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Beginning to Doubt That RPG Play Can Be Substantively "Character-Driven"

Um...

2nd Edition AD&D came out in 1989.

White Wolf games was founded in 1991, and Vampire: The Masquerade came out that year, 1991.

Did someone from TSR travel ahead a couple years in time, to co-opt rules that hadn't been published yet?
Haven't read anymore of the thread yet (and likely won't be able to this evening...which may portend my getting behind and losing interest in the thread).

But come on man. I don't want to make this thread take a left turn, so I won't belabor this too much. But you had to know the point of my post wasn't about whether White Wolf co-opted AD&D 2e or AD&D 2e co-opted White Wolf. Its completely irrelevant to the point. The point is, these two systems came out 30 years ago at roughly the same time (which is why I can't recall the exact year that they came out without looking it up).

The point is, roughly 30 years ago, a textual analysis shows that Zeb Cook's DMG had a marked departure from the disposition of fair and neutral refereeing (with consistent rulings and extreme care in consistent mediation and adjudication and certainly care and openness in changing rules) that came before it...to an ethos that coincides markedly with White Wolf's Golden Rule; GM as storyteller and entertainer and changing/reinterpreting the rules at any time and/or fudging your application of them for the sake of (the GM's perception of) compelling storytelling and entertainment is a virtue. And canonical modules during that period (specifically the Dragonlance modules) presuppose this GMing ethos.

The point was simple; a TTRPGing culture accreted around these things in the late 80s early 90s...and that culture has become a major (the major?) orthodoxy of TTRPGing culture, though it is a clear departure from an ethos of neutral, fair, consistent refereeing, following the rules, making neutral/consistent/fair/transparent rulings of corner cases (not rulings in the interest of promoting specific outcomes that produce the type of storytelling and entertainment that the GM is mandated to push toward), and integrity of outcomes as a byproduct of all of the former. Mentzer's guidance goes so far as to tell GMs its not fair to change the rules until everyone agrees with the change (putting the GM in a first among equals environment)!

89 vs 91, who co-opted whom...it doesn't matter. Storytelling and entertainment suddenly have primacy over fairness and neutrality...and that shift has implications on play.
 
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pemerton

Legend
The only way to talk about character-driven play is to seperate it clearly from GM-driven play, and that means highlighting where play is GM driven. The fact that a lot GM-driven play doesn't want to admit what it is, isn't my problem.
I think this is pretty fundamental.

To requote some of the OP:

I continue have a sense of lack, or dissatisfaction with one particular aspect of my play experiences---namely, I have found it to be nigh impossible to drift into what I would consider a true "character-driven" style of play.

<snip>

in my experience, even the best of these character "hooks" or inputs don't seem to make a difference in driving an in-play narrative of substantive character change---i.e., the experience of watching a character materially change in ways that are fundamental to their place in the fiction.

<snip>

the actual mechanical interplay of rules in a typical roleplaying game experience does almost nothing to promote the kind of self-reflexivity that is necessary for the kind of deep-rooted emotional resonance found in literature.

<snip>

though I find "Railroad GM-ing" to be highly distasteful and generally anathema to the types of RPG experiences I personally would enjoy, I can begin to glimpse why a GM might try to use specific GM Force©™ in a campaign---because they think that the application of force to the "story" is a means to getting to some of that emotional resonance. It's a recognition on the part of the GM that emotional resonance is possible through a "story focus" that leads to potential meaning. Unfortunately, it seems that the application of GM Force runs counter to both endpoints---it detracts from the aspects of player freedom and choice, while only minimally (if at all) leading to the resonance made possible through the act of "pure creation" of fiction whole cloth.
The OP has clearly addressed the generation of emotional resonance by means of the creation of fiction out of whole cloth. And he has made it clear that this is not what he is looking for. He is looking for emotional resonance generated by the actual mechanical interplay of rules that produces material changes to a character that are fundamental to that character's place in the fiction.

@Sadras's example is an examle of the creation of fiction out of whole cloth - by players rather than GM, which is (as best I can tell) why it was a "subplot" that other participants barely noticed until the players performed their pre-arranged climactic scene. Given that (to quote Sadras) "I and the other player present did nothing but watched in awe as this all played out in a game of D&D. No rolls were needed" I can only assume that this performance didn't take place during some moment of crisis in the "main arc" but rather was insulated from the main arc in terms of its occurrence and its consequences.

