Monday, 13 February 2012

D&D as Operant Conditioning Chamber

So Zak S put up this post, which contains this gem of advice from the 4e DMG:

If none of the characters in your 6th level party uses a long bow, don't put a 10th level longbow in your dungeon as treasure. A great way to make sure you give players magic items they'll be excited about is to ask them for wish lists. At the start of each level, have each player write down a list of three to five items that they are intrigued by that are no more than four levels above their own level. You can choose treasure from those lists (making sure to place an item from a different character's list each time), crossing the items off as the characters find them. If characters don't find things on their lists, they can purchase or enchant them when they reach sufficient level. Each set of ten treasure parcels includes one less magic item than there are characters in the party. That's not meant to be unfair, just to make sure that characters gain magic items at a manageable rate. Make sure that over the course of several levels of adventuring, you award items evenly to all the char acters, so that over the course of, say, five levels, every character has acquired four useful and exciting items.

And I thought this was a nice bookend to what I was writing about just 7 days ago.

Having players write down wish lists and then giving them what they want is just one of the many faces of the Give-Your-Players-Orgasms school of GMing. It's precisely the opposite of what should be encouraged: which is players trying to get what they want within the game, facilitated by the GM, and thus being its engine. If one of your players wants some Special Snowflake magic item, he should be trying to find out where one could be obtained, and then going out and obtaining it, in-game. He shouldn't be saying "Pwetty pwease" to the GM and looking at him with wide, innocent brown eyes, and expecting to be rewarded for being a good little boy and going through the motions of beating up some orcs.

I likened the 4e approach to Farmville in the comments on Zak's post. I was mostly being facetious - I recognise that Farmville is infinitely worse in almost every respect. But it attracted this reply [from Zzarchov, who I'm sure won't mind me reprinting it here]:

When I play, if I player says "I would like a box of Arm & Hammer" I think I will strive to ensure they have a 4/5 chance of finding such a thing after an epic and evenly balanced quest.

Which is a joke, but sort of hits the nail on the head. The 4e DMG advice sounds altogether too much like a Skinner box: put the D&D player in the cage; have him perform an "epic and evenly balanced quest"; give him a food pellet. Why do we encourage, and accept, such a reductive approach?

If your player wants "Arm & Hammer", it's his job to go out and get it. He needs to ask the GM if he knows of anywhere that might have Arm & Hammer. He needs to have his PC go out and ask around, and see if he can find somebody who might know. He then needs to get off his arse and go and get it. Isn't it far more fun and interesting that way? Doesn't it engage the player so much more? Doesn't it force him to invest thought and energy into interacting with the game world in an interesting way?

The approach I'm advocating isn't supposed to be some sort of Iron Man, macho response to adolescent wish-fulfillment. That's not my point. My point is that if players are the engine for the game - if they decide on their own goals and then work to achieve them - it makes everything better. It is, frankly, the best way to run D&D. Instead of waiting for the orgasms and food pellets like good little rodents, going through the motions of what the GM has put in place - which is essentially a passive approach, what we surely want is active, proactive players making things easy for the GM, and genuinely getting interested in the setting, by working to achieve their own goals. Isn't it? It's not about being 'hard core'; it's about what works.

I sometimes think that, actually, the real reason why RPGs are in a downward slump is because of the prevalence of the assumption that the GM has to lead the players by the nose, rather than the other way round. That puts pressure on the GM and incentivises passivity on the part of the players. It just isn't as good that way.


  1. Not to mention the fact that as a PC it can be fun and interesting to find strange magic items that you had no idea existed, and then make them part of your character's oeuvre. Pinprick the Paladin, normally a stout broadsword wielder, finds a magic spear in the crypt of the vampire-merchant that can unerringly strike ghosts and speaks riddles in a sultry voice. It's neat, Pinprick likes it. Despite his "dream" weapon being a +3 sword, he decides to put the broadsword up and practice the spear now. People having fun doing the unexpected.

  2. When I first bought the 4e (out of morbid curiosity to see what the fuss was about) and read that passage and the talk about treasure parcels I remember having convulsions.

    The talks of "player deserving X and Y and it was the GM's job to facilitate that"... Kiss my ass...

