Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Structural Bias

In a conversation I've just had with Maxwell, I equated the DM's game designer problem of creating rules ~ concrete, objective and publicly visible ~ to the rules and structure of video game code.  This, I think, is apt.  A great part of the difficulty in RPGs moving forward these past forty years has come from an inability to agree on the code, which in turn disallows for our moving forward on things that really matter, like the process of the game itself.

Recently in an email, I made a point about initiating an adventure and the structure of that initiation which I think is worth repeating in a blog post.  I began by explaining that when I first began to play D&D, I saw that the biggest problem I was having as both a player and as a DM was the notion that the DM was always right.  This idea gained strength pretty quickly.  I did not hear the term 'fiat' until many years later, though that is certainly correct in its description: a 'fiat' is generally considered a very bad thing in the real world.

As such, I saw that my chief axiom as a DM would be to take myself, as much as was possible, "out of the loop," letting the dice decide as many conflicts as possible while pushing myself to create situations that were logically based on what had gone before and not upon a personal, arbitrary desire to see something happen.  However, though I argued the importance of this with many DMs in the early 1980s, I always felt I was the only one who applied this thinking to my world; and today, I still find myself in contention with those who think there are times when it is "okay" to DM fiat a problem.  This is clearly evidence of broken philosophical thinking at the ground level of the participant and user of the game's structure.

Imagine someone asking on a football web forum, "When is it okay for the New England Patriots to cheat?"

[makes me want to go try it, actually]

When I say "take myself out of the loop," I don't mean that every part of the game I'm running has to be structured in advance.  That would be impossible, particularly for the size and complexity of campaign I'm running.  To prepare and script every option a player might pursue would take far too much time for even a single adventure.  While this might mean that I am compelled to run a given room exactly as it was written, thereby removing my immediate judgement from the equation, it also means I have to create very simple, very limited systems for my players to move through.  It means the scripts for anything that anyone says have to be simple as well, or else I'll be writing scripts ten years from now.  Everything that the players might do has to be accounted for, and the players would be barred from doing anything that wasn't already created.

Basically, a video game.

My concept of the loop came in 1980; at that time, narrative video games were astoundingly primitive.  Consider, this was the level of video game when I started playing D&D:

I could see at the time that the "control every variable" option was going to produce a spectacularly bad game.  Even now, with the progression of video games, I'm still bored with games that seek to produce a narrative experience, right up to and including a game like the Witcher, Mass Effect or Assassin's Creed.  I don't want to be someone else dealing with their problems, I want to be me, dealing with my problem ~ and I want total freedom of choice to decide what my problem is.

A better methodology for running an adventure, I believed, could be found in the narrative rules that novel-writing compels, something I was also tinkering with in 1980, as those were my formative years as a writer.  At the time, I could not have described it, but I've studied deconstruction a great deal now and I believe I have a good handle on the basic principles.  In a novel, everything that exists must apply somehow to the development of characters and setting, which in turn serves to drive the plot and create the conflict, which then must be resolved with the instruments, ideas and motivations that have already been instilled in the characters.  When Frodo is imagined to be dead in Lord of the Rings, we cannot simply have aliens land in a ship and then destroy the ring with an extraterrestrial blaster.  In the same vein, what Samwise does next has to make sense.  He cannot behave in a manner that would make the reader think the author had suddenly decided Sam should no longer act like Sam.  We know that is not how humans behave in a situation (or, at least, we think we know that).  Humans behave according to how they have behaved in the past.  We stubbornly cling to that notion.

Doing this in an RPG, this setting up of the adventure, should follow the same principles.  Each object found, each discourse, each motivation of the non-player participants, should match up with the final goal.  However ~ and this is incredibly important ~ RPGs are not novels.  Nothing can be fixed.  There's no certainty that the players will pick up the object or pursue the motivation.  If they don't, the DM must, this being the axiom, resist the desire to push into the loop and compel the players to pursue the unwanted set-up.  The set-up must be abandoned and a new set-up created, one that hopefully the players will pursue.  If they do, then the movement in the set-up's direction will produce a conflict and an end result, so long as the players remain interested.

This means that my world is a series of narrative set-ups, sometimes without result.  If the players don't like an idea, I kill it in my mind, or figure out another potential clue that might make the previous set-up more enticing (which sometimes works but more often does not, discouraging this tactic).  This requires that I place no sympathetic (or sentimental) attachment to a given set-up . . . but why should that be difficult.  Artists abandon ideas all the time!  If the necktie scene works better without the necktie, the playwright dumps the necktie and writes the scene.  Those who fail to recognize that any part of a work can be abandoned for the sake of the whole work will in turn fail to achieve a higher degree of skill and self-awareness.

