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D&D General "Hot" take: Aesthetically-pleasing rules are highly overvalued

5e D&D has multiple dimensions of PC build - race, class, sub-class, feats, spells - that generate various interacting abilities and modifiers. Those abilities and modifiers live within multiple dimensions of action resolution - an action economy, various categories of check (attack, save, ability), various categories of effect (damage, conditions, movement and distance, etc), various durations and recovery cycles, etc.

Compared to a system like Prince Valiant, or Classic Traveller, or even RuneQuest, this is incredibly intricate. The idea that all those dimensions and their interactions can be handled via "natural language" is not credible.
Well...
I might argue that a lot of these DO exist in these other games but they are implicit, and this means that often things stay submerged and players are not even aware that the GM is rulling on it.

Frex, in Traveler you can be 'dying', but it is not really called out as a condition per se. There are some rules about when your PC's END is at zero, but 4e has a much better handle on it because all the general "you have a condition" rules apply.

It definitely means a game like 4e (and 5e) has more terminology, but play CAN be simpler.
 

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There are tons of ways to play and run RPGs. There are no right and wrong ways to do things. Different techniques and different games are suited to different purposes with different benefits and tradeoffs. If you make this a debate about who is right and who is wrong you will miss out on understanding the diversity of play in the hobby.
We must be very careful with such statements, as they run the risk of asserting game design does not matter, which is in opposition to the rest of your post.

That is: Are there true game design universals which apply to absolutely 100% of all games that ever have been and ever will be made? Probably not! That's a tall order, and I certainly grant that I'm not qualified to claim that any such thing does exist. If any DO exist, they'd have to be either so generic that they'd be impossible to fail, or so fundamental we've never noticed them before. Either way, I doubt many games are running afoul of them.

But once you start choosing the kind of game you want to design, the style or methods or mechanics, there ARE objective things you can say about that, for exactly the same reason that you can say "if you want to save money, you ought to avoid situations where you will be tempted to spend it." And that's why I keep returning to certain elements inherent to the kind of game D&D is, both from designer intent and at-table play for the vast majority of groups.

One example: D&D is a game where choices are supposed to matter for both their immediate effects and their long-term consequences, but to avoid a totally deterministic experience, the game invokes a probabilistic resolution mechanic most of the time in order to create uncertainty. This then means that risk management is a necessary component of the D&D gameplay process, regardless of which version you play. In order for "managing risk" to have real meaning, and actually have consequences that matter, the player must be able to make reasonably informed decisions, and those decisions need to be the fundamental cause of the consequences faced.

If the players cannot truly learn about the world (e.g. if established facts can be changed without the players being able to learn that they changed and how they changed), the players aren't capable of making informed decisions even in principle, and thus the consequences that follow from their actions can't be learned from or adapted to--the players have no real idea why they succeed or fail and will develop false ideas (effectively, superstitions) about why they do. Thus, the game's design truly should discourage rules or referee behaviors which prevent the possibility of becoming informed. (If the players fail to try to become informed, that's their fault, not the system's nor the DM's!)

Likewise, if player actions are not actually the cause of the consequences experienced, there is no link between "what player chose to do" and "what happened after." The player cannot learn to manage risk better, because they are never actually taking the risks they believe they are taking; the whole situation is no longer merely fictional, it is deceptive, with the true results arising from a hidden black box the players are never allowed to see or learn about. Thus, the game's design should discourage rules or referee behaviors that secretly disrupt or supersede the link between player choice and in-game consequences: openly doing so, in whatever way, is fine because the players can learn from that still. (E.g. how many DMs have asked, "Did you really say that?" Or the dreaded, "Are you sure?")

Hence why, here and elsewhere, I emphasize that D&D is "meant to be" (as in, its internal description says it is, and its designers say it is) a cooperative, symmetrical, probabilistic, role-playing game. Each and every word in that description is a game design objective, and thus we can speak with SOME objectivity about what one should seek or avoid along the way to those objectives. There will still be plenty of places where multiple valid approaches exist, and thus perfect objectivity will elude us. But that doesn't mean we can say nothing whatever, nor that literally all possible arrangements of text are equally valid attempts to meet those design parameters.

TL;DR: We must be careful to separate "there are many valid designs to pursue, and few if any universal design rules" from "if you intend to design a game with characteristic X, you should do Y." The former is the denial of prescriptive philosophy applied across all possible games. The latter is the affirmation that once you specify the kind of game you're making, there really are SOME oughts and ought-nots.
 
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pemerton

Legend
D&D is a game where choices are supposed to matter for both their immediate effects and their long-term consequences
The nit I am going to pick is slightly tangential to your point, but not to my participation in this thread: this claim is true only if the range of events and actions over which choices extends is rather narrowly constrained.

For instance, in "classic"/traditional approaches to D&D: a player's choice of his/her PC's attire (other than armour) is not supposed to matter. Nor choice of romantic interest. Choice of religious affiliation is meant to matter in something like, in the real world, choice of trade union membership matters; but it is not supposed to matter in the way which, in the real world, private/inner religious conviction matters.

The choices that are canonically supposed to matter are choices that pertain to travel, architecture, and certain sorts of resource expenditure. But as this thread has brought out, the parameters within which these choices matter can be surprisingly narrow: eg while choice of (say) class or skill, and choice of which PC ability to bring to bear, is generally supposed to matter, does it always? Eg does it matter if a PC engages a NPC leading with CHA (Persuasion) rather than CHA (Intimidation)? Sometimes it does, but I think that sometimes it doesn't.

In order for "managing risk" to have real meaning, and actually have consequences that matter, the player must be able to make reasonably informed decisions, and those decisions need to be the fundamental cause of the consequences faced.

