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Monday, 16th May, 2011, 08:39 PM #1
4 Hours w/ RSD - Let's Have a Flamewar!
Lets Have a Flamewar!
I have, from time to time, been accused of making comments designed to inflame passions and ignite debate. That may be true to some degree, but when it comes to the art of driving people crazy with terminology, I tip my hat to the people at Global Underwater Explorers.
In the 1980s this group became the stewards of a project designed to map the underground water filled caves of the northern Florida watershed. Cave diving has been called the most dangerous sport in the world – people die doing it every year. Yet something draws divers into those dark underground caverns, and challenges them to go deeper, further, and through more and more hazardous territory as they explore.
As a deep-sea diver myself, I fully understand the lure of this segment of the sport. Something about the attention to detail and precise skills needed to conduct this kind of dive appeals to me (and many others).
As the sport of cave diving matured and took on additional responsibilities like that pioneered by GUE’s Woodville Karst Project in Florida it became increasingly obvious that something needed to be done about the safety factor. To that end, the GUE pioneers and a close circle of associates developed a system of training, gear, dive planning, team diving, and technical gas mixtures they called “Doing It Right”, or DIR for short.
If you would like to see a community of folks combust like a phosphorous flare, tell a bunch of cave divers that by definition they are “Doing It Wrong”. To say the resulting conversations were “heated” would be the understatement of the millennium. As a marketing strategy designed to raise awareness, DIR was brilliant. As a way to bring a community together in pursuit of safer diving, well, it had a mixed result, at best. Echoes of this debate still resonate wherever divers gather to discuss their sport. Because in part the DIR philosophy suggested that safer diving wasn’t something that should be just limited to cave divers but should be a primary goal of divers in every condition.
The Core of Doing It Right
The DIR philosophy focuses on a couple of simple principles:
• Take only as much gear with you as necessary for your safety and the safety of your dive team
• Reduce or eliminate anything on your gear that can create an entanglement hazard
• Plan your dive so that you and your dive team have enough breathing gas to overcome a gear failure at the point of maximum danger – then dive that plan exactly.
Books have been written (and thousands of message board posts exchanged) on elaborating this concept. DIR divers have developed very specific requirements for how they rig every bit of gear they take on a dive – to the extent that such specifications have become almost Talmudic in their detail.
DIR has a lot of benefits to average divers, even those who will never exceed recreational dive limits or enter overhead environments like caves or wrecks.
One side effect of the DIR philosophy is streamlining. DIR divers are very streamlined. In the water they present a very small cross section to the water and thus use much less energy as they swim. Lowered energy consumption means a reduced breathing rate, and that translates into longer dives on the same amount of gas.
Another is an improved safety margin for everyone in the dive team. Recreational divers don’t have a very high fatality rate, but they do have a disturbingly high accident rate. Getting “bent” as an effect of returning to the surface too quickly for the metabolized gas in your body to be naturally released is no fun, and can be very expensive. Adopting DIR style procedures makes it much more likely that even in the case of a catastrophic gear failure (or a catastrophic mental failure like not monitoring your breathing gas consumption) you’ll be able to recover with the aid of your dive team and surface safely. That keeps you in the sport and reduces the negative press the sport gets when a diver gets hurt.
OK Ryan, Get to the Point
You may be asking yourself what this has to do with adding more fun to your 4 hours of roleplaying. At the risk of igniting a miniature version of the cave diving wars, I’ll say that I think that our hobby is pretty universally Doing It Wrong.
There are basically 3 ways people engage in tabletop roleplaying in the current era.
The Standard Game
This is the typical concept that most of us have when we talk about a “gaming group”. The same people gather on a regular basis and play a campaign game where their characters and their adventures are persistent across many sessions.
The One Shot
Sometimes the group wants to try something different, or a player wants to try their hand at being a GM, or an ad hoc gathering of gamers spontaneously decides to break out the dice with no expectation that the session will be persistent. Some games, especially those from the small press / independent gaming community are explicitly designed to be played in single sessions.
The Massively Multiplayer Tabletop Game
Pioneered by the RPGA in the form of its Living Campaigns, and echoed by many successful tabletop RPG publishers (and several independent groups). This format is designed to be played at conventions and in game stores as an “organized play” event. Characters are persistent across sessions but the groups are usually ad hoc.
There are inherent problems with all of these play styles, but I’ll focus specifically on the Standard Game. That’s the format that most people would like to be playing in, and the format that many players have the fondest memories of. It’s also the format that has become the most broken over time.