Okay, but what is a "set-up"?  How does it work?  I'd like to give an example, but I can only hope the gentle reader has read the book [hell, if you haven't, you're damaged in some way and should not be DMing adventures].  I'll try Around the World in 80 Days.

The set-up is simple.  The story is told primarily from the point of view of Passepartout, who has just acquired employment with an extraordinarily precise master, Phileas Fogg.  The set-up is that a bet is made, one that requires Fogg to act in a manner that seems very unlike Fogg; Passepartout is taken along on a journey which, at the beginning, he does not really conceive in scope.  Passepartout does not believe his master's simple statement that they are going around the world; he doesn't know Fogg well; he thinks his master must be joking.  By the time it is clear it is not a joke, Passepartout is already far away from home and well in the midst of the adventure.

Consider: Passepartout could have refused to get on the train out of England.  He could have refused to cross the Channel.  He could have refused to leave France, where he was from.  He could have stopped anywhere along the way ~ but this would have meant unemployment for the manservant and at every step, the prospect of keeping pace with Fogg seems more enticing that being unemployed anywhere along the way.  That is a set-up that works.  The players have free will; but the choice right in front of them has to seem much more interesting than any choice they can make on their own.

That is how I lead players "by the nose."  Not by railroading them, not by controlling them, not by denying them agency, but by creating a set-up that is more interesting, more enticing, than the set-up they imagine themselves creating.  Once they are in the adventure, everything else follows logically.  Like in Verne's book, once Fogg, a wealthy Britisher, appears to be moving quickly through Egypt, the detective Fix assumes Fogg must be a bankrobber that he has been told to be on the look-out for.  Fix follows Fogg and is in turn embroiled in the adventure.  Events in India then create the opportunity to rescue Aouda, Fix's machinations lead to Fogg's being stranded in Hong Kong, the trip through the United States leads to the encounter on the train and so on ~ all of which are perfectly predictable to me as a DM, as I know the players, once on the adventure, will move through India and Hong Kong and Nebraska.  I can set the events of the adventure well up in advance without the party feeling railroaded, as they know they chose to take each step as it was given.  That is precisely why, although they have agency, they can be predicted in their behaviour.

I believe that this connection between setting up a narrative in a book and setting up the premise for an adventure has been utterly and entirely missed by the game-making community.  I feel that calls for necessary solutions to narrative, such as that called for Noah Wardrip-Friun, have already been created and structured for centuries by writers and artists, but that these things are being ignored because most game systems and formats do not have the flexibility to ditch set-ups that are not wanted or desired by gamers.  Not like an RPG can do.

If we don't like a book, we can stop reading it.  If we don't like a video game, we can stop playing it.  But if you don't like an RPG, that RPG can be changed and changed until you do like it ~ unless the person in charge steadfastly and stubbornly refuses to change.  And that there is the problem.  That is the structural bias we have to overcome.


  1. 100% agree. I started a campaign with the assumption that the players had agreed to a premise I had pitched. Nothing in that original premise seemed to stick with them once play actually started so I threw out all of it after the first session, focused on where they wanted to go and was able to do exactly what you described: have a pretty solid idea of each step of the adventure based on how I would present the next situation. "Led by the nose" and they ate it up with glee.

    As opposed to the last game I was a player in that resulted in my character's death because of "the story" the DM wanted to tell.

  2. I've been catching up with these posts recently as I keep needing to put them down and come back later when I can fully appreciate their insights. This is a fantastic pointer, one which I think comes right down to the fundamentals of being a DM. When the community has so much myth-making and so many sacred cows in the forms of modules or even past campaigns, DMs are encouraged to become attached to their creations, asking "how can I make the players follow this path?" rather than "how do I improve on my flow when the path is not taken?"
    I think you've highlighted some of the more unfortunate puerile behaviour (the egotistical reverence a DM has to their own ideas) quite nicely, and I wonder if it's all connected to the other process of D&D which is more often left to the DM's machinations: worldbuilding. Since that is a typically more accepted form of authorial control – the DM is trusted to created a functioning world without too much player input – the DM then comes to believe the microcosmic level of the player adventure must also be entirely preconstructed like a narrative video game. It's obviously a matter of self-awareness how much a DM conflates the two, but perhaps another route to encouraging DMs and players to be comfortable changing the story at any point (since there are plenty of players afraid of taking the DM's carefully-crafted adventure off the rails) is to keep in mind while playing that this is all a narrative composed for a small group which is not sacred or special but simply a communal process that everyone has a say in.


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