If the players cannot truly learn about the world (e.g. if established facts can be changed without the players being able to learn that they changed and how they changed), the players aren't capable of making informed decisions even in principle, and thus the consequences that follow from their actions can't be learned from or adapted to

<snip>

Likewise, if player actions are not actually the cause of the consequences experienced, there is no link between "what player chose to do" and "what happened after." The player cannot learn to manage risk better, because they are never actually taking the risks they believe they are taking
I think this is a fairly accurate account of the imperatives of "classic" D&D play, but I think it also reinforces the point I made earlier in this post, about the relatively narrow range of choices that are supposed to matter. The idea of "fixed" setting elements that a player can learn about and make reasonable causal extrapolations in respect of works well for: treasure maps, architecture, certain very simple (simplistic?) social structures (just to give some examples). It works poorly for: dynamic social situations, alliances and betrayals, complex human geography, truly magical places (just to give some different examples). It can even work poorly for contests between reasonably evenly matched opponents - eg races, chess games, etc.

To link this to @Campbell's excellent post not far upthread: many designers (of D&D, and of games that derive their basic infrastructure from D&D) seem to proceed in ignorance of the point made in the preceding paragraph.
 

The nit I am going to pick is slightly tangential to your point, but not to my participation in this thread: this claim is true only if the range of events and actions over which choices extends is rather narrowly constrained.
This is quite fair: the set of choices that "matter" in a mechanical sense is constrained. I dunno if "rather narrowly" is necessarily true, but that's certainly an area where objective statements are dubious.
For instance, in "classic"/traditional approaches to D&D: a player's choice of his/her PC's attire (other than armour) is not supposed to matter. Nor choice of romantic interest. Choice of religious affiliation is meant to matter in something like, in the real world, choice of trade union membership matters; but it is not supposed to matter in the way which, in the real world, private/inner religious conviction matters.
Well, I'd say the "other than armor" caveat is rather an important one, but even without that, clothing and self-presentation do matter (or at least they have in several games I've played, including the one LL game). Wear your muck-covered, bloodstained armor to an audience with the Queen, and you'd better hope she's a warlord at heart or you'll almost certainly take some mechanically-relevant penalties for that choice. (In my DW game, I could easily see this requiring a Defy Danger CHA to avoid losing some clout in the Sultana's court due to not observing etiquette). I'd also argue that religious affiliation in the latter sense matters...but only for some characters (mostly Divine-source classes, but consider the significance of religion in a campaign setting like Zeitgeist, or Eberron.)
The choices that are canonically supposed to matter are choices that pertain to travel, architecture, and certain sorts of resource expenditure. But as this thread has brought out, the parameters within which these choices matter can be surprisingly narrow: eg while choice of (say) class or skill, and choice of which PC ability to bring to bear, is generally supposed to matter, does it always? Eg does it matter if a PC engages a NPC leading with CHA (Persuasion) rather than CHA (Intimidation)? Sometimes it does, but I think that sometimes it doesn't.
I would find it unusual if the choice to persuade vs intimidate even sometimes didn't matter, but then again, I'm a fan of both Dungeon World and 4e, so I'm one of those "weird" people who values both consistent fiction and mechanical rigor. Change the fiction, change the result, IMO. And I'd also say that a common area where the skills aren't in practice treated differently is a good counter to this argument, as both the rules themselves and "best practices" from 5e DMs say that the common behavior is incorrect: Perception vs Investigation. The former is, in theory, supposed to be purely for the physical act of observing--can your eyes see the lettering carved in the wall, can your nose discern which specific kind of incense it smells, etc.--while the latter is supposed to be used for integrating a set of observations into a meaningful conclusion (e.g. Perception determines whether you notice that one of the books on the shelf is slightly less dusty, while Investigation determines whether you realize that the room is shorter internally than it looks externally, and thus has a secret chamber.)

But there are some other areas I think you're leaving out. Anything to do with academic knowledge is relevant--it's why there are several academic skills. Athletics vs Acrobatics is another meaningful choice area, with the two being sometimes interchangeable but never equivalent. Comporting yourself toward others has been relevant in D&D since forever, it's why Charisma was important for Reaction rolls, and as the "story about adventurers" aspect of D&D grew and the "ruthless mercs looking to score big in a murder-hole" aspect waned, I'd argue it's only gained importance, hence why a "Face" is an important thing for any party to have.

The idea of "fixed" setting elements that a player can learn about and make reasonable causal extrapolations in respect of works well for: treasure maps, architecture, certain very simple (simplistic?) social structures (just to give some examples). It works poorly for: dynamic social situations, alliances and betrayals, complex human geography, truly magical places (just to give some different examples). It can even work poorly for contests between reasonably evenly matched opponents - eg races, chess games, etc.
I think I gave an incorrect impression here. I don't mean these things are fixed for all time, never to be changed or revealed as different. What I mean is that if something is evidenced within the game, then either it should be true, or the players should have the chance to learn that it is not true. Maybe they fail, or maybe they simply don't bother trying to find out. Many of the areas you refer to as exceptions...aren't things that have been put into evidence yet, as it were. The outcome of a race is probably uncertain, not because there's no evidence, but because dice rolling is likely to be involved. Dynamic social situations are ones where the evidence itself demonstrates that what is true today need not be true tomorrow--unless the DM decides midway through that what wasn't a dynamic situation initially now IS a dynamic situation.

That, truly, is what I'm talking about. Shifting alliances are fine. Alliances that in-character secretly shift around are also fine, because it is perfectly reasonable for characters to tell lies or deceive others. The example I like to give here is a murder mystery. Let's say that the Duchess is the one who murdered the Count, but both she and the Baron are suspects. The party does something clever and unexpected, which makes the party extremely sure that the Duchess is the guilty party...but this would derail the intended plotline and prevent the "Baron begs the party for help in desperation" scene the DM had planned. Instead of adapting around the players' choices, the DM decides that now the Duchess is innocent and the Baron really IS guilty (simply switching who plays which role)...even though up to this point it was literally impossible for the players to learn this because it wasn't true before. Now they have evidence which, at the time they got it, was perfectly correct and sound, and they have no real way to know that that evidence became unsound, as that would reveal the DM's hand and probably piss off the players.

