D&D General On Skilled Play: D&D as a Game

To explain the answer: the basic function of a thematic coefficient is to make a subset of the 10 possible moves highly salient, while putting some other (often larger) subset off the table straight away without having to think through any details of how their use would affect the "technical"/"procedural" aspects of the situation. In other words, it narrows the field of choice and the field of acceptable outcomes, making it easier to consider the options and settle on one.

Yeah, 1e certainly makes playing a magic user hard. I mean, the cognitively difficult part at low level is probably more figuring out "How can I make my 3 marginally useful spells (because that's all I randomly got in my book) do some useful work? Should I take 'Affect Normal Fires' or 'Mending' because I'm definitely taking 'Shield' as my first spell! How do I make my only 2nd level spell, 'Fools Gold' useful? Of course there is huge variation, if the DM let you capture some fat spellbook from a bad guy, then it is more a question of 'when do I unleash web?' and that's not so hard... So maybe 5e's 3rd level Wizard is a bit more involved, he's got more options DURING PLAY, but it could be easier to decide what spells to memorize.

I don't see how these two statements can sit side by side and cozily cohere.

Whether a cognitive workspace and attendant move-space is winnowed because of thematic salience or tactical/strategic salience is irrelevant to whether or not the actual play becomes more or less difficult to deploy skillfully in the course of playing a game in which (a) obstacles/conflicts exists and (b) they are meant to be overcome.

If a character in a game with thematic/premise-based heft has their cognitive workspace and movespace winnowed and they are therefore "easier to play skillfully", I don't see how it can also be said that a low level Wizard with an incredibly small subset of effective spells + 2 actual choices for loadout (who has massively decreased workspace and movespace) is somehow "more difficult to play skillfully" by writ of that winnowing.

I'm not saying I agree with either of those takes...but I don't see how they cohere.
 

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To explain the answer: the basic function of a thematic coefficient is to make a subset of the 10 possible moves highly salient, while putting some other (often larger) subset off the table straight away without having to think through any details of how their use would affect the "technical"/"procedural" aspects of the situation. In other words, it narrows the field of choice and the field of acceptable outcomes, making it easier to consider the options and settle on one.

<snip>

Now I reckon there are other BW players, including my friend, who might approach this decision-space in a different fashion. And for them the thematic coefficient, by introducing another parameter of consequence for the decision, might make things harder. To relate this back to @Campbell's post and my reply to it earlier in this post, they are not "method acting": they are treating the game as a game even at this thematic level. I think that alternative approach produces less inhabitation of character: because an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath, and I'm very confident that most RPGers are not sociopaths, and I'm superconfident that my dear friend whom I've know for nearly 30 years is not a sociopath. He just really enjoys optimisation in game play, and is really good at it!

If I'm reading this correctly (willing to be corrected), I think I have a few thoughts/issues/concerns:

1) The alternative to the first paragraph is two-fold:

a) The "handicapped" perspective. I'm obliged to "stay on theme/premise", therefore my cognitive workspace and movespace is artificially (with respect to tactial/strategic relevance of moves made) rendered more difficult to effectively deploy. This is @AbdulAlhazred 's position on the low level AD&D Wizard (in contrast with a 5e counterpart) except that Wizard's move space is constrained by the system architecture of level and rationed capability (rather than thematic/premise coherence).

b) Simultaneous to that "handicap" that I'm working with, I'm also incentivized via carrot to engage with/express thematic material. Therefore, I'm looking to "work the fiction (which includes interaction with my own movespace)" in order to achieve said carrot (in the kinds of games I'm talking about that means xp rewards and advancements). If this "working of the fiction" includes intentionally harming my PC (eg failure = xp and/or complications = opportunities to deploy resources on other moves), now I have to work out the "how am I going to overcome the complications that are arresting my control of the trajectory of the gamestate" aspect of the equation. If this doesn't include a particular form of Skilled Play (a form that Gygaxian Skilled Play does not engage with), then I'm not sure what we would call it.

