D&D General Railroads, Illusionism, and Participationism

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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
This is also one of those cases where "Immersion" serves to confuse rather than inform the statement; I'm perfectly capable of being only-IC without being immersed. The latter is a much deeper experience than simply making all decisions from in character POV.

I mostly mean bleed or emotional immersion in the situation and characters. Coming at those decisions from a place of empathy for the characters they are portraying. Being present in the moment. Pretty much what I would expect from another actor I was working a scene with when I did amateur theater. It's also pretty much the only sort of immersion I personally give two figs about on either side of the screen.

It's about being present in the moment, feeling the tension, and playing with curiosity. Not engaging in all the myriad ways to create emotional distance from the situation or the characters. This scene from Fight Club gets at what I'm looking for.

 

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It amazes me how many problems people imagine for various games - and here we may also include 5e D&D - that are easily fixed with people talking things out as adults.

I have to suggest that's because people are very experienced with the fact that a large number of people are really poor at doing that at least some of the time.
 

I mostly mean bleed or emotional immersion in the situation and characters. Coming at those decisions from a place of empathy for the characters they are portraying. Being present in the moment. Pretty much what I would expect from another actor I was working a scene with when I did amateur theater. It's also pretty much the only sort of immersion I personally give two figs about on either side of the screen.

With no offense, I suspect the vast majority of people playing, even those who are religious about staying in-character in their decisions, are rarely if ever playing that deep in.
 

pemerton

Legend
With no offense, I suspect the vast majority of people playing, even those who are religious about staying in-character in their decisions, are rarely if ever playing that deep in.
While I suspect that @Campbell is more ambitious than I am in the degree of intensity he is aspiring to, I can fully understand where he is coming from.

I recall a long time ago when I was playing in a convention freeform game. My PC was the mother of the key NPC around whom all the action had turned, and it was my PC's ex-husband who had kidnapped our son and taken him to Hell. At that time I had a good friend whose father had left their family a few years ago, and whose mother - whom I knew well - would have been about the same age as my PC. I drew on that relationship to help me understand how my PC might be feeling and respond. I remember crying at a certain point in play, as a result of having created a particular feeling within myself that I intended to be my PC's response to what was happening.

I don't know exactly how close what I've described is to @Campbell's approach and aspirations - I have only a tiny bit of acting experience and was bad at it. But it's one way of illustrating what I am looking for in inhabitation of my character. As I'm a lot older now than I was then, and have had many more experiences in my life, I think I'm better at imaginative projection without having to look to a particular real person I know as a "model" or "pathway" into my PC.

EDIT: That said, my idea of Aramina is based, in part, on a person I once knew.
 
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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
For what it's worth I don't view my aspirations as all that lofty. I know where I'm strong and where I'm weak. My games are never polished or well plotted. I put my energy into that raw emotive stuff. My aim is more like F/X drama (especially Sons of Anarchy), the better Underworld movies or early seasons of Smallville. Emotive, raw, unpolished. That's how I like my music, film, television and role playing. More about the individual scenes and relationships then where things are going in the plot. Whatever plot or situation is going on is more of an excuse to explore relationships and character stuff.

Some GMs are amazing at world building. Some at crafting stories they present to their players. I am better at living in those tense moments and portraying characters in them. I don't think any particular aim is more worthwhile. I just know where I'm strongest and play to my strengths.

I know us theater geeks are a bit more rare in this hobby than fantasy novel fans, but I assure we do exist in large enough numbers to find each other. Especially in the LARP, White Wolf and indie scenes.
 

Also, if the setting is a real world one, or an imaginary prepared one, or some intersection, then authority can easily by shared.

When me and my friends played a session of Wuthering Heights, one of the PCs worked in a socialist bookshop. I decided that, in late 19th century London, that would be in Soho. Then when - due to a series of misadventures - that PC and an NPC had to carry the body of the other PC, now dead to dump it in the Thames, I just Googled up a map of London, screen-shared via Zoom, to confirm that my recollection that it wasn't very far was an accurate one.