That is what I mean by something that shouldn't change unless the players at least have the possibility of learning how and why it changed. Another example would be deciding that one of the party's close, trusted allies--someone who genuinely passed efforts to vet them--is now suddenly the traitor in their midst, even though the party literally couldn't have learned that because that ally WASN'T the traitor up until the moment the DM decided they were. (Other examples include altering a monster's statblock mid-fight, changing the rules of engagement, and violating established setting elements--up to and including the nature of magic, even though that can be a fickle thing!)
 

pemerton

Legend
@EzekielRaiden, that's a thoughtful reply.

clothing and self-presentation do matter (or at least they have in several games I've played, including the one LL game). Wear your muck-covered, bloodstained armor to an audience with the Queen, and you'd better hope she's a warlord at heart or you'll almost certainly take some mechanically-relevant penalties for that choice. (In my DW game, I could easily see this requiring a Defy Danger CHA to avoid losing some clout in the Sultana's court due to not observing etiquette).

<snip>

I'm a fan of both Dungeon World and 4e, so I'm one of those "weird" people who values both consistent fiction and mechanical rigor.
I have nothing against mechanical rigour, nor consistent fiction. But I'm not persuaded that classic D&D (4e is not an instance of classic D&D, I think almost self-evidently; DW is not an instance of D&D at all) has the relevant rigour.

For instance, classic D&D modules often have encounters with NPCs in "dungeons". Those NPCs are frequently armoured - they have to be, if their combat stats are to be mechanically adequate - in ways and contexts that would be quite incongruous in the real world. So how should they respond to armoured, and/or dirty/shabby, PCs? In my view it's very hard to extrapolate.

Gygax's PHB has a full page worth of equipment lists, including a heading "Clothing", but "finery" or its equivalent appears nowhere on it. (Rather, the list breaks out four categories of footwear.)

The contrast with (to pick two systems I know fairly well) Prince Valiant and Burning Wheel is very marked. Prince Valiant has an explicit category of modifiers for prestige, which are based in part on Fame (in Prince Valiant this is an amalgam of an XP number and a reputation number) and in part on fancy gear. The Burning Wheel equipment lists include a category of "finery", and in the rules commentary in the Adventure Burner/Codex, loss of or damage to finery is expressly flagged as a potentially significant event.

4e's equipment list does include "Fine clothing" (6 lb, 30 gp) but there is no elaboration in the item descriptions. And 4e has the same issue as classic D&D with the ubiquity of armour in order to make the system mechanics work should combat break out.

I'd also argue that religious affiliation in the latter sense matters...but only for some characters (mostly Divine-source classes, but consider the significance of religion in a campaign setting like Zeitgeist, or Eberron.)
In my experience - both in play and in engaging with D&D game texts - it is very rare for issues of faith or conviction to be put into play. Gygax's DMG frames the religious fidelity of clerics in terms of adherence to norms (whether alignment norms or more specific religious norms) and commands/wishes of the deity; and their has been little change. The 4e PHB and DMG give us the precepts of deities, but don't anywhere investigate the notion of faith or conviction.

The contrast here with Burning Wheel is incredibly stark. And even with our Prince Valiant game. In our 4e game there were players who tried to make the resolution of their PCs a thing in the fiction, but it is quite hard (as a GM) to make this actually count because a cleric or paladin gets his/her Nth level limited-use power regardless of conviction. It did come into play from time-to-time, as a component of fictional positioning; but I suspect (based eg on how ENworld posters responded to my accounts of those episodes of play, and on the fact that I've never seen anyone else post about anything similar) that what was happening in our game was quite atypical.

Outside of the 4e context I don't really see how it would be done, because there isn't the same support for looseness of GM interpolation between these various components of fictional positioning and the general mechanical framework. (For instance: in my 4e game the paladin of the Raven Queen's unswerving conviction underpinned his use of a Religion check to determine the consequence - namely, combat advantage - of his speaking of a prayer against a wight with which he was in combat. This move from fictional positioning to mechanical process and outcome is possible because of the consistent action economy and player resource economy. No other version of D&D has these same features.)

I would find it unusual if the choice to persuade vs intimidate even sometimes didn't matter

<snip>

Change the fiction, change the result, IMO.

<snip>

Comporting yourself toward others has been relevant in D&D since forever, it's why Charisma was important for Reaction rolls, and as the "story about adventurers" aspect of D&D grew and the "ruthless mercs looking to score big in a murder-hole" aspect waned, I'd argue it's only gained importance, hence why a "Face" is an important thing for any party to have.
Sure, the persuade vs intimidate approach is not never relevant. But far from always - eg the reaction rules in AD&D or B/X, including their incorporation of CHA modifiers, don't draw the distinction between approaches. And this also goes to the issue of player knowledge - the same approach to play which makes acquiring knowledge via mapping highly salient does not lend itself so well to establishing whether it is better to persuade or to terrorise, and what might result from one or the other approach.

Perception vs Investigation. The former is, in theory, supposed to be purely for the physical act of observing--can your eyes see the lettering carved in the wall, can your nose discern which specific kind of incense it smells, etc.--while the latter is supposed to be used for integrating a set of observations into a meaningful conclusion (e.g. Perception determines whether you notice that one of the books on the shelf is slightly less dusty, while Investigation determines whether you realize that the room is shorter internally than it looks externally, and thus has a secret chamber.)

