Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Plot immunity - what is it good for?!

... absolutely nothing, as the song goes. Just saw the second season of Stranger Things and for all the good elements it had, the one thing that really threw me off had been the plot immunity the characters got. I thought that bullshit died a horrible death in the nineties. Or at least after the first seasons of Game of Thrones. Not so much, it seems. Well, it is a problem with role playing games, too, so I thought I'd talk about it a bit here on the blog.

Definition Time!

Google it and the best possible definition of Plot Immunity will be at TV Tropes. It is scarcely discussed in rpg circles and more often than not people seem to associate it with games that have a strong emphasis on narratives or storyteller games in general (or whatever you tell that one group of games people are hating about ... it's all bullshit, of course, but more on that later). So understanding is most of the time sketchy at best and you'd think this is a simple topic where you can just as easily decide which side you are on. You'd be wrong. It challenges how we perceive games in a profound way.

First of all, when talking Plot Immunity (or Plot Armor, if you will) in the context of role playing games, you need to know what you are playing. Plot Immunity is only a thing if another mode of play is intended with the set of rules you are using. That means, for Plot Immunity being a problem, it needs to contradict the rules as written (and that's NOT including DM advice how to play a game ... but more on that further below).

So there might be rpgs out there that have a specific arc (like 44: A Game of Automatic Fear, where characters are very likely to get turned into the enemy over time) or where they try to emulate a specific genre (like Castle Falkenstein, where characters don't necessarily die, but will more likely end up as the enemies hostages ... it's a pulp genre thing).

The short of it is, there are instances where the problem does not occur or where not utilizing it one way or another would have a negative impact on the game (if you neglect people in 44 to switch sides, the game is effectively killed and if you start killing off characters in Castle Falkenstein, you'll get a very serious shift in tone).

What we are talking here, is EXPECTATIONS. A good part of that would be proposed in a set of rules, the rest is among the DMs duties when setting up a game. If everyone at the table is clear about, for instance, the grade of mortality in the game, people shouldn't be too surprised if things happen as announced.

In that sense, Plot Immunity is the conflict between the expectations everyone in a specific game is having versus what you can get away with as a DM (suspension of disbelief, again). When those two collide, you'll end up with a disjointed game. To say the least.

That whole battle of the bastards had been a disappointment, btw. [source]

But it's not only that. There's something to be said about how "difficult" a game is perceived to be ...

Detour: What's a challenge, exactly?

There's another misconception. In rpg circles it's widely assumed that games need to be "balanced" to offer a "fair" challenge to players. Actually, there's a long ongoing feud between those who believe it's the way to go and those who say it is bogus. I'm not going to solve this problem here (if you are reading this and know my blog, you probably have a good grasp where I stand on those matters and somewhat agree, since you came back).

What I'm going to say, though, is that among the serious game designers, that is, those writing computer games (forgive the polemics, but that's the impression I get every time I check what designers of computer games say about those things ... they actually do studies and shit), well, those people actually came to the conclusion that the right amout of challenge is not buffing the enemy or scaling him to the skill the characters/players presumably have, but instead offering room for the player to grow in skill while he's facing the challenges a game offers (here is an interesting article about the subject).

In general, what makes a challenge is the thin line between avoiding tedious exercises and giving too difficult/hard tasks, while constantly keeping the player engaged. This includes having fall back mechanisms available for when a character fails. Hit points work like that to an extent, but another rule I like to use in my games, is giving the players the xp they've earned in the session their character died to invest in a new character.

However, although those concepts are all necessary, they are also offered on the system-side of things and don't really address the problem you'll get at the table. Because even if it where possible to include balancing factors into game mechanics that actually work (which I still doubt, tbh), it can't and will never take the player skill into account. Or that players can get better at what they are doing. Or that the rules are not the game but rather one aspect of what transpires at a table.

To make a game challenging means offering players a learning curve and enough tools to measure their own skill level. For that it needs constants, like Monster abilities, the damage ranges you can expect from certain weapons, reward-oriented behavior structures (a fighter gets xp for ..., a thief for ...) or tell-signs in the narrative (one of the more difficult tasks of a DM is offering hints about a potential danger in a way that forces thread-assessment by giving just the right amount of information without giving anything away).

