Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Super Smash Bros.

I scour the internet and youtube continuously for people who will impress me; and when I find such a person, I consume every single thing they've produced, whether or not I like the subject matter. Once I've identified a person as smart, I don't care what they talk about.  I know they're going to teach me something.

Recently, that person was Ian Danskin, or as he is known on twitter, Ian Goddamn Crosby Lexicon Barnfire Danskin, the creator behind Innuendo Studios.  Of things I have no interest in, Danskin's videos have covered the film The Handmaiden (NOT the Handmaid's Tale!), Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game the Walking Dead and, relevant to this post, Super Smash Bros.  Nevertheless, I have watched every video, and learned from every video, because if you're smart, I will let you talk about stuff I hate.  And I hate Smash Bros.  But that isn't important.

Watch this video. Yes, ALL of it.

I want to start with this quote, from 4:48 into the video:
"Chris DeLeon has a series of articles and a degra-talk about the idea that sports and board games have rules ~ but video games have laws.  That in soccer, you don't touch the ball with your hands because you've agreed not to, but in FIFA, you don't touch the ball with your hand because it's impossible."

Now, that is straight to the heart of it, and clearly Chris DeLeon has this wrapped. [side note: DeLeon previous residence was the Georgia Institute of Technology, the location of Ian Bogost, the brilliant fellow I consumed everything from last year; smart people talk to smart people]

But I want to add one more of my own:
RPGs have permits.  In role-playing, you don't touch the ball with your hands because the DM doesn't let you.

Think about that a moment.  Most people you will ever talk to will interpret that as, "It's the DM's world, and whatever the DM says, goes."  And if we, dear reader, think that's what I'm arguing, we're probably the sort that believes a judge in a court of law can do whatever the fuck they want.  Which is not true.  There is a great deal of nuance in what a DM permits.  If it is all arbitrary, because the DM thinks arbitrary is just fine, we're going to find ourselves playing a pretty shit game.

The attempt to argue that the DM should always say, "Yes," argues that the DM should be more permissive, more considerate of the player's position, more yielding to the player's expectations and innovation.  If the player tries something really interesting ~ regardless of its practicality or sensibility, which are subjugated to the god of fun ~ then the DM ought to say, yes ... just as a legal judge is bound by laws that restrict the decisions that a judge can make.

I can agree with that.  But the way it is proposed in practice is an exercise in flimflammery.  Take the case of Matt Colville that I discussed last December, that I will update to the Stavanger adventure I have been discussing lately.

When I say, I'm not running a railroad, a great many readers will jump to the same conclusion to which Colville leaps. They think I'm saying, you don't have to hunt the wolf.  You don't have to take the token from the shaman. You have a choice.  And because you have a choice, it isn't a railroad.

This perspective is a huge steaming pile of utter bullshit.  Because this is not how a world should operate AT ALL.  Not remotely.  Because the village of Stavanger ISN'T an adventure.  It's a village.

Yesterday I got a message from an old reader, Carl, that I haven't heard from for a while.  I thought he'd quit reading me.  Carl somehow got it into his head that the subway boardgame image in that post was what I was going for in the last post and NO!  No, no, no.  A thousand times no.

This is the head-in-the-sand insistence of those dumbfucks who run the WOTC, who think that players arriving at the village sets the adventure in motion and, lo and behold, they can choose what they want to do, inside that adventure.

Let me pull you back to the smash brothers video, at 5:55:
"The thing about systems is there's what the system was meant to do, and then there's what the system can't stop you from doing.  In Smash, an advanced technique like say, a shield drop, is put there by the designers ... but things like pivoting, wavedashing and D-sinking are not.  These things were not designed; they were discovered as accidents of the system.  And they often take phenomenal skill to execute reliably because it's something the game doesn't actively want you to do ... but they are just as integral to competitive play as the things designers put there on purpose."

The only reason your brain isn't shattered by that (and some, given just this much context, are right now reeling with the realization), is because it has never occurred to you, or to anyone, that this applies in exactly the same way to RPGs.

The designer creates the village of Stavanger, and the designer puts in the chief and the wolf and the shaman, but that's just the stuff that is going on in the village when the players happen to show up.  The players don't have to do it, right ... but in a legitimate RPG, where the DM plays the actual GAME, and not the piece of sucky crap the company wants us to play, the players are entitled to do what the fuck they're able to do, because the rules don't stop you from becoming someone with their own agenda in this mix.

Suppose I am running in your version of this Stavanger village, and you've created this nice pat adventure for me, and I ask you, "How is the leader of the Sand clan determined?"