But there are some other areas I think you're leaving out. Anything to do with academic knowledge is relevant--it's why there are several academic skills.
Both Investigation (as you describe it here) and knowledge/academic skills are, in my view, an attempt to make a game of the sort you described in your earlier post (ie players acquire knowledge of the shared fiction and make action declarations on the basis of that) compatible with a shared fiction that has richness beyond that of the early dungeons and modules.

They are essentially mechanical devices that oblige the GM to share additional fiction with the players although the players have not put their PCs into a fictional position whereby the GM would share that fiction "organically".

I think this is why they are sources of controversy, because of this way they undercut the importance of fictional positioning.

I don't mean these things are fixed for all time, never to be changed or revealed as different. What I mean is that if something is evidenced within the game, then either it should be true, or the players should have the chance to learn that it is not true. Maybe they fail, or maybe they simply don't bother trying to find out. Many of the areas you refer to as exceptions...aren't things that have been put into evidence yet, as it were. The outcome of a race is probably uncertain, not because there's no evidence, but because dice rolling is likely to be involved. Dynamic social situations are ones where the evidence itself demonstrates that what is true today need not be true tomorrow--unless the DM decides midway through that what wasn't a dynamic situation initially now IS a dynamic situation.

That, truly, is what I'm talking about. Shifting alliances are fine. Alliances that in-character secretly shift around are also fine, because it is perfectly reasonable for characters to tell lies or deceive others. The example I like to give here is a murder mystery. Let's say that the Duchess is the one who murdered the Count, but both she and the Baron are suspects. The party does something clever and unexpected, which makes the party extremely sure that the Duchess is the guilty party...but this would derail the intended plotline and prevent the "Baron begs the party for help in desperation" scene the DM had planned. Instead of adapting around the players' choices, the DM decides that now the Duchess is innocent and the Baron really IS guilty (simply switching who plays which role)...even though up to this point it was literally impossible for the players to learn this because it wasn't true before. Now they have evidence which, at the time they got it, was perfectly correct and sound, and they have no real way to know that that evidence became unsound, as that would reveal the DM's hand and probably piss off the players.

That is what I mean by something that shouldn't change unless the players at least have the possibility of learning how and why it changed. Another example would be deciding that one of the party's close, trusted allies--someone who genuinely passed efforts to vet them--is now suddenly the traitor in their midst, even though the party literally couldn't have learned that because that ally WASN'T the traitor up until the moment the DM decided they were. (Other examples include altering a monster's statblock mid-fight, changing the rules of engagement, and violating established setting elements--up to and including the nature of magic, even though that can be a fickle thing!)
There's a lot going on here.

Consider two contrasting real-world scenarios:

(1) A group is using 5e D&D to resolve a murder mystery involving the Duchess and Baron as you describe. This requires interrogating suspects, searching areas (eg rooms in a castle or palace) that are almost infinitely more rich in their contents and context than the dungeon rooms found in Keep on the Borderlands, extrapolating from motives that are revealed only via GM narration, etc. In my view the solving of this mystery, using the 5e mechanics, is overwhelmingly dependent on GM decision-making. When does a suspect break under interrogation, or how long will s/he stonewall? How many red herring letters are there in the same folder as the one containing the revelation, and how salient are those red herrings to the players? How many people might have seen the suspect leaving the scene of the murder, and how might those people be tracked down, and how much did they notice, and how willing are they to share it?

All that is under the GM's control.

(2) A group is playing Apocalypse World, and the GM decides - in making a move as hard and direct as s/he likes - that one of the NPCs present in the situation has turned on (one or more of) the PCs, and so is no longer an ally and is now a traitor. There are various ways this might become known by a player - eg as a result of Reading a Charged Situation, or because of something the GM narrates when everyone looks at him/her to see what happens next.

I think the players in the AW game have more control over the content and direction of play than the players in the D&D game. This is because of the differences of system. My view is that, once the fiction moves beyond some of the canonical examples I mentioned - architecture, maps, etc - D&D generally doesn't have the systems to manage "wider scope" and more dynamic fiction (no Circles checks, nothing analogous to a BW wise check or an AW read a situation check, etc). 4e skill challenges come closer to this but even they have clear limits (eg at least canonically, there's no straightforward way for a check in a skill challenge pertaining to a PC here-and-now can generate a result of a consequence "over there" or "back then").
 

I think Monayuris is saying that Sage Advice would become less "rules Q&A" and more "shop talk" if that makes sense? You wouldn't have narrow questions about how rule X, term Y, or interaction Z should be used. You'd have more "best practices" and "DM philosophy" and "tools for managing player experience" type talk. That might not be enough to sustain a distinct Sage Advice thing....but given stuff like Matt Colville's youtube series, I'm inclined to think it would still work.
Yes totally agree.

I think Sage Advice can be great for a "this is how I would do it" advice column. I just don't necessarily consider it as an authority over my game.

I admit I do go to Sage Advice to see what they say about things that come up in play. But I just take the advice part literally. It is advice to follow, or not, based on what you think is the right thing to do. I think sometimes their rulings are dumb and I'll freely override it if I think it will make my game better.
 

I do not think the way you play is about the GM telling a story. I believe you when you say that you judge the fiction as neutrally as possible.

Personally I quite enjoy OSR play, but it is not the only way I like to play. In my experience the process of play matters a good deal. I even think it might matter to you a good deal. I just think you have found a process that really works for you. That's a good thing. However, what works for you might not work for everyone. It is also not universal to all RPGs. Speaking with authority that these things do not matter when you lack experience with doing things differently does this discussion a disservice.

There are tons of ways to play and run RPGs. There are no right and wrong ways to do things. Different techniques and different games are suited to different purposes with different benefits and tradeoffs. If you make this a debate about who is right and who is wrong you will miss out on understanding the diversity of play in the hobby.