That's what it's all about: encouraging players
to do something ... ill advised [source]
There is a more where that came from. But honestly, there's even more unsaid and unexplored about this subject. How is player skill measured? With computer games it's comparatively easy, you just check your score and your achievements. Online you could even go as far as comparing your skill with others. In rpgs, though? Nobody seems to care enough. For one, you'd need to have comparable base lines to even start an evaluation, which would actually force the industry to come up with standards (DM-badges, maybe ... anyway, it's a hot topic I'm brushing here, so I'm leaving that as an open question).

As a matter of fact, why is the question never asked how we accept so easily that in computer games the score is self evident as a measure of our skill in a game, while it in analogue role playing games is merely reduced to being a metric of how well a character does? Ponder on that for a while.

So ... Plot Immunity

Plot Immunity is when a (non-)player character cannot die because he's/she's important for the/a story, although dying is very much possible (the expectation/suspension thing mentioned above). We have all seen this, I'm sure. In Stranger Things [SLIGHT SPOILER], which is a mystery/horror setting, not one of the main character gets even harmed, while one of the newly introduced characters has to die in the most stupid way one could imagine [SLIGHT SPOILER ENDS HERE]. It's very bad writing and just as bad DMing if it happens at the table. Here is why as a result of the above established argument.

If we can agree on the concept of what a challenge is (that is, a process by which a player gets the opportunity to grow and get better at playing a specific game), then it is obvious that for that to actually happen, a player needs to be able to experiment with a game and assess his chances. This happens by observing success and failure and for that it needs constants. Plot Immunity, obviously, threatens those constants (if you get too much damage, you die ...) and creates false expectations/assertions about how a game works (if you don't die although you should have, you'll keep doing the same mistakes until suspension of disbelief kicks in and the fun of it goes away ... it becomes a tedious exercise).

Not only that, to play it that way will almost always have you ending up bullshit plot devices like deus ex machina events or all kinds of implausible coincident to make it all work. Nothing good will come from this (and here's a list).

It says it all on the card [source]
Furthermore, to expand on this, I'd like to address the argument that this is about telling a story. The thing is, in role playing games we mostly don't know what story we will end up with. The fun is to find that out. And if the story is "promising young hero with prospects of marrying the princess and spoiling the bad wizards ploy dies from a random encounter with goblins in the woods" than that is that particular story.

It needn't end there, too. Other characters may decide to bring his corpse to the princess and avenge the death by purging the goblin pest from the kingdom or looking for a new suitor for that lonely princess. Or the characters brother is trying to fill that dead brothers way too big shoes and there's still that wizard at large. It's about the story all those involved in the game experience, not necessary about one specific character. Or at least not to a point where Plot Immunity is deserved.

Same goes for non-player characters. You telling me the main villain botched and broke his neck falling down some stairs? So what? Embrace it! There is a power vacuum to be filled by someone else now and whatever that villain had planned, might still come to pass, maybe it gets worse, maybe it had been for the better (... not). However, the narrative goes on. No character in a story actually deserves that kind of protection.

A little nuance, please!

Such a thing as a "pointless death" does not exist in role playing games. Actually, if you try to make that argument for anything that transpires at your table, you either failed as a DM or as a player. End of story. There are, however, gray areas in between to explore. Just because it's possible to die in a game, doesn't mean one has to all the time. It's just not for the DM to decide when something like that is to happen or not, it's (and there's your nuance) that the system is used in a way that the possible outcome doesn't have to be death, although it very well might be.

Saving Throws work that way, so do hit points (with rules for dying or dismemberment or what have you), resurrection spells are a possibility (but for that you'd have to die) and the enemy could also always have a motive to keep you alive for some reason or another ... In other words, what player skill can't address should be covered by the system, by the DM and, to some degree (!), by the narrative. As long as you are just exploring where the journey is going instead of trying to get it somewhere specific, you should be okay.

I guess a word to simply cheating with the dice behind the screen to avoid character death. For one, players will catch up sooner or later (especially if they aren't hit often enough although they should have been ...) and when that happens, it hurts the game. However, done in moderation it can help adjusting previous mistakes or judgments a DM did.

