Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Game Design and Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was born in an environment that was highly gamist. Namely, wargaming. Wargaming being heir to one of the oldest forms of games in the world: Chess and its variants. (For those interested this would likely be the Egyptian Senet, but there are other contenders). The point is, most games are first and foremost designed to be won. And wars, just like games, are waged to be won. Even if the true objective isn't absolute victory on the battlefield. The fact is there is an objective and it isn't just the experience of war. The same stands true for games.

However, Dungeons & Dragons is also deeply rooted in the social experience of storytelling; and more particularly role playing. In this way D&D is connected to theater and drama. Which connects the game to a strongly narrativist tradition. Such storytelling experiences are much older than the games we have evidence of; but the truth of which came first is a mystery hidden farther back in racial memory than the discovery of fire. Stories, however are are not generally told to be won, but to be experienced. Which creates an inherent dilemma for understanding D&D and RPGS generally.

Two apparent dichomoties exist side by side. We are telling a story, but we are also playing a game. Which of course begs the question: Are all games designed to be won? Common belief tends to say they are not; though when asked, we are hard pressed to come up with many (if any) games that fit this apparently obvious definition. Go ahead and come up with one. Don't worry I'll wait ... Undoubtedly you came up with some solo games, like guessing games, or puzzle games but those types of game have a built in competition as well. Player vs game. If you come up with the right answer or the most efficient answer in the case of some puzzle games, you have "won". So solo games are "winnable". Come up with any more? ... I'll wait a little longer ... ... ...

See, you can't do it. All games have goals of one type or another. And goals are designed to be achieved, and in this sense a game can be won. This is as opposed to simple play. Jump rope and twiddling your thumbs, juggling, tumbling, running, skipping, are all types of play. Play is something different from games, though there are often variations of play defined by type. Thus you can "play" a game. It is a type of play, not play in and of itself. Indeed the more structured play becomes, the more like a game it becomes.

Storytelling is not simple play, but one can "play" telling stories. Role playing itself is "playing" a role, but if there is a purpose it can change from being play into something much more serious. If it is mainly for self improvement or self discovery, especially for healing or attaining wholeness it can be said to be therapy; if it's purpose is for performance (designed for entertainment) it is often called drama or theater. If it is more ritual in nature and designed to evoke a spiritual response it can be called religious; and indeed many mystery religions utilize this form of ritual.

But what in the 8th level of Hades is a role playing game? Many supposed definitions of what an RPG really is have been assayed by various game designers. In fact they often include a small blurb or description of "What an RPG is" at the beginning of their game rules. However, reading these explanations leave one more with the idea of how to participate in one, rather than what one actually is.

I would argue that it is a unique blend of the two types of game "play". It takes the telling of free-form, interactive, continually growing stories. Much like the game you would play with your friends where one would start a story, and then pass the story off to you and you would continue by adding your own, personal twists, actions and surprises, then pass it off to the next friend and on and on. By the end you have all undoubtedly laughed lots, groaned more than once, gotten upset and when the story was finished were all hopefully entertained and pleased. (Notice how I have fallen into description of how to play as well--shame on me). Blend that with playing roles within the story and the structure of a rules and you have the rudiments of a role playing game. Vicarious roleplaying, under given rules, involving the creation of a shared story.

You can see how wargaming developed into a roleplaying game in this way. From the rather detached, strategic maneuvering of  units comprising groups of soldiers -- "I move my fifth artillery battery to the Rhone Valley" -- to a novel idea. What if those minis represented one soldier and what if that soldier were me?! Pretty soon a summary of battle tactics becomes a very personal story where an individual can vicariously experience the glory and the horror of war. He can risk the danger of enemy fire, errant explosions, snipers and air assualts to gain victory!

And that gives a clue to something we're still missing. The "goal" of the game. And no, my erstwhile friends, the "goal" is not just everyone having fun. That's great and a game is arguably better when everybody enjoys it, but such is not always the case. Some games were downright brutal for those participating. Just ask the Christians at the Roman Colliseum. And frankly, you can't even call the way some people approach RPG play as having fun. Some people are deadly serious about their role playing; they call it fun like a cop calls busting crooks fun. Sure he enjoys his work, it's what he was designed to do, but fun?

So what is the goal of RPGs? Survival. And if you're lucky, becoming a hero. Or in some form or fashion overcoming obstacles, challenges and seemingly impossible odds. Like it or not your competition is the environment and all the flora, fauna and intelligence that it contains. All of this is of course engineered by, you guessed it--the GM. So the news is:

RPGs ARE Player VS Game Master!

