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Rules Lawyers, Min-Maxing, and Rule Number One

RulesLawyer-236x300I am a role-player. A ROLE-player. I love to get into stories, characters, world creation–all the non-crunchy, fluffy bits of RPGs. I love that its it’s a living novel. Like Robin D. Laws said, RPGs are the only literary medium (emphasis mine) where the author and the audience are the same person.

When I play an an RPG–and when I run an RPG–I want to work together to tell a fascinating story. To have characters perform great deeds for interesting reasons. I want interaction, drama, dilemmas, NPCs the players care about, and to have sessions that are talked about days, months, years, after the fact. The play is the thing is very much my mantra.

So–in the world of RPGs, rules have become, for me, a means to an end. They are not the point. I’m not a system geek. I only care about the rules so far as they reinforce good role-playing. Encourage immersion. Give players tools to be awesome. But other than that? They’re beside the point.

Phrases like “rules lawyer,” “min-max,” “munchkin,” “character build,” and “optimization,” make me cringe and die a little inside. They represent alien concepts to me. Concepts devoid of emotion. Devoid of that spark of life at the heart of an RPG. Devoid of fun.

I simply don’t get a charge out of tricking out a “character” (if you want to call that monstrous collection of statistics devoid of a personality a “character”) to it’s “maximum potential.” I don’t understand the appeal of examining the minutiae of each rule, every nuanced meaning of what “is” means, to suck every bonus I can from the bones of the system. I don’t enjoy arguing and debating the finer points of what the developers meant every time a ruling is made.

When I’m running a game, I don’t need players whipping out their phones and tablets every time I make a ruling. When I’m a player, I don’t need to bog down the game trying to argue for a bonus that only exists because a game developer didn’t think of this contingency.

I get that if you’re playing a wizard, you might want to play the best wizard you can be. But sometimes, you can make decisions based on WHO the character is more than WHAT the character is. There’s making good choices and trying to be good at what you do and then there’s making the statistical outcome the point of the endeavor.

When telling me about your character, I’d much rather hear about her story than what her DPR is.

But.

I’m not the only one playing the game.

When I’m running a game, my job is to entertain the players. And sometimes, that means giving them what they want–even if it’s not what I want.

When I’m playing a game, my fellow players may be system geeks and into seeing what a rules system can do and how they can push it to the breaking point. For them that’s the point of the game.

Sure, some behaviors are just obnoxious. A old-school Rules Lawyer that bogs down the game pointing out each and every infraction along the way is a pain. But his crime isn’t knowing the rules–his crime is bogging down the game. Find a way around that and utilize his knowledge. Maybe call on him to confirm rulings after the game.

Some players are going to min-max. It’s where their happy place is. And, as GM, I’ve got to breathe, not yell at them to “get offa my lawn,” and find a way to accommodate their fun into OUR campaign. Find places for that kind of play to shine–but also find places for MY kind of play to shine as well. Balance combat encounters with non-combat encounters. Make large battle set-pieces that have story-based reasons for being.

Everybody enjoys the game in different ways. It’s a juggling act. It’s about balance and precision and keeping your eye on the pins (or the goslings, if you’re so inclined).

wash_juggling_goslings_by_ersheld.png

“Wash Juggling Goslings” by ersheld (http://ersheld.deviantart.com/art/Wash-Juggling-Goslings-176687557)

Always remember Rule Number One: Have Fun.

When I’m tempted to nerf a rule, or slam a player’s style, or take away from a player’s enjoyment of the game, I have to remember to refer to Rule Number One.

It will literally make or break the game.

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Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

untitled (12)I was recently on an online forum discussing some differences between Pathfinder and D&D 5e. One of the posters said something that struck me as rather odd–that Pathfinder is a complex system and he likes complex systems because “real life is complex.” This got me to thinking about the relationship between realism and fantasy in roleplaying games and settings.

The primary question that occurs to me is that, in a game, (let’s say a high-fantasy game such as Pathfinder or D&D), that has elves, dwarves, unicorns, dragons, magic, and fully-stocked dungeons full of treasure, why are we worried about the supposed “realism” of the system we use to play there? How do you justify that “this is how it works in the real world” when you are decidedly NOT playing in the “the real world”? Does that argument hold water?