2) The following idea "an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath" is particularly controversial by my reckoning for a few reasons:

a) Every time you make a particularly type of "self-complicating" move in many Narrativist games (whether that be accepting/setting up a failure in BW/TB/DW or deploying a complicating Trait/Relationship/Thing in Dogs or accepting/denying a Devil's Bargain or "jumping on a thematic grenade" in Blades to earn xp), you're engaging (to whatever degree) with the cognitive workspace of optimization/advancement + thematic heft. Deciding to not accept a thematically awesome/appropriate Devil's Bargain in Blades because the complication is "a bit too rough at this present moment" is neither thematically degenerate nor is it a reflection of the player's neuro-endocrine system failing to respond to a stimuli.

b) My opinion is that habitation of PC is a varied experience. Maybe one moment you're sensing you're looking through the PC's eyes...maybe the next you're watching them from a vantage...perhaps you're even looking at them in this particular moment through your constructed conceptual lens of another character in the shared imagined space (as we do in real life)...maybe you're doing one or more at the same time...but (unless its Pawn Stance play), hopefully you're feeling some aspect of their cognitive and/or emotional space regardless of whether you're pivoting between perspectives or inhabiting multiple states simultaneously.

Humans in real life manipulate each other routinely (even people positioned to express "unconditional love" like parents to children). There are many reasons for this manipulation (some of it functional), but in a huge swath of that manipulation, it (i) engages with the emotional reservoir of one or both parties and (ii) it engages with optimizing/facilitating one trajectory or another (such as the trajectory of a child/ward/charge/partner's life)...which may or may not simultaneously coincide with the optimization/facilitation of one's own life.
 

The-Magic-Sword

Small Ball Archmage
I've actually been debating it myself, whether the expansion of goals on a thematic basis can itself serve as a constraint to produce a need for more skillful play, I think the reason it normally doesn't is because thematic coherence is normally interpreted as (and I apologize because this term isn't one I would use if not for the existing context of it) "Scrub Mentality"

I think that specifically, in a traditional context, games leave thematic coherence and character motivation almost entirely to the players discretion (save for alignment and other mechanics that have classically been interpreted by players as being in the way of character thematic as much as reinforcing them) which meant that dismissing it as a constraint would free one up to make more tactical decisions, which in turn creates the sense that its an entirely self-imposed limitation, like not using a legal maneuver in a fighting game. Its a restriction that doesn't exist in the ruleset, and stops you from making decisions that are legal moves in the ruleset toward your more 'gamist' goals (experience, treasure, defeated foes, eventual construction of your stronghold.)

In other words, because thematic coherence concerning maintenance of character thematics at odds with optimal decision making for the 'gamist' objectives is not an explicit 'agenda' of play for the players, it isn't skilled play until we sit down and come to a consensus that character thematic is a goal as important or more important as the original object it would be at odds with. To put it bluntly, its why you wouldn't question the in-universe morality of a plan that would lead to severe loss of life in a strategy game so long as you were confident that the plan would yield final victory. Its why competive pokemon players write posts like these to insulate the competitive integrity of their 'metagame' (not be confused with 'playing pokemon' as a whole) from the sentimentality a player might absorb from the story of the RPGs (which really, are ludonarratively dissonant and only works because of how undemanding the majority of the PvE content is.)

Notably this isn't an endorsement of that viewpoint, because obviously, if we sit down and say that we want thematic coherence to be a part of the skilled alchemy of the game, then it just is. At best you could argue about its desirability in a competitive environment by discussing its ramifications, and then use that to include or exclude it, much like this post does for pokemon.
 

Just FYI - I don't feel like this conversation is going anywhere (in part because too many threads are being pulled at) and I'm growing increasingly perplexed by the conversation (if I'm wrong, I'm so far away from seeing it that I don't even know how to parse what I'm reading in opposition to my view...this is a bad place to be).

