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D&D General Games People Play: Looking at the Gaming Aspects of D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Well, I am officially 1/3 of my way into my dice mechanics series of posts and given that I started the series on ... um ... February 18, 2023, that's going great! Life happens. Anyway, I am doing a brief interlude because something has stuck with me that explains why I am doing the dice mechanics posts. Specifically, @loverdrive had a post some time ago stating that while she adored Blades in the Dark ("BiTD"), she didn't find that it was much of a game. While it was on a different subject matter, this feeling is what drove me to start the posts on dice mechanics- not specifically about BiTD, but about why we use dice in general, and what the different use of dice mean in different games means and why the use of dice and the different ways we use dice are so important to the "feel" of a game. It's something that I've been grappling with recently as I've been alternating between various D&D editions and a number of rules-lite bespoke games that I've been making for one-shots. So before making the second post on dice mechanics (or, perhaps, further procrastinating on that subject) I thought I'd address the origins of the series. FUN!

Given the excess of verbiage that is to follow, I thought I'd nutshell it up here- over time, I've learned that there is a certain game-y feel that I appreciate, and that an over-reliance on best practices when GMing for story-telling results in a different feel- no matter how good the results and no matter how well-intentioned those best practices might be.


1. What I Learned from Tarot Card Reading.
If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I've written, I feel the day hasn't been totally wasted.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I was given a set of tarot cards. And being a pre-college Snarf, I thought it would be cool to, you know, use them! So I read the little booklet that came with the deck, and I went to the library and did some further research on how to read and interpret the cards - this was very pre-internet. And when I had a decent idea of how it was supposed to work, I got some of my friends together and did a reading for them.

And it went well! I mean ... really well. Like, too well. Everyone was all like, "Oh, Snarf, you must have some mystic super occult powers." Which I do! But ... not those powers. And I thought it was maybe just a fluke, or random luck, so I did another, and it also went really, really well. And given the total success of this, I realized I had to investigate this further, because either this whole cartomancy thing was real and I was just coming into my own occult mystic powers, or something else was going on.

Of course, the answer was obvious. I thought I was just following the rules for interpreting the cards, but the rules themselves had so much play in them that they allowed me to interpret the cards in all sorts of ways. And the readings were all people I knew- so of course I was going to pick interpretations that matched them. Combine that with what I realized later were some unknowing "cold reading" techniques (reading body language, leading people to conclusions) and I realized that even though I thought I was just following the rules, what I was really doing was making this a fun (and occult-y and accurate) event for my friends, even without meaning too. And, of course, my doing that, combined with the presentation (ya gotta have candles, right?) led the people who were getting the readings to fill in even more gaps- I remember that afterwards, they credited my readings with things I didn't even remember saying.

It was all fun and highjinx, of course, and after the second reading I did and some reflection on the matter, I put the cards up for good. After all, you don't want to get a reputation as "You know, the person who reads everyone's fortune." Plus I didn't really see a future as fortune teller. But what does all of the have to do with the price of oil on spot market?

While an extreme example, I always remember it for the simple reason that humans interpret rules. I could have had the exact same cards for two different people, and I would have had completely different readings. I would have been applying the rules, of course, but I would have done so in order to apply it to the person. To make it make sense. Perhaps to build a sense of drama, and make sure that it was fun for the person hearing it. In a certain way, I was going to interpret those rules, for that person, to tell an effective story.


2. That's Not a Sport, That's a Game! The Problem With Definitions.
No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious.

If you've been alive in the last, oh, decade, you've probably heard some variation of, "Is a hot dog a sandwich?" This is just the prominent example of everyone's favorite (or for some of us, least-favorite) game- arguing about definitions. Is a tomato a fruit (and is ketchup therefore jam)? Is cereal a soup? Is fruit salad a salad?

On the one hand, these can be "fun" debates, if you're that kind of person ... yeah, you know who you are. All of these debates can be important. Language is imprecise, and those imprecisions (and misunderstandings) are why we have judges and attorneys- what is a chicken (in contract? it depends). Is a cow a motor vehicle for purposes of automobile insurance (it's not, because a cow doesn't have wheels)? Is a tomato a vegetable or fruit for purposes of tariffs (it's a vegetable). Is a burrito a sandwich (no, not to a New Jersey Judge). And so on.

On the other hand, Wittgenstein resolved a lot of these issues. All of which is to say that for purposes of inter-personal communication, the important thing is not some purely definitional concept, as there will always be edge cases. Instead, it's that there is a resemblance- in other words, even without a definition, we can still use a word, and just as importantly, it would be impossible to define terms (such as "sandwich" or "game") in such a way as to come up that you capture the commonality of all that is encompassed by the term.

