Meaningful Choices, part one: Trust

I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussions I’ve had with others about diceless play and the value of randomizing factors in role playing games. One concept that came up more than once was that a game without a randomizing element can remove a sense of agency from the players. This seemed counterintuitive to me – my agency has always been improved by removing the dice/cards from the equation. But I’ve thought about it more and pursued it in conversation more; and I think I understand a little where this issue comes from.

It starts with trust. In games, I think we, as players, like to have choices in play – and especially, we like those choices to be meaningful. Now, what exactly makes a choice meaningful is probably subjective. For some folks meaningful choices start long before you reach the table and center around character building. For others, the stats on the paper are just an annoying vehicle that you need to interact with the vast realm of fantasy you want to inhabit with you character. This is just one sample of the possible layers of view that include meaningful choices, but you get the idea.

Ultimately, this issue of trust is a thorny one. The ability to make meaningful choices is important and if we feel that our choices are going to be entirely in the hands of a capricious GM, who has sole power to decide the outcome of our actions in lieu of dice rolling, then I can understand feeling a lack of agency in that situation. To my mind, this problem exists in every single role playing game no matter the rule set. Some rules do go out of their way to minimize the role of the GM, and I find these are some of my least favorite games, as a player or a GM – but even in these systems the power of the GM can be abused… it just takes more creativity on the part of the “asshole GM.” And as staunchly as I defend the GM, their role, and their craft in this hobby – I freely admit that through error, inability, or intent there are plenty of bad GMs out in gaming-land.

Before I explain my own experiences with “bad GM” I want to consider something. The dice or mechanics that exist to shield player agency from GM whims are only an illusion. Think of it this way, if you are in a group where you are worried that a GM will favor one character over another but you can roll dice so you feel a little better about it… what’s to say that behind the screen the GM isn’t handing out +2 bonuses to one character and not another (probably with perfectly inane justifications if called out on it). If you’re worried that you are in a group where the GM is just going to arrange events so that no matter what your PC does you’ll only fail or succeed in ways that make the GMs “superplot!” go forward? Well, that’s going to happen anyway because even if you are rolling dice a bad GM will simply keep arranging events such that your actions – whether success or failure – will simply serve whatever plan is in motion “behind the screen.”

My point – if you don’t trust your GM (or your other players for that matter) – don’t play with them. It doesn’t matter what system you are playing. It can be old schools “rulings not rules,” new school “shared narrative control,” or any point on the continuum between those points – a capricious, untrustworthy GM can ruin the experience.

But that shouldn’t (to my mind) mean that you abandon games with a GM role, or pretend that mechanics will shelter you from a bad GM – it means that you need to play with people who have similar expectations about the shared experience of the game and that you don’t waste your valuable gaming time on a game that doesn’t include trust.

I once joined a game with someone I knew from school. He was a great guy, smart, cool, fun to talk to, very knowledgeable about many, many subjects… but he’s not a GM I’m comfortable playing with. He made characters roll for EVERYTHING and he dictated every aspect of the game from “what your character found acceptable to do in some situations” to “whether or not you could find a pebble in a dungeon.” It was a frustrating situation to say the least. Knowing that I was “allowed” to roll dice in that game didn’t make me feel any better – because I knew that whether I succeeded or failed on any given roll I was completely at the mercy of the GM’s decision-making, which was in turn informed primarily by that GM’s own vision of what was going on in the story/adventure. I left that game after only a few sessions because I had no feeling of agency there either.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a diceless evangelist, it’s true, but I don’t think it’s the “one true way” or anything. I realize that everything I’ve just said can be discussed and countered and re-interpreted in relation to diceless play as fully as it can to diced. But that was my point really – that the guarantors of agency in our mechanical systems are illusions. The best instrument of agency in a gaming group is trust and without that trust none of the decisions we make are particularly meaningful.

Just to postscript a little: This post didn’t actually go according to plan – I had actually wanted to write about intentionality vs. capriciousness in decision-making and how magic systems in some games reflect agency in special ways… so, that will be tomorrow’s post. For now, enjoy and thanks for reading.

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4 responses

  1. This is an interesting take on the Dice vs Diceless debate, and not the one I expected. I expected it to be more about Tension and the potential lack thereof in Diceless. And also more about the capriciousness of Dice, not GMs. Though you and I both well know the trainwreck that can occur when playing under a GM, or with a player you can not trust.

    Regarding Tension: diceless games can fail to give the illusion that actions have consequences, because the random element is missing. Only the “arbitrary” resolutions of a GM can have weight, which puts the hate on the GM, not the dice. When the GM has a merciful touch, there is little fear of failure…

    On the other hand, sometimes the dice are just too merciless, and can deliver results that no GM or player welcomes. I find the better solution is to limit the number of dice rolls so that it happens only when it matters. And when it REALLY matters, to roll it in secret incase you have to fudge things.