I'm happy to take Sadras's word that this was a terrific experience for that group. But I think it's clear that it's not an example of what the OP is looking for, and is certainly not a counterexample to the claim that a necessary condition of getting what the OP wants is to drop the notion of "the adventure" or "the main story" that is authored by the GM.

Moving away from GM-driven play, though necessary, is not sufficient. My current Classic Traveller game is not GM-driven - it's driven by a mixture of random determination (Classic Traveller is a very dice-driven game) and framing in response to player cues. But those cues aren't the sort of character-based ones that will produce the sort of play the OP is looking for. To allude to Hamlet's Hit Points (which I think was mentioned upthread) the game is much closer to James Bond, or perhaps Alien, than to Casablanca, or Blade Runner.

To actually address the OP;s concerns - ie to discuss approaches and techniques and systems that will allow what he is interested in to happen in a RPG - requires being honest about what we ourselves are doing in our play, and what sorts of experiences it is producing.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
To give a simple (simplistic?) example: in a fairly light fantasy-ish game, you might have a kinght or paladin who, via class/playbook-type choice plus evident trope is all about honour, justice, upholding the right, etc. And that character might make a friend. And then it turns out that friend is a heathen, or assassin, or something similar that a knight or paladin would typically hate and oppose. Now the player, in playing their character, has to choose between abstract values and concrete friendship. That could produce the sort of thing the OP talks about.

I say all this because it lets me beat my drum again: more than formalised devices like Beliefs, Aspects etc, I think that the sort of play the OP describes depends upon robust action resolution, so that consequences can be bindingly established in the fiction in ways beyond table consensus or GM fiat. For instance, in the example I just gave we are going to need mechanics to adjudicate what happens when the PC confronts his/her friend, so that definite fallout of some form or other is generated that the player can't just ignore.
Here I think it's up to the player of the knight to, thinking as the knight would think, decide what to do; whether to value friendship above values, or values above friendship, or try to somehow balance both. The rest of the table, the GM, and the game system: none of these need be involved in resolving that decision - if in fact it's to be resolved right now; maybe the knight instead finds a way of (or an excuse for) punting the decision down the road a ways - it's all down to the knight's player.

Even more fun if this friend is in fact another PC. :)

(You can see that I'm a bit obsessed by the centrality of establishing and building on consequences as the key to all this. Which is also where I see risk being a real thing.)
Consequences are important, no doubt there. However the presence or absence of risk (and of all the possible consequences) might not be apparent until it's too late; and even then consequences can be malleable depending on the situation:

You try to persuade the Duke to give you his son's hand in marriage [benefit: marry into nobility; risk: make an ass of yourself and get laughed out of court] but you (for whatever reason) botch the roleplay so badly that the last thing you hear is "Off with her head!" from the Duke [unforeseen consequence!] as you're hauled off to the dungeon after having unforgivably insulted his forebears.

So now you're up against it. But maybe the Duke has a change of heart during the night and decides head-lopping is too harsh a punishment for merely talking like a drunken peasant, so he instead decides to make you what he sees you as - a peasant - and just strips you of all titles, status and land [altered consequence] and punts you out in the street. [from here this story could go all over the place, entirely dependent on what you-as-player do next]
 

With respect, I think that's backwards. The extent that the player puts the character at risk to the game mechanics, that is the game driving the character.

Character driven play is where the nature of the character determines what happens in play, not the other way around.
Ok, I've sifted through some posts briefly and this caught my attention. I guess its Umbran and Manbearcat disagree night, because I disagree with this.

Its both. Its:

Character driven play is where the nature of the character determines what happens in play (relevant conflict-framing) and what happens in play reveals the nature of the character (the fiction that emerges post-conflict).

Rinse, repeat

Put another way: The character:game relationship is synergistic and reciprocal.

Feels odd to have this dispute with someone who is a big fan of Fate.
 

I'm not sure I agree. I think that Force can be present and still have arcs. In other words, I can see (and have played) a game where some of it is the GM's plotline while other parts have room for player directed play. Sometimes, these line up and you get character arcs. But, as with anything ad hoc, it's not predictable.
I'm trying to organize my thoughts in another fashion that may tease out or disagreement.

Let me go to another arena; Mixed Martial Arts.

No clue if you're a martial artist or a fan of the sport.

Last Saturday Dominick Reyes and Jon Jones fought for the Light Heavyweight Championship in the UFC.

The State Athletic Commissions provide the judges for these events. This particular event took place in Texas (which has had relatively few events).