I've seen this discussed occasionally and people tend to have strong opinions about the subject (never cheat! it hurts the players/the game/your mother!). As with all things, there is no one answer. There is one thing, though, and it's universally acknowledged to be true: the DM is the last arbiter of the rules. He is the buffer between the game and the players. So if a DM decides that 10d6 damage is too much in a certain case, he's well within his rights to change those results (within reason and considering the caveats above). My 2 cents.

Basically: just don't use it!

Or else ... Just kidding :) [source]
In summary you could say: find ways to avoid plot immunity at all costs. There are many, many legit solutions to protect characters, among them allowing players to learn the game and to get better at it. Just letting something happen, because someone wanted it to happen has nothing to do with stories or role playing, it's just low level impulse satisfaction. In the long run no one gains from behavior like that.

On the contrary, it will most likely hurt the precious pseudo-reasoning leading to decisions like that by diminishing the results once they come to pass. In other words, it doesn't feel like an achievement if getting there didn't really demand anything.

Anyway, I'll stop here. It's enough to chew on, I guess. That whole complex about computer game designers and publishers being way ahead of what happens in our hobby is something I'll never get tired of and will definitely come back to again. For now I hope I was able to show how little things (or the perception of them) can have a huge impact on our game.

I'm also not kidding when I'm saying that all those "balancing" tools that became so popular since 3e (and have existed before, see the Rules Cyclopedia, for instance) are barking at the wrong tree or summon the impression that this (1) is all you need and (2) that games aren't inherently balanced to begin with (which they should be to begin with, if you think about it). It begs the question what those games are lacking that they need those kind of tools to conceal it ... Again, for another post. In some form or another.

As always, comments and impressions are very welcome. How do you guys handle this in your games? What are you doing if you encounter this as players? Do you speak with the DM?

Saturday, November 18, 2017

D&D history in context: some like it demanding (a polemic against the commercialization of our hobby, if you need to know)

Every time I see the argument made that we don't need more than light rules because "the story is the thing" and how all the Great Old Ones rolled that way, I get the feeling that it can't be true. Never really was able to put my finger on the why, though. Now, I just saw this floating past in my stream again and felt that same concern rising. However, this time I remembered a good friend of mine telling me he translated the Nibelungenlied again, in his free time, just for leisure and to experience the original in all its glory. I am now prepared to address this topic among other things. This one is for all the nerds out there.

But Gary did it!

It starts harmless enough. Yes, if you dig deep, you'll find the first big names in our hobby saying something to the effect that they use simplified versions of the games they sell. You just need a die and the yes/no resolution is enough to keep the game going, is what they seem to say. Because, the story is the ... you know the gospel. Fun fact is, though, that none of them stopped writing games (Gygax certainly didn't and his games didn't get less complex, too) or just relied on the established to play their games (Barker, for instance, never stopped expanding on his setting and had a HUGE corpus to loot from for his stories ... actually to an extent that you could say that the setting superseded the rules).

So, there is no "easy" answer to the question how many rules are "just right" for a game. One thing should be clear, though, games with "light" rules certainly aren't the solution to everything. Especially not because of some obscure quotes used out of context. There is an argument to be made that light rules are, in fact, not the "better" tools to tell stories, because that would be like saying that using fewer words would make for better stories as well.

That said, I'd like to add that everything has its place and function and a game being light in rules does not necessarily mean it's bad. There is just no universal truth attached to it other than that it is one way to game.

Furthermore, to claim it is "old school" to use rules light systems is just as much bullshit. If you need proof of this assertion, look how the hobby developed in it's early years, commercially and on the DIY front (check out Arduin, for instance). You will find that it is very much about diversity and individual solutions before anything else. The tenor has not been "less rules" but "make it your own!".

Hence, what all those new light rule systems flooding the market seem to forget (conveniently so, I might add) is that the bare bones version that is the first edition of D&D not only specifically states that it is just to show how it's done and that a DM is to make his own game following those examples (something many, many groups did, btw), it also wasn't considered as "finished".  Here is the quote from the tome itself (OD&D, Vol. 3, p.36, 1974):
There are unquestionably areas which have been glossed over. While we deeply regret the necessity, space requires that we put in the essentials only, and the trimming will oftimes have to be added by the referee and his players. We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way! On the other hand, we are not loath to answer your questions, but why have us do any more of your imagining for you? Write to us and tell about your additions, ideas, and what have you. We could always do with a bit of improvement in our refereeing.
Gygax is saying this after having completed roughly 100 pages, spread over 3 booklets. Printing in the 70s most certainly also had an impact on that (limitations we tend to forget nowadays since it is fairly easy to print and/or spread books). Sometimes I wonder how thick those first books would have turned out to be if they could have printed what they wanted. I think how the game developed after that first edition gives us an idea.