Pathologies of the Standard Game
The Game Itself Is Too Complex: After just a small number of sessions, most games become extremely complex. Character powers and abilities proliferate. As character power increases, the abilities of their foes also escalate to maintain effective challenges. The net effect is that players and GMs rapidly find themselves in a spiral of decreasing “fun time” as the amount of “work time” grows larger and larger.
Parties Become Interdependent: The more sessions a group of characters play together, the more tightly dependent on one another they become. A wide variety of specialization options allows players to narrowly craft their characters to achieve maximum impact, while relying on other characters to make up for the deficiencies this specialization creates. Rules that enhance and reward these kinds of tactics have also become increasingly common, which further reinforces this interdependency. Of course, the problem is that when (not if) one or more of these characters becomes unavailable, the entire party may find itself seriously compromised. The more interdependent the characters become, the more likely it is that the absence of just a single player can severely limit the actions of the whole group.
Short-timers are discouraged: It is very hard for a player to just “sit in” in a Standard Game. Beyond the beginning power levels a one-shot character may be so complicated to create that the drop in player might spend the entire session just trying to complete a character sheet. Being able to master the abilities and options available in a short time is also hard for many players to do – especially new and inexperienced players of the type that the hobby needs to encourage to replenish itself as older experienced gamers lapse.
GM aspirations exceed their abilities: Time after time, GMs invest massive amounts of time in creating backstories, plots, characters, monsters, and environments for their players to encounter, only to find only a small amount of that content is ever used in actual play. Worse, a GM may induce the players to similarly invest a lot of time in character development and attention to detail, only to let everyone down as real-life pressures make it impossible to deliver the full vision that the campaign began with. GMs are subtly pressured into this situation by the actions of the publishers who present massive tomes of richly detailed campaign settings and establish a mental bar for what people think is expected of anyone who creates their own world.
Plot replaces Story: A related trap that many GMs (and some players) fall into is trying to develop a plot – that is, a pre-determined framework around which the players are supposed to build a story. This creates the feeling of being railroaded which players hate. It creates frustration for GMs when clues aren’t followed, events are encountered out of order, or characters wander off into the wilds. GMs feel a subtle pressure to deliver this kind of experience from the plethora of novels featuring their favorite game worlds, and the computerized RPGs which seem to deliver this kind of game effortlessly.
Doing It Right on the Tabletop
Here’s some general rules of thumb on how to improve the way we play the Standard Game:
• Bring only as much material as necessary to play the game session
• Encourage characters to be generalists
• Welcome players who can only drop in for one session
• Make the game about the basic story of the genre
Limiting the Game Material
How many of you have a bag (or box) filled with books that you lug to every game session? How many regularly take more than 5 books with you even when you’re just a player and have no GM responsibilities?
This is crazy. There’s no way to actually use all that content in a single 4 hour session. Finding anything in that mass of documentation requires one to have a near perfect memory for where desired information is transcribed.
I happened to pick up a copy of the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Compendium at the bookstore out of curiosity. This is a 320 page book. It is aimed at new players.
For comparison, I got out my copy of the Dungeons & Dragons blue book from the old beginner boxed set. 48 pages. Has the game really been improved in the past 30 years by adding 272 pages of content to the material we expect a new player to use?
I say no. I say that the first step we have to do is prune the tree of the game system and get back to something reasonable in terms of the rules as written.
EN World spontaneously generated a clever way to address this problem: E6. You can read about it here: http://www.enworld.org/forum/general-rpg-discussion/206323-e6-game-inside-d-d.html
E6, in brief, puts a cap on characters of 6th level. That cap has significant ramifications that reflect the goal of limiting the game material. It smashes the number of spells that need to be referenced. It minimizes the ability trees of the monsters the party encounters which helps the GM stay effective.
Encourage Characters to be Generalists
If your party consists of one character who does all the healing, one character who deals with all the traps, one character who fights the toughest opponent, and one character who uses area of effect damage to deal with lots of grunt enemies, you probably play in a Standard Game.
Like a well-oiled machine, this party has mastered the art of adventuring. They proceed from encounter to encounter with vigor – knocking out any challenge they’re capable of defeating and taking the resulting phat loot and XP with aplomb.
What happens when any one of those characters doesn’t show up? Total party kill, in my experience. Or total party shopping expedition, as the players recognize they’re not going to prevail in the adventure and instead spend the time dealing with their gear, their training, and interviewing townspeople for rumors.
