Sunday, June 11, 2017

Paying the Wrong Horse

risk.  Noun: a situation involving exposure to danger; the possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome will happen; a person or thing regarded as likely to turn out well or badly, as specified, in a particular context or respect; a person or thing regarded as a threat or likely source of danger. Verb: expose someone or something valued to danger, harm or loss; act or fail to act in such a way as to bring about the possibility of an unpleasant or unwelcome event; incur the chance of unfortunate consequences by engaging in an action.  Synonyms: endanger, imperil, jeopardize, hazard, gamble, gamble with, chance.

As D&D was originally conceived, the payoff for the game would result in the players taking a risk; the risk was that they would put themselves in a situation where dice would be rolled to determine the outcome, so that as the player chose to take a given risk (attack a group of monsters), the dice would then enable the DM and the player to resolve the context by seeing if the risk resulted in something that turned out well or something that turned out badly.

Adventure design, therefore, hinged on placed players in situations where a die would need to be thrown: a combat, an attempt to deactivate a trap, a situation where the player might be surprised or not, the chance of a player taking full damage from a dragon's breath or less.  And the payoff worked in kind: if the player lived, the player received experience, treasure, opportunity, recognition and increased power through magic and other upgrades.

It is natural that, faced with this, a player would try to mitigate the risk.  If the same payoff could be gained with less risk, then like any good laboratory rat the player would logically pursue a course of less risk.

If the player learned that by leaning upon and manipulating a DM, the risk could be mitigated even more satisfactorily and the payoff yet received, then naturally the player began to "play" the DM, as a means of mitigating risk.

In turn, if the DM personally felt impressed by a player's ability to cleverly sidestep risk, and decided that a payoff ought to awarded for cleverness, it then follows that the player should begin to recognize that the game has been reshaped so as not to reward risk, but to reward cleverness.

Finally, the next logical step in the pattern is to redesign the game, steadily, to ensure that cleverness in avoiding risk is rewarded, so that risk itself becomes an wholly impractical course of action, since the payoff for both risk and the avoidance of it is made the same.

Does the reader follow?  As a community, we award cleverness and not risk.  And that's where everything has gone wrong from the beginning.

If you break down any discussion about the awarding of experience, the use of saving throws, the save or die principle, the employment of wandering monsters, the invention of feats, the increase in clerical healing or healing of all sorts, the increase in opportunism in how many die rolls a player can make before having to submit to being killed, "role-playing" vs. "roll-playing", the wide-spread use of fudging, experience levels gained for "good play," the argument that a backstory is the most important part of role-playing and so on, at the core of all those arguments is a steady drum-beat that argues we ought to reward cleverness and not risk.

Because risk is "bad."  Risk means that the player might lose.  That would lower D&D to the status of every other game that exists, where losing is a reality that must be managed and accepted by the individual, regardless of the hurt or the disappointment that might bring.  Losing is the challenge, not winning.  Losing is the pain that is felt, that encourages the participant to re-evaluate themselves and their game play, that demands recognition of limitations and in turn demands the individual effect a change to those limitations.

Losing is not "bad."  Through losing, we overcome our fear, we recognize our humanity, we find reasons to feel empathy with others, we address our shortcomings and we become better people through seeing ourselves not as gods, but as mortals.

But failing to be clever obtains none of this.  Failing to be clever only incites participants to attempt greater and wider attempts to be clever, desperate attempts to be clever, needy attempts to be clever, frustrated and argumentative attempts to be clever, the certainty that if the right string of words can be pounded together, then we will BE clever and the game will be given to us free and clear.  Cleverness, both in its success and its failure, has the habit of convincing us that we are gods, swelling us with hubris until the moment comes when we learn all that arrogance, conceit and egotism won us, in the end, only the proof of our cherished flaws.


  1. Great post, Alexis.

    I think an individual's risk aversion is not constant through life: people who have nothing to lose may more easily take risks (they might actually have little choice in the matter), while people who have achieved a certain level of comfort or status might be less prone to gambling those achievements away. Should this in any way affect how players engage with the game, in your opinion? Should the player of a 6th level character act differently from when that character was a neophyte?

    And a elated question: in your practice as a DM, is there a point in a campaign in which your own attitude towards character death -- and therefore risk-taking by players -- changes? In other words, as characters level as the campaign builds momentum, as it produces its own history, do you -- at any point -- start wishing that players manage their risk better?

    I would suppose it doesn't, but I must confess the last time I ran a long campaign -- quite some time ago, unfortunately -- I started fearing that players would make stupid choices, have their characters killed, and cut the campaign short (or profoundly change its nature, by replacing party members). Doesn't mean I fudged, or anything of the like, but my personal feelings towards risk-taking changed. I guess at that point I was thinking of myself more as a a 'story-enabler' for the players, rather than as a gaming console.

