Wednesday 9 April 2014

Breaking Down the Fudge 2

Matt Thomason writes:

"If the goal of the game is "fun", as Frank Mentzer suggests, then wouldn't the GM be better off, say, following the preference of the majority of gamers in this regard? " - Personally I'm far more interested in the preference of the gamers at my table (who prefer me to control the game as GM rather than be relegated to the role of monster A.I. that some games are pushing nowadays) than anyone else out there in the world. I wouldn't care if 99% voted for no fudging, it's the four others at my table I care about.
We don't all play the same way, and the moment someone forgets that and tries to apply a gamestyle choice across the board problems will happen. Every table is unique, and the best thing we as GMs can do is tailor our own game to fit the needs of our table.
I play a "story trumps rules" game, and play it with similarly-minded people. I don't usually play RPGs to get into math puzzles, or into tactical game scenarios pretending to be combat, or into winning and losing, or even into games of chance. I play RPGs to get a group of people together to tell a story and to explore the ways their characters interact with the game world, to see how they think and feel, and to find out how they react to various situations. 
For example, if my players face down the BBEG and are defeated, I'm happy fudging the dice and rewriting rules on the fly so they survive the encounter. Not to make them win, just to keep them alive so we can keep telling the story of how their characters cope with the aftermath of their failure. That's usually a far more interesting story than having them all killed and a replacement party gathering to try again.
Dealing with consequences is a good goal to have. Sometimes fudging the dice is the thing that allows you to tell that story of how those consequences were dealt with, rather than shrugging it off as a TPK and starting again.
Matt, obviously the players at your table matter more than hypothetical players. And, as I have said repeatedly, so long as you can get even a single player, you should run the game the way you want to. Nonetheless, let's break it on down.

You play a "story trumps rules" game;  I play a game in which the "reality" of the game milieu trumps the "reality" of the ruleset.

It is strongly my position that my job as GM is to supply players with context, from which the players make choices, and then I adjudicate the consequences of those choices.  This adjudication, which includes both success and failure, as well as every grey shade between, creates a new context from which additional choices are made.
The players' choices do not come from a menu.  Every ruleset embodies certain default choices within a framework of rules, but that does not mean that players cannot have their characters attempt anything, even if that "anything" requires an adjudication from outside the rules or modifies the rules themselves. The players are not guaranteed to succeed, and I will keep the rules in mind, but if the players come up with a reasonable means to fuel a spell with a major sacrifice, in keeping with the game context, why wouldn't I allow it?  The "reality" of the game milieu trumps the "reality" of the ruleset.
Now, while math puzzles, games of chance, and tactical play may occur as part of this, they are not the overall goal.  The goal is to enable the players to partake in the associative game.

You bring up, not for the first time in this series, the false dilemma of choosing between fudging and a TPK.  Not surprisingly, the answer is the same:  this is a false dilemma.  

Even the premise that even a TPK prevents you from exploring how the characters deal with their defeat in a fantasy game is a false dilemma.  As Joseph Goodman points out in the Dungeon Crawl Classics core rulebook, you can always pick up the action in Hell.

And, again, you should run the game however you want, so long as you can get a single player.  However, your post doesn't eliminate the pitfalls of choosing to fudge, and it doesn't demonstrate that it is a good idea.  

However, there is a big difference between saying, "Yes, these drawbacks exist, but I will accept them in order to get what I want from the game" and saying "some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described....(Sorry you've never seen a game that good.)".  One denotes an understanding of the issues involved, and a conscious choice to accept some negatives to gain what you view as a positive.  The other is douchebaggery.

(I am sure that I have engaged in similar douchebaggery from time to time, so you can accept that as the word of an expert if you like.)

Allow me an analogy:  Once upon a time, folks thought that it was possible to have the perfect physique.  Eventually, though, it was discovered that various forms of exercise not only build muscles in certain ways, but inhibit building them in others.  You can have a perfect swimmer's build, or a perfect weight-lifter's build, but you can't have both at the same time.

I am putting forth an image of the game that is analogous to the swimmer's build.  You are putting forth one that is analogous to the weight-lifter's build.  I am pointing out how the distribution of muscle mass is going to inhibit your swimming.  You are saying that it is more important to you that you can lift heavier weights.  

That's fine; it's important to know what you want.  Your desire to lift heavier weights doesn't change the validity of my point about swimming, and you could make a claim that a swimmer's build inhibited weight lifting.

Frank is claiming that he has both builds at the same time.  And then, when called on it, he claims that he doesn't concede swimming is a sport anyway.

