Thursday, July 8, 2010

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Dice

Depending on the sort of group you started gaming with, you probably had different levels of how much the dice were respected as a decider for your game.

For example, my first groups were unapologetically hardcore Palladium Fantasy and Rules Cyclopedia D&D. The dice reigned supreme. If you failed a save, no matter what it did to anyone’s preconceived “epic story”, that was it.

My groups in the mid-90s were more wishy-washy. These were the times of grand railroading epics, of games where the dice were bent if they didn’t fall into the ideal epic destiny we had plotted for our characters. I don’t know that any of us didn’t secretly believe our character’s story was the greatest fantasy saga yet told.

It took some time, but as I began to Game Master more and more, I found that quite frankly, I was an awful storyteller. People weren’t there to listen to me spin yarn anyways, any more than I was there to hear them. When the dice weren’t paid attention to, my position as an impartial arbiter was suspect of no longer being quite so impartial. Why would I give the bonus or benefit to one character and not the other?

The day I started being a better Game Master is the day I stopped being a failed would-be novelist and started being a referee and facilitator. Let’s set the odds or situation, and see what the dice tell us. I’m not telling the story; I’m putting the basic premise out there, having the player characters add threads by their actions, and the dice determine the outcome.

What I’ve found in all this are that the dice, in their random (I use Gamescience), delightful way of cosmic justice, are a far better storyteller than I would ever be. Storytelling isn’t my goal anymore, but I’ve found in an incidental way, the dice make stories and memories that railroading or fudging never could. And now since the result is a surprise to me as well, that means my enjoyment and entertainment is greater, too.

Random is Beautiful.

14 comments:

Daddy Grognard said...

The story only comes into existence when we look back at what the dice have said while we were playing. At the time, it could go anywhere.

Dane of War said...

There's nothing like rolling bones. I'm of the opinion that "it ain't an RPG if there's no dice."

My tendency to rattle on at length as a GM - to the boredom of players has also led me let the dice do a lot of the work.

Let 'em fall where they may.

Stuart said...

100% agreement! :)

Christian said...

Well said. The dice can often provide opportunities for some great narrative as you try to describe the results and meaning of a die roll.

Marcelo Paschoalin said...

Let the dice fall where they may!

We are not telling stories here, we are playing games.

Imagine a soccer match tied in 1x1 when, in the final minute, the home team--your players--, who was playing better during the whole match, hits the post. Should we call that a goal because that would be a more interesting result?

The dice tell a story. Always. And it's a story I'm ready to enjoy.

Will Douglas said...

Absolutely.

I was at a panel at a con this weekend where the panelists recommended to beginning GMs that they fudge rolls to keep from killing characters. I nearly hid under my chair.

If you're just going to change the result, why even use dice?

AJ said...

I have to admit, whenever I let the dice take over, things seem to get more interesting, stranger, and memorable.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks for the comments, guys!

@Will: I've been on similar panels. Heck, I probably gave the same advice once upon a time. Not how I roll anymore--pun intended. :)

Will Douglas said...

That's a really good point.

I think it's cool how one's viewpoint on these issues changes over the years. But it can also be a bit of a danger, in case we take ourselves too seriously. After all, whatever viewpoint we hold right now is clearly the One True Way...

verification word: stabaco -- what they're smoking in the cigarettes in all those future stories from old science fiction...Star Tobacco, or Stabaco!

Zachary The First said...

Yeah--I have no doubt there's better storytellers than I do that pull it off splendidly. But for me, I'm rolling the dice. I'll just do the basic premise, the players will add, and no one has to worry about making perfect fiction.

adeptgamer said...

Forgive the brevity..


BEST BLOG TITLE EVER!!!

..continue with your life.

jcosmon said...

I think this is really interesting, and I agree that the dice are crucial. I also agree that randomness often leads a game much more interesting places than where a "novelist GM" could plan to go.

But accepting that the dice will decide the outcome of encounters (which I agree with) doesn't address all the issues in this great post.

For example -- how much randomness/control is too much? I ask this because often in these discussions there sometimes seems to be a false dichotomy -- that either games are either a) open sandboxes or b) overwrought railroading expeditions in which players are trapped playing out the unwritten novel of a overweening DM (usually peopled with superpowered NPCs which perform for the players supposed enjoyment.)

But are these really the options? How much randomness is required to stop the railroad, or consequently, how much should the GM plan out an adventure?

Is the best answer to simply have a sandbox to play in, in which players choose where to go? Is there a danger of aimless wandering? Should GMs plant hooks based on what the characters bring to the table, or should the world exist before they arrive? (In other words, should the GM create a world and populate it and leave it to the players to find their own hooks, or should the GM select things from the character backgrounds and insert them into the game -- a lost sister, an artifact that a player says he is questing for, more orcs if two players have a hatred for the Orc king, etc.)

If it is the second, if you are taking things from the character history and making them important parts of the campaign, is that falling into the trap of writing the "grand novel," or is that only a problem if it is imposed dogmatically from the GM?

