Experiencing the fiction in RPG play

Ratskinner

Adventurer
It's been recognised that there are multiple valid ways to play rpgs, including as-a-game and as-a-story, for quite a long time.

“D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel, i .e . direct escapism through abandonment of oneself to the flow of play… The escapists can be divided into those who prefer to be told a story by the referee, in effect, with themselves as protagonist, and those who like a silly, totally unbelievable game.”​
- Lew Pulsipher D&D Campaigns in White Dwarf Issue 1 1977​
Wait, Old-School adventures aren't silly and totally unbelieveable? I am confused.
 
Wait, Old-School adventures aren't silly and totally unbelieveable? I am confused.
You're right, these things are all relative. This is from later in the same article, which I think explains what Lew means by a "silly, totally unbelievable game".

"This idea of self-consistency or integration must be pursued further. One of the most destructive notions I've encountered in D&D is the belief that 'anything goes'. This is fine for a pick-up or silly-fun game, but contributes an air of unreality and recklessness which can be fatal to a campaign, and which in any case is offensive to many players. Inevitably, an 'anything goes' campaign tends to be one in which player skill counts for little, for two reasons. First, players have no foundation to base decisions on; never knowing what to expect, they cannot plan a rational response. Second, the 'anything goes' game tends to be dominated by dice rolls or referee manipulation. A great deal usually depends on the saving throws of characters. For example, one of the favourite ploys of the 'anything goes' referee is to devise panels of buttons or decks of cards similar to a Deck of Many Things, often involving more far-reaching changes. Players push buttons or pick cards and great things occur. Players seldom do much to earn the rewards or penalties - the cards are easy to find, and the dice determine results.​
One may protest that the skillful player can avoid picking from the card deck, or fooling with the lever or button, and so on. Unfortunately, the structure of this kind of game is such that, if a player (not a character) wants to get ahead, he must take his chances. The reasoning is simple. A player can always roll new characters. In a luck-dominated game, even if half the time a player's character is seriously harmed, the rest of the time he benefits to the same degree or more. Consequently, the player who chooses not to take the ridiculous risks may die less often, but his characters will often be mediocre compared to those who dared and were lucky. The player who trusts to fate will lose many characters, but his other characters will prosper. In other words, the 'law of averages' works against the cautious player. The key is that the character run by the player does not have to act rationally because it has no separate existence. In many cases, only an insane person would accept the risks involved in cards, buttons, and levers. It's too much like Russian Roulette. But the player isn't the one who may die or be maimed; in fact, if his character is crippled, he can easily get him killed and start a new one. Thus this form of the game forces players to depend on luck and at the same time contributes an air of unreality to the entire proceeding. Even fantastic fiction, despite the name, possesses an internal self-consistency, and the characters in fantasy fiction usually act as rational, though brave, people. In Dungeons and Dragons, if the campaign is not designed correctly it becomes unbelievable, for a D&D player may, along with the fiction reader, say 'I don't believe men would do this'. Each referee must ask himself as he sets up his campaign what rules and items would seem believable if he read about them in a fantasy novel.​
Even in a fantasy game, moderation and self-discipline are virtues necessary to top refereeing. While campaigns may be run on other bases, I believe that a skill-game campaign is likely to satisfy people more in the long run. Some people prefer luck and passivity, but they are seldom game players. If you feel a need to get drunk and/or stoned, however, try lottery D&D the similarities are surprising."​
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A Campaign that a DM is running is not a story.

It is a Game where the players are interacting with a living virtual world and finding adventure.
And right there you've just obliged the DM to have some story going on - a world can hardly be described as "living" if there's nothing happening in it.

The DM's function is not to tell a story. He is there to run the Game.

He can present the players with various scenarios or missions in the context of the type of campaign the group has chosen to play.
Yes, and a part of both of those involves presenting whatever ongoing stories the game-world might have going in within it (which be extension means the DM has to first come up with said stories). And every time the DM refers to these stories, even just as background material (e.g. "On returning to town you hear news that the West Marches have fallen; Duke Tway's forces routed King Yorik's troops all the way back to the Jasper Mountains, where they regrouped and held a line.") she becomes - that's right - a storyteller.

The DM as the Master of the virtual world then has the NPC's react to what the characters have done.

But he is not there to ensure a predetermined outcome. His is the master of the virtual world - not the players actions. There literally is no "story" for the DM to tell.
Here's where you're messing this up.

If the DM's expected to provide a living breathing world then there very much IS a story for her to tell. What you're mixing up is the difference between a) DM telling a story and b) the PCs being expected to (or forced to) engage with said story.