    It's my and the players job to facilitate a good time together (as us succinctly put in your responsible for your own orgasms post the other day). Do you deserve treasure and magic items? No. What if you as the player do all the leg work of researching and asking probing questions to the GM about finding such a thing? Well then hell yeah I'm gonna give you something, because you are working with me.

    A few years ago I played in a 2e game and we were about 6 sessions in when the FIRST magic item appeared in the game, a dagger that did an extra d4 poison damage. My character almost died getting it, but I had that thing for about 1/2 a year before I got another item (an amulet or something). I never questioned the GM's reasoning for the sparsity of magic items in the game nor did I feel I deserved or was inclined to receive more.

  3. Pure dead brilliant.

    What have we learned this week? Newer versions of the game offer sporting encounters, where the players get exactly what they want, after being handed a perfectly balanced encounter for sparring practice.

    Older editions make you hunt and kill your own food after planning a war, and you get what you get ("and don't get upset", as my wife often says to the kids).

    What a train wreck. No wonder we're having so much fun with player-driven 1E.

  4. That bit of advice from the 4e DMG is also symptomatic of the "magic as commodity" school of thought that arose post 3rd Ed, and also shows a very Tab A/Slot B sort of thinking in terms of world building.

    In my opinion, giving the characters ANYTHING with magic on it should be both a cause for awe and terror and a tackle box full of plot hooks.

    Just because THEY can't use the damn magic bow doesn't mean nobody else in the game world does, and said hypothetical archery enthusiasts could be willing to give anything, or do anything to get hold of it. And therein lies a whole sandbox full of adventure and antagonism.

    But no, just go with "nobody in the party can use it so don't put it in" Make sure the balance sheets line up. Lame...

  5. I run 4E, but I've never liked the wish list suggestion. A lot of other DM's don't, either, and the most recent (and by far the best) 4E magic item book, "Mordenkainen's Magnificent Emporium", discourages the concept, so I'm guessing the current roster of designers hated the idea as well.

  6. I don't think the 'wish list' in 4e is about wish fulfillment or the players getting to be special snowflakes. It's really just an extension of the character creation and levelling-up process. 4e magic items aren't magic items in the way we think of them, they're essentially just another bunch of feats and powers. A 4e Ring of Invisibility is an 18th level magic item that gives you +2 to Stealth and lets you turn invisible for one round, once a day. That's not the sort of item a player fantasises about, it's the sort they pick from the list in the PH to boost their optimised rogue or whatever. It's all about kitting out for tactical combat.

  7. Although, coincidentally enough, we did find a "ring of 10-second invisibility" in a 1e game once, and it was pretty kickass fun.

  8. I pretty much agree with everything shown above and the OP. Just wanted to add a few thoughts...

    * Whether you like it or not, many GMs over the ages have leaned towards putting magical items into the game for the enjoyment of the players - but it is best done in a subtle fashion. Like Duglas' spear example, the GM doesn't put that in there thinking "Everyone is going to hate this...YES!". I think we like keeping players happy, the difference is we want them to become happy through effort, not a Christmas list.

    * That passage is just...insulting. Whether you agree with my above comment or not, there are many other ways to go about describing such a process. The way it is written is an insult to anyone who's gamed for any appreciable period of time.

    * Another problem I have with this philosophy is that it absolutely presumes a world that is just saturated with magic. In older editions of the game you could have very magic heavy and very magic light settings and I think the game functioned equally well, just differently; monsters that required magic items to damage them were far more dangerous, spellcasters more powerful, and so on, but a lack of magic didn't break the game. However, as John pointed out, in 3rd and 4th edition, magic is just another method of stat-buffing and pulling off "special moves". It's video-game world design, plain and simple. You probably could take a lot of the magic out, but as the whole mechanism of the game is built around certain expectations of power/ability at certain levels so that certain encounters burn a certain amount of resources...y'all get the picture. Taking away the goodies jams a wrench in the works.

  9. Is it really that different for a player to ask you, the GM, how to get something than for their character to ask one of the NPCs? Is it different enough to say that one question is immature and laughable, while the other is skillful and self-reliant?

    If someone tells you they want something, they are also implicitly asking you how to get it.