So I'm going to give the rest of the conversation a miss. I'll read any subsequent responses to what I've written, but I'm losing steam/interest in this.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I liked your post, but also it leads me to a conundrum. @pemerton suggests that



If "skilled play" orients toward goals, and we set ourselves goals that skillful use of 5e can achieve, are we then doing "skilled play" perfectly well in 5e?
I think the answer is that we can be doing skilled play perfectly well in 5e. I think there are many kinds of skills when it comes to RPG's and skillful play. A non-exhaustive list includes:
  • Optimizing Ability/Resource usage
  • Using the environment and your character abilities to achieve far greater effects than the ability/action normally can
  • 'Gaming the DM'
*I left out Character Creation Optimization because that can be seen as a pre-game state.

I will say that what's normally meant in these discussions is that what skilled play looks like in 5e is different than what skilled play looks like in previous editions. That's something I fully agree with. I think the takeaway is that a system has a huge impact on what kinds of skills are needed to play that system skillfully. So the skills that make one good at 5e aren't quite the same skills that make someone good at 1e or 2e or whatever.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
A typical living world Sandbox in 5e is fairly player driven where the players pick their own goals.

So that part of Story Now play where a player picks their own goals makes some sense to me. I guess where it's not clear for me is how being skilled at those games helps one achieve their goals. An example there might be helpful of 1 situation and what skilled play resulting in success of the goal would look like and what unskilled play resulting in failure of the goal would look like.
 

darkbard

Legend
Currently, I am playing a Paladin in Dungeon World. I have two healing actions available to me, Lay on Hands (which keys off CHA (+2 bonus) and the 7-9 complication transfers the damage or disease to me) and Cure Light Wounds via Cleric MC Advanced Move (which keys off WIS (+ 1 bonus due to ongoing debility and the 7-9 complication is either (i) lose spell subsequently to this Casting, (ii) take -1 ongoing to Cast a Spell or (iii) draw unwelcome attention or put yourself in a spot). Both heal the same amount of damage.

I am at the ranch of my aspiring protege, whom I hope to recruit to my faith as a Jean d'Arc figure from prophecy. We prepare for an assault on the ranch by dishonest and powerful competitors. Meanwhile, her mother suffers from consumption and will die soon if not treated. I consider my two healing options. Cure Light Wounds carries less overt risk (I will suffer HP damage and another debility if I roll 7-9 and transfer the disease to me via Lay on Hands), right before a big fight. But taking that risk of greater personal harm might sway my potential padawan to believe in me and my cause. Instead I use Lay on Hands. I roll 10+ and the NPC eventually is recruited to my cause, thematically. Skilled Play?

In our most recent session, all three of us (my Paladin, my wife's Wizard, and my protege NPC) suffered significant damage in a BBEG type fight against an extra planar entity. Our next step was to take a downtime move, which would afford some healing (among other possible action choices), before proceeding through the planar portal to the Feywild in hope of recruiting the wicked eladrin once in service to the Prince of Frost as soldiers in our war against our nemesis, that very same Prince. During downtime, when nothing is narratively at stake, I use Cure Light Wounds as my healing move because nothing is narratively at stake and the risks to me are lesser in these circumstances. Skilled Play?
 

I don't see how these two statements can sit side by side and cozily cohere.

Whether a cognitive workspace and attendant move-space is winnowed because of thematic salience or tactical/strategic salience is irrelevant to whether or not the actual play becomes more or less difficult to deploy skillfully in the course of playing a game in which (a) obstacles/conflicts exists and (b) they are meant to be overcome.

If a character in a game with thematic/premise-based heft has their cognitive workspace and movespace winnowed and they are therefore "easier to play skillfully", I don't see how it can also be said that a low level Wizard with an incredibly small subset of effective spells + 2 actual choices for loadout (who has massively decreased workspace and movespace) is somehow "more difficult to play skillfully" by writ of that winnowing.

I'm not saying I agree with either of those takes...but I don't see how they cohere.
I didn't really dispute @pemerton's statement about thematic narrowing. In fact, I don't see them as different because, in every game that seems to want strong thematics, there is SOME SORT of mechanical way to enact it. That is true in DW, you get XP for exploring, taking risks, resolving bonds, and doing characteristic things in an RP sense, but all of those things have a corresponding mechanic that goes along with them (I guess 'explore a new area' is kind of subjective, but not much). Likewise the thematics of classic D&D are pretty well enforced by the rules, though in a more emergent and less transparent fashion.