So, while your post hasn't demonstrated that you need a weight-lifter build to lift the weights you discuss, neither does it suggest that you are unaware of the negatives that result.  If neither you nor your players are bothered by those negatives (and my research on the topic indicated that most fudging GMs were of the opinion that their players were not bothered, but polling their players had unexpected results for the majority) then my opinion shouldn't matter.

Finally, having said this before repeatedly, let me again say:  If you can get even one player, run the game you want the way you want to.  If not fudging would take the joy out of the game for you, and you have even one player, then do what brings you joy....even if the player(s) would prefer you do not fudge.  Ultimately, if you are not enjoying the game, there is no reason to play.

Just don't expect me to agree with you, or play in your game.

Monday 7 April 2014

Breaking Down the Fudge

Greg Barry writes:

Daniel-san... I will go back to the Lich example provided... If I randomly decide to roll for an encounter and the Lich comes up against a 3rd level troupe... You feel I should not reroll and let the lich slay the party ( I am nasty with monsters and those that think - will beat the party 50% of the time)... the other example I will make is an Item that they will need to move ion in the dungeon suffers fires damage ( and roll indicates its destroyed) should the game end because they can go no further
Now, letting a player fudge a roll involves less consequences and I will not allow that (I also enjoy a game of Toon and some of the best laughs come from a botched roll)
Also, if you are running a game and not telling a story, you are doing a poor job at Role Playing. I was in a marvel game at a con and the GM insisted that all players do a character pose at the table when they did a grand action... It was simple but it added so much to the role playing and drew some of the players out to really participate
A story do not have to have definite route in mind, and the story may not be what it appeared to be at the start of the play... in fact it may have transformed to a much different story then the ones the players set out on
90% of the time players do not know I have fudged a roll... the other 10% I actually announce that I fudge a roll and the players appreciate it because it means I did not wipe out the party in one roll most times...

So let's break it on down, shall we?

In paragraph #1, Greg describes a possible encounter with a lich and a 3rd level party.  I absolutely feel that the encounter should not be re-rolled, but the second half of the equation (and let the lich slay the party) does not follow.

Now, I cannot say what Greg would do, and I obviously cannot say what Frank would do, but I can tell you what I would do.  Having read the fiction that inspired the game, I know that, for example Gardiner Fox begins his Kothar stories with a lich encounter, and Kothar certainly could not beat the lich.  Without a question, the lich beats Kothar.  But Kothar is not killed, because the lich has a purpose.  And, if I was to have a lich wandering about the campaign milieu, I would know who he is and what he wants.  If I was for some reason winging it, and using generic wandering monster tables, my knowledge of Appendix N literature would come to the forefront, because it supplies many ways in which an encounter with an overwhelming force can be framed so that it does not result in a TPK or a hollow victory due to fudged dice.

The second example, "an Item that they will need to move ion in the dungeon suffers fires damage ( and roll indicates its destroyed) should the game end because they can go no further" suffers from different problems. First, it assumes a design in which the destruction of a single Item can halt all forward progress.  Second, it assumes that halting forward progress is a bad thing (if the PCs cannot move forward in the dungeon, in my game, they can do something else).  Finally, if you are in the habit of creating dungeons that Must Be Solved and that can Only Be Solved with a single Item, fudging so that the Item cannot be destroyed isn't helping anyone.  In fact, if the Item is destroyed in Dungeon #1, and maybe in Dungeon #3 as well, perhaps the players will take a little more care by Dungeon #4, and you will have some real tension about what happens with said Item.

If you keep fudging these rolls, that tension will never arise (or it will quickly evaporate when your players catch on).

Either way, though, the question remains:  Why are you rolling to determine if a result that you cannot live with comes to pass?  What is the purpose of the roll if only a success counts?  The answer is contained in the final paragraph:  "90% of the time players do not know I have fudged a roll."  The GM is attempting to create an illusion of impartiality, and he simultaneously believes that he succeeds in creating this illusion and that the players are appreciative that he is not impartial.

That may be the case, but I regard the assertion as one that should be taken with a large grain of salt.

Overall, I do not see either example as a case where the rolls should be fudged.  These are examples where the GM or players have the opportunity to "up their game".

Meeting a lich never automatically ends in a TPK, and even if combat ensues, the lich should have more than ample means to capture and/or control, to meet its own ends.  Only if the GM reduces each encounter to the shallowest possible outcome does a problem occur....and this is far from the "game that good" that Mr. Mentzer suggests includes fudging.

