brutally realistic game, or if you're willing to let things slide in the name of enjoyment.

    How escapist are you willing to let your game be? (No offense, it appears you'd be less flexible on the subject than I might be.) It goes back to realist vs. simulationist, I guess.

    Then again, given that this is D&D, one could always deal with the lava flow with a Ring of Fire Resistance, or cast Minor Globe of Invulnerability. :-)

  9. I want it to be incredibly escapist. I want the player to transcend the rules and demands of their earthly self ... oh heck, I'll just write a proper post.


If you wish to leave a comment on this blog, contact with a direct message. Comments, agreed upon by reader and author, are published every Saturday.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.