And you as DM say, "Um, uh, it's hereditary."  To which I answer, "This is a goddamn primitive culture, one that doesn't even owe any allegiance to a king, because this is Norway in 892, and you're going to tell me that the clan is led by whomever is born to the job?  Bullshit.  I'm a member of the Sand Clan.  I have the same rights as any other person in the clan.  You tell me that Yelana is the clan mother.  Who is running these people?  I want to know my path to making myself the leader of my own clan."

And now, the DM's adventure has ceased to be what's happening here.  Because I'm in charge, NOT the DM ... just at the great players of Super Smash Bros. are the Five Gods, NOT the game designers.

This is what you, as DM, have got to get into your head.  YOU are not the player.  You are the designer.  And if the player wants to turn that design on its head, in a way you didn't think of, but kicking your pat adventure into the garbage can and starting one of their own, then buckle up, baby ... you're going for a goddamn ride.  Because now it is your job to design your game to LET the player challenge the leadership in the Sand Clan, in a way that preserves the game, and lets Pivoting happen, so the player can enjoy a little competitive play on a high level.

Don't tell me that your players don't know how, because no one knew how to wavedash or D-sink once upon a time ... but they learned, because no one could stop them.  And let's not forget the words, phenomenal skill.  Yeah, you're damned right, it wasn't easy.  But they still learned how to do it, didn't they?

But they haven't in role-playing, because DMs the world over and the fuck-fuddled company did. not. let. them.  Because RPGs think we're giving players a choice by letting them play Falcon, Sheik or Marth ... but Red Yoshi?  No.  No, we're not going to let anyone play Red Yoshi.

We've got to realize here ... Super Smash Bros., for all it's excitement, is an incredibly limited intellectual game, with an incredibly limited set of possibilities, compared to role-playing games.  The number of potential Red Yoshis in existence in a D&D game is literally infinite.

If you're a DM, used to playing the company way, that ought to scare the shit out of you.  And it ought to shame you.  It ought to stick in your craw as you realize, fuck, what have you been doing with your game?

I'll bet ... I'll just bet ... there are more than a few of you who will say in your heads, "Fuck you Alexis."  And quite a few who will try to argue, "But I like my game ..."

Uh huh.  Sure you do.

You're not even ready for Smash Bros. yet.


Tedankhamen said...

Great insights Alexis. We ghosts of the OSR still read your blog.

JB said...

Ha! Fantastic.
: )

Daniel Oliveira said...

Alexis, any news on re-opening the campaign blog to general public?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I read your explanation, Daniel, but I can't confirm it. My intentions regarding the Senex campaign being public have not changed. I'm sorry it has upset your reading of it.

I could fold it under my patreon, where I could be sure of the clientele viewing the content, but I don't own the content in its entirety. Though I have the right to make it private, and to choose viewers, I don't feel I have the right to sell it. It is one thing to quote parts of the blog as fair use and sell that, but it is another thing to sell everything that others, the players, have created in their own right.

I have no answer to this quandary.

François Laroche said...

I'm not sure I get the point here (must be because I'm one of those dumb people).

Is your point that the DM is in trouble because he did not prepare the rulership customs of this village in advance and is now stuck in a scenario where the player wants to become king of this village (or his own village)?

Or is it that WotC would forbid a DM from allowing a player to become ruler of a village?

Sure, if a DM went to the trouble of preparing a wolf/shaman adventure, and the player just decide they'd rather play election instead, or bring some revolution to the village, that's a significant departure from what he may have prepared. But nowhere did you state that the DM denied is player, or point out how the DM or player should have acted in the scenario (was the player just playing contrarian because the DM seemed caught offguard by the question?)...

Alexis Smolensk said...


If the DM follows the standard expectations for a game, it's presumed that all this adventuring about the wolf and the lost child MUST be addressed somehow by the player; whereas I'm saying, if the player presents their own idea for action, completely apart from the DM's expectations, most DMs just don't know what to do.

The example of DM's answer that I gave was to show the sort of cheap obstruction that DMs create to stop players from making their own agenda. "Hereditary" is a form of typical arbitrary block ... which I've spent weeks setting up as not possible, as this is a primitive cultural example of Norway. "King" meant something else in 9th century Norway than it means in 12th century England.

I am arguing that, if the DM creates a scenario, the player is NOT playing contrarian if they don't go along with it. The DM's adventure does not, and should not, take precedence here. The Super Smash Bros. scenario holds. If the game designers came forward and said, "You're all playing contrarian by using D-sinking," they'd be shouted out of the room.

The players are ENTITLED to say, "Fuck you and your pre-planned scenario, DM ... we have our own plans."