In the event of the single Item, now the players have a new problem to face - how to get past whatever barrier exists without that Item.  Even in a module that states "Only X can open this door", there is always a possibility of bypassing the door.  These adventures are not meant to stifle creative play, but rather to avoid rewarding a "Rinse, Spin, Repeat" cycle of using the same answers to problems encountered.  One need only read some of the early GenCon tournament reports to realize that creative play was intended to be rewarded (and, indeed, was rewarded).  At least one (G1) can be found in The Strategic Review.


Secondarily, we have the issue of Story.

Doing a character pose is not telling a story.  When Greg writes "A story do not have to have definite route in mind, and the story may not be what it appeared to be at the start of the play... in fact it may have transformed to a much different story then the ones the players set out on" I believe that he has a very different idea of "Story" than what is being discussed in this blog:

[I]f you running a Game, then you are not telling a Story.  The Players are not telling a Story.  Story is what happens in the space between the GM and the Players.  The GM reveals the setting or stage, if you will, and the Players strut about upon it.  The Story is what happens as the Players strut about and run up against the setting.  NPCs, Big Bosses, the Environment are setting.  Players send their PCs into the setting to tear things down, to change the view, to build new structures out of the existing pieces , or to hit their heads on the  Setting.  If you want certain things to happen in your game setting and you want the PCs to do it, you are not running a Game.  You are trying to write a short story, a novel, or an epic and are using the PCs as the protagonists and it is not fair to your Players.
Emphasis mine.

You will note that the blog poster agrees that Story occurs, but that it occurs not because of the orchestration of PC reaction to events, but because of the synthesis of the setting (including NPCs and their goals) and the PCs.

It is not the function of the GM to tell the players how to run their characters.  Gary Gygax talks about this in his Insidiae, and I quote here from pages 50-51:

It should be hammered home by now that the role of a game master differs significantly from that of a fiction author. The job of the game master does not involve revealing to the players the private thoughts or motivations of NPCs and monsters, nor will a good GM dictate what the players’ characters feel or how they ought to act – because he doesn’t know that. In general, a player should not be forced to explain his character’s actions, or to justify his actions to another player even if asked, unless the character’s normal demeanor has drastically changed, or the action threatens the entire party’s success or survival. Likewise, the denizens of a campaign world are known by their actions, their natures and private thoughts kept secret by the GM – unless learned by guile in play, ripped from them by magic or torture.
Also, no single antagonist or creature should become more important to the plot than the heroes. In other words, the game master should not make any NPC absolutely central to the unfolding story, because nothing controlled by the GM is more important than the development and advancement of the PCs through their interactive play. It is apparent, then, that the game master is far removed from being a “third person omniscient narrator”. Sure, he might be omniscient in regard to the details of his chosen milieu, but because he cannot know the future actions or thoughts of the PCs, he cannot be called a “story-teller” in the fullest sense.

I used this quote in a previous, recent blog post, but it bears repeating:  "It should be hammered home by now that the role of a game master differs significantly from that of a fiction author."  If you want to argue on the basis of authority, I see your Frank Mentzer and raise you Gary Gygax.

Now, if you go through all that Gary wrote, you will discover that, on the issue of fudging, he waffled.  There is never, on the other hand, a point where he suggested that it was a thing to do lightly.  Indeed, even the most "pro fudge" quotes from Mr. Gygax suggest that, for the most part, it is a bad idea.

Sunday 6 April 2014

Obeying the Dice

Recently on Facebook, I came across this post by Frank Mentzer, which reflects upon this blog post.  While the blog post is too long to quote in full, both are worth reading, and I suggest that you do.  Clearly, Frank Mentzer believes that a GM can and should fudge the dice, and can run a "player character" in the same milieu in which he is GMing.

Frank writes "Some good points are always made, but every one of these commentaries incorrectly presumes one vital point: Yes, some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described. Some DMs can and DO ignore die rolls (for the right reasons), and some can and do play a character (for the right reasons)."

I don't think that any one of those commentaries (and I assume he would include mine as well, as we have butted heads before) assumes that some GMs are not good enough to get away with it, merely that their game would be better if they did not.

The problem here is that, while Frank asserts that some DMs are good enough to avoid the negatives described, he offers no practical solution to those negatives.  Nor, in fact, does he offer any evidence to support that claim.  Nor does he answer the obvious logical problems with a position that a person with full knowledge of a situation has when attempting to play from a position wherein gaining knowledge of the situation is a primary goal.  This is not dissimilar to the player who wants to read the module before playing, because, yes, some players ARE good enough to avoid the negatives of doing so.  In fact, the problem is exactly the same:  the person, while playing the dissociated game, pretends to play the associated game.

