Who’s Protecting Us?

Do you want to play a system that feels you (the player or gamemaster) needs to be “protected?”

This is an odd, and possibly controversial thought. It has been running through my head for a while now and I’m still not certain I can articulate it as well as I’d like, but I’m going to give it a shot. Consider this a concept post — maybe with comments from readers I can refine the thought a little more.

It all started with a conversation I was having during my “I’m really angry with 4E D&D phase.” I realized that part of what really bothered me about the rhetoric surrounding 4E was that it seemed to me as if everything about the system and the thought processes going into it were set up to protect players from “bad” Dungeon Masters. I realize that for many people the advice in the DMG and from the game’s writers may have been perceived as food-for-thought, but I felt like what I was hearing was, “We, the writers, grew up with shitty DMs, so we’re building a system to tell you that your DM, if he doesn’t do exactly what you want, is a bad DM.”

One area where this is evident is the “always say Yes” bit of sage DM advice. While I realize that an innocent and well-intentioned idea exists inside the advice, it comes off as disingenuous to me. It comes across as, “this is the good way. Oh, yeah, your way is bad…” Another place where this shows up in 4E is that the game seems to hold the concept of no-such-thing-as-failure. Look at skill challenges for an example. I’ve been playing/running 4E since release and I have yet to see a skill challenge that was either run well or worth the time it took to do it. But the most important idea is, skill challenges really have no actual consequences. Failure really only equals partial success. Again, it feels to me as if the game is protecting players from wicked DMs who are out to get them, by actually closing doors.

Lest I spend all my time on D&D 4E, I’ll move away by saying that it is not the worst offender in this regard for me. For me the worst offenders are the “shared narrative” games. First of all, let me say that I never realized we needed mechanics for a shared narrative. I thought that was the whole point of playing this style of game in the first place. I never needed a Fate point or a Style point in any game I’ve ever been a part of — on either side of the screen — to “add something” or “exert player control.” In point of fact (which is amusing since I’m expressing an opinion) — I feel that all these mechanics to create shared narrative control are actually counter-productive by “rules’ing up” something that needs no rules. What’s wrong with a player inventing something on the fly? This should always be part of the negotiation between player and GM.

Example: I was running a D&D 3.5 game years ago. The players were all in a big city where most of the game’s action was taking place. One of the characters is an elven rogue. She’s lived in this city her whole life, except a short stint in the country with her mentor. She’s heavily weighted toward Charisma as her prime stat and her player intentionally made her combat options kind of plain-vanilla because the character was really supposed to be about charm and “getting by.” At one point in the game she was in trouble and on the run (literally, she’s being chased), isolated from the rest of the party and as she leads her pursuers through the streets she says, “hey, I’m gonna lead these guys to the dump (the city had a dump in its slums). Can I get a little bit of a lead on them?” We played a little, she got the lead and then told me that she was going to approach the two dwarven brothers who ran the dump — and sometimes dealt with problems for the Guild — and ask them to waylay the guys following her. Yeah, we’d never discussed that before. We’d never even mentioned dwarven shovel-buddies (what she called them) — and certainly not that she had a relationship with them. But it sounded good, it solved the problem, and she had plausible reasons in her background why this was worth being a time to “Say Yes.” So I did. And the dwarven shovel-buddies did the job, she got away and they asked her for favors later too. Win-win. No mechanics were attached to this, just player creativity and DM excitement. If that player had been thinking about “invoking aspects” or using “Fate points” I’m not sure the situation would have been as creative… I could be wrong, but I hate legislating creativity that way.

I’ve played with some bad GMs. I’ve had some awful players. I dealt with it. I either quit the bad games or avoided them to begin with. I asked bad players to leave (by bad I mean disruptive, angry or really difficult) — even if they were friends outside the game. I don’t need my game system to legislate my fun and protect me from the other people at the table. And I feel like the other consequence of these games is that by breaking down the GMs role into that of “just another player” that it actually undermines the basic idea of the GM, to help build a story with the players by the very virtue of having a different role. And one of the GM hats should be referee. And when absolutely necessary, enforcer. That’s part of the social contract we make with a group when we game together.

I don’t know. I’m still not sure I articulated this thought well enough. Maybe I have? What do you think about this topic? Discuss please.


