Saturday, March 9, 2013

Kill Your Television

And your movies and books, while you're at it. Roleplaying games might take inspiration and worldbuilding cues from movies, TV shows, and books, but it should not attempt to slavishly simulate them. This is because roleplaying is an entirely different medium, even though it looks slightly similar.

This came up in a search for "boring
(A quick warning: this is all going to be boring theory. Feel free to skip this one.)

In a traditional fiction, the narrative is linear - this is true even when the story is told in "cut-up" order, or flashbacks, or whatever. The few exceptions (Naked Lunch) simply prove the rule. A traditional fiction is told from beginning to end, even though that beginning and that end and the parts in between might not be chronologically sequential. That is, you read the book, watch the movie/TV show, examine the comic from the starting point, following along through the medium as it leads you, then finish when it no longer continues.

There is a sole exception to this, and that is the genre of "choosable path fiction", such as the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. But, you see, now we have entered the realm of those things that are traditionally called "roleplaying games". These are fictions which interact with the audience in meaningful ways, in which the audience makes a choice that is then reflected in the continuation of the narrative. Some Computer Role Playing Games (CRPGs) such as Fable and Darklands fit this criteria, though many seem to have no meaningful choices, only scenes where the player fights, then is moved on by the linear narrative scenes into the next fight.

So we have the situation where a character in a linear narrative has to have certain events occur (and others not occur) in order for the ending scene to occur as necessary to the satisfactory resolution of the narrative. This means that the character will exhibit strange distortions of statistical likelihood. He will not be hit by any bullets that could kill him, she won't fall off the cliff as she climbs up the side, he will always find the critical clue that finalizes the villain's guilt, she will be able to dig herself out of the grave in which she's been buried alive. These happen in traditional fiction because they have to happen in order for the final resolution to occur.

In a roleplaying game, this sort of "lust for result" is not inherent to the form. A roleplaying game doesn't have a predetermined character who will achieve a predetermined outcome (rescuing the princess, killing Bill, whatever). Instead, a roleplaying game is more like a puzzle, in which there is a situation that exists (and it may be a situation that changes in response to player actions or a timetable), and it is up to the players to "solve" that puzzle in such a manner as fits their own conception of success.

Some games, though, have given players a resource (points, a special character talent, or some other metagame method) which allows them to modify the character's world in ways that simulate the distortions of statistical likelihood inherent in a linear fiction. When I was younger, I grudgingly accepted this as a way to "simulate" (as I thought) such linear fictions. I called this "cinematic play" at the time. I have since come to dislike the idea, and prefer to consider "cinematic" as a general descriptor of particular physical assumptions that vary somewhat from those in the real world.

A roleplaying game should avoid lust for result. That is, it should not start with a conception of how it will end. The ending (such as it is) of a roleplaying game should develop from the imperfectly-understood choices of the players in relation to the scenario and the rulings and play of the Referee. And even that is a bad way to formulate the situation, because unlike a linear fiction, a roleplaying game does not (have to) have a defined ending at all. A long campaign, if it ends at all without the deaths of the people playing it, is more likely to just peter out. If it bears any resemblance to a linear fiction in this way, it would be to an ongoing series, such as comic books or some types of adventure novel series (The Destroyer, Perry Rhodan, whatever).

In avoiding lust for result, Referees are freed of the temptation to control the players' characters. They are freed of the need to alter dice rolls. They are freed of their quantum ogres. This allows everyone, even the Referee, to be surprised by events in the game, to experience the fiction entirely new, because the fiction didn't come into existence until the communication of the players (including the Referee) and the universe's weighted random number generator as revealed in the dice and the game's rules.

(OK, yeah, I realize that all of this is old hat, but I'm starting to see that people new-come to the ideas in "old-school" style gaming are not really understanding what's going on, so I thought it would be worthwhile to make a new formulation of the concepts.)


  1. I agree completely. Can't imagine playing a game anymore where I as GM am not surprised along with the players. It's just too much fun. :) Likewise, the players doing whatever they want makes for the most memorable encounters and unexpected outcomes; more fun than I could ever imagine and plan out beforehand. It's the difference between an organic and satisfying game and a stiff following of rails.