So, in the above example this difference manifests as the DM expecting (or forcing) the PCs to go and help King Yorik's army vs. just neutrally relating the news and letting the players/PCs choose what they do next even if their choice ends up having nothing to do with the war in the west.

RPG groups do not engage in storytelling. They are playing a Game.

A game, that by design, has no predetermined outcomes.
The right conclusion from the wrong premise.

RPG groups engage in story-writing, whether intentionally-at-the-time or just seen in hindsight.

I reiterate:
Any "story" part of an RPG is an after-effect that emerges out of gameplay. The story you tell about your characters adventures after the game.
Ah...this tells me another difference in viewpoint: you're talking about the specific story of the PCs where I'm talking about the story of the game-world as a whole. Both are stories: the DM tells one and the table as a whole (possibly incorporating elements of the DM's story as told) crafts the other.

(edited for typos)
 
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Lanefan

Victoria Rules
You're right, these things are all relative. This is from later in the same article, which I think explains what Lew means by a "silly, totally unbelievable game".

"This idea of self-consistency or integration must be pursued further. One of the most destructive notions I've encountered in D&D is the belief that 'anything goes'. This is fine for a pick-up or silly-fun game, but contributes an air of unreality and recklessness which can be fatal to a campaign, and which in any case is offensive to many players. Inevitably, an 'anything goes' campaign tends to be one in which player skill counts for little, for two reasons. First, players have no foundation to base decisions on; never knowing what to expect, they cannot plan a rational response. Second, the 'anything goes' game tends to be dominated by dice rolls or referee manipulation. A great deal usually depends on the saving throws of characters. For example, one of the favourite ploys of the 'anything goes' referee is to devise panels of buttons or decks of cards similar to a Deck of Many Things, often involving more far-reaching changes. Players push buttons or pick cards and great things occur. Players seldom do much to earn the rewards or penalties - the cards are easy to find, and the dice determine results.​
One may protest that the skillful player can avoid picking from the card deck, or fooling with the lever or button, and so on. Unfortunately, the structure of this kind of game is such that, if a player (not a character) wants to get ahead, he must take his chances. The reasoning is simple. A player can always roll new characters. In a luck-dominated game, even if half the time a player's character is seriously harmed, the rest of the time he benefits to the same degree or more. Consequently, the player who chooses not to take the ridiculous risks may die less often, but his characters will often be mediocre compared to those who dared and were lucky. The player who trusts to fate will lose many characters, but his other characters will prosper. In other words, the 'law of averages' works against the cautious player. The key is that the character run by the player does not have to act rationally because it has no separate existence. In many cases, only an insane person would accept the risks involved in cards, buttons, and levers. It's too much like Russian Roulette. But the player isn't the one who may die or be maimed; in fact, if his character is crippled, he can easily get him killed and start a new one. Thus this form of the game forces players to depend on luck and at the same time contributes an air of unreality to the entire proceeding. Even fantastic fiction, despite the name, possesses an internal self-consistency, and the characters in fantasy fiction usually act as rational, though brave, people. In Dungeons and Dragons, if the campaign is not designed correctly it becomes unbelievable, for a D&D player may, along with the fiction reader, say 'I don't believe men would do this'. Each referee must ask himself as he sets up his campaign what rules and items would seem believable if he read about them in a fantasy novel.​
Even in a fantasy game, moderation and self-discipline are virtues necessary to top refereeing. While campaigns may be run on other bases, I believe that a skill-game campaign is likely to satisfy people more in the long run. Some people prefer luck and passivity, but they are seldom game players. If you feel a need to get drunk and/or stoned, however, try lottery D&D the similarities are surprising."​
Re the bolded bit above in what to me is otherwise one of the most off-putting articles* I've seen in many a year: if devices such as Decks of Many Things are so offensive, why does a cheer go up around the table every time one appears?

* - by 'off-putting' I mean that it exhorts against the high-risk high-reward style of play which is to me the very essence of the game in the first place.
 
if devices such as Decks of Many Things are so offensive, why does a cheer go up around the table every time one appears?
Both preferences are matters of taste, neither is better or worse than the other. Imx both are equally common. It could be that Lew is wrongly assuming that other people share his tastes or it could be he gravitates towards those who do.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
What follows is just my perspective.

