Chasing the Dragon

Noted game designer John Wick threw down the gauntlet to GM’s earlier this week (link at the end of this post), challenging game balance in RPG’s, weapon lists, and how people play so-called role-playing games.  It’s spawned some interesting chatter in the gaming community and in my own group.  I’m gonna weigh in on this one now.

I do think that Wick has a couple of good points.  Firstly, that game rules and rules systems in general, have the potential to interfere with and kill story and role-playing.  The examples of Riddick attacking someone with a teacup, or Sir Sean Connery’s thumb-strike do well in illustrating this.  First, there is the problem of whether or not the rules systems provide ample opportunity for creative action.  I’ve had long conversations with Steve “The Bald” Cope on this, wherein his argument was that previous editions of D&D and PFRPG were clearly not intended as role-playing heavy games but rather as tactical games with a heavy story element to them.  I vehemently disagreed at first, but when one looks at the actions that are specifically called out in the rules, either with detailed systems (combat, feats) or as incentives (experience points primarily for combat encounters), it does seem to agree with that point.  For a long time, I had felt the desire to play a story-driven game called Dungeons and Dragons, but the contemporaneously released systems supporting a much more combat and tactics-heavy rule-set seemed to thwart that dream.  They certainly deterred me from trying to run a game.  The main issue here is that the solution to creative action for previous editions of D&D was to add rules for every eventuality.  Proficiencies, feats, combat maneuvers… all of these things, I believe, were intended to add flavour to encounters, but the adding of modifiers and rules in general only served to bog down the encounters, almost force players into very specific character builds, and encourage min-maxing and munchkin-like behaviour while at the same time limiting the feeling that we are playing in a world of endless possibilities.

The problem Wick describes is one that I know all too well.  I have the bad habit of creating characters based on mental sketches that are probably better saved for future writing projects.  When I create a character, it is a world of promise for me.  At first level, anything can happen.  At higher levels, more power seems to inspire more possibilities.  But there are always limits in RPG systems.  My vision of my bad-ass warlock cannot be realized in a game system that currently exists.  In my head, there ware too many awesome things that a Warlock should be able to do at ALL levels of power for it to be supported by any playable system.  Most fictional characters would not be able to do half of the groovy things they do in books, movies, or tv shows if they were bound by the arbitrary laws of a game rather than liberated by the boundless imaginations of their creators and writers.  I saw examples, I believe in the comments on John Wick’s article, that suggested “improvised weapon” specialties, and even John Wick himself called out the ridiculousness of giving a teacup a speed factor.  These things are ludicrous.  Luke Skywalker didn’t put the lotion in the Death Star’s basket because he rolled well.  He did it because it was a cool ending and it fit the characters and the story.  Frodo didn’t fail his save vs. the One Ring’s magic only to be sneak attacked by Gollum.  He carried out his character’s arc and fulfilled the destiny Tolkien had in mind for him and the world the author had built.  I’m not saying that there can’t be an intersection between fiction and role-playing– the DragonLance saga, with all of its problems, is a great example of how novels and modules can build on one another– but I am saying that it is nigh impossible for a rules system in and of itself to support the kind of rich imagination necessary to bring to life literature-level characters.  The rules get in the way.  Life doesn’t work that way, and neither does art.

Systems such as World of Darkness, which have lighter rules sets and are touted by many to be more focused on role-playing, fall down for me for almost the opposite reason as the previous D&D editions.  They are so rules light that they are actually encumbered by their abstract nature, are too vulnerable to interpretation (thus leading to more arguments over who can do what), and burden the players with having to create their own “rules” within their heads.  (This is mostly my impressions, by the way, as while I do own and have read several WoD books, I’ve never actually had the opportunity to play any of these games, thought I have heard plenty of accounts.)

Whether it is on the players to come up with all the rules or to work within a needlessly complex system to try to find and create opportunities to do what it is they believe their characters would, the outcome is the same…

Thinking kills magic.

–Eugene Burger

This was told to me by a master magician during a lecture.  What he was referring to was a specific circumstance– a magician who has to think about each sleight, move, cover, and bit of patter will inevitably fail to create a truly magical experience.  He may impress with skill, he may do something that we cannot explain and cause the shouts of “how’d you do that?” but his spectators will know, viscerally, that what they have witnessed was a trick of some sort and not real magic.  Magic, like music, theater, and most art forms, requires a mastery of its elements to the degree that they fade into the muscle memory of the practitioner and can, indeed, seem effortless, freeing the performer to, if not improvise, at least free the creative portion of his mind to the extent that it can act unfettered any hindrance in physical skill.  I’m looking at rules and role-playing in a similar light.  While anyone can have fun hacking and slashing, and even doing some light role-playing in a system over-burdened by rules, the more rules there are, the more one will either have to learn in order to truly role-play their character OR inevitably be stymied by rules when they attempt something that, while in character, does not play well within the rules system.