Let's take the deep dive here.

A short and partial history of D&D

Of course they added more supplements with the success of the game and a revision of the rules shortly after that (B/X) until the game had matured enough to evolve to AD&D 1e as early as 1977. That's 3 years after the original release! Here is another fun fact: while the last revision of the AD&D 2. edition had been published in 1995, development of that iteration of the game had been going strong until as late as 2009 when Kenzer & Co.'s HackMaster 4e, the true successor of the original D&D, got discontinued. HackMaster had been published as a pure revision of the AD&D rules in 2001 and should be considered AD&D 3e. In other words, it took 27 years of development to get what started as OD&D in 1974 to the level of maturity that is the HackMaster series.

I'd like to stress at this point that this is only talking this specific strain of D&D, not including a plethora of magazines and hobby efforts that also added to it during that time. It also disregards the commercial successors of the D&D brand (3e onwards) and completely ignores every other role playing games written in that specific quarter of a century (for now). Still it's a whole lot of material to go with the original premise of those early books and not just 2 pages of rules with supposedly everything said that needs saying ...

It is only after the corporate attempt to get rid of the original (A)D&D (no new publications and no reprints or pdfs of the early versions of D&D) that the so called old school movement got enough traction to become popular (namely with OSRIC and Basic Fantasy in 2006 and Labyrinth Lord in 2007, all being not that popular in the beginning and falling right into the decline of HackMaster while referencing older/different editions/versions of the game). OSRIC runs 400 pages, btw.

After that Swords & Wizardry (in 2008) and Lamentations of the Flame Princess* (in 2010) made their debut and at some point after that it started earning enough money that the Wizards of that Coast took notice and not only started to make stuff available again as reprints and pdfs, but also incorporated as much as they could into D&D 5e (in 2014). It's also somewhere in that last phase that publication cycles started shrinking dramatically, a development we see now reaching its peak (or already being in full decline, not sure what it is ... the market has reached saturation long ago).

A history to learn from?

The point is, when someone tells you the game needs just one die and one rule to be played and that's how they did it in the early days or that that's "old school", well, then that person is feeding you a line. The history of our hobby is, if anything, one of development and exploration of the possibilities. And while those first games openly embraced and accommodated that fact, while the DIY-corners of the hobby still celebrate it to this day, there is a concerning amount of people openly not only ignoring it, but also trying to re-write that history for their own marketing endeavors (a trend arguably starting with D&D 3e, as far as the corporate version goes).

The things people do to earn a buck, right? However, there is an alarming tendency to not only flood the market with product, the feedback loop is vanishing as well: it's just not possible to find enough meaningful reviews to do all that material justice (considering that people might actually have to have played a module or game to get a proper impression of it's potential makes this even more difficult!). In consequence, published material is reduced to short-sighted and (unfunded) opinionated marketing schemes, innovation gets mostly short-handed or ignored and earlier developed insights/achievements get hand-waved or re-written.

It's crazy. The Taxidermic Owlbear lists over 210 entries of games as D&D "retro-clones" and from what I have seen, it's not complete (the whole Black Hack movement is missing, for instance). It's not far-fetched to say that in the last ten years there have roughly been 2 new and complete D&D clones published per month (on average, of course). Add other games to that, add modules, adventures, supplements. Nowadays no month goes by where you couldn't buy at least 10 new OSR related products. Plus those you can get for free. All mostly unchecked and (or consequently) unplayed. For all we know there might be some brilliant unknown games among them (there are some great known games for sure). It's just all rather unprocessed, I think.

This is neither "old school" nor in the spirit of the hobby. Not to that degree. Right now it's nothing better than milking the masses and adding to the pile. I admit that I partly came to that conclusion due to the latest climate in the gaming community at large where it's no more about the quality as much as it is about the person who wrote/published/talked about it that decides whether something has merit or not (mostly using so called ad hominem argumentation as business model).