The idea of living breathing game worlds has never really sat well with me even when talking about sandbox play. Where does the world live? How does it breathe? What is is its animating animus? From my perspective thinking off screen is a useful valuable GM technique, but the setting of a game is a designed thing - not something with a life of its own. We want players to feel the setting is a dynamic place that changes both based on the decisions they make, but also on its own. However the intent is to provide a compelling play space with which the players can interact and should be designed with this in mind.

When I do a faction turn between sessions of Stars Without Number the resulting changes to the fiction the players experience in play are not the result of a living world. They are the result of me, the referee, doing a thing and then doing additional design work to make sense of it.

I do not design worlds. Depending on the game I might design settings. I might design adventures. I might design scenarios. I might frame scenes. I might make GM moves. I might design sandboxes. In every case I am designing a space to be played in where players can make decisions that matter. Those changes to the setting that occur between sessions, especially the ones that happen off screen are the result of deliberate design. I am the animating force and bear a responsibility for that design work.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Both preferences are matters of taste, neither is better or worse than the other. Imx both are equally common. It could be that Lew is wrongly assuming that other people share his tastes or it could be he gravitates towards those who do.
He is explicitly talking about this on the basis of creating an environment of skilled play of a game. The Deck of Many Things is exciting, but it serves to level the playing field between players who make rational tactical and strategic decisions and players who do not.
 

S'mon

Legend
Those changes to the setting that occur between sessions, especially the ones that happen off screen are the result of deliberate design. I am the animating force and bear a responsibility for that design work.
Then you're not using enough dice rolls! :D
 

Ratskinner

Adventurer
You're right, these things are all relative. This is from later in the same article, which I think explains what Lew means by a "silly, totally unbelievable game".

<snippage>​
Fine evidence, IMO, that Lew and I exist in different realities.

I've always found the idea that monsters always hole up in reverse castles that they dig underground to make it easier to kill them ludicrous in the extreme. And yet, that is the very premise of the game. Almost everything I ever ran for the RPGA at cons back in the day would fit his definition. IME, the people tossing in the "levers" and "decks of many things" are the same ones telling me about how tough or rugged their games and old-school style are.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Thoughts?
I agree for the most part, though I usually use setting instead of fiction. Though the rub lies in the fact if I lay out what the players can do, like go into the seedy bar at Qiangdao (Bandit Town/Free star port) where the player can us their gambling skill, to start a game and maybe find info from some local mercs; I know that is what they are exactly going to do. So I'd rather leave it up to them if I can.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The idea of living breathing game worlds has never really sat well with me even when talking about sandbox play. Where does the world live? How does it breathe? What is is its animating animus? From my perspective thinking off screen is a useful valuable GM technique, but the setting of a game is a designed thing - not something with a life of its own.
Yeah, we're on different sides of the fence on this one. :)

We want players to feel the setting is a dynamic place that changes both based on the decisions they make, but also on its own.
Agreed. But note, "the setting is a dynamic place" is just "a living breathing world" writ different.

However the intent is to provide a compelling play space with which the players can interact and should be designed with this in mind.
Not quite. The intent is to provide a compelling play space, in knowledge that there will be elements with which the players interact and elements with which they do not.

The elements with which the players choose to interact then become the places where they will (almost certainly) cause changes to what otherwise would have happened. Those elements that are left alone, however, will just proceed on their merry way as pre-determined by the DM; with later knock-on effects (if any) to the players/PCs being determined via cause and effect as play rolls on.

Using my example from earlier regarding the fall of the West Marches; an obvious knock-on effect to the PCs would arise had their next intended mission been in the Jasper Mountains, as that has now just unexpectedly become a war zone. But just as easily that war in the west might have no effect on the PCs at all other than to provide conversation fodder in the taverns. Relating the news, however, adds to the sense that things of potential importance are also happening in places other than where the PCs happen to be - that the world extends beyond the PCs' field of view or perception.

I do not design worlds. Depending on the game I might design settings. I might design adventures. I might design scenarios. I might frame scenes. I might make GM moves. I might design sandboxes. In every case I am designing a space to be played in where players can make decisions that matter. Those changes to the setting that occur between sessions, especially the ones that happen off screen are the result of deliberate design. I am the animating force and bear a responsibility for that design work.
Put another way, it's a living breathing setting and you-as-DM are its beating heart.

Adventures, scenarios, framed scenes, a sandbox - all those are just bigger or smaller parts of the whole (sometimes even parts of each other e.g. a scene is part of an adventure which in turn is part of a sandbox).
 

pemerton

Legend
I especially appreciate sandboxes with enough material to fully engage both the cutlass champion Marine and the doe-eyed technician. Eg in my Primeval Thule Quodeth sandbox when the barbarian said he was going to become a Pit Fighter, I was really glad to see a bunch of pit fighting based material to work with. Likewise the exiled noble seeking to make his way in high society, the Rogue joining the Thieves Guild, et al.