22 responses

  1. You also have to remember that people come to roleplaying from all sorts of places, f/sf readers, computer gamers, board gamers and so on. If you are not experienced in the give and take of playing with a GM it might not occur to you that you can add to the world and ‘negotiate reality’ in neat ways. The books can be addressing that concern as well.

    1. Even seasoned players oftentimes need a nudge to kick them into authorship of the world at times. Sometimes those little points on their sheet are just the thing to remind them they’re sharing in the role of shaping the imagined-space we play in.

  2. My experience with 4e is that the design philosophy is primarily to make it easier for me, as a DM to create a game which is challenging and enjoyable for the players. It’s protecting the game from my limitations, to an extent.

    Where exactly does it say in 4e that you can’t do exactly the thing that is described in your 3.5 game? What makes it different? A narrative approach to a problem where both you and the player have an idea of the character’s background and capability and use it to create a neat solution can be done with any system.

    I’ve never gotten the impression that the players were being protected from me (the DM) by the system – it plays pretty much like all the other D&D editions… except I can prep a game and still have time to spend with my wife and kid.

  3. I think the such mechanics have their uses, for the “average” person. If you remember that the average person is an idiot, they make sense. In a world where most games are made up of power-tripping, railroading GMs leading ADD-riddled, attention whore PCs around by the nose, these coddling mechanics are performing a service. Wander down to the local shop and observe a few games if you don’t believe me.

    I personally resent them, and try to keep them out of my games, but I know why these rules are there. The third time a PC killed a daemon in Dark Heresy by suicide bombing it, then burning a Fate point to survive, I was sorely tempted to get rid of them all together.

    You’re right about the GM’s role. The GM needs to arbitrate, and fairness and consistency are extremely important. However, you can’t really force a GM to not be a jerk, any more than you can force players to not be entitled whiners. They’re well intentioned, but ultimately just a hindrance. I don’t think they’re going away though.

    As for the “dwarven shovel buddies” story, I remember arguing about it with Jeff years ago. As a matter of personal preference, I would have that kind of thing worked out in advance if it was going to come up. My buddy Matt has an incredibly elaborate background for his character in my current 3.5 game, and he has NPCs all over the multiverse that want to help/hurt him. That’s fine. I would be much more hesitant about letting NPCs appear when it was convenient.

    To me, that becomes dangerously close to the “Player protecting mechanics” that we both want to avoid, just without the mechanics. I like to reward my players for being prepared, not just being able to say “I’d rather not die right now.”

  4. That’s funny, because most complaints I see (about ANY system) are the opposite. A lot of common gripes basically boil down to, “I’m gaming with jerks, and the system doesn’t stop them from being jerks; this system sucks!” So I think you’re probably alone in feeling the other way around. Myself, I think it’s most important to play with good people, and good people can tweak any system to fit their group as long as it has a good foundation.

  5. I don’t think you’re alone. I cannot speak about 4th edition, because I’ve never played it. However, I get that since in 3rd edition, too. Perhaps not as much as you describe, but the fact that monsters became as codified as PCs relates to this. Seems like the designers wanted a level playing field. Perhaps I’m wrong, I know 1st edition had its share of rules, but it seemed like 3e brought in the *enforcement* of more rules to ensure both sides of the screen played “fair,” as if things needed to be locked down to ensure DMs wouldn’t abuse their power. In other words, it felt like they were trying to make sure the DM couldn’t be a dick.

    Oh, and I think you made the right call with your chase scene example. I simply see that as a way to reward clever play and some times mechanics get in the way of that. Like you said, players start thinking more in game terms and less in character terms (i.e., they think “what do my stats allow me to do?,” rather than “what would my elf do here?).

    1. “Like you said, players start thinking more in game terms and less in character terms (i.e., they think “what do my stats allow me to do?,” rather than “what would my elf do here?).”

      You said it so much better than I did. I suppose that my play style does run more toward player-skill over playing-the-rules. And that shows in my DMing as well.


      1. I wrote a blog entry a little while ago on the same theme – more or less. I’d appreciate it if you could give it a look. I think we are on the same page, and feeling some of the same confusion about how to actually express the concept.

        Perhaps we read the same forum entries~

        I could not agree more about things like Fate points. While I will admit that with a bunch of creative players who are all invested in each scene, and in touch with both the setting and their characters that these points can really add both fun and creativity, but – in most cases, I find it runs toward people feeling they cannot interact with a scene or offer a clarifying question/solution without the use of such points. Who wants that?