One of the judges the TSAC provided was a huge problem for 3 fights (I am the last person in the world to buy into Conspiracy Theories, but combat sports have been riddled with corruption for a century...so this level of gross incompetence is...questionable).

The Championship fight is a 5 rounder.

The overwhelming consensus among everyone watching (and the overwhelming % of professional mixed martial artists) was that Reyes, the Challenger, won the first 3 rounds (and pretty handily), while Jones won the last 2 (when Reyes faded). That should trivially yield a 48-47 decision for (new Champion) Reyes.

Reyes had more Output, landed more Significant Strikes, and Stuffed 2 Takedowns/and repelled attempted Clinches in the 2nd and 3rd round (that Jones had to try to initiate because he was losing on his feet and was dinged).

Yet...somehow...somehow that judge scored TWO of those first three rounds for Jones.

Ultimately, the judges completely stole that outcome from Reyes and inexplicably handed the decision to Jones.




So what I'm trying to convey with this is, yes, Reyes was able to "characterize his PC" in the span of those 5 rounds...but the "Force" of the judges utterly overwhelmed the gamestate and their "metaplot" basically subordinated Reyes' agency, dictating the outcome, despite the fact that his work should have cast him as the protagonist.

Instead, he becomes just another "also-ran" in the legacy of Jon Jones (DMPC?).

I guess my sense of it is that, like judging in an MMA bout or referees on a football field, Force is a zero-sum game. Whatever the outcome was going to be without Force we will never know...because ultimately, it radically changed the gamestate at its moment of deployment and therefore forever perturbed the trajectory of play, those effects rippling from that point forward.

Its a pretty harsh purity test, I admit. Because of the inherent imbalance of power at the table, GM-driven or character-driven is binary, not a continuum. If a GM can subvert the gamestate to his/her will once, the participants know it can (and surely will) happen again at any point. That is the psychology that looms like a Sword of Damocles over the table. This is why we have the "Murderhobo" legacy in D&D. Play degenerates to (a) players always engaging in violence as the arena of dispute-settlement because that is the only arena that is (mostly) "Force-proof" and (b) players willfully making no relationships/ties/laying down roots and (c) willfully not engaging with content that the GM is trying to impose upon them.

EDIT - and to reiterate, games that feature Force/Illusionism as a gamestate-dictating/fiction-generating technique is a feature, not a bug, to the "Storyteller and Entertainer" ethos of games. Players who participate in those games want/expect that.
 
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Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Character driven play is where the nature of the character determines what happens in play (relevant conflict-framing) and what happens in play reveals the nature of the character (the fiction that emerges post-conflict).
Back in the beginning of the thread, I noted these two as separate processes, not necessarily linked. A game can have one, the other, or both.

Feels odd to have this dispute with someone who is a big fan of Fate.
As noted - in Fate, these are separate processes.

Though, let us note - in Fate, scene framing is not strongly determined by the character's nature - that comes in during resolution, as the characters invoke aspects, and they are compelled. The original framing may have nothing to do with the character, but the nature of the character seeps into the scene. I find this to be a major bonus for the GM - they don't have to structure and frame everything with the characters specifically in mind, because the game will insert those things as they go. Indiana Jones runs into snakes not because the GM thought ahead and placed them there, but because he's Indiana Jones, and he's got a thing about snakes....

Play revealing things about the characters in Fate is exactly what I was referring to when I mentioned the player having a choice to change the nature of their character, without any pressure from system or GM: at a milestone, a player can rename an Aspect, changing fundamentals of their character. But that's "can", not "must."
 

Sadras

Hero
Umbran said:
The OP talks about play that leads to a change in the foundation of the character.

In common RPG parlance, risk is... a chance of harm. The GM creates challenges with risks in them - if you don't find ways to deal with the challenges, the consequences imposed by the GM are things the PCs don't like.

That's not the same thing as play that leads a player to realize that their character, as a result of things that they have experienced, will experience change. There is no "risk" if the choice to change or not is entirely in the hands of the player. "I watched my best friend die - I used to be a happy-go-lucky bard, but now... I am driven by vengeance!" is character driven play that has nothing to do with "risk".
I agree with this.
Just to be clear I was not offering my in-game example as one of risk or things at stake.
I merely said my in-game example was one I believe reflected a dramatic character arc.
 