In our Prince Valiant game, we track location within Britain on the map printed on the inside cover of Pendragon, and we track location in Europe and West Asia based on maps I photocopied from a Penguin historical atlas of the middle ages. This is all public knowledge, not GM-authority-over-backstory stuff.

In our MHRP game, when action took place in Washington, DC - a place I've never been to but some of our group members have - we again used our shared knowledge to narraet things like Nightcrawler teleporting to the top of the Capitol Dome, War Machine hanging a supervillain from the top of the Washington Monument, Ice Man freezing the lake/pond/moat at the base of the monument, hijinks involving Stark-tech orbital reentry vehicle on display at the Smithsonian, etc.

In one of our BW games that I was GMing, the PCs ended up in the Bright Desert, being abandoned there by an Elven searfarer who had rescued them from a shipwreck, but with whom they had subsequently quarelled. No map-and-key resolution was used to determine that this was where they were set ashore: we knew in general terms that the PCs had been shipwrecked off the Wild Coast, and given (i) that it was possible that they should be sailing in the vicinity of the Bright Desert coast, and (ii) that that was where I wanted the action to go (as GM) and (iii) that at least one of the players wanted the action to go there too (the player of the sorcerer with the cursed angel feather) and (iv) that another player, as his PC, was happy to be some distance away from and hence not returning to the Elven Kingdom of Celene, then (v) I just used my GM scene-framing power to stipulate that that's where the PCs ended up! But there was no secret GM backstory about this - everyone can see the map, see the general area the PCs are sailing in, and understand the basis on which I made the stipulation that I did. (While the GM may never speak the name of their move, the players don't lose their ability to identify the what and why of it!)

Later on, the sorcerer PC wanted some allies to help him deal with some Orcs. The player, who had been doing some Googling about Greyhawk in his spare time, declared "Everyone knows that Suel tribesmen are thick as thieves in the Bright Desert!" and declared his Circles check. There is no basis here for me to contest his conception of the fiction - my job is just to adjudicate the check. Given that the character has the Outcast setting as one of his Lifepaths, and furthermore we know that that involved spending time in the Abor-Alz just north of the Bright Desert, the check was clearly a permissible one. So I set the appropriate difficulty and he rolled the dice. As it turned out he failed, and so the the leader of the tribesmen who he met turned out to be an old nemesis, rather than a prospective ally. And things went on from there.

I'm setting out these examples to show how I think that shared authority over backstory/setting is perfectly workable.

I agree with all this, both as a description of @EzekielRaiden's play and as an account of an approach to setting in a "no/low myth" context. As you can see from the first half of this post, I think the same basic points can apply to a pre-established setting too.
Right, if we set a 'Trail of Cthulhu' game in Victorian London it would certainly bind the players AND the GM in many respects, as you describe, to stick to details that match reality as known in that setting. I don't think this alters the equation of how things are authored, in and of itself. It may be that some systems are more appropriate to this kind of play than others. You could, and I'm sure its been done, devise a PbtA game along those lines. It just wouldn't have as part of its process creating the setting from whole cloth like DW does.
 


This actually sounds more like conch-passing than PbtA. I get where you're going, but in PbtA these things should have dramatic weight and be tested with the system rather than just built out like this. Unless this is really background stuff just being built out to frame a scene that goes to the dramatic need?
I was more thinking of a game being set up and starting at that point, so maybe there's a desire to kind of flesh things out a bit and let the players have some 'rope'. Yes, moves would be likely to exist in a game of 'PbtA Detectives', though they might have a bit more specific parameters than those in say DW. Partly it might depend on the exact sub-genre. If the PC is basically Sherlock Holmes, for example, then its a foregone conclusion they observe everything, and almost always reach the correct conclusions (though now and then Holmes does out think himself).
It works because it's been around for 40+ years. It appears to be growing at a nice clip. And people are getting handsome compensation for doing things just like this (looking at you Critical Role).
I think there's a lot of pretending it works, and it does SORT OF work, but not very well, and there are failures in practically every session of most games. Longer term GMs just convince themselves that this is the best way, or else go to the dark side ;)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
With no offense, I suspect the vast majority of people playing, even those who are religious about staying in-character in their decisions, are rarely if ever playing that deep in.
Yeah, I'll get behind this.