  6. @SeaofStars
    I see your point and I agree, to an extent. My personal experience has been the opposite though, that the more you try to make mechanics out of “negotiating reality” the more it becomes about those mechanics instead of the other way around. The mechanics substitute for initiative.

    While I certainly understand that not everyone sees it the way I do, I also find it interesting that you find 4E easy to prepare for. For me, it is the most difficult and time-consuming system I’ve ever DMed for. I spent at least twice as long prepping sessions for 4E than 3E or Shadowrun. Part of why I learned to hate it.

    I’m not sure I’m willing to write off the average gamer as an “idiot” yet. I think that our hobby does attract some people who fit your classification of the power-tripping GMs and ADD-riddled players, but I’ve also been lucky enough to game with the exact opposite too. On the other hand. The “Shovel-buddies” are one example — but I would encourage PCs to use their backgrounds to invent on the fly. I can always say No. That’s the other side to blurring the role of the GM. Losing the ability to say No when necessary.

    Well, all I can say to that is to echo Paul’s comment. You can’t stop players from being jerks no matter what system you play. If someone’s a jerk, they’re gonna be a jerk. And I completely agree that the most important thing to be certain you have a good game is to game with good people. I think, for my two cents, the expectation that you mention, that a system should be able to control the players — that is, stop them from being jerks — stems from effectively being promised just that. And no system will ever be able to deliver that.

    Thanks for the discussion everyone. I hope there’s more to come. I realize that I’m not espousing a popular opinion, but I hope it at least gets folks thinking about it.

  7. Uh, what? Most difficult to prepare for? WTF were you doing? I spend more time creating one bad guy in 3.5 than I do in setting up an entire session for 4e.

    Also, you didn’t answer my question about your example – how is a shared-narrative an example of not “protecting” the characters? Nothing you have described there is system-specific. You could have had that interaction playing Monopoly.

    Bottom line here, I don’t think your issue carries water. Every game has rules, otherwise it would all be called “story-time”. They are called RPG’s, after all – some players like the “role”, some like the “playing” of sitting around with friends, and some like the “game” – the rules and numbers. Who are you to decide which is the best approach?

    Just as one other point – your example is a textbook perfect example of “just say yes”. By allowing the player to create the gameworld, you’re agreeing to their portion of the story – saying “yes”. Did that feel disingenuous to you?

    1. Respectfully — I’m not certain how genuine you are with your questions. Your tone leaves me wondering. I’m going to assume the best and try to answer…

      First – I do find 4E to be — both in prep and play — tedious. That’s my experience, playing since Keep on the Shadowfell first appeared with its quick-start rules all the way through integrating PHB3 content into the last two campaigns I was involved in. I’ve heard so many complaints about 3.5 and the painful prep — but I never spent more than an hour or two prepping a whole night’s play in 3.5 D&D. I’m happy to agree to disagree on this one.

      Second – I was not specifically referring to 4E in my shared narrative example. I was referring to games such as Spirit of the Century and Houses of the Blooded (and other games based on Aspect-style play). I was simply making the point that I feel that setting out rules for the type of interaction I mentioned above, (in what was only one example) could actually — and again, in my experience, does — impede creativity by causing players to be more concerned about their specific aspects than trying to actually imagine the scene.

      Your point is valid… what I describe can be done in any system, which is why I question the need to make it mechanical to the extent that some systems do, and then triumphantly claim that it is “better.”

      Third — the bottom line here, my issue was never with games having rules. I quite like rules in my games (as previously mentioned, I enjoy Shadowrun and D&D 3.5, both pretty rules intensive) — for many things. I never questioned the need for rules. I questioned why some games choose to create rules/rhetoric around the rules of their games the way they do. I am not “deciding” for anyone, I’m talking about a problem I have, asking for feedback and sharing in the RPG community.

      Finally – In my own original post, I acknowledged (specifically) how my example was me “saying Yes.” It never felt disingenuous because that is exactly how I (speaking for myself here) feel the game is at its best. Invested players and excited GMs working in concert to bring a story to life (in their own table roles) and with imagination and improvisation.

  8. @Runesmith
    I read your entry (and commented there) and I feel pretty much like you did a better job of just getting to the heart of some of these problems than I did. I tend to be a type that when I’m a DM, I’m thinking about the players and when I play, I’m thinking about the DM.

