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Musings on the Human Element of Role-Playing

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April 8th, 2009

It has been widely observed -- and often lamented -- that the design of 4th-edition Dungeons & Dragons was heavily influenced by MMORPGs. Such was the first thing I noticed about the new edition myself. It doesn't take more than a quick scan of the rules for someone who's familiar with both MMORPGs and older editions of D&D to see where much of the design changes came from. At first I felt rather leery about he changes myself, but actual play sessions reassured me that if I was going to play D&D anyway (it's far from my favorite RPG), I wanted it to be 4E.

Having spent my childhood immersed in the earliest RPGs; watched the appearance and evolution of home computers; and witnessed first hand the vast influence D&D had in shaping online RPGs; I find it rather poetic to watch the feedback loop complete its cycle, and see the online RPGs take their turn at re-shaping D&D. It does make for a very different game indeed, but different isn't always bad, and we learned a lot of valuable lessons about game design online. There's a few design choices in 4E I'd happily take issue with, but all in all, the things people gripe about the most were just as bad -- if not worse -- with older editions of the game when they first came out. Give it some time for the D&D community to soften the hard edges of the new version, and there won't be a heckuva lot left to recommend the older versions to anyone but their most rabid devotees. As far as I'm concerned, what MMORPG games bring to tabletop rules is far less problematic than what the MMORPG players themselves are bringing.

You can get problems in both directions, of course. Over the years, I've witnessed countless ill-conceived attempts by tabletop role-players to plug their expectations into an MMORPG setting, only to see all their best laid plans go up in flames because the social dynamic on an MMORPG is nothing like the one that goes on at the gaming table. For a tabletop game, you can take a proclomation like, "All dwarves would rather die than live in dishonor," and run with it as a universal truth in your campaign, because it's possible for five or six people to come to some sort of concensus on what dwarves would consider honorable. Pack a thousand different players of dwarves into one game, though -- half of them having only picked the race in an effort to max out their key combat stats -- and that one simple statement becomes a powderkeg as players abandon all sense of civility in the war to decide who gets to define dwarven honor. I know of such a feud on one MUD (aka: text-based MMORPG) that had been dragging on for about seven years last I checked, ruining the fun of countless players and admins alike.

Now it seems the shoe is on the other foot as more and more MMORPG players are getting lured into the ranks of the tabletop role-players by friends who play both ttypes of RPGs and by tabletop products marketed at the MMORPG demographic. Like all those tabletop gamers who came to the MMORPGs thinking they already knew the terrain, MMORPG players are showing up at the gaming table with their own potentially toxic preconceptions. Perhaps the worst of these is the drive to squeeze every last ounce of efficiency out of their characters' stats.

Power players have been with role-playing games for as long as the hobby has exsted, but MMORPGs take the allure of power-play to a whole new level. With direct GM intervention at a minimum, the experience is necessarily mechanics driven rather than story driven. Sure, it’s possible for MMORPG players to agree to conduct storylines among themselves, but the ability to make a real impact on the environment always starts — and almost always ends — with a player’s ability to game the system. To make matters worse, the repetitive grind of accumulating wealth/power by doing the same activities over and over (the faster the better) magnifies the effect of every tiny little advantage that players can eke out for themselves. e.g.: A +5% to-hit in a table-top game (where it should give no one pause if you swing your sword exactly ten times all evening) is nice, but that’s only a 50/50 chance it’ll change the outcome of even one die roll that night. In an MMORPG, on the other hand, where you might swing your sword twenty times in a minute, you could land 100 extra blows with that +5% before the tabletop players agree on where to order pizza.

Another concept that MMORPG players take to new heights is that of "game balance". That D&D 4E strives so hard to balance every class against every other class, every race against every other race, is one of its most MMORPG like aspects. In MMORPGs, it’s a huge deal for factions to argue back and forth, forth and back about game balance (which they invariably define as, “no one else can best us in combat — at least not with any frequency”). First one side cries foul; then the other side taunts it as a bunch of cry-babies; then the admins tweak the programming; then the side that had an advantage screams, “We’ve been nerfed! I don’t know why we even play this stupid game!”; then the balance of power shifts and another faction starts screaming bloody murder about the unfairness of life and of no-good, weasely game admins.

