Saturday, October 31, 2015

More Than Is Necessary

Scott Driver gave me this link in the comments section earlier today - and it is just the sort of thing that puts my teeth on edge.

99% of role-players will glance querulously at that confession and grumble incomprehension, but in all truth I consider this sort of 'advice' the real bane behind the endlessly poor play that characterizes games like D&D.  Do the bare minimum.  TSR's settings were created by "expert" game designers.  Spit out a culture and environment, slap a race in there, make up a villain and borrow a plot from a favorite book or movie.


I'd like to know, what qualifies TSR's game designers as "experts"?  The game had only existed in any form for a couple of years, the writing is hideous, the conflicts created were gradeschool quality and TSR failed as a company.  Dragon #256 was late enough in the day to know this . . . but here's Winninger pooping out another op ed piece proclaiming the genius of hacks who couldn't keep their own company alive in a period when D&D was expanding wildly as the next great thing.  It was never so easy to find D&D players as it was in 1981, before the media began its witch-hunt.  But yeah.  Trust TSR's experts.

"Borrow a plot"?  From where, exactly?  As I remember it, a situation that hasn't improved much, gamers prepared to do the bare minimum in world design ("it sounds like a lot of work") are expressly limited in the 'favorite' books and movies they mutually share.  Stealing plots is an old standby, but when Jeremy, Trent, Douglas and Andrew can all recite all the lines from Star Wars, Monty Python & the Holy Grail and Indiana Jones, what the fuck is left for these hacks?  Oh right, Winninger helpfully suggests the X-Files.

Omfg, gah.

Oh, and I love these vast strokes "to get your creative juices flowing."  Psionics.  Famine.  The fabulous, brilliant precision in having your world full of "suffering."  My, what an evocative word that describes exactly nothing of value where it comes to set design.  Then you can have your players solve the mystery of eternal night - won't that be an option full of player agency and possibility!

This is what we call low-balling a magazine piece.  Winninger was no doubt called upon to fill in a three-page hole between late-acquired advertising and so he cobbled this half-considered column together in a couple of hours.  It's fine for a blog piece, I write this sort of crap on my blog all the time and get praise for it, but this is pretty sad for paid work.  "I'll probably design a series of adventures in which the tree is threatened."  Yeah.  Fucking genius.  Especially in stating it as something he'll 'probably' do . . . since he isn't sure yet, given that he's describing something that hasn't fucking happened.  Why is Winninger describing something that might work if he probably does it, when one expects he's actually done something in the past that absolutely did work?  Perhaps because he hasn't yet.

This is the level of "expert advice" that DMs and players have counted on for two generations.  It has led to role-players cheerlessly scraping whatever scraps of detail they can get that might allow them something new to say in their next game, only to have their players blink at them when a phrase like "shambling mounds are actually former treant heralds who rebelled" falls flat on its face.  As it should.  Because in terms of player agency or the possibility of acquisition, it's non-contributory.  "So the fuck what?" thinks the wizened player, while the rest of the party vaguely wonders, "How does that help us find treasure?"

Both players and DMs need concrete advice, a set of fundamentals that will enable them to fix conflicts and consequences in a fluid game-format, where the rules are clear.  How much do I have to eat to go on fighting in this famine-stricken world?  If my character has lived in this world of suffering, eternal night and immunity from death, does my character have any reason to care?  How valuable would a campaign be if the 'mystery' to be solved was to discover why streams and rivers flow to the sea?  Do I and my fellow players have to be slaves to the dragon?  How much of my agency will be taken away from me by the DM using a dragon as a control factor?  If I'm a wizard, and I owe my ancestry and tutelage to some inhabitant from some island, how exactly does that stop me from doing what I want right now?  Some?  None?  Because I have to tell you, if this is going to be an issue in your campaign that I have to deal with every session, I'd rather just play the Keep on the Borderlands again.  As written.

There is a total disconnect in Winninger's suggestions - he seems completely disassociated from the setting existing for the purpose of gaming.  He has many notions about making the setting intriguing and full of possibilities, but his advice misses totally on the importance of this world being interactive.  He's like a video game developer hooting about gritty graphics and storyline, failing to realize his game is going to choke on the shelf because it's 90% cut scenes and side quests.  With micro-transactions.

This disconnect runs like a disease through most company suggestionware.  We exhort the importance of radical and yet minimalist game design, knowing that you, the DM, wants to be told that doing as little as possible is practical, while deftly ignoring the elephant in the room: that being, that once a game is in session, players are going to ask questions - all kinds of weird, off the wall questions - that the DM will need to answer, right now, without knowing what those questions will be.

The DMs who make the cut are those who can answer quickly, fairly, usefully and in a way that encourages the player to ask another question expecting the same, legitimate value.  The DMs who excel are those who can do the same with player suggestions and innovation - who aren't shaken when the player pulls out a rabbit.

Over time, DMs who can manage games never 'force' themselves to create more than they must.  They can't help themselves.  Creating more than is necessary becomes a sort of drug.


  1. Mmm-mm-mm...and yet it can be difficult for some (most?) of us to see the value in taking this approach, without putting in a long amount of game time and having the ability to look back at it over a perspective of (chronologic) distance.

    I think for a fortunate few, the Way of Creation, comes the actor who is good for nothing else, or the writer who simply must write. For most of us, though, I think it's a discipline that needs to be learned, and it's hard to see the value of learning it when folks in positions of authority (i.e. the "experts") are giving us contrary advice.

    This is a good post, Alexis.

  2. I am always puzzled, JB, when someone makes out a discipline as something that is harshly demanding or otherwise a grueling prospect.

    I work with some profoundly dull-witted people who have nevertheless learned a far greater complexity in the managing of food and kitchen work than goes into a ordinary role-playing session. The universities and colleges are full of people committing years of their lives towards vocations that they only "sort of" enjoy. Tens of thousands of office buildings are full of millions of people performing boring, yet highly intricate daily work, which they learned as a discipline over a few months, again much more complex than the few hundred pages of a gaming book.

    Why? Because they're being paid. They see the challenge of learning a discipline as something they HAVE to do because it is better than the street, starving or having to follow a less difficult and therefore more boring occupation.

    And yet once again, for role-players, who PRETEND to love the game, it is all so hard and taxing to commit themselves to making a good world. For what reason? Because they are not 'naturally' inclined to do so. "Wah, wah, I wasn't born with a natural need to work on my world."

    Oh boo fucking hoo. I'm tired of this apologist crap that says on one hand, "Oh, I so love gaming" and on the other, "What's the least I can do?"

    Pah. It's revolting. And revealing.


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