So if, in DW, my fighter has a bond with the wizard and thus stepping in front of the charging orc and effectively invoking Defend Another is worth some XP, that's mechanics, and in classic D&D the enforcement of the spell book and rules for spell availability is also mechanics. They both 'winnow options' (though I admit, the DW character COULD fail to validate his bonds, so maybe the restraint is 'weaker' there, but I would say unless the character has some strong reason to act that way you'd be 'playing poorly' or 'unfaithfully' by doing so).
 

A typical living world Sandbox in 5e is fairly player driven where the players pick their own goals.

So that part of Story Now play where a player picks their own goals makes some sense to me. I guess where it's not clear for me is how being skilled at those games helps one achieve their goals. An example there might be helpful of 1 situation and what skilled play resulting in success of the goal would look like and what unskilled play resulting in failure of the goal would look like.
Imagine you are playing The Cleric in a DW game, and you have a bond with another PC that says you will 'show them what kindness means', and then a situation comes up. You can execute that bond, which is worth 1 XP, or you can turn them over to the town constabulary to face trial for their crimes. The later will make your life a lot easier and further your goal to become the town's high priest, and the former, involving getting the other PC out of town ahead of the law, will get you on the wanted list (this is an actual DW mechanic which kicks in whenever you do 'town moves'). It is pretty clear you cannot achieve all your goals and each one is mechanically rewarded and has thematic resonance. Now, this is basically just a dilemma, skill might amount to taking the best course narratively, with the understanding that later mechanical consequences or rewards will follow (IE you get busted the next time you carouse in this town).

@Manbearcat gave an example of DW play where mechanical skill was evinced too. Something like picking a smart time to use Discern Realities so you can get 'hold' which can give you a mechanical bonus on a later check is very definitely skill. The time and place you use it may well relate to thematics, which ties to more mechanics (IE I use it to save the wizard, which gives me XP and tells me something about my character).
 

pemerton

Legend
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC by any means available' then skilled play entails using any means necessary.
If the goal is 'overcome this NPC without lying' then skilled play entails that lying should be avoided.

This is how RP choices can constrain play while still allowing for skilled play - by shifting the 'goals of play' such that the new goal becomes 'overcome the obstacle while maintaining Roleplay Constraints'.
The idea of overcoming the obstacle while maintaining roleplay constraints seems to me to live within the second of the two perspectives @Campbell identified above. It's not inhabiting the character and asking what do I do now? It's analsying the problem-space and asking what should this character do to solve this problem within these constraints.

As I posted, most of the play of The Green Knight that I GMed yesterday occurred in this second space (the constraints being the game's economy of Honour and Dishonour) but at a few key moments the perspective changed.

I don't see how these two statements can sit side by side and cozily cohere.

Whether a cognitive workspace and attendant move-space is winnowed because of thematic salience or tactical/strategic salience is irrelevant to whether or not the actual play becomes more or less difficult to deploy skillfully in the course of playing a game in which (a) obstacles/conflicts exists and (b) they are meant to be overcome.

If a character in a game with thematic/premise-based heft has their cognitive workspace and movespace winnowed and they are therefore "easier to play skillfully", I don't see how it can also be said that a low level Wizard with an incredibly small subset of effective spells + 2 actual choices for loadout (who has massively decreased workspace and movespace) is somehow "more difficult to play skillfully" by writ of that winnowing.

I'm not saying I agree with either of those takes...but I don't see how they cohere.
@AbdulAlhazred is talking about (i) choosing loadout and then (ii) deploying loadout, where both operate under fairly strict constraints.

If, like all good B/X and AD&D players, I've basically memorised the spell list, then a putative character who can use any spell at any moment is much easier to play: all I do is run through my catalogue of powers and deploy the one that will work here! (In combat, probably Sleep or Web but occasionally Charm or Magic Missile; out of combat there's more variety but again it's really just reviewing the constraints.)

But the realities are different, and both when I choose and when I deploy I have to consider what I know I need, what I conjecture I might need, what the future still holds, what other non-spell resources are available and what their limitations are compared to spells, etc.

