Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What Might Improve Game Play?

I'm watching a lot of D&D advice videos, making myself sit through content, parsing it so I can write further posts on how the community thinks.  It has taken me nine years to step back from going bat-shit furious at seeing this stuff ... I think that the effort lately to view it calmly, coldly, from the point of view of the giver first before deconstructing its value, has been helpful.  Anything that cools down my passion until I can be rational is great.

I have seen some stuff, however, that doesn't fit the format ~ not what we could call "advice."  We could call it a belief system about how to play characters, or it could be fallout from many years of finding more and more justification for players to "role-play" characters with little understanding of how personality works, how it is constructed, or how it logically fits into the framework of believable motivation.

Here is a sort of pressure.  We are playing a character in a campaign, without any particular skill or training that make us great character designers.  Excellent writers spend their whole lives struggling to create a meaningful, memorable, positive character, whose place in a story will produce a strong resonance with an audience.  RPG players, however, have no understanding of this.  For them, a "great character" is defacto an "original character" ~ that is, one that is different from every other character that might be conceived.

To boot, we've massively expanded the number of races a player can play, in a wild attempt to superimpose a wider range of "unique" characters based, if on nothing else, the increased number of combinations between race, class and morality.  If that isn't enough, the game makers have been on a quest the last two decades to invent monsters whose only real purpose is that it enables yet one more monster race the player can have.

As a grognard, I find it all somewhat silly.  Whatever we call the character's race, we know that a rose is a rose, and that all character races are just different elements of being human.  The "uniqueness" is just empty gloss.

However, let's look at two examples where someone has painted, or imagined to paint, a character of tremendous richness and diversity, gleaned from two different RPGer videos.  First, this guy again.  He's popular, prolific in his efforts and consistently provocative.

"I had one player, a wonderful role player.  She had a paladin, and the paladin would only engage in combat if she was wearing her fighting leathers.  Such an impression it gave me, that she had fighting leathers, and she couldn't talk to you if she had her fighting leathers on.  So if she wanted to talk, she'd take her fighting leathers off, and put her talking leathers on.  Or her drinking leathers.  Or her sexing leathers.  She had different outfits for each of the incidents that she was about to participate in, and literally combat ground to a halt because this paladin was screaming, 'Wait, I'm not wearing my fighting leathers!  Don't anybody move, I'll come back!'  And she'd run off and change out of the one bodice and into the other piece of plate mail or whatever it was that she was wearing and she'd come in, 'All right, I've got 'em on, we can carry on fighting now!'  And she'd run in and launch into combat."

As a DM, I'd assess how long it took her to get out of sight, and how long it took her to change ... and I would carry on with the combat.  Frankly, I see my game world as a threatening, uncompromising place. Those willing to carry forward a combat, to kill, do so with the hope of taking any advantage they can in order that they will survive.  There might be some who, under special chivalrous circumstances, might be willing to establish rules for when fighting starts and when it stops, but most of the murderous sort of people one will meet on a road or in a wilderness in my world just want you dead.

As a fellow participant, this is the sort of humor that is 'funny-once.'  As it happens, the presenter here does admit that this particular role-playing does happen in a one-off game, over four hours, and not in a longer campaign.  I don't see it being very practical as a "character quirk," as suggested, simply because it would be the sort of annoyance that would hold up games and douse momentum overall.  It has too much "Me me, me me me, me me me me me" in it's construction, even apart from the time sensitiveness of not always being able to get the clothes off so a conversation can be held, or the clothes on so that a sword can be parried.

Finally, as a communicative mechanism, it's a struggle.  What if, in the midst of a battle, the paladin conceives of something the rest of the party ought to know?  Or wants to express a desire to heal someone; or have someone get out of the way.  Perhaps, however, that's not as much a hard rule as partially presented.  After all, right at the end, after she's put on her fighting levels, she's depicted as talking, which we've been told she won't do when her fighting leathers are on.

Seems confusing.