Sadras

Hero
The only way to talk about character-driven play is to seperate it clearly from GM-driven play, and that means highlighting where play is GM driven. The fact that a lot GM-driven play doesn't want to admit what it is, isn't my problem.
See this where things got sticky.
You're equating character-driven play with dramatic character arc whereas I am not.
Are you now saying by your definition they are one and the same thing?
 

Sadras

Hero
I'm not advocating for GM force to change a character. Nor am I asking for "forced change" from the system, if the player doesn't want it.

But that's the key phrase---if the player doesn't want it.

I'm suggesting that I'd actually like to play a game with players who DO want it. I want them to readily accept and embrace that their characters are actually going to change in ways more meaningful than leveling up. And if by accepting that as a core premise, the players come to find that the system is testing and stretching their characters in ways they didn't expect, then that's precisely the point.

If the default point of view is, "My character should only ever change in ways that I, the player, choose to allow them to change or at most by adhering to stated character building rules," then we've started off on the completely wrong foot for "character-driven" play in the first place.
Thanks for this clarification. I believe I can now see why you wanted perhaps the GM to be included within the example I provided.
 

Sadras

Hero
I would have hoped it was fairly clear that by "dramatic character arcs" I meant what the OP referred to, that is, emotionally-affecting changes in the charcter(s) that are produced via application of the mechanics in play.
I'm happy if your intention in the use of dramatic character arcs in the excerpt of your post was in relation to application of the mechanics in play. It did not specifically state it so hence I took issue with the comment.

There can't be dramatic character arcs if "the story" is already written (by the GM or the module author or whomever) and the GM already knows what is to come.
What about this -
Character discovers secret backstory by DM (I know) which could emotionally-affect a change in the character (in 5e one could pick up or lose a personality trait) via application of a mechanic (homebrewed or whatever, you could use the Sanity rules here for instance). This GM force (via Backstory) could be negated by the player via a character resource (resource could be an Inspiration point, or sacrificing it for a period of time).

Isn't that similar to your Prince Valiant RPG but in THIS instance there is a "story already written by the GM or module or whomever" and the GM knows how the adventure might unfold, but now there has been a dramatic character arc produced via application of the mechanics in play?
 

chaochou

Adventurer
See this where things got sticky.
You're equating character-driven play with dramatic character arc whereas I am not.
Are you now saying by your definition they are one and the same thing?
Here's what Pemerton said:

What you describe here won't deliver the sort of play the OP is talking about.

There can't be dramatic character arcs if "the story" is already written.
It's abundantly clear that the words 'dramatic character arcs' is a paraphrase of 'the dramatic character arcs as being described by the OP'.

And it's quite clear what the OP is talking about - in conversation the entire OP can be paraphrased interchangeably as 'dramatic character arc' or 'character driven play'. Pemerton has repeatedly quoted the OP at length to reiterate more precisely what is being discussed.

  • the experience of watching a character materially change in ways that are fundamental to their place in the fiction.
  • emotional resonance.
  • the application of GM Force runs counter to both endpoints - it detracts from the aspects of player freedom and choice, while only minimally (if at all) leading to resonance

All under a thread title 'Can rpg play be substantively character driven?
 

One of the judges the TSAC provided was a huge problem for 3 fights (I am the last person in the world to buy into Conspiracy Theories, but combat sports have been riddled with corruption for a century...so this level of gross incompetence is...questionable).
Longer than a century - a century ago the Gold Dust Trio took professional wrestling and turned it from a corruption riddled thing that was sometimes a legitimate combat sport to something where the booking was obvious if you knew what to look for.

This is relevant because despite the fact that endings in professional wrestling are pre-planned (sometimes but not always more is) character development can and does happen both within and outside the booking. In the case of the Reyes/Jones match you're talking about, there would be Consequences.

An obviously corrupt referee (for those not aware the ref is always part of the cast in pro-wrestling) is a big thing and doesn't happen that often - but it does several things. The first is that it solidifies Jones as a heel - someone the audience is intended to boo the hell out of. Jones' character has developed. The second is that it solidifies Reyes as the underdog babyface that the crowd is intended to cheer. The third is that it brings that specific referee onto the stage as an actual character (most of them are intended to be the next thing to anonymous) and we wonder what his motivation is.

And were this pro wrestling a ref cheating against you would not be bad for the babyface/protagonist's career. I see there as being two basic pro-wrestling storylines going forward - and in both of them Reyes is the protagonist.