    You don't have to say "I'll be sure to pack that into the next treasure parcel." You could easily say "The right sage might know where you could find that, but you'll have to ask around to find the right sage first. Or else you could scour some libraries, like the one in the city you visited last week."

    But if the person playing the game asks you, the person they are playing with, how to get something, and you mock them for asking, why on earth would they then go through the motions of having their character ask your character to see if they get a different result?

    And if what you really want is for the PC to ask the NPC, but you're unwilling to state that want specifically to the player, aren't you just engaging them in a game of "guess what I'm thinking"?

    - N

  10. Anonymous: I have a hard time understanding what you're getting at. I don't have a problem with players asking the GM directly how to get something, or having their PCs ask an NPC how to get something. Just as long as the GM isn't making sure they get what they want merely by dint of turning up.

    I never mentioned that anybody should be mocked, so I wonder where that came from.

  11. Today a player in my 4e game asked for an (RPG) orgasm.
    I gave it to him.
    I feel a little dirty.

    Basically he asked me to insert dramatic content into the session in order to resolve a plot arc in his PC's backstory, and I complied.

  12. I've been playing in a 4e game for a bit run heavily "b(u)y the book", and I've run up against "wish lists".

    I've actually had the GM say "I'll give you an item for that" as if it was some kind of payment, and for things outside the game too. Very odd.

    On the other hand, I'd love to hear about how you actually run the other kind of "wish list", where instead of getting presents, people get opportunities to do the sort of stuff they are interested in their character doing.

    How do you avoid blocking players off from being able to do that stuff?

  13. Josh W: Well, it comes from being open with the players from the beginning what sort of game you're running, I suppose. I just tell them from the beginning that it's their job to drive things along.

    Then once they've said a few times "I want to do such and such" and you say to them "How are you going to do that?" and they go out and find out how to do it, and then do it, and succeed and enjoy how it all comes together, it becomes a self-fulfilling thing.

  14. This feels like one of those tacit knowledge things again. I can do that a bit; I know how to run certain types of games; where very mechanical objectives are possible and supported, eg make this, find that, work around that etc.

    But I never tell people they can do anything, because my world looses fidelity rapidly when you want forest habitat descriptions or really soap-style npc interactions. I say that we'll mostly skip over that stuff.

    If players want to build an organisation or treaty, or fight a war, or sneak into something to uncover secrets, stuff like that, I'm there. I can go along with that and make it interesting. But not so much for getting in depth into resolving the roots of feuds or detailed wilderness survival.

    I've found I have an ability in one area to engage with the detail of what makes planing towards something difficult and interesting that I don't have in others.

    But I'm trying to broaden my range, and work out what it is to go with player's plans and explore them, see if I can find some general principles to give me a handle on the other stuff:

    There is a loop there too, but the prizes are self-defined and more like intrinsic rewards, getting yourself into the place to do the sort of things you want. And I'd like to be able to help bring out those "rewards" for other types of plans/challenges too.

    I mean part of becoming a better GM is probably just knowing your limits and setting the setting up to play to your strengths, but I want the challenge!

  15. This advice is ultimately a symptom, not the disease.

    Once you've wholeheartedly accepted the linear string of My Precious Encounters(TM) as the way to run a game, the consequence of that is that the GM has just accepted a massive new load of responsibility: They're in complete control of the content and, in broad strokes, how that content is going to be handled.

    Which means they're responsible for making sure everybody gets their spotlight time. And they're responsible for stocking the railroad track with the proper magic items. And they're responsible for carefully balancing every single encounter.

    And on and on and on.

    4E -- and the modern paradigm which gave birth to it -- is ultimately bankrupt: First of all, it's not very effective. It's also not very efficient. It requires more prep while providing fewer results.

    Breaking that paradigm is going to be tough, though. If you look at the history of D&D game design, it has been a consistent path of stripping out the clearly coded game structures that used to make non-linear gameplay possible. (Consider, for a moment, that 4E's core rulebooks literally don't contain a complete game structure for dungeoncrawling.)

    And when GMs don't have those clear game structures for nonlinear play, the consistent result has always been a default to linear adventures. (That's not the GM's fault, BTW: They just don't have any other options.)