Of course a GM can and should also prep & present material responding to player input. But I much prefer "I (PC) go looking for X" to "can we have some X?" - Running 4e I tried the "wish list" thing, and it always felt like a child saying "I want a pony!" :)
My default is neither I go looking for . . . nor Can we have some . . . but rather, from the GM side, Here's a . . . . The players can expect something will come the way of their PCs that speaks to them, but what it is is up for grabs - that's the GM's role, in part, to inject surprise/challenge into the situation.

In the context of Classic Traveller, the player doesn't have much control over a PC's abilities (a few rolls generate cascading options, but not many). But it's not hard as GM to establish situations where being a cutlass wielder matters in some way: cutlass-wearing imperial marines are built into the setting.
 

S'mon

Legend
My default is neither I go looking for . . . nor Can we have some . . . but rather, from the GM side, Here's a . . . . The players can expect something will come the way of their PCs that speaks to them
I recall early in my Thule game, the exiled Katagian nobleman, a handsome & dashing swashbuckler sort with an interest in social climbing & liberation of the downtrodden, paid a fortune teller to read his fortune. She saw the beautiful young Queen of Quodeth in his future (a year later in game they are currently courting & about to become engaged). I recall the player OOC thanking me for providing direction for his PC.

I guess I'm throwing out stuff that is likely of interest to the PC/player, but it's pretty well always in response to player action - the player had to decide to get his fortune read, just like the barbarian had to decide to get in with the Pit Fighters and the Rogue with the Seven Knives. I won't do a 'loot drop' thing where events happen or loot is dropped just to suit player/PC interests. I guess it's quite a fine distinction, but I find it important for versimilitude.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Back to the original topic I think the central component necessary for engaging in the fiction as a fiction is who gets to really decide what our characters goals are allowed to be. This includes less overt social pressure both from the GM and other players.

I see two central cultural tensions here:
  1. The expectations wrapped up into this idea of the story or the adventure. It does not really matter what we call it. There is this idea that there is a central purpose to play that must be divined. There is something that must be done and it is our job to do it. This is the expectation that what we must do has already been defined (usually by the GM but sometimes by the shared animus of the group) and it is the job to do it. I think this is why many GMs describe part of their responsibility as being about herding cats.
  2. The other is less severe, but still a detriment. It is the expectation that all character decisions are decided largely by committee. There is a powwow and the 5 headed snake acts in relative unison. It is not what does your character do. It's what does the group do.
These social pressures exist in varying degrees in different games and groups. Largely the more they exist the less we are making decisions as our characters would make them. Engaging with the fiction largely becomes about the means rather than the aims of the characters. This is not like necessarily like a bad thing. It's just like a thing.

Cultural expectations about outcomes still play a fairly large role, but in the presence of a lack of individual player agency over the goals their character has it becomes largely more of a concern over game versus story rather than a question about engaging with the fiction as a fiction. I find that often attempts to control the outcomes of things is often getting into the question of aims without like talking things out.

I mean engaging in the fiction as a fiction sounds like a good thing we all want to claim, but the most unadulterated form of it is actually something many gamers do not actually like want. That's like not a bad thing. It's not even what I want like all the time.
 

S'mon

Legend
I see two central cultural tensions here:
  1. The expectations wrapped up into this idea of the story or the adventure. It does not really matter what we call it. There is this idea that there is a central purpose to play that must be divined. There is something that must be done and it is our job to do it. This is the expectation that what we must do has already been defined (usually by the GM but sometimes by the shared animus of the group) and it is the job to do it. I think this is why many GMs describe part of their responsibility as being about herding cats.
  2. The other is less severe, but still a detriment. It is the expectation that all character decisions are decided largely by committee. There is a powwow and the 5 headed snake acts in relative unison. It is not what does your character do. It's what does the group do.
I really like running multiple campaigns at once, both to suit different player desires and for me to experience/enjoy the different approaches.

Eg my Primeval Thule game is a sandbox where re #1 the PCs can reject an adventure hook if they really want, and often create their own adventures by their action - ie I create an adventure only in response to player character action. The social contract re #2 is that major adventures are done by the group of PCs whose players are at table, but each PC also does individual PC-centric stuff on their own time, normally in between those adventures.