1: Reyes was actually out of his league both metaphorically and literally. He was the local wrestling league champion who was granted a challenge for the national (NWA) title. And our guy won - but that bastard no good cheating smarmy guy robbed him of the prize. So how good is our guy? We now know he's good enough to beat the national champion - and by extension that makes all the local guys challenging Reyes look good because they are taking on someone who can beat the best guy in the world. Rick Flair by the way was a master of wrestling anyone in any style in America and leaving the local crowd thinking that their guy could have won. Reyes is still only a local hero but is a bigger one than before. (This sort of booking went away largely with national TV, the breakup of the NWA, and the loss of the local territories).

2: Reyes was part of the same league and lost through a bribed ref. He is pissed and is going to be spending a lot of time cutting promos on the champion as a no good low down bastard who has all the skill to make it to the top (you never run down your opponent's level of danger because it makes you look worse when you win or lose) and he wants a rematch. If he's at all good on the mic the crowd is completely behind Reyes because he was the peoples' champion and he was robbed. His complaint is legitimate. And this time to prevent a dirty cheating referee from robbing him the match can only be decided by knockout, pinfall, or submission. The ref will not otherwise intervene. After losing the first couple of rounds Jones brings a steel chair (or other foreign object) into the ring and proceeds to beat Reyes down with it - and the ref doesn't intervene because a disqualification is not a knockout, pinfall, or submission. Reyes loses by knockout after chair shot to the head. And Reyes is utterly pissed this time - and coming for the champion with blood in his eyes, but having beaten him twice the champion is not accepting any more challenges from him unless he can earn them (insert ridiculous task here). Reyes may be mad enough to turn heel at this point - or we have a perfect excuse to put our hero through some kind of gauntlet which he wins but takes an "injury" - or to put either his career or his hair on the line for the match. This time the match takes place in a steel cage so no foreign objects (except maybe knuckle dusters) can be brought in. And the crowd is white hot for the match and wanting to finally, finally see Reyes win the title he's deserved twice before. He almost certainly does - but what has getting there cost him? And what sort of champion is he going to be?

Instead, he becomes just another "also-ran" in the legacy of Jon Jones (DMPC?).
And this sums up my point neatly. He becomes just another also-ran in the legacy of Jon Jones if and only if the results of the matches aren't pre-ordained. Pulling something as major as a corrupt referee in a pre-ordained match is adding a massive amount of fuel to the fire that is the feud. And people care more about characters and feuds than they do about simple win/loss ratios.

The New York Times stopped reporting the results of professional wrestling matches in the sports section in the 1930s because everyone knew they were fake - but for most of the 20th Century, both before and after, professional wrestling had more people watching it than any other combat sport because, by being fake, it could put on much better storylines. One in which Reyes would not become another also-ran in the legacy of Jon Jones unless he took a training accident at the wrong time.

... and I don't normally find myself on the pro-illusionism side of the debate. But then there's the way the professional wrestling business has more or less collapsed in the 21st Century.
 

pemerton

Legend
pemerton said:
There can't be dramatic character arcs if "the story" is already written (by the GM or the module author or whomever) and the GM already knows what is to come.
What about this -
Character discovers secret backstory by DM (I know) which could emotionally-affect a change in the character (in 5e one could pick up or lose a personality trait) via application of a mechanic (homebrewed or whatever, you could use the Sanity rules here for instance). This GM force (via Backstory) could be negated by the player via a character resource (resource could be an Inspiration point, or sacrificing it for a period of time).
I don't think I quite understand the example.

You seem to be positing that the application of a social/emotion mechanic (such as sanity or morale or whatever) might prompt the player to change an aspect of the character (eg rewriting a Bond, Ideal or Flaw). That seems - at the basic structural level - similar to the Nightcrawler example I posted upthread (only driven by "failure" rather than "success"). I don't see how it illustrates a story having already been written by the GM: how did s/he know what the outcome would be of the SAN check? Or how the player would develop his/her PC in response?

Or are you positing that the GM rewrites the PC via a fiat power? But how does s/he know what is going to happen as a result? In my Prince Valiant game one of the PCs - as a result of a GM-exercised Special Effect, fell in love with the Countess of Toulouse. But that didn't determine what would happen - eg that he would sneak her out of the castle they were sheltering in to keep her safe from her husband, the Count, which produced some difficulties for the other PCs when the Count demanded to them that they produce his wife. Nor that, after another PC killed her husband, that he would come up with a plan to make her the ruling Countess of Toulouse and thus separate himself from her so that he wouldn't act on his infatuation to the detriment of his marriage.