  2. Not just trust of asshole DMs, but just honest disagreement over what is a “good” argument. If I make what I feel is a perfectly valid argument to fast talk my way past the guard; but the GM doesn’t – how do we determine whether it was – in a pure diceless system with no resource system to spend – the GM decides solely. In a system with a randomizer, these little disagreements can get resolved by, effectively, a third party. Yeah it doesn’t stop the GM from being an asshole and making it an impossible check, but as noted nothing stops an asshole GM.

    Yes it all requires trust, however, diceless games require far more trust, understanding, and expectation management than games that have a randomizer framework. In a diceless game, if I want to succeed I have to understand the GMs mind; in a diced game, I need to understand how the GMs mind works with the mechanics – something that I don’t need quite the same understanding of the person.

    And I’d rather be annoyed at the dice (given a fair TN) than the person running the game. At least if it is a TN and a dice roll, the stakes are explicitly set, rather than be implicitly set in the mind of GM, where I have to guess and grasp at the correct answer.

    As far as bad dice rolls – if the system you are using allows for results you don’t want to have happen, they are bad systems. Something that I’ve carried with me are the Style rolls from Weapons of the Gods; which while a balky system, had rolls where the question wasn’t whether you succeeded or not, but how stylishly/how much it cost you to succeed. If there are outcomes you don’t want on the table, don’t put them on the table in the first place.

  3. @Dave

    Good to hear from you. Obviously (right?), I feel differently about the ability of a diceless vs. dice system to create tension but again, I think that stems from the fact that I’m not really getting my tension (when I play) from whether or not I can roll a 9… I get it from the situation that calls on my PC to roll that die in the first place. I often find, again, for myself, that I’m more annoyed by missing a dice roll than the failure itself.

    I have a bazillion examples of this in otherwise great games over the years — and finding Amber and the way that it worked for me — I think that’s what opened my eyes to diceless play as the solution to my woes.

    At the same time — I do see your point. The one thing I did always struggle with in Amber was the moment of death. Delivering that final verdict of “your character dies” or “the BBEG dies” is so much weirder when it didn’t involve furtive rolling behind a DM screen and a lot of sighing… Then again, I would say that the build up to that death, and the feeling of not knowing precisely that you have 2 hp left but that you are bleeding all over the place from a bad wound (for example) really makes the decision to “fight on” a lot more poignant (to me).

    @Scott

    In the end, the thing to remember is that diceless does not equal systemless. There will still be mechanics to inform decision-making and character ability will count right alongside player ability. In diceless games, I feel as if those two functions become better joined. Ultimately, I can’t dispute the idea that you would rather be mad at the dice than a person — but I suppose I’d ask why that would happen anyway? After all, if you fail to persuade the guard because you roll a 3, after making a great argument, how does that make it better/less frustrating? I guess that’s a little off-point. What I’m saying is, the GM doesn’t “decide solely” (or shouldn’t) but should be taking into account the way you’ve built your character, the way you’ve roleplayed, and those stats plus your player ability should determine the outcome (with the GM adding the “light touch” of being the final arbiter).

    My point being — suppose the GM says you fail. Well, he might say the same in a regular game too, no matter that you rolled well. When you ask about it, maybe later he reveals that the guard particularly hates, I don’t know, Tieflings, and so you just weren’t gonna have much luck no matter what you did… You might be annoyed at this — but it’s effectively the same problem in a dice or no-dice system. If a GM can’t be fair — they’ll never be fair — dice don’t really matter except as a safety-net/equally annoying source of arguments. (That’s what it comes down to for me.)

    More to the point I guess — your point of “gaming the GM” is exactly the problem (as I see it) in the whole issue. That sets the frame as being a competition between the PCs and the GM, with the system as arbiter… instead of a collaboration between the two. After all, something that doesn’t go your way — that maybe you feel should have — you should be able to talk to the GM about it outside of game and clear up any lingering frustration. If you can’t, then you shouldn’t be in that game — that’s my take. But mechanically, the system sets the parameters of interaction with the game parts — the interaction with the GM is a personal one.

    Also, as far as “bad dice rolls” I find that I’m of two minds about this. First, I hate it when I do something great at the table and a bad roll messes that up — but also, second, I appreciate the fact that if I’m bothering to roll, I want that roll to have real consequences, and not be “you do it with flair…” or something similar.

  4. cauldronofevil | Reply

    Because I’m unfamilar with Amber, I’m not quite understanding what “no dice but not systemless” means. From what I can tell from your descriptions, in Amber you just have ‘resources’ (chits) that you can throw a problem.

    So how is that effectively any different from ‘rolling high’ for a particular problem?

    My personal experience is that I’ve had the Great experiences you’ve had with systems with dice. I’ve never been in a game where dice have limited my imagination (excepting of course for bad GMs).

    So it just seems to me that the bad GM is what you want to get rid of rather than the dice.

    Just wondering.

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