Thursday, January 23, 2014


Recently, it was made clear to me just how ... weak was the game of Pathfinder, which from the comments on this post, seems to be overloaded with the possibility for lone adventurers to heal towns at will. It's well known that 4e suffers from a similar rule-design. It's very clear how video games, which are based on the premise of indefeatable protagonists (once the user has adjusted to the new platform), have influenced not only role-playing games, but the mind-sets of players. Having said that, I'll now speak as a nearly 50 year old man and say, "Jeez, these kids are fucking soft today."

Well, perhaps. There certainly seems to be a connection between not wanting to die - EVER - and weakness of character. Realistically, however, its only that video began to conceive that it was no fun to start over again a hundred times in an afternoon. Making a game hard seemed like the right thing to do, but if there's no real need to get good at it, then why do that?

I feel like I'm flailing a bit. A video game, or an RPG, is generally deemed a past-time. It is designed to pass time. Time is passed more pleasurably if one is having fun (and I mean that in this case), and having an image die on the screen, and having to return to the beginning and do it all again, isn't much fun. Comparatively, playing an RPG on a given evening is more fun if it isn't messed over by having characters die - and it was only natural that this would be the complaint players made to marketing departments looking to 'fix' the game. It is the most obvious complaint. "We're not having any fun because our characters are always dying."

Well, the cultural insistence that fun be a priority is evil, but let's not beat that drum right now.

The long and short of it is that RPG's are not perceived as something you get 'better' at. You sit, you play, you win, you die, you get treasure, you do it at a series of tables over a series of years and on the whole, you have a good time but you don't get better. You get more familiar with the rules, you learn the patterns of power-grading, you get familiar with all the character types and mostly the strategies, but it all seems like memory work, NOT skill. It's like, you may remember a lot of the actors from the films you watch, and you may be able to name thousands of films now that you've seen, but on the whole, you're not a better film-watcher. You're a better film-detractor, but the actual watching part, you do that with the same eyes you used twenty years ago ... and you do it sitting next to some kid who hasn't even lived that long. Same goes for RPGs ... and it seems there's nothing in the game that says, "If you don't become more skilled, you can't do this thing that other RPGers can do."

It isn't like, say, kayaking.

When you start with a kayak, on a pond, or on a smooth lake, you're well aware that you're not ready to be out in this kayak when the wind whips up. You may think about paddling on a river, so long as it's a very slow one. You're not ready to shoot rapids. Over and over you roll and face plant into the water, proving how helpless you are. You're an idiot at kayaking, no question about it.  And when you look at your teacher showing you enders and popups and squirts, you have no doubts in your mind who is better at kayaking here. There isn't the glimmer of delusion. Your teacher is skilled.  You're a noob.

If you care about kayaking, if you like it, you  learn that if you want to do any playboating on wild white water, you'll have to beat your body to pieces. It is going to be fucking HARD. It is going to bruise you, all over. You're going to suffer. And no one, not a soul, is going to make you do it. They may help, they may give advice, but if you're going to get this skill you don't have, it's all going to be because you're driven.

At some point in the future, you may get to have some fun . . . but for several months first, you're going to look like a moron.  Other kayakers are going to laugh and make jokes at your feeble attempts and you're going to want to quit every gawdamn day. Facts are, if you get better, it will happen because you couldn't stop trying. Someday, you'll tell others, "Yeah, I thought about quitting hundreds of times ... but something in me just kept pushing me forward. I kept coming back to it no matter how awful it felt or how impossible it seemed."

These are NEVER phrases associated with role-playing games. The reason is obvious. Kayaking is fucking hard. Role-playing seems, comparatively, stupidly easy.

I'm saying the players of RPGs don't imagine themselves depending on skills, not like kayakers. That is because the goalposts for getting better at kayaking are more obvious than RPGs. It is plain in a couple of seconds of watching who is a good kayaker and who is a bad one. Not so much with RPGs. A bad DM, or a bad player, looks like anyone else. It only becomes obvious when the DM has clearly gotten unhinged during a game or begins to display behavior that is willful, inconsiderate or obtuse. It only becomes obvious with players when they demonstrate themselves to be manipulative, abusive or poor losers. If a marketing company sits down with a bunch of random RPGers and says, "What would make the game better," there's no way to tell what kind of player is being asked. If a marketing company wants to know how to make a better kayak, that's no problem. There's a professional kayaker's association; there are kayakers who compete at world competitions.

In other words, if we mean to ask kayakers for advice, we're going to get advice from competent kayakers. If we ask RPGers for advice, the chances soar astronomically that some of that advice is going to come from complete morons. But the marketers will never, ever know.

There is a skill to playing the game. There is decidedly a skill to running the game. But it is impossible at this time to tell who has skill, and who does not. Moreover, we know that many players have spent their whole lives playing in bad games. For many players, a 'bad game' is the 'right game.' It is the game they know. Any other game seems 'wrong' by definitiion, because it would have to be different. And different, at first, is always bad. Different only becomes good when people grow used to it.

