Thursday, August 23, 2012

Choice Is Really Damn Important

A meditation on personal gaming preference/philosophy.
This is not the One True Way, but it is my own personal One True Way.

I could play a computer game set in a big damn of the Elder Scrolls games, maybe, or Arcanum. (Which has a huge but mostly empty world) No matter how big the game world is, there is always a space limit. There is always a border beyond which there is no more rendered world, and therefore your character can go no further. (Unless they bust out some DLC, that is....)

No matter how clever my idea is, I can't implement it unless it has been coded into the game as a possible solution to the dilemma at hand. You have to get the Gypsy Shadow to find the Island of Thanatos, even after you've befriended two kings and a powerful industrialist, any of whom should be glad to loan you a boat for one measly trip. You can't take the Shadow by force. You can't steal it in the dead of night. You can't steal some other ship.
In Morrowind, I was once told that only "someone important" (i.e., someone who completed the coded quest) could get in to see some leader guy. My character, at that point in the game, was the Grand Master of the Fighter's Guild. Like, the only Fighter's Guild in the area where the game took place. I had no option to mention this to the guy guarding the door.

Here's where roleplaying games are awesome.

You can always cross that next mountain range. You can try to steal a ship. You can be like "Bitch, I'm the Grand Masterist Fighter on this entire island!" You could bring a badass retinue of Guild warriors with you.

Yeah, it might not work...but you can at least try. theory. This is where roleplaying games are supposed to shine. But...

In the past, I played a RIFTS game where we kept hearing rumors about the war between the Coalition States and Tolkeen. (for the uninitiated, that's Nazi Germany With A Skull Fetish vs. Magical Kingdom of Wizards) Our party wanted no part of this conflict and decided to move on to greener (less nuked) pastures. Of course, no matter what direction we headed, we always seemed to arrive on the front line of the war... even when we traveled in the exact opposite direction of the last time we ended up on the front line of the war. It should be noted that each front line looked an awful lot like every other front line, down to the same battle happening in much the same way.

Once, I played a D&D 3.0 game where we beat some pirates and found a ship. We were told the ship was too big to sail out of the cave we found it in. When we pointed out that this would have made the pirate raids we were trying to stop impossible, we were allowed to take the ship....but we had no crew. We tried to hire a crew, but there were no sailors to be found (in a city that was described as the biggest port city on the continent.) We waited a month. Not one single solitary sailor was looking for work. We also could not find a single naval map to save our souls.

There was this one time, at band camp (by which I mean Shadowrun 3rd edition) where we were told that an NPC was "too beautiful" to shoot (Charisma 8 elf in tight leather suit inspired by Trinity from The Matrix) because her continued survival was essential to the GM's multi-chapter storyline.
I should mention that she was too beautiful to shoot, after blatantly screwing us over and nearly killing one of our team.
And she was running away.
And it was night. 
And one guy was playing a character who had a noted hatred of elves.
We were not even permitted an attack roll with an outrageous penalty or something.

This is where the theoretically infinite medium of the roleplaying game can come to a screeching halt, as surely as when you hit the invisible wall that keeps you from going any farther in a computer game, as surely as that rickety-ass locked door is stopping a party that includes a guy with a seven foot long sword and the ability to summon a dragon (who can shoot an earth-annihilating laser. FFVII, anyone?) Why? Because only the right key can unlock that rickety-ass door. (They didn't even make it look like it was made out of thick metal or Super Unbelievium or a glowing force field...)

Computer games have the excuse of being a medium with finite programming space.

GMs have no such excuse.

Perhaps I'm being a little harsh. Some people aren't good at winging it. Some people prefer pre-decided narratives in their games. Hell, my games used to have plots years ago.

These days, though... I need to see what's over that next mountain, and I need you to let me.

I want to try crazy ass plans and I want them to have a chance to succeed if they should have a chance to succeed,and not be arbitrarily shut down because they go off some invisible rails. 

I, as a GM, will not take the dungeon or lost scroll or other thing you walk by or are uninterested in and just stick it in the next dungeon entrance or treasure chest. To do so is to give you only the illusion that your decisions matter. In Mass Effect 1, it seems like there are dozens and dozens of side missions, but really you're just exploring the same five planets and three buildings with a different paint job. Yeah, this time the building is a research facility that went dark, this time it's a slaver's den, this time it's a warehouse, but it has the same floor plan... and the guys guarding it are pretty much the same whether they are called Thugs or Mercenaries or Pirates.

