Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Good Game (another exorcism of thoughts)

Don't be afraid, this won't hurt much. Roll a save vs. Death, please ... there. You see? Character didn't feel a thing. Yeah, only thing left are the smoldering boots. Breathe easy now. Relax. Here are 3d6. You know the routine, right? Group needs a new fighter, after all.

In which I start somewhere and end somewhere else (but close) ...

The system is your friend!

I'm well on record now as someone that likes a little crunch in his games. HackMaster 4e, The D&D Rules Cyclopedia, I do not fear complexity. On the contrary, I think it helps a DM getting the necessary distance to his "job". The Save Or DIE!-rule of yore is actually a great example of this, because you, as a DM, aren't left with the decision if a character dies or not, the system does it. And that is a very good thing.

Ledger killed it in this one ... [source]
Think about it. There are several grades of player stupidity curiosity that will kill a character. Since there is a discrepancy between player and character (although often enough ignored) it's actually not surprising that decisions using a character will not only go beyond what a player would do to himself, but often enough also doom that character in the process. If you've DMed a while, you will have seen this more than once.

So I believe it's more than fair for them to get a (one) roll to see if a character survives or if he's toast. I also believe that complex systems more often than not allow for some flexibility in that regard (sacrificing honor in HackMaster as a very last resort and the Resurrection spell or wonders in the D&D RC, for instance), while rules-lite systems tend to leave the decision with the DM (which practically forces him to avoid those situations because he'd take the blame otherwise) or go as far as give the players enough powers over the narrative to actually twist wrong decisions until they are "awarded" instead of "punished".

Yes, those parentheses are for real. Sure, it can be fun to play without consequences or with shifting the goals of a game away from things that can kill you to, say, the narrative of a game. But it's exactly that: a shift. And if we stay with the very first definition of that game we all love and write and talk about, taking away the chance to learn something crucial will also take away the chance to get better at it. Simple as that.

That's not to say other games are "wrong" (they aren't) or can't be fun (they can be), but it's having one or the other. I, as a DM, want (need?) the system making those decisions because I like to DM a game were characters can die. It's a "You get what you need, not what you want." kind of thing.

Randomness is bliss!

Same reasons here. Why should a DM decide about the mood of an encounter? Why decide what they encounter or how to begin with? In the end he's the one to take the blame and that's just wrong. If you roll a random encounter table and come up with a dragon, you could as well check how the presence of the dragon manifests (since such a beast wouldn't just drop out of the sky, right?). the characters might end up finding some half eaten cattle or a burned down village or some fleeing animals. And even if the group, for whatever reason/roll, actually have to face a dragon ... well, he might be in a good mood. So why decide this and not let the dice decide it.

So true! [source]
Learning to roll with such random results, whatever they are, is in my opinion one of the most powerful tools available to a DM. Random results add to the story unfolding at the table, sometimes even force the direction of it. And it surprises the DM, keeps him engaged. It's not just kicking doors in, killing and looting, the surroundings actually come to live. One could say that it, at least partially, allows for the DM and the players to explore a world together. And that's nice.

But who watches the watchmen?

Writing a system like that is very hard to achieve or at least very work-intensive. And this is, to some extent, where this post started in my head. I have an ongoing dialogue with +Chris Stieha about the game I'm writing (Lost Songs of the Nibelungs), since he's testing it and is kind enough asking questions and pointing out where I failed to explain the rules properly (it's hugely productive, as one could imagine). At one point he wrote something that made me stop and think about what the game actually tells about me:

"I played some LSotN last night. I focused on saves and tests, which was pretty fun, but brutal. I've decided that whenever you decided on a design choice, you paused and asked yourself how you could make it more brutal :) In the Nibelungenlied, I am at the point where the Nibelungs are staving off the attack from the Huns (and everyone else), so I get the brutal."
I think Chris is on to something here. As a DM I like games that manage to make physical and mental exhaustion of the characters felt and Lost Songs mirrors that to the extreme. But I started to ask myself why it ended up being so brutal and found that when writing and testing the rules, I tried to make sure to find short-cuts for rules I tend to forget. Endurance didn't work. I love Endurance systems. I found a way to sneak them in there where I don't forget them ... which results in the rules being actually in effect during the game.

By now I manage to realize almost the complete game at the table, because the rules step in where my shortcomings as a DM are (the beauty of DIY rules, really) and it not only helps me realizing the game I want at the table, it's also scary to behold and unforgiving at times. For me at least, that's a good thing, because it really is possible to survive the game with proper resource management and teamwork, two things I also like to see realized in games.

Remember that guy? [source]
I'm also pretty sure that this isn't for everyone. As one player put it at one point: "I'd rather die and start from the beginning than getting crippled like that." And she had a point, so I tried to make sure that the scars a character collects over time are important for his fame as a hero and are as much out of the way as possible as far as level advancement is concerned. Because I think scars are essential in the stories I'd like to tell, but the same goes for the characters being epic heroes.

In a way it's the synergy between DM, the system and the players that make the game (as I've pointed out before) and there are several ways to achieve a balance here. One way (my preferred way) is by keeping the hard decisions (like death, betrayal and crippling) entirely within the system, as it keeps the trust into the DM and his decisions intact when playing in a dark and gritty environment.

The system is not your friend?

For the players it is a bit different. Players should be able to trust a system, but they should be aware that the system is not their friend. It's not written for them, it's something they are facing. They need to find a way to either work with it or find loopholes to exploit. Again, it's crucial for this to work that the system holds this kind of position instead of the DM, because he needs to be the neutral party in this.

