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Category Archives: Role Playing Games

Fake Gaming is Real: Misha Burnett on that Critical Role Blowup

Author Misha Burnett weighs in on the recent commotion over the Critical Role show:

I started a thread about the Critical Roll situation in a Facebook group this morning. The group is kind of a general all things geeky group and I can count on them for good discussions without anyone getting political or screaming about being oppressed.

It was, for the most part, a good discussion, with a lot of different perspectives.

I did notice, though, some people getting really defensive when I pointed out that a DM who “doesn’t let player characters die” is a DM who is breaking the rules of the game to force a particular outcome.

One person insisted that she did not mean that a DM should break or ignore rules but instead just “fudge the rolls” to insure that no PC ever dies. Other people said that PCs should only die when it is the player’s choice, and one said that she will only play in games where character death is not a possibility.

And I think I figured something out. I have always wondered why players who emphasize “story-based gaming” and similar terms even bother to use books and paper and dice at all. You can have interactive storytelling just fine without them. If your goal is to just get a bunch of people to tell a story working together you need nothing more than the people and room to talk.

What’s more–the big storytelling advocates tend to have a lot of books, expensive hardbacks with tons of rules in them.

And it hit me that they want the illusion of rules, but not to be bound by them. It’s the same thing as the Soviet habit of holding elections even when there was only one party candidate to “elect”. They wanted to control the outcome while pretending that “the electoral process” put the right person in the right seat.

Storygamers want the rules in the same way. That’s why they got so defensive (I got one commenter tell me “I’m done arguing with you” when she had, in fact, not advanced a single argument) when I pointed out that if the rules weren’t being followed there’s no reason to have them at all.

They don’t want to admit that they are being capricious and arbitrary and just deciding how they want things to go. Instead what they want is a stack of rules that they can point to that prove that they are playing fair and earning their successes and that they all have 20th level half-unicorn bloodmages because they are just that good. And pointing out that they started at 10th level with magic items and have a DM who “fudges” away any negative result makes them livid.

So they keep bringing up “House Rules” and “Rule 0” and about how the DM is the final arbitrator of the rules. And that’s well and good, I am all in favor of house rules. But there is a big difference between a poker dealer saying “twos are wild” as he’s dealing and someone who says, “I’m going to turn this two into a seven to fill my straight” after the cards are turned over.

These people are only cheating themselves. The situations that develop when players are subjected to coherent rules and actual risks are so much richer than those that are derived from what people think would be the most intriguing. And I can almost understand it.

The rules and the dice really are there to protect you. They are like a climber’s rope and harness. They work… but you have to trust them. And when you’re fifty feet up on the wall, you really start to wonder: if I start to rappel down, is this stuff really going to work? It’s scary. It really is! But the moment you throw yourself off that wall… wow, is that ever fun!

It’s the same thing when you’re sitting there with half a dozen people looking at you expecting a good time at your table. I can’t imagine it really, having all of those rpg books, dice, adventures… spending countless hours “gaming” but never once seeing what happens if you just go where the dice and the rules and the adventure and the player choices take you.

I really can’t imagine it.

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Kitchen Sink Gaming is “The Best Gaming Evar!” Gaming

A reader writes in:

One of the best games I ever ran was deliberately crazy; I literally made up most of the setting itself on the fly, and I did whatever sounded fun and ridiculous and crazy. There were airships flying over seas of mist that were inhabited by daemons to get to cities on plateaus and tepuis that poked up out the mist. There were wars between sentient gorillas and Amazon warriors from Opar (La even made a brief appearance.) There was a gun that could kill almost anything (ripped straight from the first season of Supernatural.) There was an extended riff on Freaky Friday where two characters got their bodies swapped with nearby dead NPCs—the groups misogynistic Don Juan was stuck in the body of Fast Times era Phoebe Cates and the slimy used car salesman slash pirate hobgoblin was stuck in the body of a gorilla with a hook for one hand. There was a caper involving a noblewoman that was not terribly unlike the issue the Three Musketeers had to resolve between Queen Anne and the Duke of Buckingham. Later, I borrowed the basic plot of The Hangover and had them realize that they’d somehow “lost” a few days from their memory, during which all kinds of crazy things happened, including the hobgoblin getting married to a half fiend spy.

You know… this guy is making the point that the stuff that makes for great gaming is not what you’d want for great fiction. But I think a whole lot of people would actually want to read something this awesome.

Responding to “The joy of reading role-playing games”

Okay, I really have to comment on this one. Most of the text from the article is here in pull quotes. But do be sure to read the whole thing.