There's the ideal, and then there's the reality. Any resemblance between these two things is often all too temporary. :)
 

I'm pretty sure I understand what you're saying here, and agree.

But it appears that some confusion is caused by the role of fronts as a GM tool: as I understand it, fronts are roughly GM imagination in advance used as a basis for making moves. This seems to get mushed together with prepared backstory as a basis for "binding" framing and resolution.
Right. As @Ovinomancer said, the front and its dangers are not instantiated until they enter play. There's no pregenerated backstory here, just stored up improvisation, basically. The GM invents a front, and describes to himself some dooms and dangers associated with it which he considers likely to become relevant in play. Realistically they probably WILL see use, in most cases, assuming a fairly competent GM. OTOH their exact details, timing of their appearance, etc. will all be situational.
 

But the same would be true, wouldn't it? Why would any particular participant have authority as an interpreter/applier of the setting?
I think he's kind of fishing for a "when things go wrong the GM puts his foot down" kind of statement. I hate to say it @Crimson Longinus but in Dungeon World at least if there is some sort of issue (it would be more likely a genre inappropriateness question than about canon, but a player could break existing established story too) then the table works it out. There's literally no element of process that includes "say no" in Dungeon World (I'm not sure about other PbtAs, guessing it is the same). In fact, players can object to things that the GM says or does, and it should be decided by the table what the answer is. Dungeon World TRULY IS collaborative.
 

Right. So the GM informed you how they expected the setting to work (and this was relevant to the action declarations) and you agreed to do it in accordance to their view. This is basically what I suggested.
But it is important to understand, the GM is not gifted with some authority to require the outcome to be "do it my way." My guess is @Ovinomancer yielded based on an assessment that the GM had envisaged a climeable wall, and that the description was just somewhat inappropriate. He accepted the GM's description and used suspension of disbelief to resolve the question, but it could as easily have been resolved by an edit of the description, or the participants could have decided "yup, its unclimeable, we'll have to go around" or whatever. As with DW, its a shared fiction. Note that in this paradigm any failure of the participants to reach consensus is effectively an example of disfunctional play.

In real games, where the GM has a reasonable amount of trust built up, the players generally give them their rope, at least IME. However, see @Manbearcat for examples of more nuanced GM-player interactions.
 

Ok. Question: It becomes relevant to know how the laws governing inheritance of noble titles work in a country the characters happen to be in. How is this information provided? Does it matter if this is a historical game set in the real world? A game set in a published world that has plenty of source material? In a world created by the GM?

Does it matter why the question becomes pertinent? What if player declares an action that relies on assumption of the situation that might not be shared by others at the table? Does it matter if there in theory would exist a 'correct' answer to the question? (I.e. the information is available on wikipedia/setting book/setting creator's head etc.)
There is no generalized hypothetical answer to this. Every specific game is a different situation. In a Zero Myth game of some sort this won't come up, obviously. In those sorts of games some process happens which generates the answer when it is relevant. In DW the GM might be able to take a crack at it (IE introduce some fact as a GM move, possibly pulled from a front). In a game set in the real world, the system will have to specify what the practice will be when participants have a factual disagreement. Practicality dictates that whatever that is, it respects all the game's participants (or it could very strongly create buy in somehow ahead of time).

When players and GM's, or players and other players, don't agree on the facts or on "what should transpire" there simply has to be some sort of negotiation. Even in D&D this happens, as the players can always leave in disgust, right?
 

