Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Longer Comment about Character Play

I'm writing this post to expand on some well-chosen thoughts put forward by William Murrill and DropOwlBear on the previous post.  I needed room to stretch out.

William writes,
"... other times people are convinced that it's [quirky role-play] an alternative avenue to pursue when it's incredibly unclear how to improve the game mechanically."

I am completely certain of this.  It's the argument I've made when explaining that yes, it is possible to build metrics and good rules that expand game play, but that people just aren't doing it because no one knows how.  There are no classes, no resources and no company drones who consider this angle of game-play to be practical (read, money-making).  Every step the game has made since the early 1980s has been a stumbling repetition of all that has gone before ... and having gotten to here, where it now requires a monstrous shelf to contain all the modules that have been written, the self-perpetuated belief that this was the only path that could be taken has discouraged even the question of an alternative.

The first seven years of this blog consisted of me having flame war after flame war with people who believe that "role-play" was, is and always will be the Holy Grail of game play.  And the lack of a rational approach to game design has led to disaster.  William writes,
"I've learned these game systems are insufferably bad and that the false dichotomy created to excuse their existence further muddies the waters on what the heck players and DMs/GMs are trying to accomplish. Those aspiring to run or play games often get the impression that they're only better at it based on their funny voices or 'character quirks' as the systems on their own are fairly boring."

The opinion that game systems are crap is self-justifying.  Game systems ARE crap.  The original D&D was far too thin, AD&D was filled with prejudicial, poorly considered and outright broken features, 2e pissed all over the stuff that worked and retained most of the dreck, since it had no mandate to fix what was broken ... and the remaining three editions just continued to follow 2e's lead.  The brains were not applied to the game's problems, but to the never-ending demand for product, product, product, so long as it was pretty and vaguely talked about something my character could do.

The talking in funny voices as an avenue to pursue was the greatest widespread setback when the game was introduced.  The game, whatever RPG we might play, depended on people to be creative, imaginative and ambitious.  Well guess what?  People just aren't.  They may want to be, they may hunger for that sort of impulse, but they are shit on the ground where it comes to getting there themselves.  So from the point of view of a board room, which could not take the stand of, "Well, the game is not for everyone," the insistent droning mantra has been, "We must make this game something everyone can enjoy."

This Sisyphean expectation explains why RPG game mechanics aren't properly made: because the logic that a game, to be fun, must appear on the surface to be anything but fun, doesn't fit a corporate mindset.  A game company could never have invented Golf.  From a fan service perspective, Golf  makes no sense.  In fact, no game company, EVER, has invented a good game.  They had to steal.

Yet this group of suits keeps thinking they can re-invent D&D.

DropOwlBear writes,
"... for a lot of these people, their motivation behind playing the game is the character acting part. The ostensible humor of their character getting to react to a character halting combat to strap on her 'fighting leathers' is more appealing than the act of fighting itself."

Yes, I think that's true.  I can easily see the whole table cracking up, having a good time, finding this particular sport worthy of putting the game on hold, just so the player could show her smarts.  Much, much better than just another dreary, tedious dungeon module walk-through at a convention campaign.  Which itself is key, I think.  When people begin to discard the particulars of a game, any game, it happens when the game ceases to be fun.

To throw in a personal anecdote, because it is my blog, I once got pulled into a golf tournament (oh yes, I golf, when I can, and quite enjoy the game) with a collection of strangers, most of whom turned out to be highly competitive jock assholes.  In the foursome I was designated to join, there were two who styled themselves as participating in the PGA, and a fellow much like myself who saw golf as a splendid, outdoor past-time.

By the 5th hole, Dave and I were already pretty sick of the other two, who decided to stop acknowledging our existence because we did not play "well enough" for them.  Along about then, we made up our minds to start drinking, since the game was pretty much a wash and we had ceased to care.  Golf, for us, very quickly became a drinking game, with beers at slices, beers at water hazards and beers at missing the ball on the tee three times in a row.  Golf is not the sort of god that gazes kindly on a drinking game.  But shit, did we have a lot of fun.  Particularly as we were oh-so-furiously glowered at by the two jocks.