I’m a lifelong fan of role-playing games, but I rarely play them. Dungeons & Dragons. Call of Cthulhu. Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyberpunk 2013. Traveller. I’ve been enchanted by the words and illustrations, and drawn into the imaginary worlds of as many RPGs as novels. So I’m always surprised, and a little dismayed, when RPGs are left out of the popular discussion about books and reading.

Spoken like a man that does not read the Castalia House blog. Heck, even Black Gate and Tor.com and The Escapist have plenty of gaming related posts that delve into the literature that inspired them. Never mind the hundreds of game blogs that kick this stuff around day in and day out. Good grief, man, you’re not the first person to get the idea to write on this topic.

Though the term didn’t exist back when I was a teenager, squatting on comic-book floors to thumb through expensive hardback editions, RPGs are an example of the kind of literature described by Espen J Aarseth as “ergodic”. These are books, like digital literature, computer-generated poetry and MUDs, where a “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text”. And they are more common than you might think, especially in geek culture. Game books that allow you to “choose your own adventure” are ergodic, as are fantasy novels with extensive maps and world-building notes. But the RPG handbook pushes ergodic reading to its limit.

RPGs are arguably (as S. John Ross has said) the apex of genre fiction. What’s interesting about them is not the fact that they can be categorized under the umbrella of an academic term right alongside text adventures and choose your own adventure books. What’s interesting about them is the fact that they are insanely fun.

By putting aside simple narrative storytelling and replacing it with detailed description, the RPG offers the total immersion in an imaginary world so valued by geek readers. The elaboration of leading characters, political factions and major historical events is sometimes a very dry exercise in world building, but done with enough skill it can spark a deeply satisfying response.

Okay, now this is where it is clear that you don’t actually play these games all that much. There is a particular sort of game master that comes off more as a failed novelist than someone that is keen on mastering a game. Their works within the medium– particularly when they get paid by the word– are almost uniformly atrocious. The things that seem excite you as a game book reader are the things that are least relevant to getting a good game experience.

For writers such as Junot Díaz, who often played Dungeon Master, RPGs were “a sort of storytelling apprenticeship”, where he “learned a lot of important essentials about storytelling, about giving the reader enough room to play”.

Junot Díaz’s greatest contribution to gaming was that he dropped out of it when he finally got to the point in life where he could get a girlfriend. Seriously, though… why is it that “journalists” always have to bring this guy up every single time they talk about tabletop gaming. This guy has nothing to do with it. He is not an authority on it. It’s like every topic is an opportunity for you to talk about a couple of your buddies. It’s weird.

China Miéville talks about a childhood playing RPGs – which gave him a “mania for cataloguing the fantastic” and a “weird fetish for systematisation”. For Miéville, the best weird fiction is at “the intersection of the traditions of surrealism with those of pulp”.

“I don’t start with the graph paper and the calculators like a particular kind of D&D dungeonmaster,” Miéville explains: “I start with an image, as unreal and affecting as possible, just like the surrealists. But then I systematise it, and move into a different kind of tradition.”

China’s a great guy, I’m sure. But again, here… there are a lot of people that played RPGs when they were kids. The people that only did that, regardless of how they distinguished themselves elsewhere, really don’t have anything of interest to say on the subject. Again, this is really weird.

First published in 1974, Dungeons & Dragons became the first globally successful RPG because it encapsulated the genre of heroic fantasy. Stories of Robert E Howard, Fritz Lieber and Jack Vance were little-read in the 1970s, but Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson used them to provide the character archetypes and world for their game. In turn Dungeons & Dragons spawned a revival of heroic fantasy fiction and also inspired the video game makers who would create a swathe of massively successful computer RPGs.

Yeah, not like all those other RPGs that came out before D&D. Man, if you’re an expert on all of those games, you really owe us a few blog posts on that topic. I bet a lot of people would love to hear what you say about those!

Great RPG writers give players a sophisticated narrative framework, with which they too can be great storytellers. Epidiah Ravachol’s indie RPG Swords Without Master is a brilliant example of such expert game making. In just a few dozen pages Ravachol dissects the structure of heroic fantasy narrative into its archetypal parts. Swords Without Master is a very different game to D&D, reflecting the shift within RPG design away from rules and dice rolls, towards pure storytelling…

The pleasures of reading Ravachol are not entirely abstract. The reader is drawn in to a world of “strange sorceries, brutal violence and astounding wonder” right from the first page…. You emerge from reading Swords Without Master not only convinced you understand every nuance of heroic fantasy, but also with the impression of having spent time in a world very different from our own.