Maybe they want to become chieftain of Stavanger. There's no reason they shouldn't. Maybe they want to kidnap the wolf and release it before the hunt starts. That's not playing contrarian, that's acting in accordance with their abilities and the game rules. Maybe they want to kill the wolf in the cage and ruin the hunt. They are absolutely entitled to do that, if they can overcome the difficulties. And the DM should not create arguments, or dictates, or non-permissions, that stop characters from doing these things, because the DM "went to the trouble."

This "I went to the trouble" bullshit is just that. The DM is not entitled to insist the players play the game the DMs way. DM, make the game. Don't make the play.

Alexis Smolensk said...

The Company's part in this is that they argue the game is about story (the DM's prerogative to compel players to play the DM's story) or that it is about pre-made adventures (again, the DM's prerogative to guilt players with this "I went to the trouble of buying this"). The WOTC doesn't care about Players. The WOTC only cares about DMs, who buy the products that railroad the players. The WOTC wants everyone to believe that this game is about Pre-Made adventures. Not player agency. Not creative play. Not spontaneous, personally conceived ambitions or goals.

The WOTC pours tens of thousands of dollars into advertising whatever adventure that's next on their books, and they expect everyone to play their adventure, their way. The philosophy infests D&D, choking its potential and drowning resistance to the fascist fucking company.

That's my point here.

Carl said...

Thanks for the call out, Alexis. I don't appreciate my own views being equated with "those dumbfucks who run WOtC" but I'm sure you mean well.

I didn't quit reading you. I stopped playing D&D for a while and, you're not really interested in people who comment with "me too!" or "great post!" -- you want actual engagement. So I replied.

I had thought you were abstracting the design of wilderness (and game worlds) away from hexes and into something that lends itself more easily for use in an RPG. I see now that you aren't, and so I have no idea what you were talking about. For my own purposes using graphs in my world design has been great.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Sorry, Carl, it was an excuse to open this post.

Just to bring you in, lately I've been dealing with concepts that take ten or twenty thousand words to discuss. This post is part of a long list of posts that explain a philosophy for worldbuilding; this, in fact, is just a side post of that argument. You can find the main material in this set of links.

To be sure, I like applause. I like being told, "I agree" and "good job." What I don't enjoy, never have [and I don't think anyone else does either] is being told what I think, or what I'm supposed to think.

François Laroche said...

Thanks for the clarification. I had not realized the DM's response (deciding ruling was determined by heredity) was actually a "foil" to the PC's stated want to become leader of the village; I thought it was simply reflecting a DM being caught off guard and coming up with the only answer he could think of (thus reflecting more upon a lack of preparation than an antagonistic approach aimed at denying player agency).

Although the DM's role should not be to deny players their agency, would you agree that a good practice, especially at the launch of a campaign, would be for the DM to discuss with his players the kind of campaign / adventure they are interested in (so that he can prepare stuff that will match those interests)? I'm totally fine with your point that the DM is there to offer opportunities to the players (and players are more than welcome to create their own opportunities as well as they react to the environment presented by the DM), but players who try to pull the game in a direction the DM is not prepared for, especially if they do so out of nowhere, are looking for a boring evening, to a certain extent.

(Obviously, if the players have been making it known for months that the next time they reach a village, they'll take over the rulership of the place, and then end up in a village and the DM has no idea who the chief is or how he's chosen, would rightly be frustrated by that DM).

Alexis Smolensk said...

François, I agree wholeheartedly. But I think the DM needs to go further than generalized questions about what sort of campaign/adventur are they interested in.

The DM should immediately set out discuss with the players what their goals are and what they want. The DM should answer questions about how a pathway to those goals might be found by the players. The DM should put the setting in the players' hands, describing what the players already know, what they possess or could easily purchase, in the mindset of, "People in this setting would know this without needing to ask" ... and help the players off to a good start.

An example of this would be, you know what your clan treasures most in terms of behavior; you know who the leaders are; you know who likes whom; you know the rules of how a clan leader is challenged ... and so on.

Then, the DM can continue to answer questions as the players strategize and begin to fabricate their plans for what they intend to do, to achieve their goals. I have never seen players do this without an in depth discussion to obtain a consensus and make plans.

I am ALWAYS prepared for this sort of "pulling" the game. I am always able to think quickly to propose a pathway, but even then I am always open to letting the players propose their own ideas. It is NEVER, EVER a boring evening. Players who have total agency are never bored.

Look at the recent example in the Juvenis online campaign, in which the players spent two hundred comments discussing food, supplies, means of moving those supplies, who should go, who should stay behind, etc. This was nothing but logistics, but the players weren't bored! Because, when you are in charge of what happens to you, you have a stake in it. It matters!

I don't need months. We can get started on the change in a few minutes, if the players are ready. This isn't some phenomenal skill I have. This is my practicing this attitude for 35 years.