    For me, the idea that you touched on but didn’t expand enough is the idea of Investment. Everyone needs to be invested in the game for it to really be great.

    1. Thanks for reading, and the kind words~

      Investment is key. I wrote a piece on ‘good players’ when I first started the blog in April, which gets at my thoughts on investment – without using the word, of course, so now I have to go back and rewrite it. It’s called Tilting at Windmills – Good Gamers.

      I think the game is at its best when players come in, and start talking about things that they noticed the week before about what could happen in regard to the specific situations of the other characters, and the group as a whole, and when they take the time to write out reactions and speculations and email them to the GM to lessen the effort of predicting what the characters might be concerned about, and contribute to the overall depth of the story.

      What you describe about how you think when you play gets to the heart of the matter. “How can I help everyone to have a better time?”

      1. I couldn’t agree more. For me, It’s all about investment. I mean (and I know I’m gonna get in trouble for this example) a player will spend 15-20 hours a week playing WoW, but it’s too much to ask to get them to invest an hour a week outside of game to take the time to think about or write about the game…

        To not just blame WoW players, I know people who will pour 10+ hours into painting a single mini, but can barely pay attention to combat turns in game. I know people who will pour out a 40 page background for a character, but then won’t actually roleplay with any other player at the table…

        I feel as if this is off-topic somewhat. I guess I miss having a core of really invested players around me these days like I used to. Oh well.

  9. No, I’m genuinely interested, I’m just having trouble tying the threads of your argument together. I’m pretty sure the ‘shared narrative’ games have the rules they do is to facilitate/speed up the process of collaborative narrative, and also to keep it within the banks, so to speak.

    Your 3e experience is pretty much top-form gaming, as far as I’ve ever experienced, and is usually the result of a fairly well-established group, with good imaginations who are comfortable with their characters and with the GM’s world.

    You can’t count on that, though. So – it seems to me, the shared narrative games shortcut things by building a set of rules that encourage that sort of play even for the ‘gamers’ in a group. For a group that can play any sort of rpg without the need for the mechanical structure, I can see why training wheels would leave you cold.

    I’m also sorry to hammer on the saying yes bit, but I’m totally not understanding your position on it. First, you say that in the context of 4e, it’s disingenuous and badwrongism, but then in the context of a game you like, it’s “the game at its best”.

    I see the meat of your point here, though. I don’t feel that you need rules for this type of interaction, myself, but I’m not sure that it’s true for everyone.

    1. Thanks for continuing the discussion! I gladly accept the criticism that my point is less than completely collected. I was prepared for some confusion going into the post — as I’m still working out exactly what is bugging me too.

      To take the points in order, that 3E group was actually a pretty random collection of people, with some first timers in there — but I don’t want to spend too much time on that — it was just meant to be a single illustration of why I don’t perceive the need for mechanics to allow players to do exactly what that player did.

      As another example — I recently played the Leverage RPG which uses an iteration of the Cortex system. The “fate point” mechanic in that game is used for scene editing, as in, “hey, um, I forgot my weapon so… oh, I know (spends point) there’s a potted plant on the windowsill I can hit him with!”

      But if games train players to assume that they need the permission of the system to do that (and only when they spend some resource on a character sheet) I think that’s doing players a disservice in the long run. I see it as training bad habits instead of good ones — all in the name of some arbitrary design goal (balance/limitation/protecting/coddling). I guess you can call it whatever. I’m working this out for myself as much as writing about it.

      As far as “Just Say Yes!” I actually love saying yes to players. I think most good DMs do. My problem with it in this context is twofold. In D&D4E, the overwhelming sense I took away from all my reading was that DMs are “bad” if they say no. That was the rhetoric they built around the game from early on until only very recently… It also interacts with my point about feeling like 4E has no failure setting. The system seems (to me) to be built on the idea of overwhelming character success. To me, that’s a hollow victory that will leave players and GMs unsatisfied.

      Outside the 4E fold though, the idea of “shared narrative mechanics games” tend to blur the traditional DM role and provide a fertile ground for player entitlement, argument, limiting creativity and having “always say Yes” mean “never say No.”

      Does that help any, or did I muddle it worse?

  10. No, that clears things up a fair bit for me. Rules and mechanics like that can be handy, but often end up being crutches – players rely on them rather than skill, attention and creative problem-solving. But is that a huge problem? You decide that for yourself, as do your players. To a large extent, though, the DMing is going to determine how that sort of thing plays out in a system.