And I'm sick of people arguing that it's not. The game's primary roots are gamist wargames. "Step on up and try your luck against me punk!" In the development of D&D the GM took the army of the enemy, the monsters, the black knights, the evil gods of destiny and became pitted against the army of the players. But, of course, some things had to change from a strict foe vs foe relationship. The GM had to be fair. He had too much power to not have this requirement placed upon him. He also controlled the good gods as well, good NPCs, noble kings and beneficient beasts designed to aide and work on the same side as the PCs (assuming they were on the same side). So a defining rule of the game became that the GM had to be fair minded. Granted absolute power any GM could kill the PCs with a mere thought. That would present no challenge whatsoever. 

No. Masterful GMs realized something. That they weren't designing an encounter, module, adventure, campaign or world to entertain the players, nor to simply kill them, but to challenge them. To present to their players a world in which they could stretch and test themselves to the utmost. A world fraught with danger and mystery and intrigue and death around every corner. But with such perils there existed also a world full of glory to be won, treasure to be gained, fame to be earned and a legacy to build. If they were great enough their names would be remembered for all time as true legends. The GM does players no favors by letting them slip by to some false sense of victory, some half-baked imitation of greatness. No, the GM was out to "fairly" thwart adventurers at every turn. They should demand no less.

If the gamist roots are not present in such a form, what form do they take? Are we to truly say the "goal" of the game is for everyone to have fun? Umm, yeah, duh, but that's the point of every game to some degree. But this isn't just play, for plays sake. If the only goal is for everyone to have fun then all we are doing is playing. We are _not_ just playing. We are playing a _game_. Hence the name of our hobby: Role Playing GAMES.
Some GMs have become blinded by the notion of "cooperative play". Cooperative play, a term initially used by Gary Gygax himself, did not mean for GMs to play on the players' side; or that they should nurse their players along. Being soft on players gains no one anything. cooperative play meant the players cooperate to achieve a mutual goal. The way you do players a favor is by creating a challenge for them. There's all kinds of tripe out there about catering to players demands. What do they want? What kind of game do they want to play? What kind of enemies do they want to fight? Listen, we are _not_ entertainers. We are masters of the game. We engineer reality in the game and more importantly we engineer the challenges designed to allow PCs to become heroes.

And when I say challenge I mean true challenge. Not carefully balanced encounters that your players are designed to win. Enough of this balance BS everyone is talking about. Blessed bells, almost all of the D&D 4e GMs Guide is about creating "balanced encounters" -- that's pure outhouse stink. Balance is another way of saying I've made sure that you can win this as long as the dice go your way and you are not a complete idiot. Armies win, not only because they know how to fight, but also because they know when and who to fight. Running away was noble long before Monty Python. Why do you think so much was made of henchmen and torchbearers and bases of operations and repeated forays deeper and deeper into the dungeon in AD&D? Because that's what smart adventurers did to survive the frickin' thing!! How does D&D 4e solve it? Healing surges. For criminy's sake. Yeah, let's just hit the heal button.

You can begin to see why Gary made the following comment:

"The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. It's done away with the archetypes, focused on nothing but combat and character power, lost the group cooperative aspect, bastardized the class-based system, and resembles a comic-book superheroes game more than a fantasy RPG where a player can play any alignment desired, not just lawful good."

The new direction has lost something. And they aren't regaining it with the overly gamist approach of 4e. 4e is heading back to it's wargame roots, which is fine as far as it goes, but it's doing so at the expense of the other half of the game. It's not a role playing game anymore. As much as we can't deny our wargaming inspired gamist roots, we can't simply become a wargame again. But that's actually an aside that is better served in another post. The point here is that RPGs in general are designed to have a goal and that goal implies a healthy competition. That competition is rooted in GM vs player regardless of what modern namby pamby diatribes say about it. Get your soft warm-fuzzies elsewhere--it doesn't belong in RPGs, at least not as a rule.

And though this truth tends to get misunderstood, as if the GM is out to kill all players who enter his game, that is really not the case. What a GM is out to do is design a challenge so intense and difficult that players have to reach deep inside themselves to overcome it. If they can't they don't have the mettle of heroes. The trick for the GM is to do so fairly. He is the world, the monsters and the evil NPCs against which the PCs desire to challenge and test themselves.

Otherwise we are not playing RPGs we are participating in some sort of communal theater that is all about making everyone feel all happy and good about themselves. Let's leave that to the Democrats, okay? (Oooh, ouch, that last one hurt. Probably get some nasty emails about that one. Heh, heh ... Especially since I'm a moderate.) And on the other hand if we go too far on the other direction we are playing nothing but a minis based wargame--which is the direction the present edition of D&D is headed. Might as well play Warhammer 40k or WoW. Now, _that's_ controversial. Bring it on, punk!

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