  2. Story time!

    I taught my son to play Risk this past weekend. Maybe a week or two before that, we played an improvised wargame with his Army men (and some giants and a dragon, of course). In both cases, we used dice; good opportunity for some creative thinking and, frankly, I get by kids' games. When we finished Risk he asked to play again. He loved it, even though he can't quite grasp the full scope of the rules (he's five). When we finished the wargame, he wanted to play again but without the dice. Now, whenever he pulls out his toys and asks me to play, he tells me, "Daddy, no dice!" But he'll play board games according to the rules.

    Makes me think there's a certain amount of maturity and self-awareness involved with the conscious decision to embrace or reject risk-taking in RPGs.

  3. I think what's also particular to D&D is that the emotional investment people have in their characters encourages them to almost become helicopter parents of their own invented personas, ensuring every bridge is crossed and every acquisition made. This is the case in a lot of role-playing games and contrasts, within the world of video games, with rogue-likes, where death is expected and permanent.

    I know personally that when playing video games I often want to be able to reload a save after making a mistake (or in some games, when a character is killed) as it's handed to the player for free without penalties, and I've inevitably developed an attachment to the character. This style certainly once fed bad behaviour in my early days of D&D and it's ubiquitous in modern games.

    I have been experimenting with making failure more varied as a result of this: you sometimes read descriptions of horror-show games where the DM is out to murder the players at every step (which would never be fun unless the DM could be outwitted like the Sphinx) and I suspect that there is a tendency to see "failure" in D&D as equivalent to a TPK. Maybe the players' investment doesn't pay off, or maybe they are forced to leave behind a valuable item, or even just spend a few weeks recovering after a fireball spell gone awry.

    If I may give an example: at the moment, they've been defeated in combat and enslaved, and they're prodding me to give them a way to talk their way out of the situation. That's not likely to happen without some investment of time, but it should, I hope, suggest to them that loss does not always mean death. You can always take away status, wealth or time.

  4. I always find that conversations with NPCs are a place where players get the most clever, and I am most likely to reward cleverness. The game edition I play, at least, has very little rules support for when a conversation has ended, so players tend to keep talking and trying more lines of argument until the NPC (me) gives them what they want. I try to be on the lookout for it but I get caught out a lot :P

  5. I would also echo Samuel's point: my players always try to coax information out of me so as to get around obstacles. The classes have helped me deal with that in some ways: not hinting at an option through tone and trying to always have multiple options to choose from, so that the players ask for details rather than answers. But I'd love to hear any other thoughts on how to mitigate cleverness when talking to NPCs. I often worry I might blab through an NPC, giving information they shouldn't know or deciding at a fairly arbitrary point that the players have persuaded the NPC enough that they would give up information.

    I suppose if you imagined a scenario where the players want to get into a person's house but it's guarded by a doorman, what would they try and do? I've had players devise outlandish lies (which a good doorman would probably see through), try to befriend the doorman (again, pretty obvious unless they're really slow and methodical) or use other social manipulation tactics to try and turn an enemy into a friend.

    Now perhaps I would be able to judge what is fair and sensible if I had experience as a bouncer, but that's always been a bit of a struggle for me. At the end of the day, it would usually just take a fat bribe to make him look the other way, but there's all sorts of scenarios where the doorman might say yes and then betray them, get the players in trouble, be too afraid of his employer, etc. These things seem like more story-related elements than game elements: stuff that the players don't have much certainty or control over, so they try to cajole the DM if they know that's feasible, or just walk away if they're worried it's not.

  6. Ah, the guard/doorman trope.

    Ask your friend if it would be okay if you asked his mother out on a date. Explain that you're his friend. Then try to bribe him to "look the other way." Note the reaction.

    A doorman in a medieval or renaissance setting would have been raised in the household, would depend on his livelihood upon the household and would be purposed to remove the sort of riffraff that he himself WOULD BECOME if he ever lost his role as a doorman.

    And that too should be a help. Stop thinking of guards and doormen, along with other officials, as "doing their jobs." These are not jobs, these are precious, embraced saving graces that keep these people from becoming beggars who will never work again, ousting them out of their comfortable beds and rooms, their only friends in the world (those inside the house/fort where they work) and all that they've ever known. THEY WON'T LET THEMSELVES BE BRIBED, except for an amount of money that will ensure they will never have to work again: hundreds of gold, in their hands, in which case they will disappear. And this will only happen if the servant in question is so odious that they hate their peers and are hated by them.

  7. Of course! That broadly applies to lots of relationships: consider what the person would lose by disobeying orders from a superior. I can see that argument used for soldiers, bounty hunters, courtiers, the clergy and many other hierarchical positions. Seems like generally there was a lot less to gain in pushing social boundaries before the industrial era, which is easier to forget now.


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