Now, we are adjusting tens of thousands of players to the idea that games like Pathfinder or 4e are 'good games.' They have been programmed to think these games are good, because that is how they have spent their time. There are no markers for them to reckon the value of the games, or their own skills within the game, as there is no outward sign that proves either (such as there is with kayaking). So they invent markers. They invent the markers that seem best suited to the game they've been programmed to like. It is as though I were to argue that my kayak is red. Red kayaks are obviously better than blue kayaks. Therefore, I am a great kayaker because I understand that red is better.

This has been going on a long time. It is going to go on a great deal longer. There isn't going to be any acknowledgement of actual skill in RPGs until someone recognizes that to be skilled will mean working. At present, there's nothing obvious that one is expected to work at ... and there's a loud chorus screaming pedantically that WORK is anathema to gaming. "You're an idiot if you work at this! AN IDIOT!"

Yep. Just like that first idiot who looked at a deadly run of white water and thought, "I bet I can take a one-man Eskimo boat down that and live. Water like that would destroy a canoe." Why he did that, who knows. But when he was done, and lived, I'm sure he thought, "Gawddamn. Bet I'll do it better next time, though."


  1. Spurring discussion, or have you already got an idea on the RPG's equivalent of whitewater?

    Either way, I agree with the premise of this post. It'd be awesome to find someone, online or off, who truly raised the bar for our expectations among -players-.

    And now my productive addition to the conversation is over, because I haven't the faintest idea what this would look like.

  2. I started DMing under 3rd edition D&D. They were the books that were current, and more importantly the books that I and everyone else had. It took me a long time to realize that something about the game was wrong. I didn't think to look outside of D&D for answers though. We kept playing with little fixes here and there until 4th edition came out.

    A lot of the problems that I had with 3rd edition went away in 4th edition. It took me a long time to realize that there was still something wrong. I could not run the sort of games that I wanted to run. Players cried foul if I brought up weapon breakage, or low-magic, or long overland expeditions. The game didn't support these ideas. I put those ideas aside, and ran the kind of game the books supported. The games I ran were mostly awful fiat-based role-playing scenes fitted uncomfortably around scripted combat encounters.

    I started trying different RPG systems. Mostly they sucked. That might not be entirely fair. We hadn't had time to practice with them, to become good at the systems. I get a bad feeling that a lot of them just plain sucked though.

    I mentioned running a 1st or 2nd edition AD&D game with my dad's old books. No one thought it was a good idea.

    I continued doing the system hopping thing. I lost some players because one guy was an asshole, and the others were his friends. Games became easier to run, but I was still unhappy with the systems we were using.

    So I made good on my joke and pulled out the 2nd edition D&D books. I explained that I would deal with all of the ancient, draconian bullshit, and all they had to do was sit down and play the game.

    We ran for about 6 months of the most well received campaign I've ever run. We put the campaign on hold to play around with a little sci-fi idea were all excited about. That idea lasted about 6 weeks. We're returning to that D&D campaign next Saturday.

    The 2nd edition D&D rules suck though. So does AD&D, and OD&D and everything else though. I didn't start running my best until I started reading D&D blogs, in particular: this one.

    Basically, I realized that buying a new kayak wasn't going to help me kayak better. I needed to listen to skilled kayakers.

  3. There's definitely another post in your comment, Matt, something along the point you make, that when you learn a skill, you adapt yourself to manage the tools you have - the tools will not provide the solution themselves, only your experience using the tools will allow improvement overall.

    Thanks for this. It is very enlightening.

  4. Slightly tangential, but what if death was not the guaranteed outcome of a lost encounter? DnD by default presumes that victory and defeat are absolute -- a player's character left behind on the battlefield is presumed dead; an enemy dies the moment his HP falls to 0. There are house rules and optional modules for NPC morale and surrender. But as far as I know there are no published rules for what would happen to a captured character, beyond whatever the DM cooks up for a particular situation.

    Frequent character death due to bad luck is a problem for tabletop games because it severs continuity. Is difficult to care about Jimbob VII, son of Jimbob VI, with Jimbob VIII waiting in the wings for a chance at failure. This does not mean that death must be inconsequential or impossible, or even rare. But there must be continuity to maintain narrative flow, otherwise the players won't care about the situation, no matter how good the DM may be: "Oh, dear. Jimmy 32 died. Let me pull out Timmy 12 and see if he has better luck." These characters don't live long enough to accomplish anything, and so there's nothing for the player to be invested in, and no reason for the player to worry about the effects of failure, because it probably won't have much effect on their new character.

    There are setting-specific ways of allowing characters to not-die after death without making death inconsequential. A character might be cloned or reincarnated, but without his most-recent memories or any of his things, for example. But without resorting to fantasy technology or magic, what if the rules provided ways a player character might survive defeat, and even talk his way back to freedom?


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.