The only thing "old school" about the whole affair right now seems to be that it shows the same patterns of inconsiderate and greed-guided commercial harvesting our western culture is known for, if need be by going as low as using politics, elitism and gate-keeping. It's not about the art or the game as medium, it's not (as much) about exploring what's possible or about diversity or being welcoming. It's all become cyclic in a way that people don't do the research for their stuff anymore. It's not important how many times people already have written about a topics or the insights they had, it's about being the first to voice an original thought about descending AC (or whatever), as if that is possible.

It's about ignoring history to keep the train running.

That's not to say we shouldn't write or publish ...

Sounds a bit counter-intuitive at first and I've heard friends already say that they don't dare publishing something because of the thresholds they see in the community. As I said above, the market is saturated and it is mostly not about content or the effort, but about how well something looks or who is associated with it. It's also tough competition, especially if you are not being all political, polemic or loud about it in general.

However, if you are willing to put in the time to write a game or an adventure, you should of course give it your best effort and put it out there. Not because it's published and there are prestige and fame to gain, but because it is all about the journey. Nothing will make you understand a thing better than making it yourself with the attitude to do it as good as possible. As much as this is true for, say, building a boat, it is true for writing a role playing game or an adventure or a monster ... You will gain every time and if you have patience, people will take the time and discuss it with you. Honestly, even if one person reads what I wrote and takes something away, that's a win in my book.

Well, and that's why history is so important. If we take this DIY-ethos seriously, we rely on what is established so that we can move from there. Standing on the shoulders of giants and all that jazz. We need communities that are open for that kind of exploration, but communities start with a couple of like-minded people. We help each other getting better at what we love and, in consequence, maybe get to be better people than we where before. That's why you write, that's why you publish.

If that also gains a little profit and makes you somewhat famous in your corner of the Internet, it's just as well. But if the recent developments have shown anything, than that there comes responsibility with being a public figure and many aren't ready to take that responsibility, it seems (again emphasizing the importance of learning from history, btw).

Anyway, don't do it for a buck, don't do it for the fame, just do it for the thing itself. You'll find nothing more rewarding than that (which goes for everything or whatever you chose).

Now going full circle!

So what has all of this to do with my friend translating the Nibelungenlied just for the fun of it? The short of it is that he was able to do it and he liked the exercise. Even so, there is a whole mindset behind it and it is the opposite of going the easy road. Some people like a task to be demanding, even for leisure. It can't be surprising that the same is true for our hobby. Looking at crunchy but popular games like GURPS or RoleMaster is easy proof of that and they are almost as old as the hobby itself.

However, there is a deeper meaning to it. Something that relates more to the second part of this post, the part about doing it yourself or what that really means. First of all, there had been no pressure but the one he gave himself for doing this. There is a lesson in that, as time is now our highest commodity. He could have gone for a translation instead if he wanted to revisit the story, translating it takes so much more time. It's about dedication.

If you "just" cater the market needs you will have the pressure of deadlines and all kinds of restrictions for form and content. Add competition and market saturation and you'll get an ill climate to be productive. It's so easy to forget that we are not only able to create without pressure, but that pressure actually diminishes and restricts innovation (also and as an aside, giving a market what it wants works to earn money but produces something exceptional only in the rarest of cases, see your standard Hollywood movie).

The market is like a greedy raccoon, just not as cute ... [source]
Or to put it another way: how much time does it take to write a complete role playing game? Done properly, maybe an average of 3 to 5 years? That is including testing and assuming it's done on the side but on a regular basis. You'll also have writing and publishing to consider ... According to the market, you won't get the attention span from the crowd you need to make this worth anybodies while (although kickstarters brought the illusion that it is very much possible ... although for a price and without guaranties). How long does it take to write a proper setting? Or a module like Stonehell? A book? It takes time and dedication.

What I'm saying is, the audience cannot be taken into account for this. No one will listen to you babbling about something for that long unless you are able to keep it interesting all the time (which is unlikely if you are actually working on it, right?). Which is another way of saying, if you do it, do it for yourself before anything else. Forget the market. Let them make the noise and do your thing. If your thing is writing the crunchiest game ever written and takes 25 years to finish, I'd say, hell yeah, please do.

