RPG Dictatorships Cont'd

I thought this podcast was really pertinent to the last post on how more rules have actually had a detrimental impact on RPGs, min 17:40 to 26:29, especially around min 24:30.


Fair warning:  There is quite a bit of poorly "bleeped" swearing.

One comment from this section bothered me a little as well: "You didn't know the rules well enough, or didn't know every aspect of it to not let yourself get into a trap".  

This is really the reason why I stopped playing 3rd Edition, more than anything else.  I may have mentioned before in an earlier post, but I was running a Pathfinder game over Skype a few years ago and we got into a combat situation with some Darkmantles that just became unfathomably complicated.  By the end of the session, I was so disgusted with the rules I never touched the game again.

When did RPG preparation go from world building to rules studying?  Seriously.  Who honestly has fun researching monster stat blocks for each unique ability and how those abilities affect your party's skill and feat lists before every game session?  RPGs should be about imagination, they should be about turning that awesome movie we saw into a game setting.  We should be building dungeons with the finest of detail, and fleshing out NPCs, treasure, and traps with all our energy.  That's what RPGs should be about.

But this requirement to know "every aspect" of the rules is offensive to me.  First, I doubt there is anyone who can claim that, considering all of the support books for modern games.  And second, I guarantee you, there is someone who will know it better.  Law is only as good as its lawyer.

And if the rebuttal is, "well just DM Fiat difficult situations", or "use common sense", then why play with such heavy handed rules in the first place if you'll throw them out for classic adjudication anyway?  Do you live by the rules or common sense?  Make up your mind.  If it's the latter, I say get rid of your fat book of rules and start building fantasy worlds, not fantasy court rooms.


RPG Dictatorships

Being at a 4E table is better than being at a classic table for exactly the same reason why it is better to live in a country with a rule of law than living in an authoritharian country. - Moronic Blogger

I'm not sure what an "authoritHarian" country is, but it must be something like an authoritarian one.  Regardless, I'd like to address this for a moment as it nails down the biggest argument proponents of modern RPGs use to defend their game.

First let's just put aside the fact that using imagery of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, North Korea or Obama's USA to equate with a game played in your living room is not only an absurd straw-man, but pretty reprehensible to those who suffered under those regimes.  I mean, if your game resembles anything like those kind of governments, I'd suggest, first and foremost, to get out as fast as possible before A) you get gassed to death, B) go hungry, or C) get shot by a drone.  That's my first advice to anyone suffering under such terrible conditions, because those that truly did or do live under such countries didn't/don't have the luxury of escaping themselves.

But for a moment let's assume that the author of this quote was being just a tad bit little hyperbolic.  Let's talk about how dictatorships really work.  I've never heard of one where the dictator literally runs his country without laws he has setup to do the job for him.  Dictators love to sit back and relax, take vacations, and go to lots of parties, you know, the whole getting fed by grapes and getting fanned by his worshipers thing.  He creates a massive police force backed by a laundry list of laws and regulations to do his dirty work for him.

You see, dictators don't last long if they are dishing out their punishment first-hand.  They want to maintain the propaganda of being detached from it all, like video from Hitler's Austrian retreat, his book, Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), or Obama's White House parties.  They want to put off the aura of "hey look I'm cool, I'm one of you!  Everything's going great!".  A dictator looking like a dictator to his enslaved populace would soon have a riot on his hands.  And that would be no good at all.

I suppose in this way RPGs are not much difference.  Classic D&D DMs had a lot more power than modern DMs...or at least that's how it appears.  In reality, since DMs in the old school game were essentially "the law", they had to be on their best behavior: kind, trustworthy, and above all, fair.  Because if they weren't, the players would know exactly where and how to vent their frustrations and/or leave.  Dictator DMs don't get away with it in classic D&D because they are held accountable for their actions every time they run a game.

And let's not confuse words here.  A true dictator hides his evil behind laws and rules, maintaining a good face in public.  A true leader makes good judgement because he makes himself fully accountable for his actions.  He doesn't hide behind laws or rules.  Even in cases where a bad DM gets out of control, players are fully able to change their group and find one that works for them.  Changing DMs in Classic gives players the liberty to choose the game they enjoy most because the rules are designed to be adjusted and changed very easily.

So who is playing a game that rules most like an evil dictator? In a modern game of D&D, you have a system that claims, "we're fair and balanced because we have a lot of rules to make sure everyone plays so".  A player that comes to the table can essentially dictate anything he wants just as long as he is able to find a rule in a book somewhere to back it up.  So you have a recipe here of a true dictatorship, and not just one, everyone.   Because everyone at the table can wash their hands of their own rules, "Hey don't look at me, it's the book's fault, not mine!".  The term, "rules lawyering" really started during the post classic era of RPGs because anyone could dictate the game if he knew the rules well enough.