All of which is great, especially when you want to tune out one of the innumerable debates on enworld that have devolved into definitional debates. :) But, in addition, it's helpful when examining some other issues, like ... what is a game? Strangely, there is a good collection on this exact subject!
Wittgenstein on Games.

But why go through all of this? Well, when I read what loverdrive wrote, and I searched my feelings about what was lacking in the "game department" (as Vader would say, I KNOW THEM TO BE TRUE), I wanted to make sure that I articulated an important point. A lot of times, people engage in these definitional debates in order to exclude things, or to make things (and people) feel less than. "Oh, that thing you're doing? That's not a real game." Or you might hear it in a different way, "Yeah, that's not a sport, that's just a game." And that type of exclusionary language provokes a natural defensiveness- "Of course this is a game!" Or, "What are you talking about, tiddlywinks is a sport!" So when examining these issues, it's not about defining what is, or isn't, a game. It's about trying to tease out why some TTRPGs are like venison - a lot more "gamey" to me. And while the comment that got me thinking about this was about BiTD (and I agree with it), this extends to a number of other games, especially the rules-lite games that I've been making.

3. How Diceless Games Provide Contrast.
I suffered under the false belief that social engagements, if sufficiently far in the future, would never materialize.

A short while ago, while thinking about this subject, I wrote a remembrance and appreciation of Everway, a diceless TTRPG that was the first original TTRPG made by WoTC. Of course, this was preceded by the Amber Diceless RPG. These games, and others, provided rules for resolution without using dice, and as I have explained before, incorporating various techniques I learned while running these systems has been invaluable in my overall growth as a GM in terms of best practices for running games.

I wanted to reiterate something that was mentioned in that remembrance of Everway. The reviewer at Dragon Magazine, Rick Swan, stated the following:
In my regular AD&D sessions, I never use dice or charts, nor do I allow my players to use them. The same goes at my convention appearances- no dice at my tables. In 10 years, I've yet to have a single player abandon ship. Everway codifies the freeform style favored by me and (I suspect) thousands of other referees.

Part of me is quoting that just because I enjoy reminding people of the diversity of ways that people play D&D in the community- after all, there is a vast difference between the rules as written and games as played. But more importantly, it gets to the heart of the matter. It is entirely possible to play TTRPGs without dice, provided you have a good GM. In fact, many people say that the problem with Everway is that Johnathan Tweet, the creator of the game, wasn't around to run the games for all the people playing it. And what does it mean to be a good GM? Well, it means that you are invested in the game. In the people playing. In the overall narrative stakes. And that you interpret the rules in a manner that allows you to tell an effective collaborative story with the people that are playing.

The thing is- that can be a lot of fun, with a certain group, and in a certain way. There are people that love that, and prefer that. But it's definitely different. Since this is a D&D thread, I'll use a D&D example- it's a lot like the old-school way of handling social interactions, or parts of the exploration pillar. The GM might be adjudicating declarations and actions, but there are no dice rolls. And these games, by making more explicit how this "diceless" adjudication works, allows GMs and players to be more comfortable with the method- in essence, by making more explicit many of the "best practices" or "heuristics" that people were previously using. So for someone like Rick Swan, a game like Everway was just codifying what he was already doing in AD&D as a freeform exercise.

4. Is this essay like a box of crayons in a kindergarten classroom, without a point?
The most dangerous of all people are the old, for it no longer matters to them what is going to happen to the world.

So why go through all of that? I love designing and running the rules-lite one shots I have been doing. But they have that same "feel" in many ways that I noticed when I was trying BiTD- they lack a certain something, that, for lack of a better term, I would call gaminess. And it's the same feel that I have when running diceless games. In saying this, I am not being exclusionary or saying that they aren't games, just like I wouldn't say that what Rick Swan ran wasn't AD&D. Instead, it's that same idea that you idea that you can erect rules around storytelling, but it's still storytelling. And like tarot cards, even when you have list examples of rules, you still get to interpret them, and the interpretation matters. It doesn't make things better than, or worse than, but different in feel- and that difference can be profoundly appealing, or off-putting to people.

To bring it back to D&D, you see this essential debate carried out in numerous ways; the use of dice and/or ability checks in the social or exploration parts of the game. Whether or not to "fudge" dice rolls. The use of railroading and illusionism. The boundaries of GM and player authority. In many ways, these are conversations about how much "game" you want in your D&D, and how willing you are to allow the dice to dictate results, as opposed to having the dice simply inform the narration.

And in thinking about these issues, I realized that one of the things that we don't really talk about is the dice. So I'll get to the second essay. At some point. Promise. Maybe.
 

