Judging the Game

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I find your article to be a considered and reasonable approach to the Old School of thought on role-playing: let the dice fall where they may. Your central idea seems to be that fun is always better when it is earned, that making choices resulting in real impact is the most fun you can have, even if you die. It isn't a bad thought and it has certainly made a generation of RPG fans happy but I think it is limited mostly because there is more than one player.

For example, lets say someone in the group you are playing with has a bad day. A very bad day. And they decide to do something suicidally foolish, such as tell off a major demon to his face while you are standing next to him. By the agency of fun idea, the consequence should be clear: you die and perhaps next time you won't have such foolish friends. That seems to take a lot of the fun out of the game. I'm not saying you support this idea, but that seems to be what your article supports.

Likewise, your advice to young GMs leads straight to the pitfalls of power-gamers ruining games. If I am better at manipulating the rules than you, I can build a more powerful character and have a greater control of the story than you. By allowing me agency in the game, the DM has taken away yours which can be far more frustrating. It's one thing if we all ride a train together, it is quite another if only I get to drive and you do not.

Finally, agency of fun necessitates the death of long-term story. If a bad choice leads to failure, and anyone can have a bad day, failure is inevitable. A story critical event, then, can never be guaranteed so you cannot have any guaranteed story elements. If we are honest, we all know games have a script. Throwing that script out means a lot more work for the GM, already the hardest working guy at the table. And it can often lead boring courses: too scared at the powerful enemies, the party can just hold up in a defensive position and do very little or wander aimlessly because their seems to be point to life other than what they make for themselves.

I propose a different core idea for GMs to avoid these and other pitfalls: make LONG TERM fun your goal. This means your job as a GM is to challenge the party, provide a framework and keep the story moving. Failing occasionally is fine, but if they fail constantly you don't need to change the rules immediately. In general, players should feel like they are in control, even if they are not. They do not need to know that either underneath the dark citadel or on the peak of the lonely mountain they find the same set of guardians. Just as suspension of disbelief is required for all games, so too is the illusion of agency.

When it comes to RPGs, there is no right or wrong way so you need to measure the game by fun of the group. A "let the dice fall as they may" is fun for some but other can be caught up in a good roller coaster and have a blast. Good advice to new GMs is to get to know your players and have a game you can have fun with. It doesn't have to be railroad, it can have branching paths to the same place. The game can be very open, free to explore all the consequences you want. You are very right when you say "If you're the GM, it's not your job to make sure people have fun. The belief that when a player doesn't have fun it's the GM's fault has caused more GMs more grief and heartburn than any other myth in gaming." But how can you know if you are a good GM if you don't have way to measure?

lokidr:
I find your article to be a considered and reasonable approach to the Old School of thought on role-playing: let the dice fall where they may. Your central idea seems to be that fun is always better when it is earned, that making choices resulting in real impact is the most fun you can have, even if you die. It isn't a bad thought and it has certainly made a generation of RPG fans happy but I think it is limited mostly because there is more than one player.

Thanks for the well-considered response. You have certainly highlighted many of the challenging aspects involved in running a game in the manner I have described. To reply to your three points, let me break them up:

1) Bad Day - Certainly, it's possible for a person to have an exceptionally bad day out of game and bring his personal rage/anger/disgust to bear in a way that causes horrible problems for the game. I once had a player in Cyberpunk 2020, who'd had a fight with his girlfriend, deliberately trigger an atomic explosion to kill everyone's characters, just because.
2) Power Gamers - It can certainly be the case that a power gamer in a party of non-power gamers can wreak havoc by making his character better than everyone's.

Both #1 and #2 are just special cases of "player problems" and player problems are endemic to all campaigns. For example, in a more directed, narratively-driven story setting, a player having a bad day could also insult and abuse a critical NPC - say, a major noble whose alliance must be gained. How does the GM handle it? If he doesn't impose consequences on the party, he's made it clear that what the players say doesn't really matter and the railroad becomes apparent. Likewise, in more RP-centric campaigns, we've all seen the "amateur actor" with a high Charisma character who talks so much that more introverted, numbers-driven players can't participate.