Obviously, with it being a game, you have to have SOME laws to dictate how things go. Some rules on which to hang the storytelling process. But why are “realistic” rules de rigueur? Why not have rules that based less on simulation and have rules based on other factors–say narrative flow?

This is an old debate, I know. Should a game simulate the real world or emulate it? A lot of the emphasis of simulation comes from the roots of RPGs. Having gotten their start in the realm of miniature battle simulation, the traditions of those systems have evolved and carried forward. So more traditional games err toward the simulation model–rules try to simulate what would happen in “real world” situation with “real world” physics and “real world” consequences.

This makes for some complex, crunchy games–because, as the original poster mentioned above said, real life is complex.

On the other hand, many newer games are coming across with different models, emphasizing narrative and storytelling over the physics. They tend to be “rules-lite” systems, though this can be deceptive–Fate Core may not be as thick a book as Pathfinder, but I think its system is as robust and complex, just with different emphasis. The rules seek not to answer the question of “what happens to the character when hit with the sword?” but more of “why was the character hit with the sword and how does it affect the story?”

One system is not inherently “better” than the other–it’s a matter of emphasis and of taste, of course. But one thing that absolutely has to be there regardless of style a balance between the simulation and a realization that you are in a game. Playability has to be a factor.

I once played in a friend’s home-brew western campaign in which he worked very hard on coming up with “realistic” firearms rules. Our characters got into one firefight and the campaign came up short–one of main characters was permanently brain damaged by a bullet to the brainpan (“squish!”). The campaign was stymied–it was decidedly an un-fun proposition to get into a firefight. Our friend was permanently disabled. And chances were really good the same or worse would happen to our characters if we moved forward in the manner in which we wished to move story-wise. There’s no denying that the rules were realistic–if someone is hit with a bullet, something bad is going to happen. Period. But, at the same time, it is a game, and the story must also flow. The players have to have a means and a motivation to carry on.

Granted, looking back on that campaign, it could have opened the doors for some interesting roleplaying–after all, we shouldn’t protect our characters from danger, but embrace it. But the point is that the realism of the rules affected the game in a manner in which the game master or the players were not prepared.

I think, in the end, whether your jam is simulation or narrative flow, players and game masters all crave the same thing: verisimilitude. We all want a harmony between the internal logic of the game and the story. Whether that internal logic is based on real world physics (which is not necessarily a bad thing to on which to hang a logical system) or on tried-and-true methods of storytelling (which have worked well for millennia), we have to be able to make sense of what is going on.

While we may not all want simulation, we all want immersion. That is what roleplaying games are about–immersion into our roles and into different worlds. Simulation and narrative simply two paths that can be taken to get to that same sweet destination.

This is the End (or Is It?)

Announcement

News and Announcements

As of today, this project is five years old.

I had hoped to gather a lot of information from a lot of GMs with which to get a snapshot of who we are as a subset of the culture. My ultimate goal was to gather both data (in the form of a survey) and stories (in the form of interviews) and put them together in a book that would serve as a picture of who we are as game masters.

I only got 5 interviews.

I only got 73 responses on the survey.

When it comes to “der Interwebz,” I am only a small fish in a very, very large pond. So my voice was simply not heard and I didn’t get the response I hoped for. I put out posts on various message boards, spoke to some GMs personally, put out flyers in the large metropolitan area in which I live.

But, still, not much of a response.

As a result, this project has come to an end. On the “Survey” page of this site, and via the link below, you can see the results of my survey, such as they are. I think it’s still interesting, but not a very wide-ranging, picture of what I wanted to see.

HOWEVER, I will continue this blog and my journey as a GM. I want to continue to explore that central question of who we are. What makes us tick? What makes us do what we do? Why do we do it and how can we do it better? Maybe I can still get some answers.

If you’re a GM and want to share some of your techniques, tips, tricks, or your story, I’m still willing to do interviews and post them on the blog.

But the project that I hoped would become a book? That is no more.

Survey Results

Here are the Survey Results

Southern Exposure, or Sacking the Castle Perilous…

Idylls_of_the_King_3I’ve been reading a pair of excellent books on the art of gamemastering. If you haven’t come across them already, do yourself a favor and try them out. John Wick’s Play Dirty and Play Dirty 2 are little gems–small enough to put in your pocket and equally worthy to be treasured.