Okay, so what. If I want to be drawn into a world, I read a novel. If I’m going to judge this game… I want to know how it plays. I want to know what kind of experience its players are liable to have. Again, this idea of you getting your kicks reading an RPG and then dressing up the whole thing in some sort of pseudo-academic jargon is really weird.

Shock : Social Science Fiction by Joshua AC Newman performs a similar trick with the complex beast that is science fiction. Writers and critics of SF have argued for decades about what defines the genre, a Gordian Knot that Newman cuts through like a 21st-century Alexander the Great. Shock allows players to explore near future worlds which have been disrupted by “Shocks”. But what makes a shock a “Shock”?

Okay, now you really lost me. I mean… are you seriously talking about using your experience of not playing games to improve your experience of not writing science fiction? That’s pretty out there even for the Guardian!

These gems of indie RPG design are only the tip of what is now a very sizable industry. When the fifth edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Guide was published in 2014 it took the No 1 spot on Amazon.com.

Pulp adventure RPG Planet Mercenary recently became the latest in a long line of RPG-related Kickstarters to achieve success on a similar scale. And of course, RPGs continue to dominate the world of video games, expanding their audience into billions, far beyond the scope of any single novel.

The size of the industry is irrelevant to hobbyists. Amazon rankings are sneered at when any other topic is being discussed. (Hint: Sad Puppies.) Kickstarter has had a largely negative impact on the scene. And computerized RPGs are so different from their pen and paper forbears, they really have nothing much to do with them. But yes. These two paragraphs will succeed in making these games sound relevant to a large group of people that don’t actually care about them.

Can the novel itself learn a few lessons from RPGs? The ergodic reading experience broke into the literary mainstream with Mark Z Danielski’s House of Leaves. But the novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure. For all their pop culture aesthetic and emphasis on escapism, in these days of the mega-novel innovative reading experiences are to be found in the mysterious worlds of the RPG.

No. Failed gamers can be really great failures at writing, too. But when it comes to games, the play’s the thing. And what is it with your insinuation that the “novel remains stubbornly attached to traditional narrative structure”? I mean, just because you want to try something different it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with all the books that people are enjoying and reading and discussing right now.

But really, it’s hard to get more pathetic than the idea that a non-existent literature exists in a pile of games you don’t play. Seriously, though, it’s a shame that you couldn’t take bandwidth you’ve used here to talk about all the great times you’ve had running “Swords Without Master”. That actually could have been useful to people. But thank you for once again demonstrating that if people read about RPGs in a major newspaper, they will read people who know nothing about them talk about things that have nothing to do with them to people that don’t really care.

Does Rule Zero Empower Game Masters To Handle Problem Players?

Over at Talking Game, Eric Franklin makes the Sad Puppies out to be like the very worst sorts of gamers. “The folks involved with this are using the ‘We didn’t break any rules,’ argument,” he writes. “As a gamer, I am well aware that ‘We didn’t break the rules,’ is shorthand for, ‘I know I’m being an asshole.’ Because I hear it at the table all too often.”

This got a hearty Amen from Rev. Bob at File770:

Oh, exactly this. Min-maxers, munchkins, powergamers… the breed goes by many names, but it’s all the same thing. These are the guys who comb through the rulebooks, searching for that golden combo that is technically legal yet completely broken. They’re why Rule Zero of every role-playing game is that the GM gets to say no, with as much vehemence as needed, when such a situation surfaces. (And then he puts a house rule in place to keep it from happening again, but there’s always another loophole. Nature of the beast.) I’ve been that GM, and sometimes I’ve thought I would have to kick a player out of the game for that nonsense.

This is something that’s been kicked around quite a bit in the game blogging scene, but I don’t think this is entirely accurate. You see, Rule Zero is not in the roleplaying game books because gaming attracts toxic, competitive jerks. Rule Zero is fundamental to rpgs because they cannot function without it. In traditional rpgs, even in situations where there are rules that bear directly on what is happening in the game there is a great deal of judgement involved. Players make appeals, and a good game master doesn’t provoke the players unnecessarily, but even a guy that attempts maintain a perfect consensus at the table has to exercise his authority continually in ways both subtle and broad-gauged.