I believe, for all types of GMs, the best way to handle the "griefing because of a bad day" problem is to immediately stop the game, pull the player aside, and ask him to leave the session to cool off, and have his character suffer whatever fate normally happens to absent players - in my campaigns, they become NPCed for that session. I have generally handled this with a "you'll thank my later" approach, and, in fact, the players always have thanked me for intervening. I'm sure other experienced GMs have their own methods. But the one thing I never do is alter the game to accomodate someone being a jerk for any reason.

Likewise, with power gamers, it's an issue best handled outside the game. The GM should talk to the player about expectations of his game. The GM is entitled to play with people of his choosing who play in ways he likes, and the best answer to a genuinely problem player is to not play with him. Most people, when confronted with bad behavior, will tone it down, though, I've found.

As far as #3) Story - Long-term story plans can absolutely be disrupted by an unexpected failure. But this is why I argue against long-term directed story in favor of emergent story. To be fair, however, my games are almost always set in campaigns that follow the Tolkienesque theme of the "long defeat" - i.e. it's not that the good guys are guaranteed to win, it's more inevitable that evil will one day win. The good guys are just hoping it won't be today. If your GM tastes run towards lighter fare, though, there are plenty of rule sets and optional rules that can stack the odds in the player's favor without needing to eliminate their agency. Mutants & Masterminds is brilliant at this.

lokidr:
Finally, agency of fun necessitates the death of long-term story. If a bad choice leads to failure, and anyone can have a bad day, failure is inevitable. A story critical event, then, can never be guaranteed so you cannot have any guaranteed story elements. If we are honest, we all know games have a script. Throwing that script out means a lot more work for the GM, already the hardest working guy at the table. And it can often lead boring courses: too scared at the powerful enemies, the party can just hold up in a defensive position and do very little or wander aimlessly because their seems to be point to life other than what they make for themselves.

When it comes to RPGs, I think Lajos Egri's conception of storytelling is far preferable to Plato's: the characters come first, and their attitudes, choices, and motivations create everything else, including the plot. Instead of laying out a plotline to follow, get together and write characters with strong beliefs and a reason to go out and test them.

Failure is an essential component of dramatic stories. It's what makes the protagonists' struggle credible, interesting, and sympathetic. Don't be afraid of failure in your game, just make failure interesting! Of course failure sucks if all you get is "You die" or "Nothing happens"(*) -- but imagine how much success would suck if you just phoned it in like that, too. Someone failed a die roll? There's your chance to introduce something tense or scary or emotionally trying.

If you know what you're doing, collaborative on-the-spot improvisation is far, far less work than a scripted "story", and produces a superior experience to boot. The catch is that it's a different set of skills from the story-railroad or this-is-my-dungeon-go-explore-however-you-want styles of GMing -- one that, in my opinion, most RPG books teach poorly if they teach it at all. And the whole point is not just to do less work, but to distribute the work (and the authority, and the fun) between everyone at the table.

-- Alex
__________
* - And, yeah, I know some games tend to encourage sucky failure mechanically. Boo for them. :(

Alex_P:

GhostLad:
Storytelling is the least of the GMs jobs, because it is the one least likely to sour the game and detract from the enjoyment of the group as a whole. A bad judgement, or an gamebreaking enemy can do a lot more harm in the short term (which is where a game session takes place), than starting each story in a tavern can ever do.

So, here's another way to say that: "The game's system is more sensitive to a GM's mechanical missteps than the game's players are to the GM's crappy ideas."

I don't think that observation is incorrect or anything; but, to me, that's mostly a sign that you've got a fragile and fussy system on your hands.

-- Alex

Yes, it does seem a bit like stating the obvious. The system we are currently running is not to fault, though. It's Exalted by White Wolf, and if anything it's a bit too robust in the rules department. We try to stick to it as much as possible, but there are some small aspects that we skip over for now. Stuff like jumping in combat giving you penalties to actions taken in the same round: that one get's tossed to make it easier to create dramatic combat actions (called stunts in the game) without accidentially handicapping yourself. But I digress..

The situation I was getting at with that statement was the power-gamer aspect of a game. Some people are idiots and will power-game because they can. Most, however, are doing it by accident. It's only natural for each player to want their character as good as he can be, especially if the GM isn't loath to kill them off if it benefits the story. The danger comes when the GM doesn't say no, or worse, when the GM is the power-gamer.