The constraints generate the problem, but they don't resolve it except in the obvious sense of limiting the elements available that constitute a solution.

Whereas the role of theme/emotion in facilitating choice is quite different: it narrows the range of salient choices without any calculation being necessary. If I'm pledged to protect Frodo, come what may, then the fact that there are 10 or 100 moves available is no cognitive burden at all if all but 2 of them mean casting Frodo to the winds!

1) The alternative to the first paragraph is two-fold:

a) The "handicapped" perspective. I'm obliged to "stay on theme/premise", therefore my cognitive workspace and movespace is artificially (with respect to tactial/strategic relevance of moves made) rendered more difficult to effectively deploy. This is @AbdulAlhazred 's position on the low level AD&D Wizard (in contrast with a 5e counterpart) except that Wizard's move space is constrained by the system architecture of level and rationed capability (rather than thematic/premise coherence).

b) Simultaneous to that "handicap" that I'm working with, I'm also incentivized via carrot to engage with/express thematic material. Therefore, I'm looking to "work the fiction (which includes interaction with my own movespace)" in order to achieve said carrot (in the kinds of games I'm talking about that means xp rewards and advancements). If this "working of the fiction" includes intentionally harming my PC (eg failure = xp and/or complications = opportunities to deploy resources on other moves), now I have to work out the "how am I going to overcome the complications that are arresting my control of the trajectory of the gamestate" aspect of the equation. If this doesn't include a particular form of Skilled Play (a form that Gygaxian Skilled Play does not engage with), then I'm not sure what we would call it.
What you describe here seems to me to resemble the way that my friend tends to approach Burning Wheel. To me it seems to live in @Campbell's second perspective - what should my PC do in order to overcome this problem while earning XP for thematic play.

I think there are some RPGs which must be played in this way for the players not to lose. Classic D&D would be an example. When you introduce alignment with teeth into classic D&D, it introduces a thematic incentive (though mostly of avoiding punishment rather than gaining rewards, in the way that @AbdulAlhazred mentioned upthread). Now that becomes a further part of the optimisation space. If you play in Campbell's first perspective - what should I as my character do? - you'll end up hosed. Eg the first time you stand up for your friends against the bullying ogre you'll be crushed by its d10 damage club.

I think there are other RPGs which do not need to be played in this way for the players not to lose. I regard Burning Wheel as one example, and Prince Valiant as another (it's thematic incentives are to extent in relation to character improvement, and probably just as much in relation to bonus dice for action resolution). These games can be played in Campbell's first perspective without the player just setting him-/herself up to lose. The contrast with 2nd ed AD&D is that it invites players to play in that perspective, uses the same action resolution processes as classic D&D, and then tells the GM to sort it all out via fudging of dice and manipulation of fiction; whereas Burning Wheel and Prince Valiant use principles around framing, and consequence narration, and allowing players to push hard for what they care about and thereby earn augments, etc to ensure that the action resolution process won't crush those who adopt first-perspective play.

The following idea "an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath" is particularly controversial by my reckoning for a few reasons
Wikipedia gives me this sub-entry on sociopathy an account of sociopathy in its entry on psychopathy; I've bolded what I had in mind in my post:

Psychopathy, sometimes considered synonymous with sociopathy, is traditionally a personality disorder characterized by persistent antisocial behavior, impaired empathy and remorse, and bold, disinhibited, and egotistical traits. . . .

The term sociopathy may have been first introduced in 1909 in Germany by biological psychiatrist Karl Birnbaum and in 1930 in the US by educational psychologist George E. Partridge, as an alternative to the concept of psychopathy. It was used to indicate that the defining feature is violation of social norms, or antisocial behavior, and may be social or biological in origin.

The term is used in various different ways in contemporary usage. Robert Hare stated in the popular science book Snakes in Suits that sociopathy and psychopathy are often used interchangeably.​

This is what I had in mind when I suggested that "an actual human being who treats emotional parameters as further points of optimisation, rather than as markers of salience that narrow the decision-space, is probably a sociopath." It is what underpins standard criticisms of act utilitarianism as demanding that people be monsters, because instead of acting on (say) their love for their family it requires them to consider their love for their family as merely one source of utility in a a complex network of sources of utility that are to be optimised through every human action.

