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Story Appropriateness vs. Risk and Tension

Once again, it may be that I’ve been hanging out on RPG forums a little too much lately; at least you’re forewarned about the content of this posting. Apologies to any regulars on The Forge to whom a lot of the below will probably seem familiar; I suppose it's my thoughts after seeing some of the stuff you guys, especially Ron Edwards, have discussed actually in action.

I’ve noticed that, among those people who not only play roleplaying games but also discuss their hobby online, there seems to be a conflict in the view often held by the, for want of a better term, “average” gamer.

I remember a few months ago, an RPGnet forum poster started a thread (I’d search for the thread, except RPGnet have disabled searching on their forums, and they’re only archiving as far back as the end of July right now) about how the game group that this person was a member of had decided to play Dungeons & Dragons by rolling all the dice in plain view and applying the results of the rolls.

From memory, said gamer didn’t advertise it as being better or worse than using all the usual GM techniques, just different, and I believe the gamer’s group were enjoying it; at the very least I don’t remember said gamer expressing a negative opinion of the idea. The responses from other gamers, however, mostly followed the same general lines: that following the rules without any “behind the curtain” tinkering by the game master (e.g. ignoring his own rolls or redesigning opponent statistics on the fly) meant player characters could die or otherwise be eliminated from the game arbitrarily. Their contention was that player characters should only die when appropriate to the campaign’s story, etcetera - basically, they were telling this gamer that the group was playing D&D wrong.

I contrast that idea with some reactions to Primetime Adventures, a game that I’ve mentioned quite a bit lately. Its rules are, one would think, geared to address that very situation. Although player characters in the game have defining traits like most other games, they’re very few, very broad and not defined in terms of numbers. The rules also treat “action” the same as any other pivotal character moment in game play; the player defines what his or her character wants to do in the given situation and what that character stands to gain or lose depending on whether things go the character’s way or not.

In other words, the range of things that can happen to a player’s character during any given conflict – including whether the character is really at risk of dying – are defined by the player. This, I thought, would be the panacea to the ills of those gamers who complained that going by the dice didn’t respect the story.

However, I’ve seen several gamers argue their tastes against Primetime Adventures on both The Forge and RPGnet, and the one argument that comes up over and over again is the absence of “tense, well-paced action”. It’s argued that going into an extended conflict with no idea how it will work out, of the thrill of turn-by-turn risk, is preferable to knowing how things end in advance and building toward that end.

This puzzles me. The insistence on character death when dramatically appropriate in many “standard” RPGs like D&D, Shadowrun or Rolemaster (yardstick: the breaking-down of time into defined, discrete chunks for measurement of conflict, and volume of character options that involve the rules, i.e. feats, spells, weapons, etcetera, that the game includes within its text), to me, often sounds more like an attempt to protect the player's investment. I can certainly understand this desire by players and GMs to keep their finely crafted playing pieces in the game as long as possible. A lot of time and effort goes into most player characters, both at character creation and as the campaign progresses.

But as I'm writing about dramatic appropriateness, not protectionism, I'll assume that those gamers are really arguing for just what they say. The only problem is, all those designed and accrued rules options I mentioned above only have meaning in terms of protecting the character from rules-based harm (armour, defensive feats, force fields or magic walls) or by allowing the character to inflict rules-based harm (guns, swords, fireball spells, phasers) or by governing who goes when based on in-game time scale (combat turns and initiative scores) – so to make all those advances worthwhile, a player must put his or her character at risk, regardless of what's dramtically appropriate.

If the focus is on things happening to the character when dramatically appropriate, then stats for action timing, armour, spell components or even hit points aren't needed, and won’t do the job – what’s needed is some way of governing dramatic appropriateness. Games like D&D, Shadowrun or Rolemaster don’t even pretend to be about governing that – or, at least, their rules don’t. It’s that advice in the game master’s section about fudging dice rolls and caring for characters (again, see above comments about protectionism) that I think confuses gamers into arguing against risk on one hand - "don't risk killing player characters on a roll of the dice, only do it when it's dramatically appropriate" - and for it on the other - "all this determining dramatic appropriateness is boring, we want risk".

To me, this is a binary situation; a game’s designer can prioritise one over the other, but if the designer tries to give both priorities equal weight in the game’s rules, the game will only invite arguments within its playgroups about which priority applies when. So, I can’t help but wonder why gamers complain if a GM or group decides to play a game like D&D by-the-book instead of using all the usual “behind the shield” cheats to get it to do what they want. Why argue that a set of rules that doesn’t cater to greater story should bow to its demands, and that a set of rules explicitly aimed at managing a greater story doesn’t give the sort of risk management appropriate for a game like D&D? Is it just because all those game master sections have told gamers that that’s how their roleplaying games meant to work, even when the rules of those very games don’t support that material in the GM section?

Of course, I may be over-arguing a point. Some of the arguments about Primetime Adventures' stem more from the fact that the outcome of a while conflict is determined by a single turn of the cards, with the players expected to build toward that outcome as they see fit without any further guidance. The revised edition of Primetime Adventures has introduced a "multi-flip" rule which allows groups to break down the big conflicts into stages, each of which can tend toward success or failure, but only the total result defines what happens in the end.

Also, my latest gaming purchase, Dogs in the Vineyard, successfully and enjoyably (if those Actual Play threads are any indication) strikes a middle ground between the two extremes. Conflicts are broken down into a series of system of Sees and Raises which actually manage to combine the moment-to-moment drama players seem to crave whilst leaving the choice of risking their characters’ death firmly to them – you can almost always “Give” out of a conflict, even though it means your character won't get what he or she wants.

[UPDATE 26 September 05, 10.15 AM:] Here's a quote that I think illustrates my popint a bit. It's borrowed from this year old Dogs in the Vineyard Actual Play thread.

    I've played in groups where if someone does something in-character and foolish, no matter who much drama and fun it creates the players get pissy.

My thought upon reading that line was, probably because that irresponsible and foolish act has endangered their characters, meaning that either they'll have to risk them dying at an inappropriate time or their poor GM will have to do some fudging and bail them out.

Of course, this is me reading my thoughts into Paka's line, not trying to pass judgment on a bunch of players I've never met.

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Oh man, I'm one of those players!
I'm very prepared to do something stupid if it's in character for the sake of roleplay. Occasionally it has put the other PCs in a place that they don't want to be. (Broke the universe in Amber once cos my char was an egotistical, selfish prat who didn't think that consequences happened to him - because they always happened to the other PCS).
This is why I'm so picky about my fellow players and GM. I need them to be able to not get the shits when I do something left field.
Some of the funnest (and funniest) situations have ahppened because I've incorporated alot of floors into my char concept, and the GM has pulled on some strings at the most inoppertune moment. Digging your way out of a pit of crud when you are neck deep can be fun, as long as people who you play with are willing to have a bit of reality in the game. Life is not about one win after another. You get good times, and bad.
I'm reminded of the fallout in an online game I played where a major storyline was completed with an overwhealming defeat. I was one of the few players that took it well. 40 heros don't defeat an army of 200,000 elite troops and 500 special beasties. We were never going to win, we lost the town we had been defending for three months. I know of 3 players that quit the server over it. It was a dissapointment, yes. But it was also a realistic outcome, and it brought about many many new storylines.
I don't think the problem is recklessness... I think that it's just that some people don't cope real well with dissapointment.