Here’s an interesting bit of nostalgia. Remember the old 1st and 2nd Edition system for demihumans? They could be multiclassed characters and humans could only be single (or dual) classed. The advantages of demihumans were strong, and lots of people played them despite the limits built into the system on their power (mostly ignored in the breach, of course). All those multi-classed demihumans gave the game a resiliency that the modern game can lack. D20 multiclassing was designed to encourage this kind of character development but in practice what players use it for is to become ultra-specialized rather than broadly competent. In making multiclassing more flexible, we inadvertently created a feedback loop of character interdependency.
As GMs there are ways to address this. Even in the E6 system the general idea that characters should be less specialized can be implemented. Bring back demihuman multiclassing – just require demihumans to alternate levels between two or three pre-selected classes. That’s a good balance with the benefits that demihumans get in the E6 system vs the humans. Let the human characters multiclass at will, and suddenly you’ll have many more broadly competent characters and groups that are far less fragile.
We’d Love To Have You Join Us!
Make your game as welcoming to one-shot players as possible. As a GM, always have a couple of good characters ready to give people who want to drop in on your game. It’s easiest to give them characters that do simple things like fight or heal. Discourage drop in players from taking more complicated roles like arcane spellcasters.
Give Them That Character When They Leave! It seems obvious, but it's easy to forget: you’re far more likely to come back and play again if you have some connection to the game. Worst case, you’ve given away a character that could be cloned instantly and put back into your file of drop-in PCs. Best case, you may have planted a seed that will blossom into a new tabletop roleplaying gamer!
I’ll write more in a future column about experienced players with pre-existing characters who want to drop in on your game, but for now I’ll just say that it’s far more likely to be beneficial to your group to allow it than to make it a hassle.
The Power Of The Core Story
If you have a Dungeons & Dragons game, make it about dungeons, exploration, small battles against monstrous foes, getting cool magic items, and leveling up.
If you have a Vampire: The Masquerade game, make it about the struggle to retain a shred of humanity as a monstrous creature of darkness living in a society of predators obsessed with station and power.
If you have a Star Wars game, make it about the struggle of the good Rebels against the vastly overpowered evil Empire, as seen through the eyes of a group of galactic adventurers.
If you’re running a Champions game, make it about exciting superhero fights and dramatic life & death decisions against a background of wonder and amazement.
In other words, figure out what the “core story” is of the game you’re playing, and stick as closely to that story as you can. There are games out there for virtually any core story you want to play. Rather than trying to bend a game to fit a story of your choosing, choose a game that embodies that story intrinsically. Both you, and your players, will find the experience greatly enhanced.
Core stories also help the Power Gamers and the Thinkers get quickly involved in the game. They are less interested in the elaborate world you’ve built than the immediate challenges you’re presenting. These games have achieved multi-decade success because the core stories they embody are intrinsically popular with huge populations of players. Take advantage of that vested wisdom.
Next month I’m going to talk about a holistic approach to integrating these principles into your gaming hobby. I’m also interested in hearing about ways you’ve streamlined your own games – especially non-D20 game systems – in the mode of the E6 system.
--RSD / Atlanta, April 2011
Last edited by Morrus; Thursday, 26th May, 2011 at 07:19 PM.
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 07:47 PM #2
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
Interesting concept. I have new players that like to get new options books, however. I wonder how they'd react if we limited books instead of allowing new books?
Also, I wonder if we allow drop in players and they enjoy it but then you don't have room for them, what happens? Hopefully you could get them into another game, but I could see someone getting upset if they showed up for one game and weren't welcomed back. I think you'd need to be very sure the player(s) knew how many games they might get to play in.
On the other hand, I'm all for not lugging so many books around. And if I could go several months without the minis and mats that'd be great.
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 08:20 PM #3
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
"I say no."
I say yes. See how subjective this is?
The only DIR is everyone on the table having a good time. Rest is up for negotiation.
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 08:44 PM #4
Guide (Lvl 11)
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 10:04 PM #5
Defender (Lvl 8)
Wow. I disagree with most of what you have to say here Ryan, and the rest, I don't really have a basis for comparison. Your experiences seem to be very different from my own.
While I agree that the game could use simpler rules, game complexity is rarely an issue. My group's longstanding process is to go with what the DM decides when in doubt, and look it up during the next break. I have yet to hear anyone complain about new powers, feats, etc. had to be learned upon leveling.
For the most part the interdependence doesn't matter because everyone makes an effort to attend every week. The rare times we do have someone bail, we usually press forward with no major issues (the absent player gets ribbed the following week about not even being missed). The exception being when multiple people are out or the missing person is integral to the plot (as in we're taking on that character's nemesis).
The short timer issue has never come up for me. I don't have a lot of opportunity for random guest stars dropping by wanting to play for a session. Honestly, I don't know enough gamers for that, and I still play with all the ones I care to (that still live in the country).