That's one situation where the GM must put story behind judging. The particular power-gaming trick they try to pull might be quite cool. It might even solve a particular problem. Heck, it may spark all sorts of ideas for further plothooks and stories. But even then, a GM should be careful about letting it slide, because it can set a dangerous precedent. A player is very unlikely to forget what they can pull off, and will expect (naturally) to be able to do something similar later on again. If the original feat f.inst required a certain Atheletics score that the character doesn't have, nor any in the party have, the GM should put a stop to it, and refer the rules about what you can do with such-and-such in a score. Let the player find another way to do it, if possible, with the stats they have.

If the GM can stop players in this fashion, the players should also be able to hold the GM accountable. Say a GM wants to introduce his favorite NPC, come hell or high water. The PCs need to get from A to B, and the GM has decided to take away choice by making it impossble to get to B without said NPC. If the players don't want that (maybe they don't trust the guy), if they have the skills (able to navigate cross-country, or high investigation scores to find the secret the NPC knows), they absolutely should be allowed to tell the GM "the rules say we can do this without him. Stop being an arse and let us try" or words to that effect.

The GM has absolute power within a world. The only recourse the players have when he starts overtsepping what is reasonable is to refer the rulebook, and for that argument to carry weight, the rules (as agreed upon between the GM and PCS) should be upheld on both sides, sometimes to the detriment of dramatic flair or story. In the longer run, this breeds internal consistency within the setting, which is pretty damned important if you want to make believable stories. But it sacrifices "fun", because saying "no you cannot do that" is unlikely to ever be fun for the recieving part, be that PC or GM. Still, it sometimes has to be done.

Thanks for your reasonable response, Archon.

Archon:
Both #1 and #2 are just special cases of "player problems" and player problems are endemic to all campaigns. For example, in a more directed, narratively-driven story setting, a player having a bad day could also insult and abuse a critical NPC - say, a major noble whose alliance must be gained. How does the GM handle it? If he doesn't impose consequences on the party, he's made it clear that what the players say doesn't really matter and the railroad becomes apparent. Likewise, in more RP-centric campaigns, we've all seen the "amateur actor" with a high Charisma character who talks so much that more introverted, numbers-driven players can't participate.

This is where I think you and I differ. I do not believe problem players are endemic to all campaigns, I think they are made by a lack of understanding and poor expectations. For example, if you were to play in published adventure you could easily be a problem player yourself by taking more control of the story and forcing more work for the GM as they just try to run the adventure. At the heart of every published adventure is a track and and if you get too far off, the published material is useless. If you expect free-range and you don't understand published adventures you could be a problem for the game. In this case, I think you are a smart player and would see the nature of the campaign is something you aren't interested in, or at least understand other players have other interests. Judging by sales of Paizo adventure paths, others are interested.

Archon:
As far as #3) Story - Long-term story plans can absolutely be disrupted by an unexpected failure. But this is why I argue against long-term directed story in favor of emergent story. To be fair, however, my games are almost always set in campaigns that follow the Tolkienesque theme of the "long defeat" - i.e. it's not that the good guys are guaranteed to win, it's more inevitable that evil will one day win. The good guys are just hoping it won't be today. If your GM tastes run towards lighter fare, though, there are plenty of rule sets and optional rules that can stack the odds in the player's favor without needing to eliminate their agency. Mutants & Masterminds is brilliant at this.

I think we have different understandings of Tolkien. Your understanding sounds more like my understanding of Warharmer or Cthulhu. If we were to play in a game together, that would be problem, we'd be trying to work in different directions. Your understanding of a Tolkienesque game would be much more open-ended. Mine would be "the good guys win the epic struggle, I hope I live that long".

Your style of game is valid, but hardly the only style and I don't think it is the easiest or even the most fun. Modern players know video games and know there are limits on choices but still have fun with these games. Open choice has more pitfalls, more possibility for conflicts. If you set the expectations of the game to the framework of "this is the direction" and work with players to understand they should try to move in the direction, you will get less wandering, less boredom and more interesting games for new players, especially those coming from video games. I think the open game can be more rewarding but I think we both know it can be hard. If I didn't know I was playing in an open, player-driven game with no pre-set story or direction I could easily grow bored or frustrated.