(Add to that the problem of fudging die rolls, and decided aforehand that you want certain outcomes to occur, and the question begins to arise quite quickly whether or not the "DM PC" is especially favoured or the only one that the GM feels uncomfortable fudging for.  Either the GM fudges for his PC, or does not, at points where fudging only benefits that PC.  That silence on what occurs in these cases is all that one hears is not surprising.)

What we get continually are comments like "Your inexperience is showing; a good game master can have both. (Sorry you've never seen a game that good.)", which are an attempt to argue by authority rather than from a reasoned perspective, and "Sorry, I don't exist to obey dice." which is a straw man argument.  If you decide when to to roll the dice, what dice to roll, and what the various outcomes will mean, following the results of the dice doesn't mean that you "exist to obey dice" but that you have knowingly added a random element.  If you are unable to then use that random element, which you knowingly added, and still have a fun game, perhaps you shouldn't be so certain that your definition of a "good game master" is as firm as you would like to believe.  Or, maybe, when you roll the dice, you don't do it knowingly, but that still doesn't make you a good GM.

The point is not that Frank Mentzer is a bad GM.  The point is that he is making a lousy counter-argument.  Indeed, his counter-argument is meaningless in terms of actually countering the argument he presents it in opposition to.

I am no where near as absolute in my thinking as the writer of the blog post.  It may be true that "some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described."  I, for one, tend to believe that some GMs are not skilled enough to make a game work without fudging dice, and if you are one of these, then you should fudge...because that really is the best you can do.  I also believe that, so long as you can get a single player, you should run whatever game you want however you want.  But neither one is an indicator of quality.

The closest we get to a reasonable position is "From this POV, if you follow the rules and the dice produce an encounter that will wipe out the entire party, then you wipe 'em out. That's the rules of the game.  But the game is supposed to be Fun, and that's not. So I fudge it."

I wonder what game Frank is playing where rolling an encounter automatically wipes out the entire party.  I have never played it.  In fact, I have never played, on either side of the screen, an RPG where such a thing was remotely true.  I can just imagine the response to the GM who says "Sorry, guys, I rolled an encounter with 200 orcs.  You all died." without any input from the players as to how they handle the encounter.

If you have ever played in such a game, I am fairly certain that the problem is not that the GM didn't fudge his die rolls.

The line of thinking which makes "choosing to roll the dice and then following the results" is "existing to obey the dice" is actually similar to writing a scenario, and then determining that following your dungeon notes makes you a slave to the written word.

Likewise, in the comments, some have likened this to relegating the GM to a computer, which is utter nonsense.  In a computer game, the computer can only respond to players following pre-programmed responses.  If 200 orcs are encountered, and that encounter can only be responded to by fighting, then, sure, there is a problem.  But the problem is not in the 200 orcs, but in the way the computer can respond to the choices of the players in reaction to the encounter presented.  IOW, fudging the die rolls to eliminate encounters that you previously allowed on the encounter table because you cannot imagine how the players can respond to them without a TPK, and because you cannot respond to the ideas of the players in a way that keeps the game moving, you might want to reconsider whether the non-fudger or the fudger is responding more like a computer.

Which is not to say that a TPK is a "bad" or "unfun" outcome, even when it is the result of a random encounter.  I would have a long, hard think before I determined that an encounter that wipes out the party is not "Fun", and I would have a long, hard think before I determined that "Fun" was the be-all and end-all of all game play.  The limits we impose on our failures are also, perforce, limitations imposed on our successes.

"Some DMs can and DO ignore die rolls (for the right reasons), and some can and do play a character (for the right reasons)."

I look forward to the post that explains exactly what these right reasons are, and why fudging the dice and trying to run a PC ('cause no one is arguing that the GM cannot run an NPC) are the best solutions to whatever problems these reasons arise from.  But I expect that I shall not be reading such a post any time soon.  It is easy to explain the problems caused by fudging dice; I have yet to read anything that supplies a benefit to fudging dice that does not break apart on even surface examination.

"[E]very one of these commentaries incorrectly presumes one vital point: Yes, some DMs ARE good enough to avoid the negatives that are described."

No.  Every one of these commentaries correctly presumes one vital point: While some GMs may be good enough to avoid the negatives that are described, the odds are good that you are fooling yourself if you think that you are one of them, and the odds are even better that it would still improve your game if you didn't fudge or play DM PCs, even if you ARE that good.

Thursday 3 April 2014

The Dungeon Dozen

I would like to take a moment to recommend The Dungeon Dozen by Jason Sholtis, the mastermind at The Dungeon Dozen blog.