I mean a lot of time and effort has gone into designing different ways to play these games. I think game design matters. I would stake money that if you ran a game like Apocalypse World in the way it instructs you to run it you would agree. You may not enjoy that sort of play, but I am fairly confident you would not say it does not matter.
Sorry, that was never my point and I probably failed to communicate properly.

I'm not stating whether any one style of play is right or wrong. I'm pointing out other poster's perceptions and assertions of the style of play that I prefer are wrong.

I've never run AW, but I have run Dungeon World. I understand the playstyle it suggests. Personally, it is not for me. It is a game that I gave more than one attempt to run and found it not my cup of tea. I've also tried Fate (and Fate derived games) and came to the same conclusion.

I simply don't enjoy the player narrative power style games. Not because I don't want players to have any control over the game, but because when you open narrative control to players, it causes me, as a DM, to push harder and harder to reconcile player injected realities into my own reality. I see how it can be fun as a player-improv romp, but it creates credibility straining realities as player injected narratives fight against each other and against the realities of the DM.

I'm not a big fan of GNS theory, but I'd be probably more simulationist in approach. I present a world and the rules of the world as a simulation. Players have agency because they can know these rules and make choices that can have, if not predictable, at least understandable consequences.

I know you can run DW in that way, but the game doesn't really encourage it. That is fine, the game is not meant for that style. There is even a fan-made advice document that has a suggestion to have ogres attack if a player fails a spout lore roll. That kind of advice basically tells me the game is not for me.

To me the idea of not knowing about something causes ogres to appear is absolutely ridiculous. I understand why it would make sense within the context of Dungeon World game. I just don't find that appealing.
 

pemerton

Legend
I simply don't enjoy the player narrative power style games.

<snip>

To me the idea of not knowing about something causes ogres to appear is absolutely ridiculous. I understand why it would make sense within the context of Dungeon World game.
Dungeon World has very few "player narrative powers". Through Death's Eyes is probably the best known. (This is also true of Apocalypse World, the corresponding power in that system being the Battlebabe's Visions of Death.)

There is no power in DW that allows a player to decide that, because someone doesn't know something, an ogre appears.

In both systems, if a player misses an attempt to acquire knowledge (eg in DW, to Discern Realities; in AW, to Read a Charged Situation) then the GM can make a move in accordance with the relevant principles. Maybe if the player was trying to learn what I should be on the lookout for a suitable GM move might be to reveal that thing unexpectedly and dangerously. That would be something within the GM's purview, though, not the players'.
 

Aldarc

Legend
What's weird about this criticism is that simulation in GNS theory deals a lot with genre simulation, which is one of the greatest strengths of PbtA games as they lean heavily into simulating genre or setting.
 

pemerton

Legend
What's weird about this criticism is that simulation in GNS theory deals a lot with genre simulation, which is one of the greatest strengths of PbtA games as they lean heavily into simulating genre or setting.
Most people outside the Forge context use "simulationism" to describe the subset of simulationist play that Ron Edwards labels "purist for system". Whereas "genre simulation" is what Edwards calls "high concept" simulationism.

It's probably also worth noting that, on the acknowledgements page of AW, Baker says 'The entire game design follows from “Narrativism: Story Now” by Ron Edwards.' AW raises genre-salient questions, but doesn't answer them in itself - it leaves it up to players to do that during play.

Prince Valiant is another example of a game that is, in Edwards's sense, narrativist, but is focused on a particular genre as the field of play.
 

Most people outside the Forge context use "simulationism" to describe the subset of simulationist play that Ron Edwards labels "purist for system". Whereas "genre simulation" is what Edwards calls "high concept" simulationism.

It also doesn't help that a fair number of people were using "simulationism" in the pre-Forge rec.games.frp.advocacy way for a long time before the GNS came along, and as such it colonized a fair number of vocabularies never exposed to the latter. And RGFA simulation absolutely would not deal with something like genre emulation (which was firmly a dramatism thing).
 

pemerton

Legend
RGFA simulation absolutely would not deal with something like genre emulation (which was firmly a dramatism thing).
This reflects a theoretical split: is the relevant dimension for analysis and classification exploration of the shared fiction? - which is what Edwards thinks, and labels as "simulationism": whether that is via "system" or via "high concept" is a secondary concern.

Or is the relevant dimension story/genre/narrative? - which is what dramatism as a label picks up, but which Edwards rejects because it groups together "story before" and "story now" whereas experience leads Edwards to think that is a fundamental cleavage in RPG play.

For what it's worth, I take Edwards' side in this theoretical disagreement.
 

This reflects a theoretical split: is the relevant dimension for analysis and classification exploration of the shared fiction? - which is what Edwards thinks, and labels as "simulationism": whether that is via "system" or via "high concept" is a secondary concern.

Or is the relevant dimension story/genre/narrative? - which is what dramatism as a label picks up, but which Edwards rejects because it groups together "story before" and "story now" whereas experience leads Edwards to think that is a fundamental cleavage in RPG play.

For what it's worth, I take Edwards' side in this theoretical disagreement.

The problem is, this elevates a theoretical concern over practical usage; people who care about simulationist concerns in any other context will find rules to support genre jarring unless they're reified (in which case almost anyone else will find them jarring, since it means that the genre conceits will be visible as such in-game).

On the other hand, the same people who are interested in story based concerns expect the rules to support the narrative conceits, and would likely be a bit put off if they didn't.

