Thursday, March 24, 2011
It's funny how many misconceptions gamers themselves have about RPGs. Here are a few pieces of general wisdom about RPGs that I've found are at least partly - and often totally - untrue.
Experience and character levels are a pacing mechanism, nothing more. These are essential in computer RPGs, where they both extend gameplay and allow "completist" players to grind for high-end rewards. But in tabletop games, you can achieve a much more coherent effect by stepping up power levels between story arcs or at critical points within a story arc.
Awarding experience based only on how many obstacles the players overcome is problematic even in systems like Dungeons & Dragons which are explicitly XP- and level-based. Specifically:
- Since it's not clear how many challenges the party will face and how many they will avoid, balancing future challenges becomes difficult.
- Knowing that exhaustive exploration is explicitly rewarded can cause parties to bog down when they should be moving ahead with the story.
- Differential rewards cause characters to be at different power levels, which makes challenges too easy for some while making other players feel ineffectual.
This is an example where the maxim "the rules should reflect the way the game is supposed to be played" applies. Levels allow characters to grow and prevent gameplay from getting stale. Challenges are balanced by level. Use level increases to forward the story and to plan good challenges for the party. Allowing an arbitrary XP system to drive advancement effectively puts the cart before the horse.
This is an outgrowth of the "GM tells the story" model, but also comes into play when one character has a secret the other characters don't know. People assume this is the best way to play because (a) not everyone can separate in-character and out-of-character knowledge, and (b) it's the way it's done in non-collaborative storytelling like novels, movies, and computer games. However, it's not always ideal. For one, it relies on the GM being able to tell a compelling story, the player(s) who have secret information working with the GM to make the reveal as dramatic as possible, and the other players being willing to go along with whatever the GM is ultimately planning.
In other words, there is a lot of implied trust with very little to back it up until that trust is proven founded or unfounded. Players may resent being "railroaded" to a particular plot point, or may unwittingly (or even somewhat knowingly) subvert the GM's plan. The GM must provide all of the steering, foreshadowing, etc. and do it in a way that's not obvious but that the players don't miss. A very, very good GM with cooperative players can be successful with this approach, but for most groups it's hopeless.
A better alternative is to let the players know more than their characters would - not necessarily everything, because surprises are awesome too, but major plot points which their characters will have to participate in. This allows for several advantages:
- The gaming group can collaborate out of character to improve on or add good ideas before they actually come up in the story.
- The players can prepare their characters and role-play to actually help set up a dramatic moment or critical reveal.
- Players can think beforehand about how their characters will react to a dramatic climax, which will improve the quality of the story when it actually happens.
This approach requires less trust - or rather, the players don't need to trust the GM and other players whose characters have secrets as much, though the GM does need to trust the players more. I think overall it's a net positive - it prevents feelings of railroading (since players are participating rather than being swept along) and reduces the desire to subvert the story.
And, in the end, if the GM decides to pull a Shyamalan, s/he still can.1
This is a no-brainer. This is a game in which the GM and the players are all playing. It's supposed to be fun for everybody. If it is not fun for the GM, the game ends. If it is not fun for the players, they won't play.
Unfortunately, in traditional tabletop games, the most common interactions between the GM and the players are adversarial. NPCs want to thwart or cheat the characters. Monsters want to kill the characters. And while the player winning or losing isn't the same as the character winning or losing, the two are usually closely tied (more on that later).
The role of the GM is to set up appropriate and fun challenges for the players and to help them tell a compelling story. It is not to try to obliterate them at every opportunity. The role of the players is to play in the game, cooperating to have fun and tell a good story. It is not to subvert the GM and the rest of the party.
When one participant sees his "win condition" as something that requires another participant to lose, then the game is no longer fun for everyone. Also, s/he's being a jerk.
Sometimes players can have fun when their characters lose or die. Having a heroic or tragic death can be a satisfying end to a good story. There are some games (Call of Cthulu, Paranoia, Dread) where the whole goal of the game is to die as spectacularly as possible. But this is something that the player must accept willingly (or at least be comfortable with) ahead of time. Also, there are some games in which there is always a small possibility of death (D&D before 4E was a great example) - and that's fine, too, as long as the players understand what they're getting into and it doesn't happen as the result of malice between participants.
So, in the end, everybody needs to remember they're on the same team.
It might. You might have found a loophole that allows you to do something that's clearly outside what the designers wanted and that they haven't errata'd yet. But you have to ask yourself why you're doing it. Do you need the advantage you're going to get? Do you need to be mechanically better than the other players? Does it bother you at all that what you're doing clearly wasn't intended by the designers of the game?