What about games in which players are given "missions?" (Shadowrun or Top Secret, or whatever) Is that railroading if the GM does not know whether the players will do the mission, if it will be successful, or what the outcome will be? Or is this kind of scenario railroading by definition (or is this genre dependent?)

This is real question about the role of the GM. Among the many options -- watchmaker Deity who constructs a world and then referees how people interact with it, novelist GM who forces players into a predetermined storyline, or creator of plots that the characters may be able to choose between.

Zack, when you say you create a premise -- what does that entail? Is that the basic construction of the world, is it the creation of hooks (based or not on character backgrounds), full adventures, or something else?

I have my own thoughts about these things -- I, for example, hate random encounter tables, but that's just me -- but I am really interested in what everyone thinks.

Zachary The First said...

@adeptgamer: Thank you! I am rather partial to it myself.

@jcosmon: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'll try to answer as best I can.

As far as missions in spy and modern RPGs, I would still consider that really just a premise. Below, example A) is giving a basic premise. Example B) is railroading:

A) The players are tasked with breaking into a bank in Brussels. They are given dossiers, contact names, and blueprints of the bank, and given 1 week to plan the heist. The Game Master sets out these "framings" and sees what the reaction is, adjudicating the result.

B) The players are tasked with breaking into a bank. They are told exactly how to do it, and are forced into several mandatory encounters with contacts, regardless of their plans to do otherwise.

Now, that's pretty simplistic and cut-and-dry, but when I'm saying "premise", I'm saying, "the basic tools with which to go forth and act independently in this game". I think I can come up with a more concise definition, if I can beg for a minute or so. :)

Yes, there's always a danger in sandbox play and aimless wandering. If players have been conditioned to expect you to whisk them from one encounter to another, they may need to learn to take initiative. Another part I would caution with sandboxing is to observe organic boundaries:


http://www.rpgblog2.com/2009/06/setting-organic-boundaries.html

As far as taking character background and turning into a "novel", I do think there's a place for character background in there. It's when it becomes dogmatic or limiting of free choice ("you do x, y, and z because of this thing you wrote 8 months ago when we started") that I think you run into a problem. I try to shy away from absolutes.

I don't know that I would recommend a specific amount of dice rolling. I don't railroad, and I can spend an entire session with players riffing off a single dice roll. Railroading and no dice rolling do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, though there is often a commonality there. I think the more important point with railroading might be to see where the creative flow is coming from. Is it a compromise between the players and GM? If so, are they basically just playing out an agreed upon story, or are both parties contributing to the interpretation of a random factor?

For a GM trying to break the habit of railroading, making a conscious decision to referee by rolling the dice can be a good way to get your thought process changed, I think.

I hope that helps. You've given me a lot to consider here, and I might need to expound a bit more in an additional article.

Zachary The First said...

@adeptgamer: Thank you! I am rather partial to it myself.

@jcosmon: Thanks for the thoughtful comments. I'll try to answer as best I can.

As far as missions in spy and modern RPGs, I would still consider that really just a premise. Below, example A) is giving a basic premise. Example B) is railroading:

A) The players are tasked with breaking into a bank in Brussels. They are given dossiers, contact names, and blueprints of the bank, and given 1 week to plan the heist. The Game Master sets out these "framings" and sees what the reaction is, adjudicating the result.

B) The players are tasked with breaking into a bank. They are told exactly how to do it, and are forced into several mandatory encounters with contacts, regardless of their plans to do otherwise.

Now, that's pretty simplistic and cut-and-dry, but when I'm saying "premise", I'm saying, "the basic tools with which to go forth and act independently in this game". I think I can come up with a more concise definition, if I can beg for a minute or so. :)

Yes, there's always a danger in sandbox play and aimless wandering. If players have been conditioned to expect you to whisk them from one encounter to another, they may need to learn to take initiative. Another part I would caution with sandboxing is to observe organic boundaries:


http://www.rpgblog2.com/2009/06/setting-organic-boundaries.html

As far as taking character background and turning into a "novel", I do think there's a place for character background in there. It's when it becomes dogmatic or limiting of free choice ("you do x, y, and z because of this thing you wrote 8 months ago when we started") that I think you run into a problem. I try to shy away from absolutes.

I don't know that I would recommend a specific amount of dice rolling. I don't railroad, and I can spend an entire session with players riffing off a single dice roll. Railroading and no dice rolling do not necessarily go hand-in-hand, though there is often a commonality there. I think the more important point with railroading might be to see where the creative flow is coming from. Is it a compromise between the players and GM? If so, are they basically just playing out an agreed upon story, or are both parties contributing to the interpretation of a random factor?

For a GM trying to break the habit of railroading, making a conscious decision to referee by rolling the dice can be a good way to get your thought process changed, I think.

I hope that helps. You've given me a lot to consider here, and I might need to expound a bit more in an additional article.