The thing that so many of these new players fail to understand is that as soon as you’re sitting down face-to-face with a game master, the whole nature of the activity changes. The GM can kill their 523rd-level, 65-strength warrior demigod as effortlessly as he can kill a 1st-level peasant farmer. There just aren’t any Joneses to keep up with anymore, so a player might as well ease up and enjoy the unfolding, highly personalized story and the company of his friends — because if all he wants is to prove his imaginary-martial-prowess, there are much, much better battlefields to prove it on these days.

March 4th, 2009

Playing It Old School

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Ever since "serious" historical war gamers decried the original Chainmail game as worthless fantasy fluff, there has been a core of players ready to step up and denounce each new step in the evolution of D&D as some foul, twisted mutant offspring of their favorite pastime, unfit to live. The latest cover of this same old song is a firestorm of hatred unleashed by afficionados of D&D 3.5 over the release of D&D 4E, usually involving claims that it's just not D&D anymore, and that "old school" gaming is the only style of gaming worth anything.

For my money, if there is anything which embodies the true essence of "old school" role-playing, it's enthusiasm for the new and different -- the open-minded embracing of that which is daring and imaginative that I saw in my fellow players back at the dawn of D&D. At the gaming table or away from it, we used to roll our eyes and shake our heads at the traditionalists around us who would dig in their heels and cling to "the way things have always been" as if it were some magic talisman to ward off all of life's evils.

The gamers I grew up with wouldn't have concerned themselves with whether 4E was "real" D&D. They'd have concerned themselves with whether it was fun or not. That's all.

February 23rd, 2009

At an obscure manor... a young knight stops in and asks if he can join your party. ... This is Sir Lancelot himself. .. Keeping up with Sir Lancelot is challenge enough for most characters, even though he is still young, and has not yet reached his full degree of prowess... Let the player knights observe the ways of the greatest of knights. Lancelot is generous and is always willing to let the other knights attempt any challenges before he does ... Before this adventure, the player knights should have had some chance to test other, more specific challenges appropriate to Lancelot's history [and failed to overcome them]. ... They could then help him out, and perhaps witness Lancelot's discovery that his name lies under the slab of stone [in Dolorous Garde, which no player knight should have been able to lift under any circumstances]. Similarly, if the players have wisely withdrawn from combat with a Huge Giant, they will have an interesting dilemma when Lancelot charges right in against the monster... Remember, too, that Sir Lancelot might appear out of nowhere and rescue the player knights from a disaster. Whatever the case, meeting with major characters like this is great fun for players. Don't be afraid to use such events.

-- Greg Stafford, Pendragon, 4th Edition

 To put Lancelot in perspective for those of you not intimately familiar with the Pendragon role-playing game, let me give you a few numbers, the better to understand the full context of the above quote:

A read of the rules on gaining Glory (the experience-points of the game) reveals that only 1 adventure in 20 should result in even having the opportunity to achieve 1000 glory (100 is much more what should be expected from a heroic adventure). Since knights are expected to have perhaps one adventure every game year, they will be lucky to experience two such extraordinary adventures over the course of their careers. So that's 2000 glory + 1000 starting glory + another 4000 glory or so if he's still adventuring at age 60. Add to this 7,000 glory for a highly successful career another 500 per year for being an exemplar of chivalric and religious virtues, for holding an impressive estate the whole time, and picking up a few incidentals here and there. Multiplied by 40 years, that's a whopping 27,000 glory. It's safe to assume that no knight should ever be able to exceed 30,000 glory over the course of a long and stellar career 

Lancelot, who has by the time of this proposed adventure, been on the job for perhaps three years, boasts 50,000 points of glory... and he's just getting warmed up. 