As for the GM workload, I enjoy doing it so it's no biggie if it doesn't get used. But frankly after all these years, I'm pretty good at knowing what will get used (or recycled), so seldom are my efforts in wasted.
Railroad vs. Sandbox generally isn't an issue either. I know my players, and I can usually anticipate what they'll do, and when they surprise me... I roll with it. I played for years without any prepared materials, I made it all up on the fly, so again, no big deal.
None the less, as has already been stated, the only real way of "doing it right" is when everyone is having fun, and that's never been an issue.
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 10:39 PM #6
Myrmidon (Lvl 10)
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I like that unlike previous posts you provided non-inflammatory ideas for improving the game. A lot of your comments and advice are sound.
To be honest I don't see the benefit to half of what you wrote. The whole diver story, the title of "let's have a flamewar"... these aspects to me detracted from the rest of the useful post. I suspect many will say "too long, didn't read" or simple be turned off by the title and the way it starts out.
Really, what is the point in your writing about those aspects? Are you wanting a flame war? There should be no flame war and there is no reason for at all saying someone is doing it wrong. People having fun aren't doing it wrong.
Sure, many of the aspects you mentioned are detrimental in various ways. At the same time, for many these same aspects are part of what makes RPGs so worth playing. Complexity is a prime example: gamers love complexity. There is a reason (ok, several) why 99% of us aren't playing OD&D.
I think most of your post could be recast as ways to run a campaign so they are both fun for the group and also grow the hobby and retain interest. This would have reached out to different players better and encouraged a better discussion. Story-driven is fantastic. Encouraging new players is fantastic. Having a proper economic model for RPGs is wonderful. Can we really envision a flame war to any of that? We can promote ways to do these things without labeling anyone's play as "doing it wrong" or even "doing it right". We can do it without begging for a flame war.
Tuesday, 17th May, 2011, 11:53 PM #7
The Great Druid (Lvl 17)
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I'm not going to say you're wrong, because you're clearly writing from your experiences. Your experiences and mine don't seem to match...but that's to be expected. If they did, you'd be me...or I'd be you...or something equally disturbing.
I do want to offer some ideas that, well, one hates to use the word 'rebut,' but perhaps that reflect a different gaming experience and could mitigate some of the factors you speak of.
The Game Itself Is Too Complex: This complaint strikes me as being tied to the 'short-timer' complaint, for one reason; learning curve. There's a counterforce to complexity, basically, when gaming, and that is that we learn the rules as we go...eventually reaching a point where we're familiar enough with them that game action isn't necessarily impeded overmuch by using them rigorously.
My example for this is back when I first started tabletop gaming with GURPS. GURPS is a complex system. There are a ton of modifiers to keep track of for nearly any roll. However, three or four months in, I was familiar enough with my character, his equipment, and the game, that I didn't need to look up tables to know that if I fired my blaster rifle at a target 100 yards away, targeting his leg, that my effective skill was 12.
My experiences with D&D have been similar. The rules can be complicated, but eventually we learn them. At that point the rulebooks become reference material; not necessary for every action.
Now one can certainly argue that the learning curve of games is too steep...I don't know that I agree, but there's definitely a point of contention to be made there. But I don't think it's accurate to say that the longer a group plays, the longer it takes to play. Yes, complexity increases, but so does a group's proficiency with the system.
Parties Become Interdependent: Hee...I have to admit...I actually think this is a GOOD thing in some ways. I get what you're saying though, I do. If you're in the Tomb of Horrors and Chucky the Rogue can't make it to the session, you probably don't want to try it without him. I just don't see that as being a systemic problem with the game though. Heck, can someone else play him for the night? Can the GM NPC him? It wouldn't make any narrative sense for him to just vanish anyway, would it?
Well, in the Tomb of Horrors it might.
I think you and I may attribute party interdependency on different things, which may account for our different viewpoints on it. You seem to view it as a natural process of optimization...a group of people specializing into roles so that the group is more capable than the sum of its parts. There's that element to it perhaps, but I think people specialize because of a much simpler urge:
People want to shine.
If I swing a sword, I want to be THE GUY WHO SWINGS A SWORD. No one should be better at swinging a sword than me, except perhaps my nemesis enemy NPC, who loves to show me up. That's the essence of playing a character in heroic fantasy. You're the best at what you do (or the best in potentia, if low level). You have a niche, and it's yours. Oh, you may not stand in the spotlight when a bat swarm descends upon you, or when a guard must be snuck past and a jail cell unlocked, but you're okay with that because you know soon it will be time to swing swords again, and you rule at that.