Now I'm not here to claim that if someone wants to be devious, they can't be devious in any game system.  A bad DM or player is a bad DM or player regardless.  But in the case of Classic D&D, the arbitrator of rules falls on the lap of 1 person and 1 person alone.  Getting rid of the bad apple is not a matter of arguing over a rule in the book (which can be interpreted in a thousand ways), but a matter of a decision of common sense.

And here's the thing, you can easily change rules by changing DMs in Classic, but you can't change the rules by changing DMs in modern.  The rules are the rules in modern gaming because they are part of the core rulebook.  Now you see how this is starting to remind you of those poor people of true dictatorship more and more.  They couldn't get away from it, the law was the law no matter where you went.

A country where a true dictator or king makes rulings for his people typically ends up in disaster because it's not so easy to get rid of them.  In an RPG, however, where the DM is accountable directly to his players, he cannot hide poor play.

Modern RPGs are a dictatorship of rules and rulebooks, where players and DMs have no accountability, where they can wash their hands of wrong-doing because of rules.  Being a dictator in modern D&D is just a splat-book away.  Classic D&D provides total freedom because accountability starts and stops at the table not the rulebook.



plot or dialogue: the plot or story in a book or dramatic presentation, or the dialogue needed to develop the plot
1. A literary or dramatic plot; a story line.
2. Dialogue essential to the development of a plot in a drama.
Wikipedia (redirected to "Dramatic Structure"):
the structure of a dramatic work such as a play or film...
a drama is divided into five parts, or acts, which some refer to as a dramatic arc: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement. 
A blogger recently used the word "plotline" as an ingredient to describe a sandbox RPG.  If any of the definitions above bring to mind a player-driven game, I want to invite you to my new table-top game this weekend, a live reading of Othello where you can have an exciting adventure voicing Iago, and Desdemona with me!


RPG = Player-Driven Narrative

"Takes two to tango".  A very old idiomatic expression that simply means that "stuff" doesn't really start happening until more than one person is participating.  We can daydream all day long in our basements, living rooms, garages or what-have-you, but until we get off our butts and do something about our dreams, they amount to nothing.

RPGs are not very different.  I spend a lot of my free time world building in my gaming closet, I draw maps, I study modules and publications to get ideas about monster and NPC design, I read novels from various fantasy authors for inspiration, and I play old-school CRPGs and fantasy board games to get a glimpse of where RPG history went.  The result of these things are a collection of great gaming worlds.

But they don't matter.  They are just props.  A collection of props that I put a lot of TLC into, props that have lots and lots of potential, but they're still lifeless set pieces stored away in the closet of imagination (or in my binder) ready to come to life if someone decides to use them.  Me or someone else.  These things are not what makes an RPG.  They could be used for anything at this point: I could write a fantasy novel with them, code a video game, maybe try my hand at a amateur fantasy film and put it up on YouTube.  They don't have to be part of an RPG.

The key ingredient to an RPG is the players themselves.  When they make decisions in the game, these objects come to life and are given a story.  In my games, my players get to make decisions to affect, direct, destroy, or enhance those objects.  When they walk past a street in my imaginary village, suddenly all of the dead NPCs come to life, suddenly the town drunk is yelling obscenities while tripping over himself, suddenly the guards are on patrol, suddenly the world has come to life.

Sometimes as a DM I act as a player, but I have the whole world at my disposal, not just the props where the characters are wandering through.  The assassins' guild is carrying out missions, the caravans are getting attacked by giants in the mountain passes, the king is getting played by his power-hungry advisors.  Many of these things never reach the ears of my players until much later, or never at all.  But I breathed life into them nonetheless, they existed and lived and made decisions because I, as a DM-turned player made it happen.

Are my players forced to know about these events?  Of course not.  Because if they were forced to, they would no longer be role-playing.  They would be READING MY SCRIPT.  They would be under the illusion of role-playing, but they would be simply following a novel written by me.  Any game that forces players down a road that they have not made a decision to follow is not a Role-Playing Game.  They've lost their role, whether they know it or not.  They are merely witnessing a group of characters, like Frodo and Sam, taking their tour through someone's canned world, adding in their input to humor themselves that really makes no difference to the end result.