Conversely, I as a player will only happily buy into this illusion as long as it doesn't become glaringly obvious that we were going to go through this dungeon or find this item no matter what. If you can keep it hidden that you just re-skinned your nanite-infected scientists as pre-sentient cannibal apes, I will be just fine.

Narratives in games can be cool, but to me, the Most Awesomest feature of the pen-and-paper rpg is this limitless potential, and if we're just going to run on rails with pre-set solutions, I might as well be playing Final Fantasy or something.

(I like those kinds of games, by the way- maybe not as much as I used to- but they don't hold a candle to the enjoyment I get out of tabletop gaming)


  1. Really very well said. RPGs suffer all the more from unattained potential. For my part, the more I can keep things loose and allow the players to do crazy awesome stuff, the better I am clearly doing. I honestly don't always achieve it, but my worst tendencies are noted and under surveillance.

  2. I agree with you in principle, and much of my free-flowing wing-it DMing experience backs this up, but... for every happy memory I have of players cheering my "pulling something out of nowhere" when they did something nobody expected, or had to come up with something on the spot when things went sideways, I also have a kicked-in-the-face aftertaste of players doing something incredibly stupid, sometimes morally offensive, and almost guaranteed to fail horribly with wide-ranging consequences, and having a screaming fit over "denying player freedom" when I'm left with no choice but to let the inevitable happen to their characters. I mean, come on, if a first level fighter takes off all their armour and throws their weapons away and walks up to a dragon, slaps its nose till it wakes up, spits it in the eye, and demands it hand over its treasure hoard, do you really expect it to not kill the character? (to give a fictionalised aggregate of "but I was only playing my character, how dare you restrict my freedom" stupidity I've seen over the years)

    Besides, I played in the Call of Cthulhu campaign Horror on the Orient Express knowing it was extremely railroady primarily because it was a relief not to have to make all the decisions for a change (needed a break from DMing), plus the GM really knew his stuff.

    Again, agree in principle... in practice, sometimes you need to stop and explain what's being signed up to.

  3. If you introduce a dagger into the plotline of a scenario and fail to plan for the eventuality that a PC might grab the dagger and stab his best friend with it - well, it may be time to turn in the GM screen for a while. Rolling with the punches is part of GMing. I know - I've been doing it for 20 years through at least 6 or 7 different game systems. Now, I probably wouldn't begrudge a GM for doing something of this nature. We've all had our moments. But to your point it's an interactive environment of Pure Imagination, and we should treat it as such. Expect the unexpected, and expect those buggers to wander off the edge of the map once in a while.

  4. Sometimes the real choice is made on the first night.

    While I never say "no" to the players, differing games I run have differing sorts of consequencing for player actions. With each of the different games the other players have a responsibility to know what they have signed up for.

    In just the same way, the players should know what they have signed up for with any given GM and her campaign.

    As in your exemplar: if the GM wants to run a Coalition War, I question the "gamesmanship" of trying to drag the campaign where the other players want it to go instead*. If you don't want to play that conflict tell the GM directly and move on to a different game if she will not compromise and it means that much to you.

    A good campaign must be what "it is" as much as Monopoly or Chess are what "they are".

    GMs should be open about the campaign and the rest of the table should be good sports about playing in that campaign.

    * Even more so in this Palladium case where a real investment of money goes into the complete campaign (maybe 6 to 8 books you wouldn't otherwise require), never mind the trouble of mastering the minutia of Rifts mass combat.

    1. myrystyr- My players always know what they are signing up for when they play in my games. I am very clear about what they can expect from my game.
      Also, a player who has a "screaming fit" at my table (as you mentioned above) has played his last game at my table.
      And as for "morally offensive" behavior, I find that adventuring itself tends to be a morally offensive occupation. Many adventurers are little more than professional thugs, robbers, and scavengers. I have no objection to players doing things that I find personally objectionable, but they are held accountable for their actions. (If they get caught, that is)

      fumble- I like your dagger analogy. I'd take it a step further: if you don't want your players to have the possibility of getting control of the Death Star, you'd better leave the Death Star out of your campaign.

