Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Irrational Dice Fetishes and the Punch and Judy of D&D

My Pendragon game is off tonight because the mic on my computer is busted; in lieu of that, here are two gaming related thoughts.

1) In the early days of the blog, I wrote this entry about dice superstitions. I like it. I came up with the still (to me, anyway) pertinent idea that Pascal's Wager makes perfect sense when it comes to dice. You lose nothing from upholding a superstition about dice, and might in fact gain hugely if it happens to be true, and since there are terrible consequences (if highly improbable) to breaking such a superstition, you may as well stick to it. There is no downside, only upside. It is like a free option.

I was thinking today about dice superstitions, and it occurred to me that the most fundamental dice superstition of all may be that dice must either be rolled in anger (i.e. when they are needed - in a game, or on a random generator table during prep) or entirely idly (for fun), but they should never be rolled in preparedness for a game to be substituted for actual dice rolls. To explain a little further, in case that makes no sense, let's try a thought experiment.

Imagine if, as a DM, you thought it might be useful to roll out loads of dice results in advance, or even generate a load of results entirely randomly without using dice at all (random.org would allow you to create literally millions of such results very quickly), and then simply refer to your list of results in-game rather than actually making dice rolls. You also thought of a way to do this entirely blind, so you had no way of knowing in advance what a given result would be - you eliminated all possibility of foresight. Wouldn't you nonetheless feel horrendous if you did this? Wouldn't it seem like the most heinous act that a DM could perform? Wouldn't it go against everything that is good and true in the universe?

2) For complex reasons I was looking at the wikipedia Punch and Judy entry earlier. Take a look at the following passage, describing what takes place in a typical modern-day Punch and Judy show:

As performed currently in the UK a typical show will start with the arrival of Mr. Punch followed by the introduction of Judy. They may well kiss and dance before Judy requests Mr. Punch to look after the baby. Punch will fail to carry this task out appropriately. It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days, but he may well sit on it in a failed attempt to "babysit", or drop it, or even let it go through a sausage machine. In any event Judy will return, will be outraged, will fetch a stick and the knockabout will commence. A policeman will arrive in response to the mayhem and will himself be felled by Punch's slapstick. All this is carried out at breakneck farcical speed with much involvement from a gleefully shouting audience. From here on anything goes. Joey the Clown might appear and suggest it's dinner time. This will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know this really signals the arrival of a crocodile whom Mr. Punch might not see until the audience shouts out and lets him know. Punch's subsequent comic struggle with the crocodile might then leave him in need of a Doctor who will arrive and attempt to treat Punch by walloping him with a stick until Punch turns the tables on him. Punch may next pause to count his "victims" by laying puppets on the stage only for Joey the Clown to move them about behind his back in order to frustrate him. A ghost might then appear and give Mr. Punch a fright before it too is chased off with a slapstick. In less squeamish times a hangman would arrive to punish Mr. Punch, only to himself be tricked into sticking his head in the noose. "Do you do the hanging?" is a question often asked of performers. Some will include it where circumstances warrant (such as for an adult audience) but most do not. Some will choose to include it whatever the circumstances and will face down any critics. Finally the show will often end with the Devil arriving for Mr. Punch (and possibly to threaten his audience as well). Punch — in his final gleefully triumphant moment — will win his fight with the Devil and bring the show to a rousing conclusion and earn a round of applause.

This amused me no end, as I sat there imagining what somebody unfamiliar with Punch and Judy would make of all this - in particular lines such as "It is rare for Punch to hit his baby these days", or "this will lead to the production of a string of sausages, which Mr. Punch must look after, although the audience will know this really signals the arrival of a crocodile".

But it also reminded me very strongly of the weird, unhinged and entirely picaresque sequences of events that often take place in a session of a role playing game like D&D. Could it be that playing D&D taps into the same sort of tradition from which Punch and Judy comes - an oral, popular story-telling tradition that eschewed what we now think of as "proper" narrative in the name of other, episodic and unpredictable charms?

From the same entry:

There is no one definitive "story" of Punch and Judy. As expressed by Peter Fraser in Punch & Judy (1970), "the drama developed as a succession of incidents which the audience could join or leave at any time, and much of the show was impromptu." This was elaborated by George Speaight in his Punch & Judy: A History (1970), who explained that the plotline "is like a story compiled in a parlour game of Consequences ... the show should, indeed, not be regarded as a story at all but a succession of encounters." The most recent academic work, Punch & Judy: History, Tradition and Meaning by Robert Leach (1985), makes it clear that "the story is a conceptual entity, not a set text: the means of telling it, therefore, are always variable."

Could that not be a description of a game of D&D?

23 comments:

  1. 1. Pre-rolled numbers are probably avoided not so much out of superstition but because they kill tension. Watching someone look something up is less fun than waiting for a die to fall

    2. A. I like that False Machine is "complex reasons"

    B. "an oral, popular story-telling tradition that eschewed what we now think of as "proper" narrative in the name of other, episodic and unpredictable charms?"