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Clint_L

Legend
The role of chance is, I think, a key part of what makes D&D storytelling more fun than doing pure improv or just taking turns telling stories. From my perspective, what the dice do is take some control away, especially from the principal storyteller (the DM). For me, that's a good thing - it gives players a better sense of agency in the story. Their choices matter.

Your point about tarot card reading is enlightening. People look for patterns and stories, and we impose what we expect to happen onto whatever information we are given. This is why I think dice, or some other method of introducing chance, is so vital: they force us to change the narrative. The unexpected has a place. And then our busy primate brains interpret that new information into the story, so that natural 1 becomes a hilarious slip and fall when your cloak of elvenkind got caught in the wheel of a passing wagon, revealing you laying in the mud in your long underwear, or whatever.

Dice are particularly good at generating chance because they are convenient, they are flexible, and they are inherently fun to play with. They are little chance trinkets. Still, they impose a certain kind of randomness. I talk about Dread a lot, but mostly because its chance-generating mechanic - a jenga tower - stands in such stark contrast. There is chance but there is also skill, and failure is inevitable. It is only a matter of when. This creates a tangibly different game than you get from conventional dice rolling RPGs.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
Whats really interesting is how the pillars of D&D are viewed. The social pillar, for example, seems to fall into that Tarrot level of interpretation mentioned in the OP. Most folks are ok with that to some various degrees. However, the combat pillar seems to be much more rule exact driven. The "game" here is more of a focus and the stakes seem much more tangible. Exploration lands somewhere in the middle.

I believe the above is one of the reasons D&D drives so many arguments. It's also why folks often see D&D as a complete game, unlike others that have narrower focuses. The role of dice changes quite a bit in function and stakes in a nuanced game, where its a more precise application in others. In either case, folks seem to want a little random chaos introduced to make the game part interesting. Dice are a good tool for this.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The role of chance is, I think, a key part of what makes D&D storytelling more fun than doing pure improv or just taking turns telling stories. From my perspective, what the dice do is take some control away, especially from the principal storyteller (the DM). For me, that's a good thing - it gives players a better sense of agency in the story. Their choices matter.

Agreed, but when I talk about the gaminess of systems, I think I'm getting to something slightly different.

It's not just that dice rolls matter. In my rules-lite games, and BiTD, there are dice, and the dice rolls definitely matter in terms of taking some control away. They do have an influence on the narrative!

But it's usually missing that pure dice goodness, if you know what I mean. I like D&D because it's "more than just a boardgame," but D&D also still has those boardgame roots. Which is a source of tension, at times, but there are times when I want more game, less story.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Agreed, but when I talk about the gaminess of systems, I think I'm getting to something slightly different.

It's not just that dice rolls matter. In my rules-lite games, and BiTD, there are dice, and the dice rolls definitely matter in terms of taking some control away. They do have an influence on the narrative!

But it's usually missing that pure dice goodness, if you know what I mean. I like D&D because it's "more than just a boardgame," but D&D also still has those boardgame roots. Which is a source of tension, at times, but there are times when I want more game, less story.

To blatantly steal from Pratchett, TTRPGs are "where the falling improv meets the rising board game." Other minutiate of mechanics aside, you could say plenty about what a design is doing by pointing out where on that spectrum it's starting from.
 

Clint_L

Legend
No, I get it. It seems like the same reason that I think of all rules-heavy, dice-based RPGs as all basically D&D. To me, they all have the same feel at a mechanical level. I think that "gaminess" serves a very valuable function, because it establishes parameters for things like level advancement. Which is ultimately expressed in being able to do more or better things with dice (i.e. your ability modifiers go up, etc.). Basically, the reliance on dice adds a quantifiable aspect to the game. And I think that is a key ingredient in sustaining our investment in a campaign over time.

Rules-lite games don't generally support long campaigns.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
No, I get it. It seems like the same reason that I think of all rules-heavy, dice-based RPGs as all basically D&D. To me, they all have the same feel at a mechanical level. I think that "gaminess" serves a very valuable function, because it establishes parameters for things like level advancement. Which is ultimately expressed in being able to do more or better things with dice (i.e. your ability modifiers go up, etc.). Basically, the reliance on dice adds a quantifiable aspect to the game. And I think that is a key ingredient in sustaining our investment in a campaign over time.

Rules-lite games don't generally support long campaigns.
I don't find this statement to be true. Traveller is a fave ttrpg of mine that has flat progression. Powered by the Apocalypse play books leave room for Slightly less progression. I find the rules lite games reduce the cognitive load and allow more focus on plot driving and role play. Less grind and more progress. It's true the play style leans into the more interpretive style and less mechanical, but it doesn't detract from the long campaign.
 