Can it? That's really the pertinent question. Because some people seem to imply that it very much can't. This tangent was inspired by @EzekielRaiden as GM telling the players what colour of clothes were customary in funerals in a certain country, and some posters taking exception to them doing that. (Or at least that is my recollection of the discussion.)
Dungeon World is a VERY specific game. In that specific game GMs have basically 3 avenues through which they can introduce fiction:

A) through a response to a player move that specifically asks for it (SL and DR primarily). In this case the topic of the fiction is specified by the player and the game puts hard constraints on what the outcome can be (on top of what is provided by the agenda/principles/techniques of play).
B) the GM can reveal things through moves which are essentially granted to them by the players either rolling poorly on their moves, or if they describe a move which opens them up to a GM response (which most moves will).
C) Via their authority to frame scenes, the GM might establish certain facts. I'd note that most scene establishment also falls under the rubrik of 'making a move' anyway, but here we're talking about things like 'color' or exactly to where a situation evolves before the players are next faced with a chance to make moves.

ALL of the above are HIGHLY constrained by the principles and agenda of DW. Seriously, these are very strict and substantive constraints. The things the GM does are:
1) Describe the situation - this means always describing the immediate situation of the PCs.
2) Follow the Rules - you have to do things the way the book says, or else you're not really playing DW.
3) Make Moves - everything the GM does is a move!
4) Exploit your Prep - this doesn't mean prep is canon, it means you have something in your back pocket, and you should use it effectively!

Those are the things the GM DOES in the game, then we ask WHY?

1) Portray a fantastic world - this is a point of the game, to make up a fantastical world, this is a fundamental premise of DW. Every move needs to support this.
2) Fill the character's lives with adventure - The PCs are not average joe, they are adventurers, and stuff happens to them. Every move needs to support this.
3) Play to find out what happens - The game proceeds naturally and isn't 'controlled' by the GM! He's learning what the story is just like the others. A move will define part of the story, but the moves CANNOT be so engineered as to force things only in a certain direction! There are no preferred outcomes.

Finally there is the HOW? which is techniques/principles: (I won't list all of them, you can look it up)

The principles lay out how to make the game work, and they are BINDING on the GM. They include things like "Make a move which follows", meaning the move MUST take what the players have done in the current situation (or in the past, etc.) and build upon that. You CANNOT bring in a move out of left field that doesn't honor the direction the narrative has been going in (but other principles DO let you introduce twists and turns).

"Be a fan of the characters" means your job as GM is GIVE THEM A STAGE. You are not there to stomp down on them. The sort of logic I see in many D&D games of "well, I have to crush that dream, after all, who gets to be king? It would be a giveaway to let a PC do that!" is ANATHEMA to DW. The PCs don't have to ACCOMPLISH every single thing they set out to, that would be boring and would violate "play to find out what happens" but they absolutely have a right to the chance, fairly presented, to become big damn heroes, or whatever the players want them to become. They may fail, their flaws may bring them down, etc. but the GM will always have compassion for them and care for them.

"Ask questions, use the answers" is not an option, it isn't a piece of advice, its a REQUIREMENT OF THE GAME. When a scene is framed, the GM then asks "What do you do now?" When a question arises about the world, the GM asks the players what their characters know about it. You ARE allows to prep, obviously, and "Think offscreen too" is another principle that can come into play here (IE you have considered the consequences of something, and you produce some backstory based on that when you get to make a move).

The other principles are important too, but mostly more stylistic in nature, except "Think Dangerous". The GM IS NOT ALLOWED to just frame scene after scene of middling hazards or ordinary situations. DW is a dangerous world, the PCs WILL BE in danger scene after scene. Any respite is simply a catching of the breath before the next danger, etc.

So, as you can see, when the GM does stuff in DW, they are highly constrained, it has to honor the existing story, has to respect the characters, put them in danger, be fantastical in nature, and exploit the GM's prep to the greatest reasonable extent, and the players have to be asked for their input. More specifics build on that, like scene 0, and the front generation process. Now you can see why @EzekielRaiden has a game that might be a bit of an oddball, like it pushes the envisaged mechanisms of play and maybe doesn't focus much on some of these items, like "Think Dangerous" in as immediate a way as the game's designers may have imagined, and there may be questions about "Make a move that follows" or "Be a fan of the characters" in some sense too. I'm not really being critical of that game, but it sounds like it shades in the direction of more classical D&D games in terms of pacing and such.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
I think he's kind of fishing for a "when things go wrong the GM puts his foot down" kind of statement. I hate to say it @Crimson Longinus but in Dungeon World at least if there is some sort of issue (it would be more likely a genre inappropriateness question than about canon, but a player could break existing established story too) then the table works it out.
If it can.
There's literally no element of process that includes "say no" in Dungeon World (I'm not sure about other PbtAs, guessing it is the same). In fact, players can object to things that the GM says or does, and it should be decided by the table what the answer is. Dungeon World TRULY IS collaborative.
The problem is when people can't or won't come to a consensus or agreement (a very, very common occurrence even among people who don't consider themsleves stubborn, never mind those who do; and not just at gaming tables) someone has to have the authority to put a foot down and say "This is how it's gonna be". And the person in a TTRPG best suited to be that someone, 99 times out of 100 at least, is the GM.