(Oh… if those min-maxer types are a hassle, consider going back to a game where characters are created by rolling 3d6 in order six times. Also, embrace and encourage the sort of play that goes beyond the strict boundaries of the rules and module definitions. You have to do it to play anyway, but you don’t have to fight it so much. And yes, I’m aware that some rpgs are more like board games and that other recent games distribute gm authority more among the group as a whole. I’m not talking about those games.)

“Booting someone because he’s a jerk who sucks the fun out of the room” is something that people and groups end up having to do on occasion, but I think that’s an entirely different subject. Social concerns such as who gets to play, where, when, how, and/or whether or not people can eat in the living room are outside the scope of what rpg rules actually address. Anyone at anytime can declare that they refuse to participate or host as long as a given person is involved. That’s not gaming. That’s people. What’s required when those situations come up is a combination of grace, tact, and good sense. Rule Zero has nothing to do with that and is no help there in any case.

Making Elves Different

Okay, I admit it. Reading Lord Dunsany changed my life. Exaggeration? Maybe a little. But the fact is, when a book changes the way you see things… when a book changes what you’re even capable of seeing… I’m sorry, that is something that is going to ultimately spill over into everything else about you.

The thing I like best about this is of course the new insights that apply to longstanding problems in gaming. On the fantasy side, we have elves being generically all tall and blonde and vaguely “gay”. In science fiction we have the “people in rubber suits” problem. I’ve heard so many complaints about this sort of thing over the years, but I’ve never heard anyone point out that Lord Dunsany had put this to bed before most of our favorite authors were even born.

Anyway, if you want to make elves in your game different on some fundamental level, here are a few things to look at:

  • Timelessness — Okay, you probably get that time doesn’t mean the same thing to people that are basically immortal. But most stories about elves have some sort of thematic element related to time. Do your elves even comprehend what time actually is? Can they stop time when they interact with people in the human world? Can elves entice mortal heroes into a place where they will be (in effect) transported ten, a hundred, or even a thousand years into the future?
  • Elusiveness — While you might set an elvish stronghold on your campaign map, that doesn’t mean player characters will be able to just go straight to it. And hey… maybe being an Elf Friend has its privileges in that regard. But somehow, some way… there should be a physical place strangely disconnected to the earth that only the elves know how to get to and from. Elfland, the Uttermost West, something…!
  • Immortality —  Tolkien explored at length what happens when mortal men attempt to achieve the kind of elvish immortality that has been denied them: bad stuff ensues! What happens when things go the other way? What if the elves desire to be more like mortals in some way… and then things go terribly wrong because of that?
  • Heaven — If elves don’t have souls, then what happens when they die? What does it even mean that there are no elves in heaven? I personally have not ever given much thought to this– and I’ve often been mystified by the fact that this turns up as some sort of rules artifact in various places. But really, both Tolkien and Lord Dunsany gave this sort of thing a great deal of attention. Have you even considered your game’s cosmology all that much…? What kind of deal would elves make with demons and so forth if they don’t even have a soul to offer them in exchange?
  • Half-Elves — The biggest takeaway from Tolkien and Dunsany here is that this is not just another fantasy race with it’s own perks and foibles. Rather… this is a rare thing that is necessarily going to have tremendous historical and mythical impact. In Tolkien you have the weird situation where Elrond chooses to be more like the elves while his twin brother chooses to become the first of the Númenóreans. In the King of Elfland’s Daughter, Orion has this strange connection to an entirely alien world– and he is the conduit through which magic spills over into an otherwise forgettable little kingdom. Do you think half-elves should have some sort of mind blowing destiny… or should they be more like some sort of weirdness magnet? Or something else entirely?!
  • Alignment — The original Law/Chaos alignment spectrum of Poul Anderson conflates aspects of “good vs. evil”, “mundane vs. magical”, and “human vs. elvish” into some sort of epic supernatural struggle. Dunsany seems to emphasize the themes of “familiar vs. alien” and “Christian vs. fantastic” even more. But in his handling, I see alignment being more of a separate stat signifying how elvish you are and how likely you are to encounter or even be aware of the fantastic. Children and princes would have low scores while peasants might have zero. Foxes will have more. Trolls and elves will have the maximum rating… but fantastic creatures that spend time in “the fields we know” might gradually lose points. However you play this… the trick is to stop thinking about alignment as being some sort of cheap Myers Briggs knock off and more about some sort of fantastic conflict between worlds that fundamentally reflects the nature of every creature’s being and which has real consequences that can impact the very fabric of reality in surprising ways.

Don’t let yourself be limited by watered down fantasy that has been filtered through a lazy combination of materialism and naturalism. Strike off into new territory by facing the demands of myth head on.