Tuesday, May 9, 2017

The Two Philosophies

During the aforementioned podcast from the Lurkers' post, beginning at 59:45, Chad and Carl get into a disagreement about whether or not the DM is a player.  I have made my position on this matter known before, but let's have a look at the discussion as it is discussed on the podcast.

Chad takes the position that because the DM "plays" a character, because the DM provides all the other voices, this makes the DM a player.  Carl is put on the spot, asserts that he's completely opposed to this idea, but yet he's forced to admit he hasn't got the argument he needs.  That's as far as the discourse goes.

So, if I step in.

There is an excellent moment where Chad emphasizes the "character" aspect of "non-player character" to say that, because he plays a character, the DM is a player.  This is a remarkable moment of disassociation, because the right answer is, "Yes, a non-player character." But we shouldn't fault Chad here.  He's a victim of language, as are so many participants of role-playing games.

Over the decades, a severe disconnect has occurred in the development of games by independent DMs, creating largely isolated games throughout the world.  This is the mistaken belief that "playing" is a adjective that modifies the word "role" and not the word "game."  In turn, this has caused tens of thousands of participants to believe that an RPG is a "game" in which persons "play" a "role" ~ rather than the adjective "role-playing" that describes a specific kind of game.

The problem derives from the dual use of the word "play" in both aspects.  We play games.  We play roles.   The word itself is a derivation of a West Saxon word, plega, meaning quick motion, recreation, exercise or any brisk activity.  The last was employed most often in terms of "swordplay," meaning to fight one another as training (though now swordplay is often used to describe the real thing).

The use of plaga was employed for a lot of purposes, as it still is today.  Children play, we play with words, we have sexual play, we play with ourselves, an object that is free and unimpeded has a lot of play, we play instruments and so on.  The idea of "play" as taking part in a game dates from 1200; to "play" in a dramatic performance originates just a century later, so both meanings have a great deal of history and it is up to context to sort them out.

When we look at the manner in which a game functions, we see that there are challenges, options, obstacles and ultimately payoffs in making a choice or being lucky with a die.  I've written extensively about D&D and game theory so I don't want to revisit that just now.  I will take a moment and emphasize two particular conditions that we associate with "games": the possibility of both winning and losing and the fundamentals of a payoff, or a reward that is received for making the right choices.

These do not strictly apply to all games, but they certainly apply to D&D.  Characters can die.  Characters can make the wrong or the right choice.  Characters can be rewarded.  The concept of the RPG as a "game" inherently evolved from these basic principles.

When an individual declares that RPGs are about "Playing a Character," they have restructured the game completely.  Now, we have no necessity to "make the right choice" since all choices that are made by a character are either a) decipherable as appropriate in the player's opinion or b) measurably permissible in that the player's character is entitled to grow, adapt, change or otherwise progress in whatever way the player desires.

There are no wrong ways to play a character's motivation or a character's belief system.  All ways, by definition of the player's personal volition, are "right."  Therefore, all rewards are not given because the player made the right decision as opposed to a wrong decision, but because the player is entitled to a reward for having taken the time to play the character openly in a public forum.  I participated, and therefore I deserve to be rewarded.

Here we have an unconscious head-to-head between two theories of RPG participation, divided between those who believe that RPGs are games, with the structure and accountability of games, or that RPGs are a form of personal expression, with the permissiveness and social affirmation that comes from expressing oneself as a person.

Both are legitimate means through which participants obtain validation and "fun."  But they are absolutely not compatible.

Before letting anyone participate in your game, you should be absolutely clear about the philosophy to which they ascribe.  It is quite clear that there are far, far, far more Chads in the world than Carls . . . and there are reasons for that, which I choose not to go into at this time.


  1. I don't think that having a strong desire to play a role or use RPG participation as a form of personal expression necessarily conflicts with the belief that RPGs are games. Playing a character is, or should be, a part of the structure and accountability of the game. Just because there is no 'wrong' way to play a character's motivation or belief system does not mean that there is not a 'wrong' way to play the game.

    If I choose to play a character that makes poor choices in game because it follows the personality of the character, then I am still making poor choices as a player. I'm playing wrong. I should absolutely bear all the consequences of poor play within the structure of the game. If I continue to do so to the detriment of the party, then I am also being a poor friend/teammate and should be asked to leave the team.

    On the other hand if I temper the expression of my character to meet the needs of the game while still being able to play that role, I add immersiveness to the game in the same way that the DM accurately portraying a 'real' world complete with weather and complex trade tables does.