Conversely, my Red Hand of Doom game has the premise that the PCs are the Heroes of Elsir Vale fighting the Red Hand, and #1 and #2 are fully in effect. My Princes of the Apocalypse campaign is set in a somewhat sandboxy setup with an overarching threat (what Doug Niles called a Matrix Campaign in the 1e DSG), it could be run as a mix of the two styles, but in practice the player group is fairly passive and needs direction (partly because we play 1/month), so it runs close to RHoD in effect.

BTW all three of these were created by RPG genius Rich Baker! :)
 

pemerton

Legend
if I lay out what the players can do, like go into the seedy bar at Qiangdao (Bandit Town/Free star port) where the player can us their gambling skill, to start a game and maybe find info from some local mercs; I know that is what they are exactly going to do. So I'd rather leave it up to them if I can.
I didn't quite follow. What do you mean by leaving it up to them rather than laying out what they can do?
 

pemerton

Legend
The other is less severe, but still a detriment. It is the expectation that all character decisions are decided largely by committee. There is a powwow and the 5 headed snake acts in relative unison. It is not what does your character do. It's what does the group do.
Over the past couple of years I've been running some games where this is not the case.

A couple have been Cthulhu Dark one-shots, where I've used various fictional elements to interweave the concerns of the PCs into a single Cthulu-esque episode, but the players have not been working as a team except, in one of those sessions, in the final scene.

In a Dying Earth session I GMed the PCs found themselves stuck in the same town during the same food festival (I was using the starter adventure in the rulebook) but they were not companions and ended up being opponents in the competition.

In our Cortx+ Heroic session the PCs have been together for much of the time, and two at least could be said to be a team, being a sword thane and a berserker from the same village. But one of the PCs is a skinchanger and drifts in and out of the party (mechanically, toggles between the Solo and the Team affiliation). It's not quite the same dynamic as the sessions mentioned above, but it is different from D&D-type party play.

Our Prince Valiant game is party play, but in the fiction two of the PCs are father and son with the latter the Master (and founder) of a holy mililtary order while the former is the Marshall of that order. The third mainstay PC is also a knight who wanted to stay in Britain rather than join them on crusdae, but found himself persuaded by the son PC to come along with them (mechanically, he lost a contest based on Presence and Fellowship). Now that his wife has joined him to see his adventures close-up, it seems likely that he will continue on the crusade.

Our Traveller game is the closest to D&D-style. One of the PCs is a noble who owns a starship; the others travel with him, some being on the payroll. But there's no tremendous in-fiction rationale for them to hang out together. In this game, on the few occasions the committee hasn't been able to come to a decision I've had the two sides dice off, getting appropriate bonuses for having nobles and/or Leadership expertise on their side.

Perhaps I'm underestimating it, but I don't think Classic Traveller quite has the tools or resolution framework to faciltate breaking out of the party approach.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I didn't quite follow. What do you mean by leaving it up to them rather than laying out what they can do?
Letting them come up with ideas on what they are going to do, rather than listing options; I can always give them hints later, except I would like to see if they can think of something I haven't thought of.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I see two central cultural tensions here:
  1. The expectations wrapped up into this idea of the story or the adventure. It does not really matter what we call it. There is this idea that there is a central purpose to play that must be divined. There is something that must be done and it is our job to do it. This is the expectation that what we must do has already been defined (usually by the GM but sometimes by the shared animus of the group) and it is the job to do it. I think this is why many GMs describe part of their responsibility as being about herding cats.
  2. The other is less severe, but still a detriment. It is the expectation that all character decisions are decided largely by committee. There is a powwow and the 5 headed snake acts in relative unison. It is not what does your character do. It's what does the group do.
These social pressures exist in varying degrees in different games and groups. Largely the more they exist the less we are making decisions as our characters would make them.
I can see points 1 and 2. However, I question the generalization of the last sentence quoted above. It only holds when the character in would not naturally do the job, or would not naturally act with the team. There is only tension when the character is not built with the job and teamwork as major goals,.

This is one of the reasons why many of us have taken to saying, at character generation - "Please make a character that is consistent with being part of a group of adventurers, doing adventurer-type stuff," or whatever the equivalent is for your table. This front loads the issues of player-agency. We are asking them to avoid a great many character types, yes. But once play begins, they have full agency, without tension.

In my Ashen Stars game, each character explicitly has a role in space combat and in ground operations. They are explicitly a team of folks who take on jobs to identify and solve problems. Team success means they get paid, and they survive. So, working towards the job, and with the team, are primary motivations for each character.
 

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