Let's pick up with the other video:

"And my favorite class?  Right now I'm playing a kenku cleric.  I specifically like playing kenkus, right now, 'cause kenkus are so interesting as a player character.  They don't communicate, they only do mimicry, and so communicating with your players, it's kind of for me, it's a new way to think about how to play.  Because instead of being like, 'Hey guys, we should go over there and ambush those goblins, instead I have to find a way to communicate ambushing goblins with sounds and mimicry.  So it could literally be like, you know, 'Aha' flies up to a tree and looks at the band of goblins and starts making small [bird noises] sounds as if flying arrows are going by.  And then, on the players' side of things, that's a whole 'nother level of interpretation that kind of creates camaraderie in a fun and interesting way, because now not only do they have to deal with the challenge, but they have to deal with the communication that comes.  And the ranger who is like my 'buddy-buddy' is like we've kind of got a secret code that allows the communication to be a little more streamlined if we're running into real problems."

Some of this is easy to explain.  Ivan Van Norman is an actor and producer associated with Matthew Mercer (who describes himself as a voice actor first and a dungeon master second) and Satine Phoenix. There are clearly multiple occasions in which these individuals self-identify as artists and film-makers, rather than role-players ... and I think to some degree the above passage from Van Norman is a strong example of an actor getting excited by an acting role.

However, all these people are technically representing the "official" game, so we have to assume that they are encouraging those audience members at home to run their characters with this same level of "interpretation."

Me, I'm confused.  The kenku has been around since the old Fiend Folio (1981), where they are described as having "the head of a hawk."  The repeated use of the word 'mimicry' would suggest that at some point kenku were restyled as parrots.  However, mimicry in parrots is an instinct, not an example of conscious thought.  Conscious mimicry occurs where people deliberately imitate what someone has just said, in order to entertain or ridicule.  I'm guessing, without reading the later edition rule, that the kenku/parrot has to use examples of previously spoken speech to communicate ... but wouldn't that include all speech?

When I write these words, I'm mimicking someone from my past.  Sooooo ... I'm hopelessly confused about this rule.

A brief bit of research doesn't indicate any particular limitations on what sounds a parrot can mimic.

This sounds, then, like a terrific difficulty to impose on others, for the sake of "fun."  I wouldn't find it much fun, not as a fellow player or as a DM.  I think I would tell the player to stop it.

These are both examples of play that seems, to me, a desperate attempt to make more out of a game that can traditionally be had with straight role-playing.  It seems, from watching examples of these people run games, and the interplay going on between voice actors, producers and such, that "role-playing" is a sort of generalized, clumsy, difficult to enhance improvisational experience, receiving much praise but without much demonstration of acumen or impresario.  Having spent hundreds of hours doing this on stage, and hundreds more watching others, I don't find the level of character creation or acting on WOTC videos to be, well, professional.  Certainly not as professional as an everyday improv group performing at a comedy club or a theater in a mid-sized city, such as Calgary is (about a million people).

So I am simply at a loss as to how any of this helps.  I hope that this does not sound like a rant.  I'm really trying to figure out how this approach and philosophy is improving anyone's game play.  I can't see it.


  1. Under the 5th Edition Kenku Race:

    Mimicry. You can mimic sounds you have heard, including voices. A creature that hears the sounds you make can tell they are imitations with a successful Wisdom (Insight) check opposed by your Charisma (Deception) check.

    Languages. You can read and write Common and Auran, but you can speak only by using your Mimicry trait.

    People seem to interpret this weirdly as a Kenku only knowing some phrases, when, as you said, they'd have heard enough common to string together most sentences. It would, however, sound like a disconcerting mess of alternating voices.

    These analyses of DM/player tips are interesting. I'd be interested to see what you think of some of the more popular ones, like those put out by Matthew Colville and the AngryGM.

  2. From personal experience having been a part of a younger generation of players (started when 4e was a thing) and playing within my generation, people have confused this *as the gameplay* instead of the game being the gameplay. Oftentimes having to put on one's fighting leathers or only speak in riddles is just an excuse to be cantankerous or make a ton of ad-hoc explanations for arbitrary behaviour, but other times people are convinced that it's an alternative avenue to pursue when it's incredibly unclear how to improve the game mechanically. The former's a matter of boundaries, but the latter (as someone who was the latter) is lacking guideposts and grasping at anything to improve their game.