When the game is shit, people will find another game.  Oh yes, they will.  But this other game is NOT golf.

DropOwlBear writes,
"This probably goes to explain why you get stuff like the "GreatGM" guy talking so much about story themes and advocating for fudging dice rolls, too - especially due to the most popular scenes in our hobby being games built around live streamed shows, combat is seen as a means of generating character drama first, and a means of presenting mechanical challenge second (if at all)."

And here is the dystopian future we should expect from that.  The character drama game, lacking rules, lacking boundaries, lacking structure, lacking a specific point or metric, just gets weirder and weirder as the years pass.  I had recently said that I felt splatbooks had gotten a whole lot worse than the 90s.  Eventually, the structure has to fall entirely by the wayside, where the trend is to drink more, which results in having to drink more.  And there is no way, now, for the "official" game to pull out of this tailspin.

All the more reason for me to be a voice crying in the wilderness.  And trying to do it without preaching fire and brimstone, as I have in the past.  It is frustrating to not rant.  And it is going to take a lot more practice for me to not rant well.  But if I'm going to have any chance at saving a few true believers, I can't just glower at the drunks.

I am, however, going to discuss what makes them drunk.

Post script,

About Matthew Colville.  I've listened to quite a lot of him, now.  He has a facility to talking a great deal without making a declarative statement.  This makes him hard to deconstruct meaningfully.  Much of the time, yes, I agree with what he is saying ... but since he is mostly saying that water is wet, it is hard not to agree.  At the same time, it grows rather tiresome to hear only that which has already been established, or that which substantially doesn't matter.  I find him a very grey speaker.  But I will keep listening and see if there isn't a video that deserves attention.


Jomo Rising said...

I often admire Mr. Colville. He does fall into the crowd that says the story is more important than bad luck. So there is assistance in tough game fights. I understand that he would stack the Deck of Many Things, to prevent catastrophe. I am not certain of context, as he often speaks of working with new players (not wanting new players to have a bad experience). That is not my regular preference. I don't know if he fudges.
His advice about products has been interesting (not the WOTC stuff but terrain and mapping software.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, Jomo, obviously I don't give a shit about his opinion about terrain and mapping software products. Stacking the deck of many things IS fudging. If you don't like it, don't hand out the item. Or create a different item and call it something else.

All game fights ought to be tough, so that's out too. "Bad luck" IS the story ... which, once again, a bad story writer just doesn't get.

Please, if you want to tell me that you admire a fellow, describe attributes that make him admirable. Avoid criticism.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Okay, went and opened Colville's channel. 18 seconds into the first episode, 21 Feb 2016:

"Being a Dungeon Master is fun! It's creative and it's not that hard. But if you don't know how it's done, it seems intimidating."


Being a DM ... is not that ... hard.

I imagine it depends on how ~ well ~ one wants to DM.

Jomo Rising said...

I don't like the game he runs, for the reasons noted among others. He has an agreeable manner and he talks well. It might just be that I want to like a D&D YouTuber and this might be the closest I get.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I agree. He does have an agreeable manner and he does talk well.

I listened to his most recent video which was not about the Critical Role campaign. On the whole, his position seems, well, fine. He talks about running ghouls against low-level characters (my gawd, it is easy to hit the enemy in 5e), from the point of view of a new DM dealing with new DM issues.

Then I listened to the one before that, which was also about running undead. Once again, more or less fine.

But ... water is wet, water is wet, water is wet. I considered writing out his entire video and just inserting [water is wet] every time he makes a statement that virtually anyone playing the game already knows. I'm sure this is why he seems so agreeable. He is basically repeating the content of the manual.

Ozymandias said...

So we're saying that Colville's videos are good enough for the new DM but useless for everyone else?