I love books that help get your creative juices flowing.  The Dungeon Dozen (Volume 1!) belongs on your shelf along with The Dungeon Alphabet, The Random Esoteric Monster Generator, and The d30 Sandbox and DM's Companions.

Like all the best inspirational books, The Dungeon Dozen has artwork that is worth the price of admission by itself, and is a meaty book filled with tables and ideas.  In fact, it is easily among the best "random tables" books I've seen.  
If this book doesn't inspire hundreds of hours of game play at your table, you must not have bought it.

This really is top-notch work.  You can get it here.  And at the same time, you really should be following the author's blog.

Wednesday 2 April 2014

Ghoul Friend

In the comments to the last post, Wyatt Allworthy wrote:

Something only tangentially related to undead causing plagues that I wondered if you had any experience making work as a ref. I don’t know how it’s done in DCC, but in A/D&D you had the situation of undead like Ghouls with a paralytic touch, or Wights, etc that drained levels. These creatures could be encountered even by low level characters, in confined crypt like places, where they might have no exits to evade them. A ghoul had a speed of 9” and characters loaded down plate armor, let alone equipment and loot would be limited to a speed of 6”, as the speed of the slower members. How can a party survive something that paralyzes its lead members just by a touch, which they will almost assuredly fail their saving rolls to fight it? Only a tiny number of these ghouls would overwhelm a low level party, almost assuredly, every time they were encountered.
I know that back in the day, parties had larger numbers of players and possibly lots of hirelings and henchmen, is that the way to manage it, or is there some way to make a 6-man special forces style team of adventurers competent to handle paralytic touch undead (let alone level draining undead).
Thanks for any insights on this one, it’s a puzzle for me.

First off, low-level characters are unlikely to be loaded down with plate armour in any game that I am running.  That’s simply a matter of expenditure – plate armour is expensive, and there is not enough “spare” cash for this particular expenditure.  Loaded down with loot is a lot easier – in a question of “keep your loot or keep your life”, smart players choose to drop the loot.

I like ghouls, and I do use them at low levels.  I have been throwing ghouls at 1st level PCs ever since reading the evocative play description in the 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide.  As a player, I have encountered ghouls at 1st level as well.  In one memorable 2nd Edition campaign, the DM (the esteemed Jesse Donahue) lured the party into an un-dead haunted swamp, where the easiest way to survive was to run and hide, then run and hide some more.   At the same time, I was running my megadungeon, The Dungeon of Thale, in Venice Beach, California, and there were roving ghouls on the first level.  I think they got perhaps one or two characters over a long period of play.

But, then, these characters weren’t clunking around in plate.  That heavy armour affords you one sort of protection (better AC) while denying you another (making it hard to run away) is a trade-off that makes for interesting choices.  Dungeon Crawl Classics does that one better, by making heavier armour subject to more devastating fumbles as well.

An illustration I drew based on Jesse's game
Things that I have found adjust the odds against ghouls are teamwork, good use of magic, having a cleric on hand, and having an elf or two in the party.  In DCC, you should also consider burning that Luck in order to make your saving throw, especially if you are the last PC standing.   In many games that I have run, ghouls shun sunlight, and will not willingly enter it or an area of continual light.  Having some areas that the PCs can retreat to, while leaving them with a serious problem that still needs to be solved before their own food runs out, can be fun for all concerned.

I’ve run James Raggi’s Death Frost Doom to great effect, using the DCC ruleset.  How you deal with a horde of ghouls and zombies is a major part of that adventure.  At first, the players thought the answer was “you fight them”…but that is not a very viable answer in Death Frost Doom.  Sometimes, in a good adventure, fighting should not be the best option.  Sometimes, it should be a suicidal option.

If you go poking around crypts and barrows at night, you should expect to run into the un-dead.  If it is possible, save your explorations for daylight hours.  At least that way, you may be able to retreat into the sun.  As you explore, consider how you can use the areas you have already examined to your best advantage.  Mindless creatures, especially, may be lured into traps that you discovered and bypassed.  There might be choke points where a few can hold off many.   There might be places where a barricade can hold foes so that the archers can do their work.  Never underestimate the value of a spear or a pitchfork when you can hold your opponents so that they can’t reach you.

Even so, sometimes, you have to let the dead devour your fallen so that you have a chance to get away.  And sometimes the ghouls get you.  It is completely okay to have the entire party wiped out after mere minutes exploring the Barrowmaze.  Those are the risks adventurers face.