    I think the best advice I have ever seen on this topic is to make the best game choices possible and then figure out why your character would have made those choices. As an example I look at what happened with Delfig. His struggle with the situation in which he found himself added to the game. The fact that he played the role of feeling suicidal brought depth to the game, however he placed the motivations of the character above good game play. This caused a great deal of strife that nearly derailed the entire campaign. If he had instead chosen to find the reason why his character would have found that last spark of hope to carry him through, the game would have been even more rich and meaningful.

    So while I agree that a decision must be made to place the most importance on either the game or the personal expression, I believe that there is plenty of room for extensive personal expression within the game while still adhering to its structure.

  2. Building on what Joey said, I think there's also a fundamental disconnect inherent to the "artificial" characters which a player creates, in the same way that an actor might fail to connect with a character and thereby make a performance dull or flat.

    Players who wish to express character chops with some unbelievable character whose motivations the players do not personally understand – classics being the arrogant, self-righteous paladin; the sadistic assassin; or any form of "lunatic" or mentally ill character – will inevitably fall flat or suck the air away from other players by insisting on playing their role even when it goes against the logic of the game.
    This is the same problem, in my mind, as the actor who won't take a director's note because "my character wouldn't do that."

    On that same vine, players are of course welcome to feel an emotional attachment to their characters, but pushing that to an obsessive code of conduct that trumps game logic will of course unravel any reasonable campaign. D&D handles divas much more poorly than the performing arts do.

    The acting analogy can perhaps extend further – the payoff D&D players receive being similar to the adrenaline rush of a successful performance, or good choices provoking positive reactions – but it risks overemphasizing the importance of "shmacting" in any game. Unless you're an esteemed thespian or film star, you can get by with some simple and clear description – miming your decisions instead of proclaiming them.

    All of these problems are ego-related, which means the DM and/or the players will have to be comfortable enough with interpersonal conflict to raise that these problems exist, something I've struggled with myself when dealing with bad acting at the table. There's certainly a lot missing from the DMG about how to deal with problem players (or being a problem DM at that).

  3. I understand what you're both saying, Joey and Tim, but you're both speaking of playing a character and its affect upon the "game."

    I'm saying that for some people, playing the character IS the game. There is no other game. And for these people, asking them to make choices is inherently improper. They're entitled to win. That is how they see it.

  4. If playing the character is the game, then perhaps those people should not play D&D. There are plenty of excellent games with rich worlds that pander to that sort of self-serving desire.

  5. They think they ARE playing D&D, the way it was intended to be played. That is why it is so difficult to convince them otherwise.

  6. Which is especially interesting because, when you apply a little critical thought, it becomes apparent that D&D is not meant to be played that way.

    Take the reward/advancement system. Leave aside the fact that very few games outside of computers/consoles use levels to show progress: D&D rewards specific actions which encourages specific types of behavior. Ergo, there is a right and a wrong way to play it, and that was defined by the earliest incarnations of the game. (The XP system may have been flawed, but it was there from the beginning.)

  7. And Chad has removed experience and levels ~ to the approval of his players, he says. This is not difficult to understand: it plays to the entitlement of advancement, whereas the unentitled matter of game play requires proper choices and carries the inherent possibility of failure. The game is removed from the experience and Chad describes this as an improvement.

    Clearly, we have a philosophical disconnect.

  8. I'd say that the DM is not a player.

    I just hinge it on the simple fact that the DM has nothing in the way of win or lose conditions clearly inscribed in the structure of the game.

    He can win or lose admiration and kudos for a session well-run, but he cannot "win" or "lose" within the running itself.

    Other than that, the entitlement culture is something that I've avowedly rejected since seeing it in action.

  9. I think then, as you mention, Alexis, the constraints of D&D's rules will of course need to be removed or rejiggered. Perhaps then, it is a question of role-playing game control: in some games, e.g. Fate, there is little in the way of rules on gameplay mechanics – most events are simplified to a single roll and the GM judges actions as "in-character" or not. It can be fun for a while but I've never felt like continuing to play a character after more than one game, because it felt too easy. Then again, the whole reason I read this blog is because I'm a glutton for punishing myself with those darn rules.

    Admittedly, I'm already very much declared to be in the rules-based game camp. I like impartial metrics and I dislike trying to cook up some reasoning behind a random roll or modifier on the fly. But I don't know if other players are playing incorrectly, especially when role-playing game designers might create a new game to cater to a more "lax" style (which from my perspective seems more common nowadays).

    Entitlement is a killer in any setting, but a looser rule set will inevitably encourage it because there can be a disconnect between players and DM about the worth of a choice. Like any relationship, it's all fine if you're on the same page as each other, but if you leave issues unspoken it will cause tension down the line.


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