The concept of role protection is really strong in every game I've played. During character creation the question I see most is, "I'd like to play a wizard (or whatever), does anyone else want that?" Party needs DO shape these choices, but I think it's because party needs define which choices will have the chance to shine, not because everyone making characters is trying to come up with a combination of classes that will make the party as number-crunched effective as can be made.
And, as a postscript, I think it's good that games encourage people to talk to each other and think about their choices in context with the choices of others, and shows the advantages possible from doing so. I think that outweighs, in my mind, any potential negative issues arising from a well-integrated party's mutual dependence on each other.
Short-timers are discouraged: This strikes me as a problem with a group more than a problem with a system. A good group that makes people feel welcome will help the newcomer along. The GM might use email or online communication to help him or her get their character ready before game night. They won't expect system proficiency at first, and will be ready to help with the inevitable stumbles.
GM aspirations exceed their abilities: Also a group issue, not systemic. But this is also how GM's learn their trade. You don't know the limit of your ability until you test it.
Plot replaces Story: This ties directly in with the previous complaint. Your proposed solution of sticking to the "core" genre story strikes me as a good idea for groups that are new...but I also find that as I become more confident as a player and GM, I want (in either capacity) more possibilities. Maybe a little mix and match with other genres. Maybe a reworking of some other popular media material into the game. Maybe something wholly original, or something we develop between us there at the table.
These departures from genre norms DO have increased risk of falling flat...but when they work, there's so much to be gained as well.
Wednesday, 18th May, 2011, 12:24 AM #8
Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)
Interesting read, Ryan.
I mostly agree with your basic sentiments, but I've one quibble and one outright disagreement with what you wrote:
First, a disclaimer: I'm coming from a 1e perspective thus my experiences are probably going to be much different than someone coming from a 3e or 4e background.
The quibble: E6, or anything that similarly caps the game, is not an answer to anything for me. One of the joys of the game is that in theory it's open-ended; you can go as far as luck and the campaign will take you. E6, with a hard cap at 6th level, takes that away. There must be better ways of reducing the powers, of which I'd suggest the first is, well, simply reducing the powers both in number and effect.
The disagreement: I would much rather see party interdependence than not, for two reasons. One, it encourages the PCs to stay together as a party; and two, it discourages what I call "one-man band" characters who can kinda do pretty much anything without needing the rest of the party at all and who - knowing they're at least vaguely competent in any situation - tend to wander off on their own much more often than characters with obvious strengths and weaknesses.
Wednesday, 18th May, 2011, 01:08 AM #9
A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)
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I am down with DIR! Then again I'm an amateur free-diver, and they're sort of another breed...
Your points about welcoming new gamers and one-timers is great. But I mostly disagree with the 5 "pathologies" you identified (I do not think that word means what you think it means!).
I'll just address your critique of the plot-story issue.
Originally Posted by RyanD
And some DMs create an illusion of choice that leaves players none the wiser. Personally I don't like it, but I've seen it done.
It creates frustration for GMs when clues aren’t followed, events are encountered out of order, or characters wander off into the wilds.
GMs feel a subtle pressure to deliver this kind of experience from the plethora of novels featuring their favorite game worlds, and the computerized RPGs which seem to deliver this kind of game effortlessly.
Wednesday, 18th May, 2011, 04:04 AM #10
Waghalter (Lvl 7)
Your home games are very different from the type of game I participate in.
We're perfectly happy to not have new people. I realize that's not how you grow the hobby, but if I liked meeting new people I'd have never gotten into DnD.
We use our stacks of books away from the session to build characters. Stuff PCs do all the time we memorize the mechanics for. We look up stuff before our turn, or have someone else look up something while we handle our turn's other activities.
Most of the DnD books are spells (powers, whatever) and magic items. Cutting down the page count necessary for the game means detailed lists need to be replaced with relatively simple mechanics that can create a large range of options. Even then it's tricky because each item in your chinese menu needs to be details. Overall rules simplification would help cut down all the individual power descriptions, but at the cost of more ambiguity in the rules (and I think the market doesn't want to pay that cost).
Party interdependency allows us a lot more character design space to build PCs in. Playing a glass cannon only works if there's a tank and a healer. Changing this requires a system-wide change.
OTOH, I love the advice to have your game be about what the game is about. The game should be built around its core story. Indie games force you to do this by only supporting a specific type of play.
If you're looking for other short games, I love (but have never run) microlite20. It's a great example of increased ambiguity in return for shorter power descriptions.
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