Each round of melee combat, unless circumstance has put him at an extreme disadvantage, the young and inexperienced Lancelot roles 1d20+10 (maxing out at 20 -- a critical) trying to beat his opponent's combat role. A very lucky and determined player knight who ignores everything but his melee combat skill MIGHT get to roll 1d20+2 to oppose it at the same age. Following that magnificent career outlined above, and continuing to ignore everything but that one combat skill, he might be able to equal Lancelot's 1d20+10 roll by age 35 -- just before he starts to go into physical decline. A knight who wishes to be at all well rounded isn't likely to achieve that 1d20+10 roll in any skill during his entire career. (Note also that you have to beat your opponent's roll in combat in order to strike him, meaning that Lancelot is 55% likely to be invulnerable to his opponent's best attacks on any given round, and will strike his opponent on those rounds if his opponent achieves anything short of perfection.)

Each time young Lancelot strikes, he will do 9d6 hit points of damage. Compare this to 5d6 for an average knight, 6d6 for a big strong knight, 7d6 for the biggest and strongest of the mighty saxon knights, or 8d6 for the biggest and strongest of the mighty saxon knights who is also channeling the divine power of his bloodthirsty religion.

The icing on the Lancelot cake is that he's not fanatically pursuing his sword skill to the detriment of everything else. He's as good in several weapons as most knights his age are in their best. He's got the non-combat skills of a well-rounded knight at least twice his age. He's got high-level personality traits pouring out his ears. Oh, and let's not forget that his skill with a lance is literally perfect. That's 1d20+19. He cannot fail to critical, which means it is mechanically impossible within the rules of the game to best him in a fair joust.

All the other well known characters from Arthurian legend also represent unachievable ideals for the player knights, just not quite so spectacularly unachievable.

My question, then, is this: if I'm so enthralled with the legends of Camelot that I'm going to spend my weekends immersed in the role of one of Arthur's knights, questing constantly for adventure, what in the blue blazes could I possibly find FUN about having it rubbed in my face that I'm some ordinary mook who can never even become worthy to kiss the boots of the movers and shakers around me? 


February 21st, 2009

I've recently stumbled across some debate over D&D's decision to cut back from a nine-alignment system to a five-alignment system in the 4th-edition game. Wedged into those debates, I've also seen more of the same old ones about alignments in general: "What does it mean to be 'good'? Or 'evil'? 'Lawful' or 'chaotic'?"

 It's easy for those of us who've been role-playing since the dawn of the hobby to forget how novel this can all be. When I picked up my first D&D book, five alignments is exactly what we had. We had to walk nine miles uphill through the snow just to get those... and we were grateful for them!

But really, it was just five (lawful good, chaotic good, neutral, lawful evil, and chaotic evil), and even that was a recent development. People were still out there publishing source material with only three alignments, and it mystified my pre-teen mind that so many denizens of the Thieves' Fortress of Badabaskor were simply "chaotic", with no hint given on their leanings toward good or evil. Whether we're talking three, five, nine, or 31 flavors of alignment, though, it's really all the same to me now; I was flagrantly ignoring alignments by the time I got to college.

What most players don't get about alignment -- the reason all those arguments flare up over how to play any given alignment "correctly" -- is that alignment isn't really about morality, reality, theology, sociology, psychology, or any other -ology or -ality. It's much more akin to picking sides for dodge ball. Alignment is a team jersey that allows group A to declare open season on group B, without stopping to consider all the social ramifications. Remember that D&D set the precedent for every role-playing game that has ever employed an alignment system; that no matter what trappings of story and character we may layer on top of its core rules, D&D is first and foremost a combat simulation game; and that D&D evolved from games that never aspired to be anything more than combat simulations.

People who sit down to play D&D come expecting to see make-believe violence break out. Most of them expect it to break out a lot, and they expect that some -- if not most --of that make-believe violence will be lethal make-believe violence. But just like the fans of professional wrestling, they want a story to go with their face-stomping. For most people, violence by itself is not enough to maintain their attention. It has to be violence with a reason, a motivation, a purpose. Alignment is D&D's handy, pre-packaged, one-size-fits-all excuse for violence to break out. Monsters rampage because they're "evil", which then sets up a motivation for any self-proclaimed "good" person to oppose them. Once we have that dichotomy firmly established, we no longer even have to wait for the monsters to rampage. We already know they're evil; it says so right there in the rules. Ergo they will eventually rampage, ergo it's our right -- nay, our duty -- as heroes to hit them back first. And if someone less heroic happens to hit the monsters back first in a rush to steal their gold, that's okay too.