Am I dissing on my game world?  No of course not.  I once posted about the Lovecraftian approach and how we should view our worlds as perhaps actually existing.  I don't take that back.  Our worlds should be role-played as if they are real. We should take our role-playing with complete seriousness not taking in meta elements from our own world.  When we have entered that world, it should feel like it's something real, but when we leave, it doesn't continue living unless we're there to make choices in it.  It goes to sleep, it freezes in time, the lights go off....that is, until we return.

RPGs are sandboxes, they are created from player decisions creating life out of NPCs, weapons and places that are nothing more than words on paper until they are acted upon.

Gygax Worship

I'm a fan of Gary Gygax.  He and Arneson pretty much invented RPGs.  AD&D First Edition will always be my favorite core rulebook for a lot of reasons (not favorite edition though).  I get why he is important and has a special place in the hearts of gamers.  But let's not forget that he was a human being, not some god from the outer plane of Elysium as much as some would hope.

I see many grognards who seem to quote his name every third sentence, throwing around the word, "milieu" left and right, quoting him for truth to add heft to an argument.  "Gygax's 97th game at GenCon #x ran module xyz and said abc, so that's why you're wrong" is something I commonly see among his fandom.

Let's not forget that there were a lot of other people that made D&D what it was.  D&D would not be the same to me without the art of Otus, Elmore and others.  The B/X rules are arguably the best written, most concise rules D&D ever published and Gygax had little to do with it.  And let's not forget that Gygax sold us down the river in the later years of 2nd edition, caught up in the business and politics of it all.

We owe a lot to him for his work, but his interpretation of the game was often very unstable.  You can make a case for almost any type of RPG argument by quoting something Gygax said depending on the time he said it.  Did he love using minis?  Depends when you asked.  Did he love surprise in combat?  Well he put it in his book, but didn't seem to use it much.  Was Tolkien an inspiration for the game?  He would say "yes" and "no".  The art of role-playing games is not found within one man, just as the art of fine music is not found only in Bach, for we'd be missing the contributions of Wagner, Bach and Beetoven.


Railroads and RPGs

Perhaps it's simply a popular concept of our times, but there has been a lot of moral relativism creeping into gaming recently.  The idea that there is no "right or wrong" way to run a game, just like there is no right or wrong way to define marriage or lying or cheating or working, etc and on and on.  Really, if nothing can be defined as black or white, right or wrong, anymore what's the point of human existence?  If measuring something no longer matters because nothing can be measured, then what are we doing here?  There can be no human progress if there is nothing we can judge as a starting point, a "control" point to progress against.

Anyway, I don't want to get into a philosophical rant today, I just want to rant about this idea that "railroad gaming" as it is called, is a valid system.

Recently I read a rather heated back-and-forth debate between a couple bloggers about what defines a railroad, sometimes known as "narrative" or "story",  game.  On the one side, the railroad apologist was trying to argue that because every RPG has "structure" to it, it means that they all really are railroads.  Prior to that I read what amounted to a sob story about playing nice with these kind of gamers because really they "are programmed to be passive" and just can't help themselves.  So as DMs, we should all just bend over and let our gamers sit back and be spoon fed Hollywood-style set games.  Poor things.

I'm sorry, but arguing with people like this is kind of like arguing with a 2 year old who doesn't want to eat his vegetables.  You just can't reason with immaturity and ignorance.

So let's make it simple.  The bottom line is that if you're running an RPG with a pre-planned script of any kind, you're no longer even running an RPG.  You can call it a theatre play in your living room, a skit, story time, or whatever else you want.  But it is not an RPG - precisely because my role is no longer a role at all, at least in the fullest meaning of the term, it is a prop in a stage performance.

You've probably heard this before: "But there is no right or best way to run an RPG as long as you're having fun.".  You can have fun doing a lot of things, but that doesn't make it an RPG.  There IS a right way to run an RPG and the right way is allowing your players to drive the narrative.  If the right way isn't "fun" for you, that's your problem.  Doesn't make it right or even the best though.  Just because I get straight Fs in school and had fun doing it doesn't make it right OR the best.  And seriously, what's so fun about spending your time making imaginary decisions that don't matter?

D&D was designed from the beginning to be a player/character driven game, the best modules were designed this way such as B2 and X2.  Decisions made in a game world should be in the hands of the players as long as those decisions with within its scope.  That means that if I'm running a fantasy world, my players should be able to make any decision they want within the laws and norms of that fantasy world.  If I'm dictating to them what they can and can't do, this isn't a world anymore, it's a set and this isn't an RPG.