Otherwise - and I've seen this all too often IRL - the people who are most skilled at being passive-aggressive are inevitably the ones who end up getting their way. It just takes longer and, after the fact, leads to underlying resentments.
 

pemerton

Legend
"Be a fan of the characters" means your job as GM is GIVE THEM A STAGE. You are not there to stomp down on them. The sort of logic I see in many D&D games of "well, I have to crush that dream, after all, who gets to be king? It would be a giveaway to let a PC do that!" is ANATHEMA to DW. The PCs don't have to ACCOMPLISH every single thing they set out to, that would be boring and would violate "play to find out what happens" but they absolutely have a right to the chance, fairly presented, to become big damn heroes, or whatever the players want them to become.
I liked your whole post, but this in particular struck me.

It reminded me of the discussion, years ago, of the chamberlain blocking the PCs' access to the king. Much of the discussion in that 8 year old thread seems to echo this one, even down to some of the participants (eg me, @Manbearcat, @Cadence).

There are some posts on this page - north and south of post 470 - where I respond to some posters who assert that nothing can change in the shared fiction unless the GM makes or authorises that change. I think that continues to be a widespread view on these boards, and probably among RPGers more broadly. It marks an obvious contrast with a RPG like DW!

I also found these posts on page 25, which still seem to resonate to me (replace "3E/PF" with "5e"):
The continuing strong market preference for 3E/PF shows us something important, I think, about general tastes in the current RPing market:

(1) stat + skill as the essence of PC build retains a high degree of popularity, it seems at least in part because of its apparent mapping to both the nature and the nurture aspects of a given character's genesis;​
(2) "customisation" of characters is as important as an element of colour as it is in relation to action resolution; perhaps even moreso;​
(3) hit point combat resolution retains a high degree of popularity over death spiral combat, but with rocket tag magic seen as a type of permissible override provided its on some sort of leash;​
(4) GM force retains a high degree of popularity over metagame mechanics and overt social contract around genre, scene-framing etc, as a way of making the game hum along.​

(1) and (2) also seem connected to "immersion" as a goal of play, which retains importance. (4) also seems related to this, and among other things also seems to act as a brake on the potentially anti-immersive consequences of (3).

At least, that's my take. The Forge idea, that we could make (4) redundant by inventing new systems that would hum along on their own if only everyone did what the system asked them to do, seems to have failed.
I think The Forge assumed that a lot of player hesitance about doing this sort of thing was due to having had it beaten out of them by Storyteller System and 2nd ed AD&D GMs. But I doubt that that's true.

The casual player thing may be part of it - I don't play with "casual" players these days, in the sense that the newest player in my group was introduced by me to RPGs 15 years ago, and so I'm not in a good position to judge. From the start this player took it for granted that the players will play a key role in driving the action and building the fiction. But also what I think is distinctive about my group, compared to "casual" players I used to play with back in the mid-90s, is a strong sense of connection between the mechanics in play and the colour and "vibe" of the resulting fiction.

Some of that feel you get by doing - and half my D&D group came out of my earlier Rolemaster group, and RM (despite all its flaws) is a good system for establishing that mechanics/colour connection. And I think The Forge may have felt that this would be the "cure" for "casual" play - once people played systems where the mechanics in play generated colour in a visceral way, they would be hooked on that way of RPing.