So my own view is that when the theoretical models fails to represent the reality, its a bad theory. GDS distinctly had some problems (mostly that it really didn't know what to do with gamism) but at least its dramatism and simulationism seemed to actually sync up to usage (with the caveat that the latter approach was, even back in that period never exactly an extensive approach). GNS just shuffles its problems around by knowing at least vaguely what to do with gamism, but offloading things into simulationism that don't really go together on the same usage in practice because it makes narrativism more tidy.
 

pemerton

Legend
The problem is, this elevates a theoretical concern over practical usage; people who care about simulationist concerns in any other context will find rules to support genre jarring unless they're reified (in which case almost anyone else will find them jarring, since it means that the genre conceits will be visible as such in-game).

On the other hand, the same people who are interested in story based concerns expect the rules to support the narrative conceits, and would likely be a bit put off if they didn't.

So my own view is that when the theoretical models fails to represent the reality, its a bad theory..
The last sentence is true. But I don't find that Edwards has elevated a theoretical concern over practical usage. His account explains important aspects of my own RPG experience - both my own play and my engagement with others. On the latter, in particular, I think that he explains why there is often relatively little communication breakdown between people who like (say) 3E D&D and people who like (say) the DL modules, whereas fans of both are apt to complain about a character's failing to know something causes ogres to suddenly appear!
 

We must be very careful with such statements, as they run the risk of asserting game design does not matter, which is in opposition to the rest of your post.

That is: Are there true game design universals which apply to absolutely 100% of all games that ever have been and ever will be made? Probably not! That's a tall order, and I certainly grant that I'm not qualified to claim that any such thing does exist. If any DO exist, they'd have to be either so generic that they'd be impossible to fail, or so fundamental we've never noticed them before. Either way, I doubt many games are running afoul of them.

But once you start choosing the kind of game you want to design, the style or methods or mechanics, there ARE objective things you can say about that, for exactly the same reason that you can say "if you want to save money, you ought to avoid situations where you will be tempted to spend it." And that's why I keep returning to certain elements inherent to the kind of game D&D is, both from designer intent and at-table play for the vast majority of groups.
Right, and one thing I think should be emphasized is that elements, such as the "choices are supposed to matter" you list below DO NOT APPLY in all games. Examples:
My Life With Master - the fate of the PC(s) is decided from the start, and is unescapable.
Paranoia - The only choice you have is possibly how you die, but usually not even that. The whole POINT of the game is powerlessness.
Toon - There simply are no consequences in this game. There is fiction evolution, but PCs have fixed characteristics and no permanent consequences ever happen.

I would venture that these are slightly out of the mainstream of RPGs, but are well-known games which have been played and reprinted many times.
One example: D&D is a game where choices are supposed to matter for both their immediate effects and their long-term consequences, but to avoid a totally deterministic experience, the game invokes a probabilistic resolution mechanic most of the time in order to create uncertainty. This then means that risk management is a necessary component of the D&D gameplay process, regardless of which version you play. In order for "managing risk" to have real meaning, and actually have consequences that matter, the player must be able to make reasonably informed decisions, and those decisions need to be the fundamental cause of the consequences faced.

If the players cannot truly learn about the world (e.g. if established facts can be changed without the players being able to learn that they changed and how they changed), the players aren't capable of making informed decisions even in principle, and thus the consequences that follow from their actions can't be learned from or adapted to--the players have no real idea why they succeed or fail and will develop false ideas (effectively, superstitions) about why they do. Thus, the game's design truly should discourage rules or referee behaviors which prevent the possibility of becoming informed. (If the players fail to try to become informed, that's their fault, not the system's nor the DM's!)
Note how in DW this concept meshes with the 'Spout Lore' and 'Discern Realities' moves, which REQUIRE the GM to give the player knowledge! The associated check only determines HOW USEFUL that knowledge will be within the specific context of an existing problem.
Likewise, if player actions are not actually the cause of the consequences experienced, there is no link between "what player chose to do" and "what happened after." The player cannot learn to manage risk better, because they are never actually taking the risks they believe they are taking; the whole situation is no longer merely fictional, it is deceptive, with the true results arising from a hidden black box the players are never allowed to see or learn about. Thus, the game's design should discourage rules or referee behaviors that secretly disrupt or supersede the link between player choice and in-game consequences: openly doing so, in whatever way, is fine because the players can learn from that still. (E.g. how many DMs have asked, "Did you really say that?" Or the dreaded, "Are you sure?")

Hence why, here and elsewhere, I emphasize that D&D is "meant to be" (as in, its internal description says it is, and its designers say it is) a cooperative, symmetrical, probabilistic, role-playing game. Each and every word in that description is a game design objective, and thus we can speak with SOME objectivity about what one should seek or avoid along the way to those objectives. There will still be plenty of places where multiple valid approaches exist, and thus perfect objectivity will elude us. But that doesn't mean we can say nothing whatever, nor that literally all possible arrangements of text are equally valid attempts to meet those design parameters.

TL;DR: We must be careful to separate "there are many valid designs to pursue, and few if any universal design rules" from "if you intend to design a game with characteristic X, you should do Y." The former is the denial of prescriptive philosophy applied across all possible games. The latter is the affirmation that once you specify the kind of game you're making, there really are SOME oughts and ought-nots.
I think this is self-evident. Certainly if it isn't true, then we have all been wasting a LOT of time on these forums for the last (in my case) 12 years...
 

The last sentence is true. But I don't find that Edwards has elevated a theoretical concern over practical usage. His account explains important aspects of my own RPG experience - both my own play and my engagement with others. On the latter, in particular, I think that he explains why there is often relatively little communication breakdown between people who like (say) 3E D&D and people who like (say) the DL modules, whereas fans of both are apt to complain about a character's failing to know something causes ogres to suddenly appear!

Then at best he's described a subset of users better by describing another subset worse (and likely more than one).
 

Much goodness here, it is hard to decide which things to talk about ;) (this also applies to @EzekielRaiden post you are responding to).
@EzekielRaiden, that's a thoughtful reply.