Humans in real life manipulate each other routinely (even people positioned to express "unconditional love" like parents to children).
Undoubtedly. But generally this involves treating others' emotions as parameters for optimisation, not one's own. Not always: training to overcome fear and build up physical courage, for instance, involves treating one's own emotion of fear as a mere parameter rather than inhabiting it. I think that taking the same approach to one's emotions of love and friendship and joy - eg so as to become a more ruthless decision-maker - might seem a little cold at beset, and I think it is the fact (as Weber wrote about 100 years ago) that this is the practical result that many modern institutions are set up to achieve that leads to the contemporary genre of economic and political criticism of corporations (and maybe some other bureaucracies too) as psychopaths.

Every time you make a particularly type of "self-complicating" move in many Narrativist games (whether that be accepting/setting up a failure in BW/TB/DW or deploying a complicating Trait/Relationship/Thing in Dogs or accepting/denying a Devil's Bargain or "jumping on a thematic grenade" in Blades to earn xp), you're engaging (to whatever degree) with the cognitive workspace of optimization/advancement + thematic heft. Deciding to not accept a thematically awesome/appropriate Devil's Bargain in Blades because the complication is "a bit too rough at this present moment" is neither thematically degenerate nor is it a reflection of the player's neuro-endocrine system failing to respond to a stimuli.
Sure. This seems unconnected to my remarks about the actual emotional life of humans, though. The player who is doing this is fully engaged in the game, and playing with his/her friends, and in fact is not treating those things as parameters in an optimisation process but is playing for the fun and joy of it.

But I would add that in Burning Wheel there is no "setting up" of failure. Or at least there need not be. On the first point: when I declare an action, I may anticipate failure, or may not. But all I do is decide what my PC is doing and how hard s/he is trying (the latter is measured in artha expenditure). I as a player know that I may fail; I may even know that failure is likely, just like Sam knew that failure was likely as he helped Frodo trudge through Mordor. But I am not "setting up" failure: I am playing my character, not curating the story.

Now on the second ("need not be") point: there are certain occasions in BW play where is is particular opportunity to manipulate one's dice pools so as to optimise the chance for PC improvement. I am not good at that and pay it very little attention in play; as a result my PC doesn't advance much. My optimiser friend is first-rate at this, and does it a lot, and hence his PC advances at a rocket-like pace. Even then he is not "setting up" failure; but I think sometimes he is alienated from his character or at least very much adopting Author stance as characterised by Edwards - he makes a decision about what is the best move to make based on optimisation considerations, and then he retrofits a motivation for his PC's behaviour.

There are features of the game that tend to ensure my approach is also rewarded - eg I think I'm more of an artha-generating-battery than my friend is - but part of what I love about the game is I don't need to set out with artha-accrual as my goal to accrue it. (This is quite different from, say, how you accrue GP and hence XP in classic D&D, where that has to be forefront in your mind at all times if you're to succeed at it.) I certainly wouldn't say I'm exercising any gameplaying skill in earning my artha! I'm just inhabiting my character, and the game engine is doing the rest.

My opinion is that habitation of PC is a varied experience. Maybe one moment you're sensing you're looking through the PC's eyes...maybe the next you're watching them from a vantage...perhaps you're even looking at them in this particular moment through your constructed conceptual lens of another character in the shared imagined space (as we do in real life)...maybe you're doing one or more at the same time...but (unless its Pawn Stance play), hopefully you're feeling some aspect of their cognitive and/or emotional space regardless of whether you're pivoting between perspectives or inhabiting multiple states simultaneously.
I think this is all true. I often operate in words rather than images, but when I think of me as my PC it's probably more often film or comic-panel like than "through my eyes"-like.

But the inhabitation I'm interested in, which for me is the pleasure in RPGing, isn't so much that sensory aspect as the motivational and emotional aspect. When my PC is not making decisions based on optimisation, nor do I want to. Different RPGs support this to different degrees; the ones that do are the ones I don't think of as "skilled play" RPGs.
 

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