I think "talk about expectations" is better advice than "let the dice fall where they may". Your approach to problems makes it clear you know expectations are important. I would say new GMS should start with expectations and find the style they think is the most fun. After all, it's easier to start with a published adventure than make something up whole-cloth.

May all your games be fulfilling.

Alex_P:

lokidr:
Finally, agency of fun necessitates the death of long-term story. If a bad choice leads to failure, and anyone can have a bad day, failure is inevitable. A story critical event, then, can never be guaranteed so you cannot have any guaranteed story elements. If we are honest, we all know games have a script. Throwing that script out means a lot more work for the GM, already the hardest working guy at the table. And it can often lead boring courses: too scared at the powerful enemies, the party can just hold up in a defensive position and do very little or wander aimlessly because their seems to be point to life other than what they make for themselves.

When it comes to RPGs, I think Lajos Egri's conception of storytelling is far preferable to Plato's: the characters come first, and their attitudes, choices, and motivations create everything else, including the plot. Instead of laying out a plotline to follow, get together and write characters with strong beliefs and a reason to go out and test them.

Failure is an essential component of dramatic stories. It's what makes the protagonists' struggle credible, interesting, and sympathetic. Don't be afraid of failure in your game, just make failure interesting! Of course failure sucks if all you get is "You die" or "Nothing happens"(*) -- but imagine how much success would suck if you just phoned it in like that, too. Someone failed a die roll? There's your chance to introduce something tense or scary or emotionally trying.

If you know what you're doing, collaborative on-the-spot improvisation is far, far less work than a scripted "story", and produces a superior experience to boot. The catch is that it's a different set of skills from the story-railroad or this-is-my-dungeon-go-explore-however-you-want styles of GMing -- one that, in my opinion, most RPG books teach poorly if they teach it at all. And the whole point is not just to do less work, but to distribute the work (and the authority, and the fun) between everyone at the table.

Thanks Alex, that sounds like one decent approach. In that case, the story would be driven by NPC characters with their own goals to which the players can react. After all, if the world contains no characters with motivations and attitudes you might as well skip the GM.

But let me propose a different style, one that is rather popular: action movies. If you are watching the latest Bruce Willis or Michal Bay movie, do you really expect character motivations to drive the plot or do you just want see various interesting fights? I feel tension in these fights, even if I know the good guys will win in the end. I know it is scripted, but it is still a fun ride because I didn't read the script ahead of time.

Likewise, a campaign can be driven by slight character motivations (you need at least some) and more driven by set-piece encounters. Dungeons and Dragons 4e follows this idea. It isn't for everyone, but clearly that level of story has interest for someone.

You say collaborative on-the-spot improvisation is less work than scripted story? I say reading is pretty easy but teaching players uninterested in improvisation is hard. I know the game you are talking about, I know it can be great fun, but I also run three games a week, one with any person off the street. I encourage improvisation as much as I can but in the end the script makes it easier to wrap up the adventure and move on. It is still fun and it is less work than teaching the kind of deep role-playing you talk about. And sometimes, when I'm lucky, I get the true improvisation you advocate and I can throw out the script and run with it. Those are are truly great moments I wouldn't have gotten unless I had that script.

Like it or not, scripted story has a valuable function for many groups.

lokidr:
I think we have different understandings of Tolkien. Your understanding sounds more like my understanding of Warharmer or Cthulhu. If we were to play in a game together, that would be problem, we'd be trying to work in different directions. Your understanding of a Tolkienesque game would be much more open-ended. Mine would be "the good guys win the epic struggle, I hope I live that long".

Totally off-topic to the main point, but Lord of the Rings is about the good guys losing, only to be saved by God. The story reflects the inherent tension between Tolkien's appreciation for pagan themes of hopeless courage, and his belief in Christian salvation. He reconciles the two by having Frodo fail in his quest, and then having an act of Christian mercy (sparing Gollum) save the day.

In suggesting that my DM style works well in the context of Tolkien's themes of the "long defeat", I'm drawing upon the purely pagan element of hopeless courage. This is the same source that RE Howard draws on for Conan, and I think it underlies Warhammer and Cthulhu, too. In pagan epics like the Iliad and Beowulf, and fiction and gaming inspired by them, there is no sense of the inevitable victory of good. And I think games where there isn't an inevitable victory for good are better as games (leave aside better as fiction) for all the reasons noted in my article.

So I guess if the DM is God, the notion of the triumph of heaven clearly represent DM fudging! :)

Some good links for those interested in a brief discussion of the theology behind Tolkien:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/11790039/JRR-Tolkien-Beowulf-The-Monsters-and-the-Critics
http://hollywoodjesus.com/lord_of_the_rings_guest_03.htm
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Long_defeat
http://confessionalgadfly.blogspot.com/2009/12/rereading-tolkein-long-defeat.html
http://www.amazon.com/Tolkien-Perspective-Sifting-Gold-Glitter/dp/0971231168

Alex_P:
Of course failure sucks if all you get is "You die" or "Nothing happens"(*) -- but imagine how much success would suck if you just phoned it in like that, too. Someone failed a die roll? There's your chance to introduce something tense or scary or emotionally trying.

Not necessarily. Depending on how your group deals with this kind of things, it can be the best part of the experience. If you see it as 'my character died', then yes, that sucks. But if you see it as 'Erik valiantly went to Kai'el's aid, and one of the enemy elves just got lucky, killing him instantly. However, his sacrifice allowed Kai'el to overcome his debilitation, and finish off the elf', or even just as 'holy shit, the enemy just rolled 24 out of a maximum 26 damage! (this retelling is surprisingly hilarious)' then the story (heck, the -legend-) of that character will be talked about in your group for years to come. Who remembers just another encounter with elves and a gnome? What people care about is the memorable events, whether they're good or bad.

Archon:

lokidr:
I think we have different understandings of Tolkien. Your understanding sounds more like my understanding of Warharmer or Cthulhu. If we were to play in a game together, that would be problem, we'd be trying to work in different directions. Your understanding of a Tolkienesque game would be much more open-ended. Mine would be "the good guys win the epic struggle, I hope I live that long".

Totally off-topic to the main point, but Lord of the Rings is about the good guys losing, only to be saved by God. The story reflects the inherent tension between Tolkien's appreciation for pagan themes of hopeless courage, and his belief in Christian salvation. He reconciles the two by having Frodo fail in his quest, and then having an act of Christian mercy (sparing Gollum) save the day.

In suggesting that my DM style works well in the context of Tolkien's themes of the "long defeat", I'm drawing upon the purely pagan element of hopeless courage. This is the same source that RE Howard draws on for Conan, and I think it underlies Warhammer and Cthulhu, too. In pagan epics like the Iliad and Beowulf, and fiction and gaming inspired by them, there is no sense of the inevitable victory of good. And I think games where there isn't an inevitable victory for good are better as games (leave aside better as fiction) for all the reasons noted in my article.

So I guess if the DM is God, the notion of the triumph of heaven clearly represent DM fudging! :)

That's quite the philosophical tangent. My understanding of Tolkien's work was a desperate but not ultimately doomed mission. The difference between this and pagan epics was the concept of ultimate doom. The ancient world could seem petty and cruel but you did not get the sense that all civilization would end. Tolkien's christian-inspired mythology does have this element. If Odysseus fails in the Odyssey, it is a tragedy. If Frodo fails to destroy the One Ring it is an apocalypse. Narratively, only the most bitter of writers would destroy their own worlds so we know the one-ring will be destroyed. The only real question are what happens along the way. Even in the case of the Odyssey, Homer follows (or creates) the tradition of literary epic: the hero participates in a cyclical journey, faces adversaries that try to defeat him in his journey and returns home significantly transformed by his journey. If the hero is killed, you can't return home. In the Greek tradition of plays, remember, deus ex machina was not considered bad: that was how they saw the universe.

This all shows how important understanding the theme of a game is to enjoying it. A total-party-kill in my view of a epic story is virtually unthinkable. In your view, it should always be a reasonable option. Hamlet and the Odyssey are both good stories but you can't expect one to be the other.

lokidr:
This all shows how important understanding the theme of a game is to enjoying it. A total-party-kill in my view of a epic story is virtually unthinkable. In your view, it should always be a reasonable option. Hamlet and the Odyssey are both good stories but you can't expect one to be the other.

To be clear, in my point of view, a total party kill should not be an impossibility if the application of the rules and dice result in it, again, for the reasons I already stated. I don't think the GM should "cheat" to save the party (or his NPCs, for that matter).

But I have no objection to games which provide for the players being heroes or survivable in their rules. There are certainly game systems and settings which allow for situations which might have resulted in a TPK to not do so, without the need for the GM to break the rules of the game.

For instance, in Mutants & Masterminds, it's virtually impossible to achieve a total party kill, regardless of what the GM or players do, by the nature of the rules. With the rules for Hero Points, Power Stunts, Extraordinary Effort, and so on, it just can't happen. Innocents may die, heroic reputations may be lost, but the good guys are almost certain to survive and have some level of victory.

I think if one wants to play D&D in such a manner, the way to do it is to build it into the mechanics of the campaign, rather than fudge the dice. For instance, I recently ran an "epic fantasy" campaign where each player had Fate Points. Spending a Fate Point let you avoid dying. You could get more Fate Points by making large sacrifices to your deity. So it turned death into a money sink. I didn't have to cheat to keep the party alive, and they accomplished their heroic quest, although some of them were poorer than they might have been, and their favorite temples much wealthier.

M&M even has an elegant mechanic for resolving GM fudging that benefits the bad guys. Their rule is that the GM can fudge as necessary for the plot to go forward, villains to survive, etc., but every time he does so, the heroes get Hero Points that they can spend. So what happens is that the early parts of any given story are "set up" by the GM, but by the end, the Hero Point-laden PCs can triumph.

Frankly I think the notion of DM fudging as a necessary element is just a holdover from before more elegant rules were developed to handle those situations where either the GM or the players ought to have more 'plot control' to fit a particular game's needs.

Archon:
Frankly I think the notion of DM fudging as a necessary element is just a holdover from before more elegant rules were developed to handle those situations where either the GM or the players ought to have more 'plot control' to fit a particular game's needs.

I don't think DM fudging is the issue, I think expectations are the issue. As I ran a Mutants and Masterminds game, one player grew upset that he had to use such mechanical tricks to keep his character alive. This was after he created a violent and criminal vigilante who upset the powers that be enough to be marked for death. He did not expect me to force him to use the rules, he expected me to fudge because he came from the tradition of those older rules.

This does not mean I should have fudged dice to keep him alive, but it does show we weren't thinking about the game in the same way. There are a lot of gamers out there who expect this kind of consideration in a game. Some players expect the rules to be played as written but don't like the style that leads to in the game (instant death in D&D before 4e). Either the modify their expectations or you fudge dice. Given the attachment players can get to rules, fudging makes the game style change without interrupting the rules players know. It's a house rule under the covers, as it were.

Nice analysis, Lokidr. I admit that I don't understand what someone would find fun about a game in which they know it's going to be fudged for their benefit, but to each their own.

An interesting read. I, myself, have often wondered if I should start DMing, and having a guide and a forum to that guide just make it more likely. And I support the idea of having a story, but not forcing it too much on the players. In the campaign my group is doing, we are currently in the process of rebuilding a village ravaged by orcs that happens to be situated in a no-man's-land between two rival kingdoms. We accepted help from one kingdom in return for a single favor, which he could call in at any time. The other kingdom sent us a powerful wizard who has a variety of cool magic gadgets and an entourage of various magic-users, one of them being a cleric capable of resurrection. So, now we have help from two kingdoms, who both want our unofficial allegiance(since declaring official allegiance such would cause the one who did not get allegiance to cry foul and attack), and we need to balance ourselves between these two. However, we also have our own village to manage. The mayor has kept his position in exchange for loyalty to us, but we don't entirely trust him. There's a pack of soul-eating(read: if they kill you, you can't be resurrected) lycanthropes(goblin-to-wolf, if you're interested) in the mountains, an ancient tomb of some kind of superpowerful king in the northern hills, a two-headed fire-breathing giant roaming the countryside, and a sepulcher surrounding an unliving knight that uses a magic described as "screaming soulfire." Not to mention the weird tower at the site of the old orc village that contains a one-way portal of unknown purpose. Our DM gives us a wide variety of subplots and big fights to focus on. So, we have agency and responsibility to apply the agency carefully. And it is a ton of fun.