Many tabletop game designers (including Wizards of the Coast) explicitly have a policy that when the letter of the rules and the spirit of the rules conflict, you always go with the spirit. And if you're not sure there's a conflict, it's a good idea to check with all of the other participants, so that none of them feel like you're getting an unfair advantage. And if you have any twinge of doubt as to whether something is questionable - well, when we were on official trips with the marching band in college, our directors always told us this: "If you have to ask, don't do it."
There's nothing wrong with ignoring or modifying a rule if everyone can agree. But actively looking for loopholes is a violation of all kinds of trust, and you shouldn't do it. In fact, if there's a legitimately printed rule that seems broken or easily abused, you should probably avoid that too. In the end, the game will be more fun if the challenges are actually challenging and your character is balanced with the other players' characters than if you manage to find the Tecmo Bowl long-pass-down-the-right-sideline that always results in a touchdown. Because if you're scoring a touchdown on every play, what's the point of playing in the first place?
The Brilliant Gameologists addressed this very well in a number of episodes, but it bears repeating: there's nothing wrong with creating a character that is good at stuff. If you want to have the very best swordsman in your kingdom, you had better put a whole bunch of points into sword (or whatever). Otherwise, your character isn't going to be what you want him to be.
Every character has to contribute something. Unless that something is comic relief, you should be choosing things that help the party. And if you're trying to build a character that is good at X and Y and Z, there are right ways and wrong ways to do that. Learning the rules and learning how to build effective characters (and advance them) is part of the game.
That said, there are some pitfalls. Some players like to make a character that is very good at one thing and one thing only. And you're probably familiar with the expression, "when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." So that player is going to always want to solve problems one way (which is guaranteed to annoy the other players), or be useless in situations that don't involve nails. Also, when nails do appear, the hammer guy is going to steal the show and everybody else is going to be standing on the sidelines wishing they had enough points in hammer to be useful.
Another pitfall is to take the min-maxing attitude into the actual game. Yes, obviously, you want to use your rule knowledge to solve problems, but not at the expense of the story and other players' enjoyment. Sometimes role-playing means making mechanically sub-optimal choices because that's what your character would do. Sometimes you need to hold off using your winning move for a bit to increase suspense or because the other players are still having fun flailing ineffectually at a problem.
I understand that there is a certain class of player for whom RPGs are only a sort of adolescent power fantasy, and the only payoff they get is exploding things as awesomely as possible. And if you are playing with one of these people, you need to feed that need. But you also need to help them grow, if not by appreciating other aspects of the game, then at least by learning how to defer gratification for the benefit of other players.2
2 If you are one of these players, then I want nothing to do with you. I'm too old to babysit.
Finally, I'd like to give one piece of advice on character creation that comes from my engineering background: don't be a solution looking for a problem, be a problem looking for a solution. In other words, get an idea for the character you want to play beforehand - background, personality, beliefs, goals, what the character's role in the game is going to be, etc. and then look for rule mechanics that support those things, and optimize the hell out of them.
Don't build a bag of cool game mechanics and try to wrap a character around it. There's a time and a place for that: the one-shot adventure. If you really want to try out your weird-ass D&D spiked chain fighter, get some buddies together and have your GM toss you an interesting combat. We do it every week at the store on Tuesdays. But don't be fooled into thinking that your bonus to trip attacks is a character concept - it's not; it's just a nifty thing you found in the rulebook. As soon as nameless-spiked-chain-guy hits an actual campaign, he's going to turn into a complete brick outside of combat - or whenever you're not fighting bipeds.
Having a character concept that you like first means that even if the actual game mechanics cause him or her to evolve into something you didn't expect, or it turns out you're not as good (or better) at something in-game than you anticipated, you're still going to enjoy playing that character.
I'd agree with most things here, though I think that it's just tough for there not to be an adversarial conflict between GM and players, at least to a degree. Their goals in game are at polar ends of the spectrum, for the most part. Certainly, this needn't get to an extreme level and the Wil Wheaton rule of "Don't be a Dick" should dominate, but I think it's just tough overall to avoid the GM/player conflict in many games.
And player death in most games I think is something that probably ought to be avoided if at all possible unless it's built into the base mechanics and theme of the game like Paranoia. But in a standard dungeon crawl type, I can certainly see why players would be bothered by their character dying, particularly if it's one they've played for a long campaign. That character becomes a part of that player and vice versa. I mean, I know it's kinda dumb, but I certainly care more about my main on WoW than any other character and a lot of character in other games I own just because I've invested a lot of time into that character. I relate to the character mechanics (in this case, hunter, who prefers to work from range, avoid combat with traps and such at times, and I like pets, but like that in game, I can have them out as I please). If Blizzard killed my character tomorrow, I'd be very much pissed off and hurt.
Posted on Sunday, April 3, 2011 at 11:51 PM
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