      V- The GM in question did not tell us that this was going to be a Coalition War game. In fact, it was implied that were were free to do whatever we wanted. The GM said he knew the RIFTS world so well he could run any part of it. He also approved of the player characters ahead of time, and at least half of them were totally unsuited to a Coalition War campaign. I know that I wouldn't have made a scholarly Mystic if I knew that the campaign was going to consist of little more than missile fights with unending squads of SAMAS suits and Skele-bots; I'd have made a Combat Cyborg or a Glitterboy or something.
      ...actually, if I had been told that the game was going to be 90% combat, I probably wouldn't have played in the first place.
      Yes, the players should be good sports, but when everyone shows up with characters who are designed to do A and the game is all about B, and they weren't told that the game was going to be all about A, they will naturally try to avoid situations where the party is generally ineffective and try to do things that their characters are good at.
      There were actually myriad other problems with that campaign, but those are largely unrelated to this post.

  5. I'm guessing your local gaming community has a different balance of player/GM power; here, the "screaming fit" players seem to be the majority who get outraged when the GM doesn't instantly allow their "free will" - and even refuse to accept any negative consequences of their characters' actions. As for morally offensive... I'm trying to forget the examples I could mention.

    Let me put it this way: if I announce that I'm running a DragonLance campaign, with character races as per DragonLance Adventures, I think it a reasonable expection that, as there are no orcs in Krynn, no one demand to play a half-orc assassin - and that anyone who wants to join the campaign not argue the point.

    Sadly, as much as I want to see "crazy awesome" happen, I'm willing to sacrifice some if it means filtering out rampant stupidity. I'm getting too old to waste yet more gaming time.

  6. I'm not part of the local gaming community. It's all 4E and RPGA Pathfinder. I game with people I find or have gamed with before. I moved my present campaign out of a comic book shop and into my basement because I've decided I want to keep it "off the grid." A lot of fucktards live on the grid, and as you said, we're past the point in life where we have abundant gaming time.

    Your DragonLance example is reasonable. The GM is up front with his expectations and parameters, and the player has the choice to accept those parameters or play elsewhere.

    When I was talking about free will, I was assuming that it meant free will within the campaign. Wanting to explore past the edge of mapped territory is reasonable. Wanting to get a cybernetic plasma gun arm in a game of Boot Hill is not. (Unless, of course, the GM is running some cuh-razy ass Boot Hill.)

    Crazy Awesome has happened in my present campaign, but Crazy Awesome could have easily been Crazy TPK if not for a brilliant last minute plan by one PC.

    1. Yeah, I think we're basically on the same page here... but, whenever I've tried to explain "free will within the campaign" I've faced a completely unrestrained definition of free will - backed up by player solidarity, and aided by other GMs who believe the balance of power is in favour of the players. One of the reasons I quit the Cthulhu game (participant ages 30-40) in disgust is how easily the GM caves in to his players; last I hear, they dynamite everything on sight and never get arrested or killed.

      I have to take issue with you on going past the edge of the map, though; I had one player do that, in a home campaign, and it was very frustrating - they never explored anywhere or adventured in new areas or anything like that, just kept pushing to see how fast I could make stuff up before heading off to the edge of the next map. Similarly, at the oldest gaming club in town, I was running a one-off Classic Traveller game, using a published scenario, and instead of engaging with the adventure at all - ignoring not only a distress call, but a request for help from the system's port authority - they immediately tried to jump out of the system.

      Nevermind how many times I've seen player-stupidity-induced TPKs get blamed on the GM - and the GM accept blame, for the sake of still having a gaming group next week.

      Do we blame 20+ years of computer games or entitlement mentality, or simply accept that our fellow gamers will nearly always disappoint?

      Downtrodden GMs arise! You have nothing to lose... ;)

  7. Absolutely true, and this is 100% my favorite part of RPGs and I think their biggest strength over computer games. Sure getting together with friends is a nice bonus, as is the tactile joy of rolling dice. But nothing beats the absolute freedom and mind numbing amount of choice that can be made when trying to find a solution or deciding what to do next. That's why I cringe so much when a game ends up on a railroaded, preset direction.
    Every now and then I get a happy confirmation of this. Like introducing new players who are baffled and amazed that they don't HAVE to save the princess if they don't want to. Just the glow in a player's eyes when they realize the imaginary world is truly open and without limitation by graphics, memory, or rendering time.