I would be a hypocrite to condemn that gaming mentality. I've adopted it often enough. Any shared fantasy starts with certain set of assumptions, and you run with them. It's only when you take those assumptions too seriously as you build on them that the trouble begins. During D&D's evolution from pure tactical simulation to storytelling game, players expanded the role of alignment from being that spark that jump-starts adventure -- a justification for violence -- and began using it to justify all sorts of behaviors, large and small.

Over and over, I stumble across anecdotes of or from players who in all seriousness want to play "evil" characters -- I've even known a few personally -- and every time, I want to sit these people down; make them watch Dr. Evil hamming his way across the screen in the Austin Powers movies, or Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz of Doofenshmirtz Evil Incorporated hatch yet another megalomaniacal plot against "the tri-state area"; and yell, "It's a joke! Don't you get it?! It's a farce! A sham! Each and every villain who has ever lived, from Jeffrey Dahmer to Adolph Hitler, has seen himself as the hero of his own story. That doesn't mean he's nice, and that doesn't mean he's justified. It means that even if he winds up having regrets, large or small, he made the decisions that he thought were for the best when he made them. In his own mind, he's not 'bad', he's 'misunderstood'. Evil is inevitably something that 'the other guy' does, so the moment you apply that word to a character sheet, you're announcing that you've given up on trying to get inside that character's head. You're announcing that you've given up on role-playing, and that this character is nothing but a license to act out anti-social fantasies while your friends look on!" But I don't yell that. Usually, I just roll up some evil madman of my own so that he can deliver the rant for me. That way, because I'm delivering the rant entirely in-character (as the delusional ravings of a lunatic), no one's feelings ever get hurt. Right?

There, in fact, lies the rub: so many of the players who want to act out antisocial fantasies think that their chosen alignment (or whatever other "role-playing shield" they've chosen to hide behind) offers some sort of free pass to stomping on the feelings of the other players. They forcefully push an agenda that all their friends are obliged to forgive-and-forget anything that happened "in-character" as a simple matter of good sportsmanship, because, "It's just a game!"

Even without alignment to hide behind, my own brother tried to invoke such a role-playing shield in the single best campaign I ever game mastered. There he was, a thirty-year-old man throwing a full blown tantrum to defend his right to blurt out a non-stop string of misogynist drivel, because that was just being true to his character. It was his role-play, by God, and if he had to stop he might as well just pack up and quit. Forget the fact that every other player in the game was a woman, so that his hateful anti-female quips hit them with the same, full force that they hit the player characters. Forget the fact that one of those players was my own wife, and that another one of those players was his wife. Nothing was worth compromising his "art", and I was a villain for even suggesting that he should. Imagine his surprise when I never again offered to make the monthly three-hour drive to come run games in his basement. Guess I'm just too bourgeois to appreciate real art.

There it is, though. The conceit that when we sit down to play, somehow we should (or even can) stop thinking and feeling as ourselves, reacting as ourselves, is the essence of the dysfunctional role-player. No matter what ideal you may aspire to, no matter what grail-quest of gaming you might choose to pursue as the ultimate role-playing experience, it cannot and should not insulate you from the need for real-life social skills. The people who fail to grasp this are the ones who created the enduring stereotype of gamers as hopeless geeks who will never move out of their mom's basement and burned it into the public consciousness.

So do yourself a favor: never taken this whole alignment thing too seriously, or, better yet, chuck it out the window entirely. Hero or anti-hero, you'll do a much better job of breathing life into that alter-ego of yours. And even when people don't agree with your decisions, they'll respect you more for showing the courage of conviction than they will for offering some weaselley excuse.

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