So, are rules necessary to a role-playing game, or to a game in general?

A game should … create a complete story—a script with actors, a setting, plot developments, and an ending.

–Bruno Faidutti

I have played free-form role-playing games and spent dozens of hours in IC Chat rooms and have had some fantastic experiences with no rules whatsoever.  I’ve played board and computer games that made my brain bleed from the effort of remembering the rules nuances.  I’ve also had amazing experiences with rules-heavy games and awful experiences with games with few to no rules.  My point of view is that rules play a varied part in games.  My personal preference is that they serve the theme of the game, but I can definitely also appreciate theme as a sort of mnemonic for understanding and remembering mechanics.  One of John Wick’s arguments seems to be that RPG’s be solely about role-playing.  This I disagree with.  I’m not going to start in about the history of RPG’s and D&D with Chainmail and tactical miniatures games, because I think games, like all art forms, evolve with times, cultures, and those who participate in them. Rather my point is that role-playing games exist to provide a structure for those who do not have the ability to create collaborative stories on their own.  Which is the great majority of the population.  I’ve heard it claimed that the goal of an RPG is to “create unexpected, disagree-able outcomes.”  The meaning here is that if we were writing a novel, we would all agree upon what happened, there would be no surprise and there would therefore be no game.  “Story-telling” board and card games such as Gloom and Once Upon a Time succeed in their efforts because their objects are not to tell stories, but to carry out some other objective while the story is being told.  It is the structure that provides the opportunity for good story-telling, just as a writer can be freed to be creative even while limiting himself to a particular form.  The bounds of the form itself free the creative mind to work even as the restrictions of the structure force tough  decision-making but ultimately inspire creative thinking in order to express the true idea within an artificial mold.

Wick’s argument that a game that can be effectively played without role-playing is not an RPG has some flaws, in my opinion, but I think I understand what he is getting at, and I do like his tentative definition of a role-playing game.  But this reduces things to a black-and-white image that does not mesh with my viewpoint.  To wit, I do not consider Descent: Journeys in the Dark (2nd Ed.) to be an RPG by any stretch.  I think I was initially turned off by it, as Alex is currently, as it is a tactical miniatures game with a lot of similarities to Dungeons and Dragons systems in its theme and execution.  I can play the game to win, or I can do “what I think my character would do,” but these are likely to be mutually exclusive.  Honestly, this is where a lot of games fall down for me and/or make me re-adjust my expectations.  Android is another good example of this.  The game is absolutely dripping with theme, but if I happen to win while playing out my character’s story arc the way I want to, it’s likely to be a coincidence. The rules are far too complex for me to understand my actions’ repercussions fully, so I end up playing my character and having a very enjoyable time doing so, even as I lose horribly.  I think The Bald will remember a time at BGG.con when I played Helena Cain in a game of BSG.  I had an absolute blast “role-playing” her for a few hours, but I don’t know whether I was trying to win the game or just trying to be as bad-ass as she was in the show.  None of these are role-playing games in their own right, but all of these games do feed my imagination by allowing stories to unfold, even as they are within the confines of a rules-system.  I also think that these rules sets happen to do a fantastic job of supporting the stories their game were intended to provide the opportunities to create.

Conversely, I still have a hard time seeing WoW or any existing computer or console so-called RPG game as a “true” role-playing game.  I am not saying this is impossible to create, but to be a true RPG, in my opinion, would require a much more open system that anything provided so far. I could be wrong on this, as I am not an avid electronic gamer by any means, but my gut tells me that most online and console/computer gamers in general are not role-playing so much as they are playing a game which happens to have a level-up feature, combat, and possibly a fantasy element.  These do not make an RPG.  An RPG requires story and/or character development beyond mere “levelling up.”  There needs to be some sort of identification with the character being played on more of a gut level than “my controller shook when I got hit” or “oh, crap, I’m low on health.”  There needs to be a vested creative interest in the character and story arc, and one beyond merely killing monsters to get the next cut-scene.  There need to be meaningful choices with powerful outcomes.  There needs to be heart.  And I don’t mean Zelda.

Rules are good!  Rules control the fun!

–Monica Geller

Back to table-top RPG’s.  I understand where my current DM, Rickster, is coming from, when he says that “You need the a lot of the rules in order to make sure you’re telling the story correctly.”  By “correctly,” I am taking him to mean “according to the implied or overt social contract we have made to have fun together in the same creative space.” 