And if the player has a device for controlling or restoring his/her PC (like spending a Fate point to refuse a compel) then the GM clearly can't author the story in advance because the player has this power to determine which way it goes at a crucial moment.

So I'm clearly not seeing whatever it is that you are seeing in your example. And I'm also not seeing what "secret backstory" has to do with anything. As you describe it the player knows that the mechanic is invoked (the change in the PC presumably isn't being kept secret from the player) and presumably the player knows what it is in the fiction that explains why it is invoked. (Ie I assume the GM is not just saying make a SAN check, or add such-and-such a trait to your sheet without any explanation as to why).

There's also the bigger question as to how it is brought about that the PC is in the fictional circumstance that triggers the mechanic in the first place. That goes to bigger issues of framing which are highly relevant to character-driven play, but don't seem like they'll shed any further light on this particular example as they will only reinforce my failure to understand how the GM is authoring this and knowing what is going to happen.
 

Sadras

Hero
@pemerton perhaps it would be easier understood with an example.

PC trained by master. Master disappears for a number of years popping in and out of PC's life. PC discovers his master was the werewolf the party had been chasing for months (Secret Backstory by DM) and who is responsible for an ally's death. PC confronts master with the truth. With the mask now off, the master attempts to manipulate/seduce PC to his cause which is played up....

DM invokes mechanics (sanity/morale) to prompt change in aspect of PC. The player can allow the mechanics to play out with the risk of effecting change or utilise a character resource (inspiration) to ensure the emotional fallout does not affect the character - because the player does not want it.

Nor am I asking for "forced change" from the system, if the player doesn't want it.
The DM does not know how it will play out but suspects if the PC beats the mechanics or utilises a resource, the PC will likely attack the werewolf, at the very minimum deny his call for joining. If the player suffers a change - who knows what could happen.

Is this an example of character-driven play in your estimation - whether this revealed backstory is part of the main storyline or not in a GM-driven rpg.
 

@Neonchameleon

Good, and very interesting, post.

I agree that a Narrativist (in the Forge parlance) game that transparently eschews Gamism (again, Forge parlance) as a priority, which makes overcoming the corrupt will of the institution a fundamental pillar of dramatic play, can be compelling and character-driven when constructed around that premise.

What I don’t agree with (and I’m not sure where you stand on this because your post, while interesting and illuminating, altered the play premise I was intending), is that a game that declares Gamism, neutral/fair refereeing, and competitive integrity as it’s apex priority can be character-driven when the referee system subordinates the outcome of play from the participants will to their own will.

If we transliterated your post into a rule-set and then slapped some pithy, alternative construction of the paragraph directly above on the tin so as to convey what the game is meant to be about to purchasers...

Regardless of whether it’s a commercial success, that game is either (a) deceitful with respect to what it’s about or (b) the designers aren’t terribly competent.
 
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"the game itself must be able to drive"...Drive as in force? Or drive as in elicit?
For me, the answer to that is "Yes."

As a non-douchey expansion on that, I think that there is room for both, games that encourage or elicit character growth, and those that force character change (which may or may not be growth). And probably an untold number of variations.
 

@Neonchameleon

Related thought.

This is why 4e was such a success with me. It was a Narrativist/Gamist hybrid game that successfully fused those two agendas into a character-driven experience through:

* Focused premise

* Thematic PC Build Flags

* Incentive structures to aggressively pursue that premise and the embedded themes of character

* Player-facing action/conflict resolution that was (a) tactically deep, (b) dramatically compelling, that (c) just fundamentally worked so the GM could simply interpose obstacles between the PCs and their goals and “play to find out what happens” (No Force required).
 
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What I don’t agree with (and I’m not sure where you stand on this because your post, while interesting and illuminating, altered the play premise I was intending), is that a game that declares Gamism, neutral/fair refereeing, and competitive integrity as it’s apex priority can be character-driven when the referee system subordinates the outcome of play from the participants will to their own will.

If we transliterated your post into a rule-set and then slapped some pithy, alternative construction of the paragraph directly above on the tin so as to convey what the game is meant to be about to purchasers...