If that's the case, then I take the subtext to be that a new DM, if she's played the game as a player, will know these things through simple observation.

Jomo Rising said...

Could do one of those videos with the counter in the bottom corner, (ding) and get a total of banal statements.
I am about to try 5e as a player again in the new game of a friend who wants to run it for a few sessions. He knows that I am reluctant to call 5e actual D&D, as it is so different from what I know, home-brew AD&D. I will chalk it up to socializing with friends. I made a video about 5e a while back. It is a different game with same-sounding, non-improved terms.

Archon said...

On the one hand, you're doing a good and interesting thing here. (and the corporations are kinda terrible).

On the other, people are allowed to enjoy pastimes that are not the one you like, and I don't really understand why you take issue with that. In particular, I don't understand why you dislike the idea of freeform RP / games with rules other than OD&D derived rules.

(I think part of this is spending time with the D&D crowd - there are lots of people who think RPG's need serious skill and thought to write, and who put substantial effort into writing them well. None of the are writing D&D. They write their own games, which do completely different things to what D&D does.)

Ozymandias said...

Archon, let's turn it around for a moment:

People are allowed to write about their hobbies and to engage others in thoughtful, intelligent, reasoned debate in an effort to improve themselves. I don't really understand why you take issue with that. In particular, I don't understand why you dislike the idea that we might not fully understand what D&D is, how it functions or what it represents, or that we would want to deconstruct the game and our assumptions about it.

There are literally hundreds of examples on this blog (and others) illustrating where mainstream D&D fails to deliver on its promises. You might have not personally experienced it ~ and that's a good thing ~ but your experience doesn't mean that it never happens that way.

Archon said...

I agree strongly with both of your points.

What I was trying to do, was to question the seemingly unquestioned assumption that D&D is The Game.

At times, you have likened playing D&D to playing baseball. In this metaphor, I see you as a collection of baseball players who refuse to acknowledge any other sport but baseball. You do not claim it is the supreme sport - you simply refuse to acknowledge that any other exists. You see a group of people playing basketball, and because the ball is large, and they are not hitting it with a bat, you say "There people are not playing a game - they are simply messing around with a ball". And to be sure, there are many people who are content to mess around with a ball, but many are also just playing games which are not your game. I think that these people have lessons you could learn from. That is all, really.

Alexis Smolensk said...


First, let me point out that when I wrote the book, How to Run, I made the entire content genre neutral. 109,000 words, applicable to any role-playing game. I do say that I play D&D, and I insist on using "DM" for the person in charge, but that's it. I don't insist, in any way, through the book, that people play any particular RPG. I was very direct about that.

Second, you express surprise at coming to a D&D blog where the author does not want to talk about a different game. Would you expect a kayak blog to discuss canoeing? Or a rugby blog to discuss American football? Do cake decoration blogs talk about soup making, because they both happen to be food?

I have, on this blog, attacked other versions of D&D. I have scoffed at Pathfinder and Hackmaster, because what I've heard of these games make them sound stupid as all get out. When you said "freeform RP/games with other than OD&D" rules, I presumed you meant one of the many D&D clones, including Gurps, Tunnels and Trolls, Rollmaster and Palladium, all of which, again, I have no respect for. I made that connection because you are writing your comment on a D&D blog.

Ever seen that Western where the dude gets told, "Mister, around these parts we play stud poker. We don't play no kiddie games."

I am not specifically opposed to other RPGs; but I can't help noticing that all of them seem tremendously lacking when compared to the spectacular volume of material I have attached and added to my D&D game. As such, no, I'm very sorry, but I don't think that I have any lessons to learn from any of these people. If I could, I would have found the blog that quotes the same game designers I quote, discusses lessons from history, political science, philosophy, economics, psychology and literature as I do, because that blog author and I would have certainly done the necessary looking in order to find each other.

Believe me, I've looked. And looked, and looked. And there ain't no such animule out there.