With those positions being clearly defined, knowing the system will allow characters to strive. This is true in all (role playing) games, of course. But there are different schools, if you will, that see rules, DMs and players in very different positions and relationships.

Take Pathfinder, for instance. While player skill is certainly something that can be of great value for a player, you also have a system here that gives players the idea that he can get and do what he wants by the sheer availability of options. The idea of playing as effective as possible is (at least) in conflict with the idea of building a character over the course of several hours and planning his career (for even more hours) in advance. One is ready to defend his character against all odds and dying if the dice fall that way, the other wants to see the character completely realized over time, also at all costs - which directly connects to ideas like "balanced" encounters, et cetera.

But most of all, this system-inherent discrepancy puts the DM in a very difficult position. Player skill (and, in a worst case scenario, even teamwork) really aren't necessary if it's just about collecting the xp and going the distance (I'm simplifying here, I know) and people really get pissed when their special snowflake dies under circumstances that could be interpreted as "unfair".

I know a fighter like that ... [source]
Which, and that's just an aside, results in an excessive amount of rules lawyers, munchkins and cheaters (the very symptoms of a game with system-inherent troubles). That's not to say PF is a bad game, but there is a dissonance a DM needs to be aware of and that needs to be addressed or it'll potentially disrupt the game because of the conflicting expectations and perceptions of how it works, who is in charge and who is to blame. And that's only if the DM isn't the problem and not part of it ...

The Good Game

DM despotism (to pick another example of what could go wrong in a game) is a real thing, I'm sure. I've experienced games where the DM excelled in hurting the players or loved and celebrated their DM characters. It's not the grown up thing to do, but it is out there. I think I've shown above that those things can be avoided or supported by a system. There is a third option where the DM just doesn't get enough power to really abuse the game, but that's just recognizing the problem and handling it wrong (in my opinion).

This post started with the idea that potentially harmful events in a game should be part of the rules to protect the DM and the players alike. I should finish with that. The idea of DM brutality or despotism or the "killer DM" all derive from the idea that people DMing a game might have an agenda and the rules allow them to enforce it on others.

But that's not DMing a game, it's some guy or girl being an asshole. They don't even deserve to get called Game Master or Dungeon Master and I think it's the wrong perspective on the whole matter.

Complex systems are also not the solutions for all the problems above, even when done right. The willingness to accept (and enforce!) randomness, on the other side, is, in my opinion, a good indicator if a DM has a tendency to brutality and arbitrariness or not. But it's only a small part of the whole thing.

For me, a well balanced system, with players up for a challenge and a DM without an agenda other than what's good for all the people involved and a good understanding of the rules, is what makes a good game. You just don't sit down and it all works, no, it actually needs investment from all, players, rules (or writers) and DMs alike.

Sometimes I get the feeling that's something not said often enough (and just saying "Don't be a douche!" just doesn't cut it for me).

See what I mean?


  1. As you know (better than most actually) I wrote a game that wallows in random, and the general chaos that might erupt from random characters, facing random tests in an effort to complete random quests.
    With that in mind I have to admit in my “real” d&d campaign I hardly use any random at all. Sure I roll the odd random encounter during travel and that sort of thing, but the big stuff I generally have in my head before the players get there. I think that’s part of having a living world, in that I know what’s around the players and the motivations of the things around the players. Taking random out of that side of things means I have to rely on the system to be a bit brutal and fair.

    After reading your post I am starting to think that might be the major reason why Dungeon World never worked for my game. The system has too much wiggle room; the results are a bit too blurry for my taste. I could be just doing the apocalypse game thing wrong, but the system clearly gives the GM the option of soft or hard “moves.” That puts the responsibility for dealing out hard moves right in the DM’s lap and not leaving it as part of the system. Here’s the deal I’m already responsible for putting that dragon at the top of the mountain, and giving the players 100 reasons not to go there. Once the players are there the system should dictate their doom. Not, “well should I do a HARD move here, or just have the dragon do his scary roar again.”

    I’m getting off subject.
    I want that save vs breath weapon to decide if the character takes half damage or not. When the dice come up no one is going to cry over it.
    A game that is straight forward creates tension. A save vs Death seems mean but I guarantee that player will be invested in that roll. If they fail and feel a bit crappy about it when the character dies, that’s good. That down moment is what makes the high of the next critical hit feel that much better.
    I don’t fudge rolls at the table for the same reason.

    I want the players to trust that I will not make the monsters harder to kill them and I won’t make the game easier to save them. That way the players stay invested in their own decisions.
    On that note what I do, and do often is play fast and loose with armor class and hit bonuses. I like to reward players for doing smart things. Get the higher ground? Cool you get a bonus. Fall down, your AC gets worse. If a monster loses morale and runs away, that next crossbow shot is getting a bonus to hit. (I mean the guys not dodging if he’s running away.)
    Ok this is becoming a blog post of its own.
    I should have just said I agree 

    1. No, I'll take that comment :) I think I rule it marginally different to what you describe, but very well within the same area. I'll have it all randomized if I can, the interpretation of the result is were I try to fit it into the causality of the narrative (if that makes any sense). Last one shot I rolled month (1 = January) and weather (12 = it's snowing) randomly to see what time they chose to go on adventure. I just rolled with it and made it work (they actually had reasons to be on the road). I like it that way and that's that: a matter of taste :)

      Yeah, that's one of the problems I had with DW. That and giving the players to much power over the story.

      Thanks for the great comment!

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