One of the many concepts covered that really resonated with me is the idea that the player characters must be exposed in order for the drama of the game to occur. This had never even occurred to me before, but the very idea opened up so many doors in my mind, shedding light on so many failed concepts and flopped campaigns that I realized the truth of it.

Wick goes on to explain how most traditional RPGs are designed to protect characters. America’s Classic Roleplaying Game™ has three different ways baked into the system to protect characters–Armor Class, Saving Throws, and Hit Points. Traditional RPG culture reinforces the idea that players are supposed to protect their characters from the harm that GMs are going to inflict upon them. It’s a fairly entrenched idea.

And it’s boring as hell.

Players go through, collecting stuff and bennies such as XP or hero points. GMs set up various “challenges” to be knocked down, but it’s just a grinding exercise. There’s no tension, no stakes. And players can actually begin to think of ways to NOT have to do stuff.

For example, I ran an urban fantasy campaign that began to grind to a halt and is now defunct. One of my players began to lose interest and the campaign just died on the vine. One of the symptoms that I began to see was that for every problem, he’d call one of his contacts to solve it. He wouldn’t do anything for himself. Eventually, the campaign just stalled.

Looking back, I now see what went wrong. I didn’t provide any incentive for him to expose himself, so he had others expose themselves for him. He had no agency, no reason to sally forth into adventure and sack Castle Perilous.

And therein lies the problem.

Exposure is where the drama happens. More importantly, exposure is where adventure happens.

If players were, instead, encouraged to expose their characters to danger, then the tension of the game automatically torques up. The excitement of the game automatically rises.

And fun ensures.

That’s why I love the newer narrative-driven systems, like Fate Core, which have mechanics that actively push players to put their characters into harm’s way, to cause their characters “trouble.” In Fate Core, your character has a “Trouble” Aspect that, when compelled by the GM, can provide the player with precious Fate Points that can be spent to the benefit of the player later down the road.

So, even if you’re playing a more “traditional” RPG, like D&D or Pathfinder, find ways to encourage your players to expose themselves (hey, not like that. Keep your pants on, buddy). Hand out extra XP. Give out Hero Points if you’re using that system (or one like it). Encourage your players to get out there and DO SOMETHING! It will enrich the game and make your table AWESOME!

 

“I’m Just Playing My Character”: Roleplaying and the Choices We Make

Ramblings

Ramblings

“Don’t be a dick” — Wheaton’s Law

If you’ve played roleplaying games for any length of time, you’ve heard this refrain at least once (or at least some variation of it):

“I’m just playing my character…”

It’s usually when the player that utters it has just had their character pull off a really dick move. Chances are pretty good they’re playing an evil character, or at least a “morally gray” character. And they’re doing something that is screwing over the other players.

“I’m just playing my character…”

This is the defense offered for the dick move in question. That they are engaging in proper roleplaying by pulling off this dick move and thus playing “right.” They can’t be held accountable for the dick move because they are roleplaying what their dickish character would actually do in the circumstance.

But, to me, this just doesn’t hold water.

Because, as players, our characters are made up of the choices we make. Literally. They are nothing more than the choices we make. Laid out as statistical models on paper (or virtual paper in some cases). And we, as players, are responsible for the choices we make. We just are. And if we choose to play a dickish character that does dickish things and chooses to make strife in the party and ruin a perfectly good game, then we as players should be held accountable for that choice.

Because we could have chosen otherwise.

I’m not saying we should always choose a goody-goody character or even a 100% cooperative character. Sometimes, character strife causes drama which is good for the narrative which is good for the game. But unless you’re a good enough player to know when strife is good for the game, and when it’s not, then maybe you should try playing a cooperative character. Because there’s dramatic tension and there’s bringing the game to grinding halt. And you don’t want to be “that guy/gal.”

You have to be able to strike a balance between playing a jerk and still being able to get things done with the other players. If you’re always at odds, then you’re not getting anywhere and it ceases to be fun. It turns into a chore. And no one’s having fun anymore. Sure, your method acting may be on point, but no one wants to play anymore. And what’s the point in that?

The thing is, while this is a roleplaying game, and even I emphasize good roleplaying at my table, it is first and foremost a game. It is a social interaction. The number one rule is to have fun. And your ability to roleplay comes second to everyone’s good time at the table. So you have to make a choice–and sometimes that choice is to take the path of cooperation and find a explanation for it later. The game may be better for it.