Explore, experiment and create. Question what is already done. Embrace obscurity instead of the mainstream, it's what true nerds always excelled at. And don't listen to people that try to tell you that their marketing scheme to produce as much content as fast as possible by producing light weight copies of already existing games is the "true way" or old school. It isn't. It's more often than not just people looking at your wallet. 

I hope this resonates with some of the people getting this far. I'd appreciate it. Our hobby can do so much more that just sell empty books with funny pictures and we are barely at the beginning to find out what exactly that means (or can mean). As long as people interested in finding out where this journey is headed manage to gather and exchange, it's all good.

For me, well, I guess I will halt and start to look at what was accomplished in the last couple of years. I couldn't keep up with all the noise if I wanted to. There's so much unread stuff on my hard drive, it's uncanny. Enough to read and talk about, I'd say. And then I have to keep writing my own fantasy heart breaker no one is going to read ...

*Which has, interestingly enough, no English Wikipedia entry, but a Finnish one instead ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Look! There's a challenge! (rules vs. story ... again)

Hey folks. Long time no post. I have been around but busy. Anyway, just saw this while having my tea and thought "Finally! Someone is starting to take this whole "story vs. rules"-problem serious!". And I somewhat agree with the result. However, this being a challenge, I'll fight it with the scheme I had posted some time ago and connect it with some of the ideas and concepts I came up with. Let's rumble!

First of all, I do not disagree with the +Jack Shear's proposal. I think it illustrates a crucial part of the dynamic between rules and story quite well and I applaud that. That said, I think it is lacking one very important aspect: "story" as a result of playing role playing games is always focused on what the players make of the encounters their characters had. In other words, the elements presented in the post linked above are incomplete as they lack (or merely imply as given?) the sender-receiver relationship necessary for every communication and how that correlates to gaming.

I'm using "encounters" here in a very broad sense, as in, "a story they hear from a peasant in the street is an encounter"-kind of way ... everything in the game is filtered through that lens. There might be other stories (like, what the DM had in mind, for instance), but that is yet another layer in that everyone brings his own story to the table ("Goals" in the scheme below), each feeding into how the story in the game shapes up or what story for the characters is agreed upon.

Here is the version I came up with. It actually applies to all stories, but it sets the rules into perspective and involves how stories are structured or experienced (depending on where the story emerges):

Open in new tab to see it in all it's glory ...

[From the post linked below]: "The CHARACTERS are the center piece and everything resolves around them as ENCOUNTERS in the established WORLD (could be the DM in the moment of play, the world described in a novel or tv series or the world as you see it, to name a couple of examples, narrative would be another good word for it). A WORLD could be defined now by (at least) 4 corner stones:
  • STRUCTURE: or patterns. Structure lets you recognize and work with established patterns in a world. Is it a comedy or a tragedy? Is it magic or technology? English or French? All those patterns will shape everything around them and, in the end, the story.
  • THEMES: or labels. It's the selection you chose to describe your surroundings. Easy example would be the description of a game by the winning side compared to that by the losing side ("best referee ever!" vs. "cheating bastard of a referee!"). Fake news is another good example of labeling to influence a story.
  • RULES: or consistency. It's the rules we play by. Could be laws, could be D&D or a social contract, could be grammar ... They are always there to one degree or another and shape how we behave or judge behavior, for instance.
  • GOALS: or motivation. This is what propels the action. You want world domination? That's what you work towards. You are lonely? There you go, you'd want to meet someone. You want xp? Do what you have to do to get them and advance in levels ...
ALL THAT cumulates to STORY, every time, again and again. Depending on the story you tell, the parameters might shift and change in prominence, but they are always in effect. So if you are in the story about a couple of friends meeting to play a game of D&D it will have different parameters than the story the characters of those friends will encounter in the campaign they are playing. While the motivation in the first story might be, for instance, to have FUN, the story in the campaign and what the characters experience might just as well be a tragedy. Those things can happen simultaneously, even without conflicting with each other."

There is more and here's my attempt to collect some of it (including the explanation of the scheme above). I hope this helps giving the whole discussion a bit more fodder as I strongly believe that we are way behind in exploring this. Compare this to how they put some serious research into this for computer games, to give just one example. We need to get out of our comfort zones to see what's possible ...