I have nothing against mechanical rigour, nor consistent fiction. But I'm not persuaded that classic D&D (4e is not an instance of classic D&D, I think almost self-evidently; DW is not an instance of D&D at all) has the relevant rigour.

For instance, classic D&D modules often have encounters with NPCs in "dungeons". Those NPCs are frequently armoured - they have to be, if their combat stats are to be mechanically adequate - in ways and contexts that would be quite incongruous in the real world. So how should they respond to armoured, and/or dirty/shabby, PCs? In my view it's very hard to extrapolate.

Gygax's PHB has a full page worth of equipment lists, including a heading "Clothing", but "finery" or its equivalent appears nowhere on it. (Rather, the list breaks out four categories of footwear.)

The contrast with (to pick two systems I know fairly well) Prince Valiant and Burning Wheel is very marked. Prince Valiant has an explicit category of modifiers for prestige, which are based in part on Fame (in Prince Valiant this is an amalgam of an XP number and a reputation number) and in part on fancy gear. The Burning Wheel equipment lists include a category of "finery", and in the rules commentary in the Adventure Burner/Codex, loss of or damage to finery is expressly flagged as a potentially significant event.

4e's equipment list does include "Fine clothing" (6 lb, 30 gp) but there is no elaboration in the item descriptions. And 4e has the same issue as classic D&D with the ubiquity of armour in order to make the system mechanics work should combat break out.
This is all pretty interesting. In my own 'HoML' game (4e hack sort of) I evolved the system such that there are 'practices' (some are rituals) which have specific substitution effects (you get to use an Arcana Check because you cast this for example instead of an Acrobatics Check). In these cases there are requirements, which can include things like 'finery', as well as 'costs', and 'stakes' (you can pay this to succeed automatically with the check using this practice). This is a way of codifying a purpose for something like this. Of course its impact on fictional positioning and the resulting feedback to success/failure, etc. should be obvious...
In my experience - both in play and in engaging with D&D game texts - it is very rare for issues of faith or conviction to be put into play. Gygax's DMG frames the religious fidelity of clerics in terms of adherence to norms (whether alignment norms or more specific religious norms) and commands/wishes of the deity; and their has been little change. The 4e PHB and DMG give us the precepts of deities, but don't anywhere investigate the notion of faith or conviction.

The contrast here with Burning Wheel is incredibly stark. And even with our Prince Valiant game. In our 4e game there were players who tried to make the resolution of their PCs a thing in the fiction, but it is quite hard (as a GM) to make this actually count because a cleric or paladin gets his/her Nth level limited-use power regardless of conviction. It did come into play from time-to-time, as a component of fictional positioning; but I suspect (based eg on how ENworld posters responded to my accounts of those episodes of play, and on the fact that I've never seen anyone else post about anything similar) that what was happening in our game was quite atypical.

Outside of the 4e context I don't really see how it would be done, because there isn't the same support for looseness of GM interpolation between these various components of fictional positioning and the general mechanical framework. (For instance: in my 4e game the paladin of the Raven Queen's unswerving conviction underpinned his use of a Religion check to determine the consequence - namely, combat advantage - of his speaking of a prayer against a wight with which he was in combat. This move from fictional positioning to mechanical process and outcome is possible because of the consistent action economy and player resource economy. No other version of D&D has these same features.)
Right, and this definitely made 4e a lot more 'story telling game like' than previous editions. It just generally makes a LOT of things easier. I again go on from here and add 'attributes' to PCs which allow them to leverage things. They can spend 'inspiration' to leverage an attribute to change the story. The canonical example is the forgetful thief. The PC decides to gain inspiration by 'forgetting the keys'. This then leads to a consequence (this is a failure in a challenge by definition since ALL conflicts are challenges in HoML) which in the example is a guard comes around while he's trying to figure what to do. Later he expends this same inspiration to leverage his 'never forgets a face' attribute to recognize that the NEXT guard is the brother of the previous one (which he disabled) and he tosses him the brother's monogrammed dagger, warning him that his brother might not be well if he doesn't let the thief go on his way.
Sure, the persuade vs intimidate approach is not never relevant. But far from always - eg the reaction rules in AD&D or B/X, including their incorporation of CHA modifiers, don't draw the distinction between approaches. And this also goes to the issue of player knowledge - the same approach to play which makes acquiring knowledge via mapping highly salient does not lend itself so well to establishing whether it is better to persuade or to terrorise, and what might result from one or the other approach.


Both Investigation (as you describe it here) and knowledge/academic skills are, in my view, an attempt to make a game of the sort you described in your earlier post (ie players acquire knowledge of the shared fiction and make action declarations on the basis of that) compatible with a shared fiction that has richness beyond that of the early dungeons and modules.

They are essentially mechanical devices that oblige the GM to share additional fiction with the players although the players have not put their PCs into a fictional position whereby the GM would share that fiction "organically".

I think this is why they are sources of controversy, because of this way they undercut the importance of fictional positioning.
Right, they undercut both fictional positioning, and the closely related "player reasoning" (IE letting the player solve the mystery). This can be gotten around by treating them as licenses to alter the fiction instead of 'skills' which produce results in a 'cause and effect' (consequentialist) way. Again, this is a technique explicitly developed in HoML.right
There's a lot going on here.

Consider two contrasting real-world scenarios:

(1) A group is using 5e D&D to resolve a murder mystery involving the Duchess and Baron as you describe. This requires interrogating suspects, searching areas (eg rooms in a castle or palace) that are almost infinitely more rich in their contents and context than the dungeon rooms found in Keep on the Borderlands, extrapolating from motives that are revealed only via GM narration, etc. In my view the solving of this mystery, using the 5e mechanics, is overwhelmingly dependent on GM decision-making. When does a suspect break under interrogation, or how long will s/he stonewall? How many red herring letters are there in the same folder as the one containing the revelation, and how salient are those red herrings to the players? How many people might have seen the suspect leaving the scene of the murder, and how might those people be tracked down, and how much did they notice, and how willing are they to share it?