Clint_L

Legend
@payn, we are not in disagreement. I do not deny that it is possible to generate campaigns out of these sorts of games - we used to play Traveller, and I have recently been working on adapting Dread, a game emphatically designed for one-shots, into a sort of campaign. But in practice, I think you'll concede that while these game are excellent, the vast majority RPG campaigns are built on rules-heavy, progression and dice-based games. Thus my use of the word "generally."

I am interested in why these sorts of RPGs are particularly popular. I speculate that the combination of dice and rule-based progression stimulates brains in very specific, semi-addictive ways. Specifically, it creates a system of intermittent rewards, which are extremely motivating to..well, I was going to write "human brains," but really they are very motivating to all brains. Basically, if you have an amygdala, intermittent rewards turn you on. It's essentially gambling, but the possibility of progression tantalizes us with the possibility of increasing our rewards.

This raises the issue of whether progression needs to be actual or whether we will, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, devote our character's lives to the pursuit of illusory progress, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into...a treadmill of ever higher CR opponents." Or something like that.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I don't find this statement to be true. Traveller is a fave ttrpg of mine that has flat progression. Powered by the Apocalypse play books leave room for Slightly less progression. I find the rules lite games reduce the cognitive load and allow more focus on plot driving and role play. Less grind and more progress. It's true the play style leans into the more interpretive style and less mechanical, but it doesn't detract from the long campaign.

I think this statement is true. But I also think that the reply by @Clint_L is correct, and it feeds into my second dice post, which, someday, I will write.

It's not that certain systems can't be run as long campaigns- far from it. One of the issues with enworld (and with internet discussions generally) is that often we get caught up in the idea that statements are absolute, and that everything must be thesis:antithesis. And that edge cases are dispositive. Instead of wondering about the idea of how to reason toward a collaborative example.

So, let's assume for a second the following:
Rules-lite and/or diceless games can be run as long-term campaigns.
D&D and/or rules-heavy games can be run as one-shots.

With those two predicates in mind, can we also say that there is something that tends to foster running longer campaigns, for most people, when playing D&D (and similar games). In the same vein, is there something that tends to cut-off those longer campaigns, for most people, when playing rules-lite and/or diceless games?

Part of this feeds into one of my favorites skits of all time (there is some NSFW language in this video)

I wonder if something similar happened at WoTC's offices with Tweet? :)

In other words, I have seen people run all sorts of long-term campaigns- people still love and play Amber, for example. But is there some "special sauce" that seems to be effective for disparate groups of people when it comes to ... getting them to return to the table, if you catch my drift.
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
@payn, we are not in disagreement. I do not deny that it is possible to generate campaigns out of these sorts of games - we used to play Traveller, and I have recently been working on adapting Dread, a game emphatically designed for one-shots, into a sort of campaign. But in practice, I think you'll concede that while these game are excellent, the vast majority RPG campaigns are built on rules-heavy, progression and dice-based games. Thus my use of the word "generally."
I guess Ill rephrase my disagreement. I think D&D is designed with intention of long campaigns by default so it seems like rules lite games may lack the support in comparison. There is much "D&D is king, and everything else is second fiddle" on the net talk. I'm not saying you are making this claim, but the claim here may lean into it. I like to avoid general statements and be more specific in these discussions out of respect that I feel the games deserve. Perhaps thats a bit of a distinction that doesnt matter or is overly sensitive, but I still like to steer conversations this way.
I am interested in why these sorts of RPGs are particularly popular. I speculate that the combination of dice and rule-based progression stimulates brains in very specific, semi-addictive ways. Specifically, it creates a system of intermittent rewards, which are extremely motivating to..well, I was going to write "human brains," but really they are very motivating to all brains. Basically, if you have an amygdala, intermittent rewards turn you on. It's essentially gambling, but the possibility of progression tantalizes us with the possibility of increasing our rewards.
Could be, I think it also has a lot to do with how tangible a rules heavy game system is. For example, you have piles and piles of discussions across the net on how to build a combat character. However, not many on how characters live their lives, achieve their goals, drive the narrative forward. You have a detailed road map on how the game is played here, and more importantly, rules that say what is in and out of bounds. The achievements are by the book so its easy to tell you are doing it right. As opposed to the interpretive style that is ambiguous, flexible, and often intangible in comparison.
This raises the issue of whether progression needs to be actual or whether we will, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, devote our character's lives to the pursuit of illusory progress, "so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into...a treadmill of ever higher CR opponents." Or something like that.
As I have gotten older, I much prefer Fitzgerald's illusory progress. I like combats that make sense, are important, that matter. D&D obviously has those, but they also have grinds of 8 a day and 20 levels worth of manuals built in. At this point its actually working against my instincts to want to play D&D, and I know that makes me an outlier.
 

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