    You've probably heard there's a lot of systems out there utterly lacking in working or complete mechanics that are written off as "story based" or having a "roleplaying emphasis" over a supposed "rollplaying emphasis." It's a huge problem online, where these systems get pushed more frequently than ones with harder-set rules. From playing in and running a few, 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 supposed *irreconcilable divide* between talking in funny voices and having working mechanics tends to come from people finding it easier to self-congratulate over the former and not execute on the latter. It's not something new around here if I said that there's a massive drought on constructive advice to achieve a game functioning as a game that needs to be rectified, but I think all the strange advice trying to make up for the deficit comes from a place of desperation to make some kind of improvement out of thin air.

  3. I think what might contextualize both your confusion with this advice and the general frustration you've had with some of the other tip videos you've showcased is the fact that the improvisational character acting bits of D&D essentially are the game for an overwhelming number of newer players in the hobby. There was an interesting survey conducted some months back on the D&D Facebook page that polled a bunch of general player/GM mindsets on play, and the responses paint a pretty telling picture.

    Of the three "pillars" that the fifth edition rules and Dungeon Master's guide divide the experience of D&D into (Combat, Exploration, NPC Interactions), around 60 percent of players think the "talking-to-NPCs" part of the game is the most entertaining aspect, while only 16 percent favor the "Fighting Monsters" part. 84 percent of game masters admit to adjusting the hit points of enemies on the fly. Some 70 percent of game masters hide their rolls behind a screen. It seems to imply that for a majority of people playing D&D 5th Edition, which the raw numbers imply is the most-played roleplaying game out there at the moment, the character acting is the driving force of the game and the mechanics are fiddly bits to be adjudicated at will.

    These videos about character quirks are so popular because 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. 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).

    Whether that's an ideal state of affairs is another conversation altogether, but I think taking that into account is going to help with grappling with the mindset many of these videos are written from. Everything in many of these campaigns is in service to the character acting, amateurish as it may be considered. Is there an argument to be made that there are better games for this playstyle - the "story games" scene, or even just something like FATE with its character-traits-as-mechanics system - that would fit the desires of these players more? Perhaps, but D&D is the face of the hobby and, with it allegedly having had its most successful financial year in two decades, it's going to be where a lot of these trends end up being absorbed.

    Either way, I would also be curious in seeing your take on Matthew Colville's videos. He's by far one of the D&D advice channels that gets circulated and cited the most in other online circles, which makes me think you've have a lot to say about him.

  4. I have a group of brand new players. Never role-played before. They have experience with computer RPGs, but that's it. When I've tried "acting" as an NPC ~ and I'm not a great actor, I make no apologies for it, I just do what I can to ignore the outside world and pretend to be someone else for a minute or two ~ when I've played the role of an NPC, I got some half-hearted involvement in return. They spoke some words, pretended to be someone else, to be talking to someone else, but the moment lasted so briefly and we were all visibly relieved to go, "Yup, got what we wanted from that encounter."

    Basically, I don't accept that survey. I think players are responding the way they are because the mechanical elements of the game fail at empowering the players. They don't go into enough detail; they don't provide the right answers; they don't give the players the information or the options they need to make real decisions, and DMs are being given bad advice like "mechanics don't matter" so the players never get to see what a good game looks like.

    If all they see is junk, of course they're going to say they don't like it.

  5. I'll have to count this post a failure, then. Apparently, you're both certain I needed to be educated on the 'real state' of role-playing today. I thank you for the effort, but I made these same observations back in May:

    You're not wrong. The official RPG culture is a dystopian nightmare, one that I've seen with my own eyes. If you're hearing "frustration" in my tone when discussing these tip videos, it's the compulsion I feel to snap my chain and rant blue on these subjects. I assure you, I understand precisely what is going on.