I remember the first RPG experience I ever had.  I was in Fantasy Adventure class in College Academy, and I was told to pick a set of stats off the black-board.  I was then told that I was a halfling and I could set trails in the forest.  I had no idea what I was doing.  I vaguely remember rolling some dice here and there, but I definitely remember punching out some guy who turned out to be rescuing me.  I saw a hill giant chase down a giant beetle through a forest path, and I still remember the voice of the Lord Chamberlain after the kings was murdered, “Oh, my god– he’s dead!”  It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had playing a game, and I had no idea what the rules were.  Heroin-users, so I hear, have a phrase for their addictive behaviour as they futilely and continually seek to re-experience the high of their first fix.  It’s called “Chasing the Dragon.”  I think we’re all chasing the dragon a little bit when we, as adults, play RPG’s and other games.  We’re looking, at least in part, for that experience of playing guns, cowboys and injuns, Star Wars, or whatever, when we were kids.  A world with no rules but those we make up as we go along and yet somehow all end up having fun in the same imaginary space.  (This method of play does have it’s problems of course, as is aptly illustrated in the first five minutes or so of THAC0.)  As we grow older and become more jaded and worldly, we become more caught up in what would “really happen.”  We also encounter more real-world problems with no rule-book to guide us not only how to play but also what the object of our game might be.  This seeps into our game experience, and we lose the childish sense of wonder, even as we try to rekindle it in games.  I think this is why many of us get so excited at the idea of new players joining an RPG group.  We hope we can share in part of their initial creative naiveté and get back that feeling of True Roleplaying we had when we first played.  I know this is something I look forward to witnessing in my son, should he one day take up the d20 as his father once did.

I do take issue with Wick’s comment that people can be “missing the point” of a game.  At the risk of meta-gaming a bit here, the point of any game, not just RPG’s, is entertainment.  Designer’s intent can only take things so far, and everyone is within their rights to throw out the rules along with the box insert for the enjoyment of their group.  Telling someone that they are playing wrong because they are opting to boost Charisma rather than “role-play” is in contrary to the spirit of gaming in my opinion.  A primary reason people seek out games and RPG’s specifically is to pretend to be someone else for a few hours.  That doesn’t mean that the player is suddenly granted a divine ability to overcome personal anxieties over public speech or magically give them a gift of eloquence or even imagination any more than it gives them actual spell-casting abilities or proficiency with a Greatsword.  It means they want to imagine that they are good at something that they may not be in real life.  I do believe that role-playing can improve with practice, but there are certainly ways a group or DM can use stats and rules to overcome a player’s reticence or inability to role-play up to someone else’s standard.  I also don’t think it’s anyone’s right, now matter how prominent a figure in gaming (and there’s a nerd badge, for sure), to tell someone else who is not even in their own gaming group how to have fun.  We all have limited free time, and the time that we are able to dedicate to game is precious.  While an argument can be made that the experience itself will be made richer by the initial effort, that is an individual or group’s call.

Nevertheless, I don’t see Wick’s suggestion of throwing out weapons charts as an outright indictment of rules in general. His point that weapon lists kill creativity does have some merit.  When I envision my paladin in combat, he is not concerned over which bonuses will serve him better by wielding his sword one or two-handed.  He wants to kill his enemies, and I, as his player, want it to look cool, at least in my head, as he does so.  I think what Wick is getting at is that rules, in RPG’s, are meant to free us to role-play exciting stories, not to bog us down with over-thinking each combat maneuver, agonizing on decisions of mechanics vs. story.  Most RPG books begin with an introduction that can be truly telling as to what the designers are intending us to play in when they open their sandbox to us.  Many of them define some or hopefully ALL of their rules as to be treated as optional, and I can’t think of one core rules book that doesn’t ultimately summarize that the Game Master ultimately has the power and responsibility to override any rule with his own judgement calls.  These suggestions can be used to truly elevate a game to the level of childish wonder we seek when endeavoring upon something beyond a “mere” board game and taking a journey into the Theatre of the Mind.  

We have already called out how in our current (5E) game, most of our rules discussions have been over players having more character advantages against PC’s of the same level.  I’d say that this is a spotlight issue, and I know I’ve brought this up in our discussions over our players single or dual-wielding characters.  I think the point here is that we all are seeking the chance to feel like a hero, and that is exactly what D&D and many other RPG’s are about– escaping our mundane lives and feeling like we are able to do things of heroic scale.  We want to do world-changing things, look cool doing them, and create stories that we remember and share for decades to come.  How rigid the framework we use can play a factor in this, but just as I believe that story trumps rules, I think that the right people can elevate even a half-decent rules-system to a glorious level of play, and so far I would say that 5E seems like a great balance of rules vs. abstraction to allow for a better than average chance for this to happen if handled right.

The weapon lists and rules can stay, of course, but it is on all of us to use, ignore, or misuse them to create the experiences we seek.  We each have opportunities presented to us each session to elevate our game or go with things as written.  It is hard, of course, to break character with our normal selves and chance looking ridiculous with a funny accent, battle cry, or extremely detailed description of a standard attack action, but I think if we all take a deep breath, realize that we are in a supportive, safe, creative space, and take the plunge, our rewards will be great indeed.  

Just my 2 bags of glod, but,  I’ll start…



See John Wick’s Original Article

And his follow-up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *