Saturday 30 March 2013

Teletubby Space Rangers…...Or, All Players Are Not Created Equal........Or, Don't Be A Weed

Want to buy this costume for yourself?
Used without permission. 
One of the most poisonous memes to raise its pestilent head in recent years is the idea that all players, or for that matter, all GMs, are equal.  It’s cool, and it’s inclusive, to note that there is not One True Way, but this doesn’t mean that All Ways Are Equal.

I know – and if you’ve been doing this for any length of time, I would hazard that you know – that there are some players who make the game a joy to run.  There are some players who make the game better for everyone else at the table.  There are some really excellent players out there.

And there are players who peek behind your screen when you go to the bathroom, buy and read the module you are running, question every decision you make, and complain if anything doesn’t go their way.  There are players who want to be in the spotlight every moment of the game session, there are players who want to “get” the other players (not just their characters), and there are players who want to bring a Teletubby Space Ranger into a carefully crafted 17th Century game setting and seem unable to understand why you are saying no.

Most players fall between those extremes, of course.  As do most GMs.  That’s cool.  But, just as the GM should try to improve herself – to be more than “just good enough”, so should each player.  When you sit down at the table, no matter what you sit as, player or GM, you need to ask yourself, “Am I making the game better for everyone?” 

If the answer is “No”, then you had better ask yourself “Why not?”

If you’re running the game, the odds are good that you are making the game better just by running it.  If you are not making the game better for everyone at the table, the odds are good that it is because one or more players at your table don’t belong there.  If you want a nice garden, sometimes you have to get down on your hands and knees and pull out the weeds.

If you are a player, not only should you strive to make the game a better experience for everyone, but you should also strive to make it more fun to run.  Why?  Because if it is more fun to run, your GM will keep coming back.  Or keep inviting you back.

Don’t be a weed.

You will hear a certain segment of the player population claim that their fun is more important than the GM’s, or the other players’.  You will hear a certain segment of the player population claim that the game should revolve around them, or that the GM is simply not being “creative enough” if he says No to a Teletubby Space Ranger in a 17th Century European game.  There is, in fact, a certain segment of the player population that will claim that the GM should always say Yes to player propositions.

Pay attention to who says that.  They are letting you know that they are weeds.  And, yes, a weed might be cultivated into a worthwhile addition to your garden.  And some weeds have other good qualities that make them more like wildflowers.

But at least you’ll know what you’re letting yourself in for when you invite them to the table.

And if, as a player, you discover that your GM is a weed?  Quietly and calmly excuse yourself from the table and find a new GM - or better yet, run your own game.  The world can always use new GMs.

Further Thoughts

I was thinking about the Angry DM's open letter, and especially about the comments he left to my response on this blog.  For some, good-enough is enough.  So be it.  But, I'd like to point out a few things that have, the more I have considered them, tasted more sour in my mouth:

(1) You are Special:  You know what?  Scott is right.  You are special simply because you take on the GM's roll.  But.......Do you remember how we decided it was a good idea to tell every kid that they were special, not because of their achievements, but because we wanted them to feel good?  How did that work out for society?  Yes, you are special.....but you are special because of what you do, not because of where you sit at the table.  The less you do, the less special you are.  So, do something good.

(2) There is No One True Way:  You know what?  There is no One True Way.  But......."Some folks just want to sit and laugh and have a good enough, fun enough game" implies that there is a scale.  The use of the word "just" and the phrase "good enough, fun enough game" implies that there is something that is not "just" good enough, not "just" fun enough.  Which leads me to

(3) The Value of Striving:  Let us suppose that you "just" want to have a "good enough, fun enough" game.  Cool.  My rule of thumb is, if you can get a single player to play, you should always play the game you want the way you want.

As I said in the comments to the previous blog post, obviously, if good enough is good enough, you can be a lazy GM. You can half-ass it. I was in grade school when I was first running games. I could be a lazy student. I could half-ass it. I could be a lazy student, and even get halfway decent marks.  At the same time, though, I wouldn't claim that doing "good enough" was getting full value from the educational opportunities afforded to me.  Maybe I might have then, but I have grown in the intervening decades.

Play the game you want the way you want. But.......if you don't push yourself, you will never get full value from the opportunities afforded to you. If you don't want those opportunities, that's your call. But there is a difference between striving and not striving.  There is a difference between a game that is just good enough, and a game that soars.

You are more likely to reach good enough while striving for greatness, than you are to reach greatness while striving for good enough.

Running the game makes you special.  Running the game well makes you more so.  Pushing yourself, and striving for greatness, makes you as special as you can be.  Don't just pat yourself on the back.  Be special.  Be that GM that players go out of their way to play with.  You can do it.  All you have to do is pull up your metaphorical pants and give it your best shot.

But, Scott is dead right about this too - the best game you can run is the game you want to run.  What you run and how you run it?  That's up to you.  Bring your best game to the table, and the players will appear.  It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow.  You might have to post a message on a few walls (including real walls) so that the potential players know about it.  But they will appear.

And if someone else would rather play a game about Teletubby Space Marines fighting dinosaurs around Uranus?  Well, they can run that game.  That's the beauty of the whole thing....if they love it, and they strive to run it well, the players will appear.

Friday 29 March 2013

Worth Reading, With Caveats

Scott Rehm posted an interesting open letter to Dungeon Masters here:

It is worth reading, and there is much of it that I can agree with.  The overall sentiment is, in fact, one with which I wholeheartedly concur.  There were, of course, a few points at which I was forced to twitch an eyebrow.

First off is this:

GMs will argue endlessly about the best way to do this and that. They will argue about "yes, and..." and failing forward and binary rules and simulationism and player agency and binary outcomes and this will be good and that will be bad and the other is the only way to get players invested. And those arguments are so much noise and fury that signify nothing. They don't matter. They are window dressing. They are bullshit. And the more passionately you argue for one over the other, the more full of bullshit you are.

Obviously, I disagree with this.  A lot of arguments about the best way to GM are, obviously, only so much bullshit.  But experience has taught me that the way in which I run a game matters.  It has also taught me that running a game well is a transferable skill.

What I mean by that is simple:  My own GMing has changed over the years, mostly for the better, although at times for the worse as I attempted to put certain advice to the test.  I ran a game in 1980 well enough to keep a great many players at my table; it does not therefore follow that my game was the best it could be.  GMs, like anyone with a skill set, improve by practice, by experiment, and by discussing their trade with others.

We all have our own strengths and weaknesses.  Doing our best job means that we will exploit those strengths while shoring up our weaknesses.  What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa.  My particular weaknesses, for instance, might prevent me from feeling easy about using a better method for some GMing task I set out to accomplish.  It doesn’t follow that my doing it my way is better than if I set out to overcome my weaknesses and master a new task.

I would not be half the GM I am today if I were not exposed to the “bullshit” of GMs arguing endlessly about the best way to do this and that.  Yes, you are special for GMing.  Yes, you should feel proud of what you are doing.  Also, Yes, there is room in your GMing for improvement, and Yes, paying attention to some of that endless arguing may be of assistance in so improving.

In fact, the whole letter may seem to be both encouragement, and advice of the type Scott calls “full of bullshit”. 

That's the thing. You can't be a lazy GM. You can't half-ass it. The longer you are at it, the more likely you are going to face one of those choices. Even if you manage the workload, even if you find all the tricks to focus only on the parts of the game you love, eventually, there is going to be a human conflict at the table and you will have to be the one to resolve it.

I would prefer to read this section as “Yes, other GMs will have ideas – some of them good ideas, and some of them terrible ideas.  It might be a good idea to pay attention to them, but if any one of these ideas damages your love of GMing, whatever benefit you might gain isn’t worth it in the long run.  Always take the advice of another GM with a huge grain of salt.  A grain of salt too heavy for you to lift is not too large.”

And then I would agree.

But I would also argue that, to GM well, you must also always strive to improve.  You can’t be a lazy GM and expect to also be the best you can be.  Your love for the game will atrophy.  The bullshit matters.

I have been called a terrible, awful DM. I have been called that by other DMs. Because I am railroady. Because I keep a tight leash on world building. Because I am old fashioned and old school and don't believe in player agency over the narrative.

When I think of the word “narrative”, I think of the actions that occur in the game.  When I think of the word “railroad”, I think of the GM usurping the ability of players to make choices within the context of the game.  Scott clarifies this in the comments section,

With regard to "player agency over the narrative," this refers to games in which the players decide things about the game world outside of the decisions their characters make. In a traditional game, a player exercises their free will by deciding what their characters do in response to a given situation. They declare the action their character takes - no more, no less - and the DM responds to that. Player agency refers to the practice to allowing the player control over things other than their own characters.

Please note that this is not what I mean, nor have ever meant, by “player agency”.  Nor, if the GM allows the players to make whatever choices their characters should rightfully be able to make, does this meet any reasonable definition of “railroady” in my book.

Everything else?  It’s a good post, and one well worth reading.

Just don't get so carried away slapping your own back that you forget to improve yourself a little, every chance you get.

Thursday 21 March 2013

The Squid is on the pfsrd..

Your players have ransacked dungeons and slain mighty beasts, rescued the helpless and thwarted the sinister plans of demons. But they have never seen anything like the strange items, blasphemous rituals, or horrors that await within these pages.

Lurking herein are twelve short encounters for the Dungeon Crawl Classics roleplaying game.

Judges can use these scenarios as one-off’s or as jumping-off points to further wierd pulp adventures. Each encounter includes a unique monster, and the book is packed with treachery, novel twists, and horrible predicaments.

Whether it’s the Squid Sorcerer, Umbo the ape witch, or Malagok the Creator Beast, these encounters recall a tradition pre-dating orcs and elves when the pulp fantasy realms were just weird..

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Getting Lucky in DCC

Some House Rules about Luck

In the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, character Luck is intended to go up and down based upon the circumstances of play.  In general, Luck goes up due to rewards given by the judge, and goes down as it is used up by the players to modify rolls.  The judge can also penalize Luck, but, because players rely on it, and it is generally lost forever when spent, bonuses tend to outweigh penalties.  This is true even in the official published adventures, where Luck penalties tend to be temporary where they exist at all.

The thief and halfling classes, however, regain spent Luck, which means that, if they gain bonuses as do the rest of the PCs, pretty soon their Luck will be absolutely phenomenal.  Unless the judge sets a cap, the player can have Luck that reaches well beyond the 18-20 range.

What to do?

Permanently Burning Luck – The Carrot

In my game, it is now a house rule that a thief who permanently burns a point of Luck automatically gains the maximum roll on his Luck Die. 

A halfling who permanently burns a point of Luck gains a +3, rather than a +2, bonus to the roll.

Luck is Fickle – The Cattle Prod

In my game, it is now a house rule that any character whose permanent Luck is 16+ or 5- at the end of a game session must roll 1d20 and compare the result against his permanent Luck.  Permanent Luck is the Luck score that most characters have, and that a thief or halfling can recover Luck to reach.

If the result of the d20 roll is greater than the character’s Luck, supernatural forces help the character, granting a point of Luck in game terms.  The character gains a point of Luck.

But, if the d20 roll is under the character’s Luck, the character loses a point of Luck.  Supernatural forces, Karma, or the perversity of the cosmos simply work against him.

If the character rolls exactly his Luck score, there is no change if his Luck is between 8 and 19, but if his Luck is 7 or less, he gains 2 points of Luck.  If he Luck is 20, he loses 2 points of Luck.

A character whose Luck is between 6 and 15 at the end of a game session need not roll, but can choose to do so if the player wishes.  In any event, only the raw, unmodified die roll is considered.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

It pleases me to announce that In the Prison of the Squid Sorcerer: Twelve Pulp Weird Encounters for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is now available for purchase.  You can find it here.  

This product includes two scenarios of my own design (Mermaids From Yuggoth and Icon of the Blood Goddess) as well as ten kick-ass scenarios that I did not write.....but several of which I wish I did!

Herein, you will find a ton of pulp adventure goodness, both to use as-is and to expand upon in your own adventures.  Because more than one of these short scenarios suggests, to my mind at least, ways to expand into further scenarios.

Did I mention that the intros are written by Harley Stroh and Michael Curtis?

I am very happy with the way this product turned out, and I hope you will be, too!


Wednesday 6 March 2013

And Yet Another Excellent Post
If you're playing with someone who won't let you go as far as you want - if they're imposing themselves between you and the edge 'for your own good' or because they've decided what edges are appropriate for you ... then you owe it to yourself to agitate against that.  Even if you would hesitate to speak up for your rights in the real world, when your boss or your clients patronize you ... in playing D&D, you really ought to rise to the occasion.  If 50,000 can stand on the steps of the Capitol and shout against exploitation and the curtailing of their freedom, surely you can stand up at the table, stare your DM in the face and say, "No, I will not go where you say!  I will take the road north, because that is what pleases me!"
And if it should become evident that you are somehow a dupe for others ... that every road leads to the same pre-determined Funhouse, and that you have no freedom at all to choose the path you will, then as a player, defensive of the character you respect and perhaps love, stand at the table and call "Foul!"
Well said, Sir.  Very well said indeed.

Tuesday 5 March 2013

Another Really Good Post

I like Black Vulmea's blog quite a bit.  I like that he points me toward movies that I might otherwise have missed.  I like reading his thoughts on gaming.  I really like this post, which draws a distinction between a sandbox and "anything goes":

Saturday 2 March 2013

On Theory (Re)Defined, Railroad (Part IV)

Okay, let’s see if we can’t finish this off by looking at one more part of –C’s article:  namely, statement (15) Railroading is an active process.  –C proposes that one must actively remove agency in order to railroad, whereas I propose that agency must be actively added in order to prevent a railroad.

In a response to Jason Packer, -C says:
Right.  That is something that must be done actively.  Either by a programmer or the person you are playing with.  They must decide to remove or negate your ability to play and make choices.
I responded:
In the case of a programmer, a decisions [sic] must be made to add agency, and the only agency that exists will be that which the programmer preplans, or which comes about by happy accident.
 -C responds:

Like the design of any game.
And if you went to the Hack & Slash blog today, you would think that this is where the discussion ended, with an agreement between myself and –C as to whether or not railroading must be the result of an active decision.  Because the “rude” post he deleted (while leaving the impression of agreement), read as follows:

Not like the design of any game.
The beauty of a role-playing game, and I believe its core strength, is that the adjudication of a GM (or other method) allows agency to exist which is not pre-planned, but which arises from the fiction of the milieu.
In a computer game, the programmer must decide that you can pick up a salt shaker, well before you play, and barring your hacking into the system, if the programmer didn’t think of it ahead of time, you cannot do it.  In a role-playing game, the human adjudicator can make a decision in real time, allowing you to do things that were never considered before.
Likewise, a “happy accident” in terms of the computer game is an error in programming that allows you to do something that the programmer did not consider or intend….but the accident occurred long ago, when the program was written.
The freedom of action, based not on a program or a set of rules, but rather upon the metafiction of the game milieu, is the primary determinant of agency in a role-playing game.
I would go so far as to say that it is possession of this quality that makes a game a roleplaying game.
I think that it should be clear that the above is relevant.  It should also be clear that it is not rude.  However, equally clear, the removal of this post, while leaving the previous post by –C (which suggests agreement if that is the “last word”) is indicative of the secondary motive suggested by Part III of this blog series.

Some might even imagine that there is a bit of intentional bad faith involved.

Here is another post that was deleted:

Following –C’s post of Feb 25 at 4:42, ending in “If you aren’t going to take the time to read the words I’m writing then I don’t know how I am going to be able to communicate with you.”, -C deletes:
I understand that you are attempting to be very clear and specific in your claims.  However, I think the term “railroad” as it is traditionally used does NOT mean “any specific ruleset that doesn’t give you the type of agency you wish to have.”  It refers to lack of a specific kind of agency; namely, the agency to make choices which have real impact on the game milieu in a way that meets expectation for that milieu and the role undertaken.
I agree that using “railroad” to refer to “any specific ruleset that doesn’t give you the type of agency you wish to have” is not a useful way to use the word.
I strongly disagree with any definition of “railroad” that disallows the term because a game allows ANY type of agency, or that whether it is the ruleset of [sic] the GM who removes agency is relevant to determining whether or not a particular game is a railroad.  Or even that removal of agency need be intentional.
I suggest that your definition is as useless as the one you decry.  ALL games have agency, and ALL games have limitations to that agency.  It is the TYPE of agency that players have, within the context of the game milieu, and the DEGREE to which it is limited, that determines whether a game is a railroad or not.
Again, I leave it to the reader to determine whether the post above was removed due to rudeness, lack of coherence, or some other possible motivation.

For those who are interested, here is a scan of my printout of the blog and comments at 506,011 total pageviews, which will allow you to read many of the missing responses, and see how removing those comments changes the nature of the discussion....and implies resolutions or agreements in the same way that -C attempted to imply that Jason Alexander was in agreement with him about agency.

Every game has rules and one or more scenarios.  The rules can be examined independent of the scenario, but they make little sense without reference to a real or imagined scenario.  In some games, there is only one scenario.  For example, all games of chess and checkers start in the same way, and follow the same rough scenario.  Other games, such as Settlers of Catan (especially using expansions), allow for variations on the starting scenario due to tile placement, adjustments to rules, and/or other factors.  Each hand of poker, based on the shuffle of the deck and the cards dealt, effectively offers the players a slightly different scenario.

It is nonsensical to talk about a checker moving one square without the scenario (in this case, the game board) being made clear (because otherwise “square” has no meaning).  In games where there is only one scenario, such as checkers, that scenario can also be codified into the rules.

In more complex games, such as a computer game, there may still be only one scenario, but it becomes more difficult for some to see that the limitations on the scenario relate to the limitations of the rules.  It is not only theoretically possible to write the scenario and the rules together as one entity, but this is a practical necessity to program the game.

In a very complex game, such as a role-playing game, there may be an infinite number of scenarios, and it is therefore impossible to codify everything that might occur in within the game into a single set of rules.  The human adjudication allows the game to evolve in situ so as to allow for actions that make sense within the context of the milieu and the roles undertaken, whether or not they are pre-codified, and whether or not a given adjudication will apply to all similar circumstances.

You do not need to actively railroad in order to engage in it.  Instead, a GM needs to be actively involved in the adjudication of outcomes based on the logic of the game milieu (both the immediate and the overarching scenario) in order to prevent railroading.  Railroading can easily be active, but it can also easily be passive. 

Not railroading, on the other hand, is always an active choice, because it requires the GM to actively consider the possibilities offered by his or her players.

And therein lies the danger, to the GM, of accepting -C's statements at face value.

Please note, by “the immediate and the overarching scenario”, above, I do not mean “plot”; I mean everything that makes up the game milieu in both the immediate area (such as a dungeon, forest, or village) and everything that makes up the whole game milieu and gives the immediate area context.

When I suggested that role-playing games emulate a structure (for example, D&D emulates the choices of a group of adventurers within a fantastic milieu; see Gary Gygax’s quote from Role-Playing Mastery for confirmation of this idea), -C’s response included, “Megadungeons don’t emulate archaeological expectation”.  Just to be clear, claiming that A does not emulate X in no way evidences that A does not emulate Z.  This response is a classic example of a straw man.

In conclusion:

(1) We have seen that –C’s statements in his attempts to redefine railroading cannot logically all be true.
(2) We have seen that –C’s definition of railroad and railroading do not follow common usage, and that he knows this to be the case.
(3) We have seen that –C’s sources either do not support, or flatly contradict the statements he means them to support.
(4) We have seen that there is strong evidence that –C’s motives in this redefinition have little to do with more effective communication, and a lot to do with controlling what can be communicated.
(5) We have seen –C’s ad hominem attacks against myself for what they are, and we have shown that his stated reasons for his removal of certain of my responses to his article are at best suspect.


(6) Taking all of the above into account, it is difficult to believe that -C is completely unaware of what he is doing.

Barring the need to reopen this topic, I am going to call this horse dead.

On the other hand, I would like to know what you, Gentle Readers, think about the arguments presented.  I would also like to read –C’s rebuttal, if any.  I am interested in open discussion of topics, and I am eager to increase my own knowledge from any source that makes sense!  Because of this, I promise that I will not delete him! 

And I certainly will not do so in some misguided attempt to make it seem like he agrees with me.