But I'm now thinking that that tendency to link mechanics-in-play with colour is a minority thing, and that I'm quite fortunate to have found a group of like-minded players. I think a lot of players prefer what I would tend to think of as "mere colour" - eg nice flavour text in a spell or class feature description - because they then rely on GM force and other non-mechanical techniques to bring that colour to life in play, and that is actually more visceral (or, at least, more immersive) for them than seeing it play out through the roll of a die or the declaration of some sort of change of mechanical state in the course of combat resolution.

This may not just be about "casual" vs "invested" players, but also basic differences in aesthetic sensibility.
 

If one of the important things in your game is fidelity to fiddly bits of setting detail, including looking up 9th century English title law, then it's perhaps best that you select a system that engages here rather than one that does not. I would say that if the setting is as important a character as your question makes it out to be, a game that focuses on the dramatic needs of characters foremost would be a poor fit. To use one of my go to statements, it looks like you want to play Risk so don't set up a Monopoly game.
Right, I mean, in any sort of game that I would GM the DETAILS of Salic Law would be largely irrelevant. That is, someone might assert that the upshot of said law is that so-and-so can inherit. Is the PC a lawyer with the requisite training? OK! Then he can at least make a shot at convincing some authority (judge, whatever they were in the 9th Century) that his interpretation is the right one. Does the player have to back it up with a real law book? Why would that ever happen? Unless you happen to have a PhD who happened to write a book on Salic Law at your table nobody is going to know squat about it, and any number of peripheral facts can be constructed to make pretty much ANY outcome 'true'. This is what I've been saying about RPGs for AGES on these threads, there's NO REALITY back there! Someone can invent a blind cousin or whatever it takes to get things to come out the way the dice, the GM, the player, whomever it is the game wants to give that authority to, as they wish. There's no practical conflict with actual Salic Law (or whatever). These sorts of questions DO NOT ARISE in well-played games at sensible tables!
 

Since I began playing in 1983, the vast majority of DMs have been some degree of the synthesis of the two methods. I have encountered very few of the "Story Before as pictionary" that you describe, and those have been railroad DMs.

I think that most traditional play, at least after the game evolved past being primarily dungeon exploration(basic D&D), has been that blend of the two methods.

That's where I think the disconnect comes in and most of the disagreement with the portrayal of the traditional DM comes in. You guys are describing it in the context of a railroad(Story Before as Pictionary) and we're like, "But wait. That's not how it plays out." :)
OK, but I am sure I could dig back into MANY threads on these forums where there was STRONG pushback against any situation allowing for a player to establish something, or establishing a RIGHT of players to establish things. So where is the 'mix' there? I mean, there COULD be a mix, if the system we were talking about was one that included some kind of influence or process by which the players were guiding the focus of the game, beyond "my character does X."
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
OK, but I am sure I could dig back into MANY threads on these forums where there was STRONG pushback against any situation allowing for a player to establish something, or establishing a RIGHT of players to establish things. So where is the 'mix' there? I mean, there COULD be a mix, if the system we were talking about was one that included some kind of influence or process by which the players were guiding the focus of the game, beyond "my character does X."
It depends on what kind of "my character does X" we are talking about. If the player is entirely reactive, then the DM is doing most of the generation of content. He says there's a room and the player says, "My character searches for secret doors." Then the DM says something else and the player responds. Then there's the proactive "My character does X." where the DM is forced to react to player desires. "I'm going north to the Ice Barbarians and I'm going to find a way to become chief."
 

OK, but I am sure I could dig back into MANY threads on these forums where there was STRONG pushback against any situation allowing for a player to establish something, or establishing a RIGHT of players to establish things. So where is the 'mix' there? I mean, there COULD be a mix, if the system we were talking about was one that included some kind of influence or process by which the players were guiding the focus of the game, beyond "my character does X."
Because whilst in trad/neo-trad players rarely formally establish much setting details (except perhaps during character creation,) this doesn't still mean it is some fixed map and key. The GM informally takes cues from player actions/other input and lets that affect the reality they craft.
 

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