    1. Of course, it can also result in the anticlimax, where everything seems to be building toward a titanic struggle (for instance), but then something the players do short-circuits that whole thing. Perhaps they reason out that the villain who has been dogging their steps is the Baron before the Referee's clues point to him definitively, and they rush to confront him before the Referee has determined that he is properly able to be prepared for that. It is tempting to make the villainous Baron prepared anyway, but that is succumbing to the lust for result. Better to let the Baron be entirely overmatched - after all, the players are eventually going to treat that conflict as what it was, not what the Referee thought that it would be. In a year, it may turn out that the real big bad villain was the Baron's Master of Assassins, who has made it his life goal to take revenge on the players' characters. Or maybe it turns out to be someone completely unrelated to the Baron. That's something that the Referee didn't plan for, but it grew more organically from play and therefore in a more satisfying way, as you say.

      This is a complete opposition to the "Story Now" philosophy of gaming. In this concept, story is something that is told about the events after the fact, it is not something that is generated in play. The play at the table is full of events, but the way those events are organized into stories is not related to that game play.

      Sorry, I just can't seem to shut up about this stuff. ;)

  2. Yeah, this whole thing about "story games" being about the players participating in the story has gotten out of hand.

    A roleplaying scenario shouldn't resemble a script in any way, not even a storyboard. It should consist of a situation into which the players walk. The players are the screenwriters and directors, the GM is the DOP and continuity editor.

    Any game that says that the players are participants in a story from the start of play, is guilty of that bad kind of railroading that is usually railed against. They're just calling it something else and building the rails into the game design.

    Not that I see anything wrong with a railroad, as long as everyone is enjoying the ride and nobody's saying that it's something it isn't.

    I blame all this wishy-washy need to control the story, instead of generating it spontaneously and recounting/recollecting it later, on the countless rpg introductions that hold out the false promise that an rpg is just like playing a character in a novel or a movie. As you have pointed out above, that metaphor doesn't fit.

    I think that's why I love this resurgence of interest in sandbox gaming, hexcrawls and random tables. As a GM I like to be surprised by the way things turn out, beyond just wondering how the players will resolve this plot or the other.

    1. My experience of story games is that they are pretty much variations of writers' workshop exercises, with the "game" mechanism being a method of determining who gets to write the next line or paragraph or whatever of the story. Those can be cool and fun, too, but they aren't roleplaying games.

      Now, that sort of contradicts what I said above, where I described roleplaying games as being a type of fiction in which the narrative is affected in meaningful ways by audience/participant choices. In that wider sense, story games are "roleplaying games". However, I guess I am still thinking though aspects of this, because I don't think that, say, Dogs in the Vineyard or Dread fit well into the same play genre as, for instance, Boot Hill or Call of Cthulhu.

      While I'm at it, there are a couple of things I discuss above that I would soften. For example, there are some cases where the Referee should take over a player's character, but those points should be laid out in the game rules - such as Call of Cthulhu's SAN mechanic or Pendragon's Traits and Passions - which give specific circumstances and limits on how that happens in the game. These are related, after all, to mechanics which limit what a character can do based on physical damage and fatigue, but applied to the mental world of the character. These are acceptable because they are things that affect the character but not the player, such as exposure to a spider. A player who has a fear of spiders is not actually exposed to a spider within the context of the game, though a character who has a fear of spiders can be. The player can ignore any fear reaction due to his lack of actual exposure, while the character should not have that luxury. As long as the mechanic is one that enforces elements that exist within the game world, it would seem legitimate to me.

    2. Furthermore, I can see two main ways to describe a roleplaying scenario in advance of play: the setting and the timeline (frequently both). The setting describes a location or set of locations, which the players' characters enter and manipulate in whatever fashion. The timeline describes a series of pre-scripted NPC actions that can be disrupted (or ignored or even assisted!) by the players' characters, forcing the Referee to modify the timeline according to the personality and abilities of the NPCs. The difference between a timeline and a scripted adventure is that the scenes are not predetermined. The players have freedom to move their characters to different locations that interact with the timeline and perform actions that affect that timeline, but they are not required to go to any particular place (unless there are world-specific reasons for that, such as following the orders of a commander to whom the players' characters are loyal - but in that case the players may still choose both whether and how they implement any given orders) at a particular time to encounter particular forces in order for the scenario to play out.