    As far as the "overwhelming" number of people participating in the "talking-to-NPCs" game, I feel I must contend with the results of the D&D Facebook page. This is a distinctly biased source, with a spectacularly biased mindset. Using it as evidence for anything is highly suspect. Imagine building a description of the average romantic relationship based on a typical internet chat room. It just doesn't work.

    I ran a table at cons, selling my D&D book to strangers, most of whom were younger than 25, and did not encounter this facebook mindset. I talked to people who were interested in their GAME, who were bored with role-playing, who loved combat, who dressed up to prove their love for combat, who spoke like and acted like the same people I played D&D with 40 years ago.

    In the real world, if you get away from the official events, the official store-promoted games, and you talk with people who just play, you'll find it isn't like the internet.

    Thank gawd.

    Now, I'm going to write a post highlighting a lot of the very smart things both OwlBear and William said, since you were both spot on so many times.

  6. Ah, Oz, you finished as I was still writing. I think your instincts are good; there's something very wrong with that survey. Marketers use surveys a lot of the time as a messaging tool ... and futzing with the results just to get the response wanted, based on the way the questions are asked.

    I'd like to see the questions for that survey. I'm sure they were weighted. But I'm equally sure the audience, the sort of people who clamor for the Facebook D&D page (which is the worst sort of bulletin-board sewer trash) are just the type to gobble it up.

  7. Point taken about restating the obvious, Alexis, and I'm ecstatic you met players from around my generation that weren't feeding off the "Facebook mindset" because I genuinely thought we were a lost cause.

    I have to experience more conventions and underground stuff, since come to think of it my only exposure to other players outside my table have been at stores that run D&D Encounters or from lurking online. There's something systemically unsettling about the megaphone the online/corporate-weened part of the community has and how they convince you that they're the majority (or worse, that those not following the podium are a minority of one), but then again it goes to show I need to walk the ground a little more. That gives me some much needed hope, so, in all seriousness, thank you for telling me this because I'd be in the dark otherwise.

  8. William, let me suggest this post I wrote after the Toronto Expo in 2014:

    Then let me warn you. My Expo experience was unique; I was a vendor, talking to players who approached my table because they recognized the words, "Role-playing Game" on our poster.

    I did NOT have any connection with the gaming groups, the planned tournaments or the panels.

    At my Expo experience in Edmonton in 2016, I did get into two conversations with "formal" people. Spontaneously, at 9am before the expo opened, I saw a fellow trying to set up a tournament on his own, and offered to pitch in to help him set up tables, chairs and posterboards for the event. He told me his "guy" didn't show up and he wasn't happy about it. I worked for this guy for about half an hour, without pay.

    I asked him to come around to my booth. He didn't. At the end of the Expo, I chanced to see him and asked him how the tournament went. He didn't remember me.

    The other experience in 2016 was a member of one of the panels who came around to find out what I was about. He had an attendant with him. I gave him my pitch, made the same points I usually make on the blog. His attendant asked me questions for about 20 minutes, and it was obvious as I went on that the panelist was getting pissed off. I never heard anything from him.

    So, my opinion of people who run this shit for conventions, representing the official WOTC brand, as all these people did? They're assholes.

    But the people I talk to, that I sell to, they're amazing. And I always experience the same spectacular thing. Someone on Friday buys one of the little books, How to Play or the Dungeon's Front Door. And on Saturday, they show up, gush like fan boys for five minutes because they started reading the book AND COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. And now they want How to Run.

    Think about that. You're on holiday. You're there with your friends. You spend every waking hour running around the Con. Yet you have three hours to read one of my books, because you can't stop.

    The players I meet are all wonderful.

  9. I'm sorry if you see this as another person trying to tell you what the "real" state of gaming is, but I don't think many of the the things any of you are saying are true for some of my local gamers.

    We don't play D&D much (though we do play some); we mostly play urban fantasy politics games with WOD. I think the vast majority of players agree that they can't make compelling and original characters on the spot - the default character making strategy is to take an existing fiction character from a similar situation, and try to replicate the things that make them good without replicating too many of the details (or things that you can't control as a player).


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