    If the DM is open to player narrative control, judiciously uses “yes” and is fairly flexible, then lots of cool things can happen. A less confident or inexperienced DM is going to have trouble releasing control, which is where things like Fate points can come in handy. All goes to know thyself, know thy group, and try to have fun.

    We’re definitely going to have to disagree on 4e, and I think you’re overstating the impact of shared narrative mechanics – at best they provide a framework for getting a gaming group out of the all-powerful dm mentality. At worst, they’re a game mechanic that people who rely on game mechanics will use (and try to abuse). No different from any other rules. And like any rules, we’re free to use or ignore them. But if you don’t like them, not much point in playing a game where they are the whole point.

  11. You seem to argue both sides of the point here – you protest against the “always say yes” advice in the DMG, but then you give a perfect example of saying yes in exactly the spirit of the DMG advice!

    Which is it?

    I remember reading a phrase which has always stuck with me, from one of the lead designers of D&D 4e: never let the mechanics get in the way of a good idea. This is what you are arguing for, and I don’t think any DM worth his salt would argue against, and I think the designers of 4e are entirely on board with you.

    It would seem that your problem is really some bad players who are trying to abuse the sense of the game by turning the advice around into “we are entitled to whatever we want without risk”. That particular belief is up to us as DMs to disabuse them of, which I take some pride in accomplishing. Sure, you can give her the “shovel buddies” as per your example. But they are going to need you to return the favour later – as you in fact have done.

    Nowhere in the rules does it say “always say yes under any circumstances to whatever is being asked, without any consequences”. I have read that paragraph over, and I think you need to reread it yourself. Perhaps you are only “hearing” it through the ears of “generation of entitlement” players. Try reading it with an open mind.

  12. @WickedMurph

    I think that the issue of these mechanics becoming crutches is at the heart of my problem with them. I don’t know if you read the blog post Runeslinger mentioned, but he talks about this same issue. Instead of teaching our players and DMs to have a more open imagination and a more free-form storytelling flow (which is what “story games” often promise) I worry that it has exactly the opposite effect, creating rules to supplant imaginative play. I mean, that’s what I have video games for…

    My example was actually a point of me talking about saying yes as a good thing… what bothers me in 4E is that much of the writing surrounding the game (and a lot of examples of this exist) preach ALWAYS say yes. It’s there — but I don’t want to belabor that point. I know not everyone is on board with me on this, and 4E was not the focus of my post anyway…

    What I’m really getting at is that a lot of games these days seem to have particular desire to build mechanics to control every aspect of play, the role of the DM is devalued, and well, if things don’t go exactly to the players liking, the game is “no fun.”

    It is my opinion — and it seems from the comments, a few others — that by creating games that build in super-balance and mechanical crutches to RP, that we are giving up the responsibility of teaching players to just “make it up.” This has become the hardest problem I have bringing players into games — the fact that they need rules to justify every decision. And for DMs — I see a much stronger tendency to clamp down on players, because you don’t have a (fate/style/action/whatever) point to justify it.

    I know it’s not the end-times of gaming or anything — I’m not preaching doom here. I just think it’s an aspect of modern/deconstructionist gaming that bears looking at. Questioning is at the heart of having an open mind.

  13. At the risk of putting words into morrison’s mouth, I don’t think he’s so much worried about the “saying yes” so much as he is about the implied corollary – “never say no”. DMs should say yes when it assists the action – on the contrary, they should retain the ability to say no when the proposal is counter-productive.

    I don’t think that’s what D&D 4E is trying to say, but it can be interpreted that way, and benefit from a more nailed-down definition.

  14. Thanks AndrewH. That is pretty much what I’m driving at. To me, all the wording around 4E really centers on the corollary of “never say no.” It fairly screams at me when I read the books or the writings of the game designers.

    Ah well.

  15. cauldronofevil | Reply

    “I never needed a Fate point or a Style point in any game I’ve ever been a part of — on either side of the screen — to “add something” or “exert player control.” In point of fact (which is amusing since I’m expressing an opinion) — I feel that all these mechanics to create shared narrative control are actually counter-productive by “rules’ing up” something that needs no rules. What’s wrong with a player inventing something on the fly? This should always be part of the negotiation between player and GM. ”

    Well said and I couldn’t have written it better myself. You cannot ‘mechanize’ roleplaying. Either people want to do it or they dont!

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