All that is under the GM's control.

(2) A group is playing Apocalypse World, and the GM decides - in making a move as hard and direct as s/he likes - that one of the NPCs present in the situation has turned on (one or more of) the PCs, and so is no longer an ally and is now a traitor. There are various ways this might become known by a player - eg as a result of Reading a Charged Situation, or because of something the GM narrates when everyone looks at him/her to see what happens next.

I think the players in the AW game have more control over the content and direction of play than the players in the D&D game. This is because of the differences of system. My view is that, once the fiction moves beyond some of the canonical examples I mentioned - architecture, maps, etc - D&D generally doesn't have the systems to manage "wider scope" and more dynamic fiction (no Circles checks, nothing analogous to a BW wise check or an AW read a situation check, etc). 4e skill challenges come closer to this but even they have clear limits (eg at least canonically, there's no straightforward way for a check in a skill challenge pertaining to a PC here-and-now can generate a result of a consequence "over there" or "back then").
So, yeah, in 'classic' D&D (which I will lump AD&D, 3e, and 5e into for these purposes) there isn't really any way to deal with this stuff at all! In AD&D it is just not part of the rules in any way shape or fashion, or else the DM has to wade through the questions of how to (mis)apply some subsystem designed for dungeon crawling situations in a way that wasn't intended. 3e/5e at least have checks and a fairly general rule for applying them, but as you point out, no framework within which they apply, just each one is a sort of 'mini challenge' all its own.
Vanilla 4e incorporates mechanical context, and some structure on how it maps to fictional position in that an SC is, presumably a 'scene' or something analogous.
Again this is where in my own game I've simply gone forward from where 4e left off. You can generate a consequence (alter the fictional position) by say invoking an event that takes/took place off screen (I make a check to see if I remembered to bring extra water with me into the desert, yup I have a drink!). This widens the scope and increased the flexibility of the SC mechanism greatly (TBH it can be hard to recognize and comparison with stock DMG1 SCs is strictly at the level of the core mechanical concept, in 'process of play' terms they really are their own animal).
 

pemerton

Legend
Note how in DW this concept meshes with the 'Spout Lore' and 'Discern Realities' moves, which REQUIRE the GM to give the player knowledge! The associated check only determines HOW USEFUL that knowledge will be within the specific context of an existing problem.
they undercut both fictional positioning, and the closely related "player reasoning" (IE letting the player solve the mystery). This can be gotten around by treating them as licenses to alter the fiction instead of 'skills' which produce results in a 'cause and effect' (consequentialist) way. Again, this is a technique explicitly developed in HoML.right

<snip>

in my own game I've simply gone forward from where 4e left off. You can generate a consequence (alter the fictional position) by say invoking an event that takes/took place off screen (I make a check to see if I remembered to bring extra water with me into the desert, yup I have a drink!). This widens the scope and increased the flexibility of the SC mechanism greatly (TBH it can be hard to recognize and comparison with stock DMG1 SCs is strictly at the level of the core mechanical concept, in 'process of play' terms they really are their own animal).
I think there are two broad approaches that go beyond the limits of "classic" D&D - and both are canvassed in the posts above.

One is a player-side "move" or ability that obliges the GM to establish and share some fiction within parameters that are useful or meaningful for the player given the player's goals for his/her PC. Apocalypse World (eg Read a Charged Situation) and Dungeon World (Discern Realities, Spout Lore) provide canonical examples of this.

These moves don't ignore fictional positioning - both the context which enables their use, and the way the GM establishes responses, have to respect fictional positioning. But if the player makes the check then these moves have the effect of giving the players access, here and now, to highly salient and useful fiction that will enable him/her to drive things forward (via the play of his/her PC).

Having recently re-read some old CoC scenarios (looking for a good murder mystery to run for a kid's birthday party), I'm struck by how weak they are in this respect. All the information is presented with its meaningfulness being GM-sided, and then there are various clumsy devices hinted at to help secure salience to the players - eg the NPC draws the PCs attentions to it or the even worse hopefully the PCs will notice this! It's GM-driven all the way through.

The other approach is the one adopted in @AbdulAlhazred's 4e spin-off HML. It's also prominent in Burning Wheel, and Cortex+ Heroic: a successful check enables the player to directly establish some element of the shared fiction.

Again, this doesn't circumvent fictional positioning. It builds on it.
 

Campbell

Legend
Here's my personal take : Being a referee or neutral arbiter of the fiction requires very tight scenario design because as a referee the reason we defer to your rulings is that you have expert level knowledge. Once the scope of play expands beyond where you can practically have that expert level knowledge I think you have to take on a different agenda of some sort as a GM.

Regardless of the particulars of that agenda play becomes much more like a sparring match. Since a fair deal of the situation/scenario is going to come from moment to moment framing it behooves you to act like a sensei. Telegraph your punches, provide opportunities, do not cheat and do not go for cheap shots. Your job becomes providing honest yet fair adversity. Also not pulling punches too much when players provide openings.
 

The problem is, this elevates a theoretical concern over practical usage; people who care about simulationist concerns in any other context will find rules to support genre jarring unless they're reified (in which case almost anyone else will find them jarring, since it means that the genre conceits will be visible as such in-game).
And yet that is something that happens extensively in GDS-speak 'simulationist' games! I understand what you mean, but it is so ironic that the VERY PEOPLE who would say that bothers them think that 'class is a real thing' in classic D&D and PCs go wandering around the world calling themselves 'rangers' and 'clerics'! Nothing could be more reified than that (and they also usually insist that 'hit points are meat', another example of reification of the game rules WRT the fictional milieu).
 

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