Regardless of whether it’s a commercial success, that game is either (a) deceitful with respect to what it’s about or (b) the designers aren’t terribly competent.
The thing is that I'm not sure that an RPG that declares competitive integrity as its apex priority would ever make for a good RPG. Almost all PvE games have different mechanics for the two sides (and many of those that don't in theory do in practice). And with competitive games with a top down view, very limited time pressure, and strict integrity you're going to end up with a game that's as dry as chess. The more you add expression being directly meaningful and asymmetry to the game the more you weaken how fair the competition is.

This doesn't mean that you can't make almost fair competition a major part of a game - both 4e and oD&D do it in very different ways (challenging encounters with 4e and a push-your-luck style of dungeon crawling in oD&D) and I'd argue that having competition in whatever way makes the stakes and so the play much more meaningful and so more intense and evocative. But it's the competition and desire that matter far more than whether the competition is even claimed to be fair. And the competition and challenge being meaningful is far more important than whether it's actually fair.

I'm once again going to come back to professional wrestling to illustrate this. As mentioned, it was an open secret from the 1930s onwards (if not earlier) that pro wrestling was fake - but people still watched it despite many of them knowing that, and many of those who didn't remaining deliberately ignorant. That's because there were parts that were highly real; all those stunts they carry out are real and the whole thing is done live. They are combination actor/stuntmen playing the parts of athletes competing for a belt, and the whole thing is more real than most reality TV.

This degraded over the 90s (those who care can look up the Curtain Call - I'm not going to go into it) - and in 1997 came the big event that was the Montreal Screwjob in which, the official story is, that Bret Hart was told that he was going to retain his title going into the match despite the fact it was public knowledge he was going to the rival WCW soon while HBK and the referee were both told HBK were going to win - and that it would have to be done via a fast count. Anyway this happened and Bret Hart hit the roof, furious after the event and going to the papers with the story of how he was screwed out of his title.

You'd have thought that the open admission that pro wrestling was fake would have killed pro wrestling - but it did the opposite. Everyone knew that pro wrestlers were actors and stuntmen, but they now knew that pro wrestlers were actors and stuntmen who cared enough about the title to screw each other for real and it suddenly became about a thousand times more compelling. And the WWE became a reality TV show about a particularly muscular backstabbing acting troupe. The competition was rigged but it was there and taken seriously by everyone. Competitive integrity wasn't a thing (Mr. McMahon (the character) as the evil boss was the biggest villain the wrestling world had ever seen) but the WWE thrived by having a way it could have genuine competition and tangible examples of people truly caring even when the game was openly acknowledged to be utterly rigged.

Meanwhile the WWE's rival through the 90s, the WCW, put the biggest nail in their coffin two years later with the Fingerpoke of Doom. Hulk Hogan and Kevin Nash were (in character) friends - and Nash held a championship Hogan wanted. So come the match Hogan poked Nash, Nash lay down for Hogan, Hogan "pinned" him, and match over. Along with any sort of possibility the wrestlers actually cared about the championship. So what were they doing there other than muscular pairs gymnastics? And if they didn't care about the prize why should the audience?

The WWE claims to be about wrestling, but since 1997 at the very latest anyone with a clue has known it really isn't. But it's at its best when they treat it as if it's about wrestling and winning the championship even if it's about actors playing those parts? Is this deceitful? No more than the briefcase in Pulp Fiction being deceitful when it was what everyone wanted but it was just a briefcase with a yellow light in it.

On the other hand (and this is turning into a ramble) RPGs need to show what they do on a meta level. You at least need to show a bit behind the curtain.

On the ... what am I? An octopus? It isn't remotely false to say that wrestlers want belts and championships and are competing to get them. The belt is respect, fame, and money. If you pitch pro wrestling as being about athletes training and competing to win championship belts every word of that is true. It's just the field of competition that's slightly different. Is this dishonest?

And I'm rambling and think I finished with my point several paragraphs back. But which parts of competition matter and what honesty in an artificial environment are is an interesting question.

(And no I didn't mean to imply that I dislike chess - just that it's dry and abstract compared to e.g. League of Legends or Smash Ultimate, or even any RPG).
 


Good post @Neonchameleon

I don’t have time to reread and digest in full. Im confident that I need clarification and I’m confident that there is some daylight between us on some of that. When I get a chance to reread and gather my thoughts (late tonight or this weekend), I’ll get up a response.

To be honest, I feel that the primary subject matter of this thread is nearing resolution (and by resolution I mean stalemate). So I think the premise you’ve put forth (about competitive integrity in TTRPGs) is ripe for discussion.

I’d be curious what others think about your premise.
 

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