Does anyone know another source of good articles like the ones that Alex is writing? I'd like to read more articles written by/for intelligent DMs that give insight into the philosophy and psychology of DMing.

Or perhaps you could help me out here Mr. Macris?

Wonderful article. Let me throw in my two cents.

First off: I really appreciate the way that you describe the role of the GM. The analogy I use is Monopoly, or volleyball, or almost any other game that humans play.

In any other game, unless we're playing with children far too young to understand the idea of deferring fun for the sake of retaining a fun game or with people with disabilities where the goal of the "game" is non-conventional, we don't think it's not "fun" that we lost the game of football, or that we landed on Broadway. We don't say, "Well, the basketball game was 98-2, but everyone wins anyways" or, "No, it wouldn't be fun if you landed on Broadway, you land on Go instead".

The challenge comes from having a chance to lose, and surpassing that chance. It comes from having to make hard decisions and take risks. Research indicates that we as human beings are hard-wired to find a long shot exciting. When we avoid landing on Broadway three consecutive times around the board, we build up suspense and excitement, just like playing poker or roulette.

Now, I'm not saying every game has to be competitive. Most role-playing games are mechanically cooperative, even if competition still emerges (e.g. "Who hurt the dragon the most?") In fact, I tend to find cooperative games to be fun and interesting. But the point is that fudging the dice rolls, or playing differently because someone's having a bad day, or whatever else, screws the game. You're not playing volleyball or Monopoly or Settlers of Catan anymore. It's not fair, it's not exciting.

This comes up in the context of different skill levels in roleplaying games too. Sometimes, newer players will feel like they're having less fun because they don't know how to design their character appropriately, because they contribute less. But the game is still fair, from a Rawlsian-perspective: We all had the same shot to make the same decisions. (I'm obviously abstracting out some things, like game balance issues where only a few builds become viable, or similar game balance issues where one person gets to be a limelight hogging class and everyone else has to play support so only one person really CAN take that slot, or when people are shoehorned into roles, or whatever). Tiger Woods may make me look like a chump in golf, but it's not unfair that we played. Now, golf does have a handicap, and one could imagine similar handicaps among players with different skill levels, but nonetheless, nothing is unfair about me vs. Tiger. If I was as good as him, nothing would impede me from winning.

However, I will note that, while the GM isn't responsible for GUARANTEEING that everyone has to have fun, they are responsible for making it THE MOST LIKELY for people to have fun. So if Rob has a bad day, the GM SHOULD throw in a little more comedy, or even run a different campaign if everyone else is game. Taking into account what your players feel like is essential. But a) you have to be having a good time too and b) you are only responsible for your best effort.

Also, I will note that the argument of dice leading to agency is actually fairly absurd. Free Will and Omniscience may be opposed, but so are Free Will and Chance. If my decisions are 100% random, there IS no agency. Early on in D&D, there is almost NOTHING one can do besides hope one rolls well. That's one reason why so many people choose Wizards, Druids and Clerics, balance be damned: Many of their mechanics (Magic Missile hitting automatically, for example) get rid of chance entirely and make it about TACTICS.

Uncertainty and risk are good things, but even if one chooses to represent them with dice (which isn't always necessary), AGENCY means having different LEVELS of risk and reward.

Power Attack, for example, turns what is a pure luck activity (roll a D20, hope it exceeds AC, roll damage) into something with actual agency and choice. A player could choose to go -1, -2, -3, -4, -5, etc. to her attack roll to get +1, +2, +3, +4, +5, etc. damage. Now the player has to determine what the opponent's likely AC is, then figure out what probability they are willing to accept of missing for what probability of dealing sufficient damage they wish to embrace.

Simply put: A game where one's tactical decisions are moot and the higher dice roll always wins is just as opposed to agency as a perfectly railroaded game is.

And one doesn't need dice, or actions with ANY chance of failure, to give uncertainty and risk a go.

Let's say I'm a wizard in D&D. I can decide to cast Magic Missile for guaranteed damage. Or I can go for Fireball or Lightning Bolt or summoning a monster, at greater risk that they don't hit but (hopefully) more payoff. The low-to-no risk option, where even rolling a 1 wouldn't prevent some degree of success, acts like betting on evens in roulette: A very safe bet with low reward.

Or let's say that we're playing a superheroes game. I have flight and forcefield projection, my opponent has flame powers and invisibility. He turns invisible. I reason that he can't create flame without revealing his location, but he creates a backdraft so I don't know where it's coming from. I use my forcefield powers to survive the backdraft and hide where he doesn't think I'll be, then ambush him when he shows up. Etc. etc.

Your example of the player not being able to hit the dragon, for example, happens even in a game with dice. "Even if you roll a 20, you cannot hit him". Unless you have a game where any critical is a chance for damage and therefore death, and NO mechanic can stop this (likely some very grim and gritty war game), this MUST happen to prevent low level characters from beating high level ones. If a level one character has a chance, however slim, of killing an epic level character, what's the point of being epic level, or even level two?

But if the player had to think, "All right, it's a dragon. Well, its weight might be too big to lift with my telekinesis, so I better try a grenade", or what not, choosing among strategic options with limited informations, then dice are actually moot.

Further, dice can actually make these various options moot. I play a game where, in general, even the stupidest, most suicidal action can succeed on a critical, and the most well-thought out actions can fail ENTIRELY (not just do less damage) on a critical failure. After several years of this, the mentality this has created is simple. People think, "Why bother trying a strategic set of actions to guarantee success? I roll a 1 and it doesn't work. Why bother avoiding stupid things and thinking carefully? Just need to roll a 20 and it'll succeed". It has made the game farcical in some respects.

I love using dice for things that I really do want to be random, but dice need to be heavily contained for games to be predictable and to have real agency, e.g. choices.

But what Alex is talking about in this article is the four functions of a GM. And of those, I'd agree that storytelling is last because as a GM, your players can (and will!) help you with story. The first three - judging, world builder, adversary are uniquely within the court of the GM and therefore logically rank higher as a function for a GM.

Thank you! I could not have said it better myself.

Or, even more simply: It's not that story is unimportant, it's that story is SO important that everyone should be involved.

When the GM railroads, s/he isn't serving the end of the story, s/he's serving the end of THEIR story. The players are ancillary. It's storytime. That's fine, but it's not roleplaying. Roleplaying is virtually defined by the ability to make SOME decisions about what your character does. And those "decisions" are meaningless if they don't change responses. It's like talking to the TV screen: You can say whatever you want, but no one would confuse that for freedom or interactivity.

Also, the discussion about Tolkien is so out of left field for me. The idea that failure being possible means the game is grim and gritty is stupid. Yes, you can create a game where there's no such thing as a "total party kill". A TOON game, for example. A game with automatic resurrection by the gods, or cloning, or Fate Points, or a reversal of the Hero Point system (e.g. a player can buy out of a wipe but then they must choose an element of the next encounter that will get harder or something), or whatever else works for you. You can also make a game where everyone dying and having to make all new characters can HAPPEN, but is remotely unlikely.

None of that has ANYTHING to do with agency. Whatever difficulty level is out there, unless it is so hard as to be impossible to meaningfully complete no matter one's decision, agency triggers when players able to make meaningful choices about what they do in response to the difficulty. The likelihood of a total party wipe is an element of game difficulty, not agency.

If players run straight at machineguns with no body armor and hope to luck out and dodge the bullets in a gritty war game, they should die. Stupid decisions should have consequences. Otherwise, why would a player ever STOP doing stupid things?

And it's important to clarify that players CAN back themselves into a corner where they are "railroaded" to death... by their own actions. Let's say you play a game where people are set in the modern world, for example. One of your players shoots a soldier in the head on a military base. That character WILL die, or be captured and tried for murder. This is not "railroading". The GM didn't make the character do that. They just enforced consequences.

I've got to digest the thesis of the article a bit more, but I just had to say:

It's not a coincidence that you new player example is named "Carrie", is it? There aren't *that* many of us running around... :)

So, like, long time no see.

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