    This is how commedia dell arte works (probably you knew that). And how morality plays kinda worked, although less so because morality plays (and see how often in modern gaming devotion to story is tied to both "meaning" and (by extension) devotion to moral policing ) always had to have a clear didactic meaning.

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    1. D&D is an amorality play.

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    2. It's also how Japanese fiction seems to work, at least in my experience. Almost like the plot is generated at random.

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    3. But that's why Punch & Judy is such a good comparison, because Punch is the most amoral anti-hero in fiction (he beats up his own baby, for goodness' sake) but the audience love him.

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  2. I do/have done, the number generator thing both in and out of play.

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    1. It feels wrong to me in every way.

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  3. -c
    Yeah, as have/do I. That said I'm not fake- and/or pre-rolling necessarily fun or anxiety/anger-related rolls, but procedurally necessary things that get boring at the table (like fully fleshing out wandering encounters).

    -z
    Interesting connection to morality plays.

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  4. The Punch and Judy show would make an excellent scenario.

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  5. You lose something when you uphold any superstition.

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  6. I do actually roll my random encounter checks (well, my computer does) in advance, currently. This is just a practical matter though, because it makes it less likely that I will forget to do them when handling other things in play. Instead, I can just advance the turn counter by checking off a box, and if that box is a star, in addition a random encounter happens. It is slightly different experientially than being totally surprised by the dice, but I feel like it lets me keep "more balls in the air at once," if that makes sense, during the game. Given that the turn boxes are also arranged in rows of six, it also makes things like torch exhaustion hard to miss without other external tracking methods (when I hit the end of a row, I know to tell players that the torch is about to go out).

    I also pre-roll hit dice to be used with any NPCs that need them so that I can check off HP damage rather than needing to rewrite HP totals (this is probably only really practical with the super low HP totals of OD&D, with its all d6 HD system).

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    1. I'm amazed this is the case with so many people. Don't you feel something significant is missing from the game if you do it that way?

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    2. No, how could it be? It's not like I really know anything in advance by doing this, because the juxtaposition of when the random encounter comes and where the PCs are (or what they are doing) is completely unpredictable.

      Also, though I could study the upcoming results and be affected by them slightly, in general I don't (and can't really, because I'm too busy dealing with all the other aspects of running the game and interacting with 3 to 6 other people at once).

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  7. When I was running a few pbem games I wanted to generate long lists of die rolls to save time. I never did because I was worried about accidently seeing the "next" result and it subconsciously affecting the events. Im ok with any method of random number generation but I really want to be surprised by it. So I relied on the old bones.

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  8. I guess this is why I don't pre-roll initiative for the monsters in my 4e games, even though it would save a fair bit of time. It just feels wrong.

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  9. To me, there's a clear boundary between game elements that are really deterministic, where the dice are just being used to figure out something that's "already true", and cases where the events being represented by the dice are truly random.

    For example, I think it's fine to generate in advance the fact that there's a village of gnolls over the next hill, that there are 128 warriors in the village, and that 17 of them have crossbows and are off on patrol. That's all stuff that isn't really random in the game world, but either true or not true.

    But the fact that the first gnoll that attacks you will roll a 17 to hit and then a 5 for damage, really is random -- within the scope of the game world itself. You shouldn't roll anything that's random (in this strong narrative sense) in advance.

    A good rule of thumb is "If the GM can simply fiat this game element without feeling guilty about it, then the GM can also roll it off a table in advance without feeling guilty about it."

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    1. Yes, that's exactly what I meant, but you put it more clearly and succinctly.

      Random encounters are a grey area because, in a sense, they are "already true" (the gnolls will happen to be wandering through these particular woods at this particular time irrespective of what the players are doing) but the way they work mechanically is "truly random" in that the encounter is randomly generated and not planned by the DM.

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  10. I've done the "random number beforehand" thing, usually using a random number generator (like "randbetween" on Excel to get a whole spreadsheet of numbers). But like you, I don't like it. I am always disappointed by the results, and can't help but feel (my own superstition) that I get better results when I roll my own dice. I prefer to avoid the practice when possible.

    As far as other dicing superstitions: my dice seem to do better when I care more and when I inject energy into my gameplay. For instance, at a recent playtest of D&D Next, every time I loudly cursed my opponent (in character, shouting oaths and whatnot) I'd roll a 19 or 20 on my attack roll. When I didn't do this, or forgot to, or simply "just rolled" the D20 would come up anywhere from 2 to 12.

    Oh...and as a DM, my dice seem to roll hot when I'm killing PCs.

    As for the other: I would trade most reality television shows for 30 minute time-slots of Punch & Judy, and would feel morally righteous about it.

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    1. @JB

      What are "better" results in the context of being a GM? Do you not feel like computer generated numbers are as unpredictable?

      My own personal ideal is to not have any preferences whatsoever regarding any particular random outcome (which fits in with the ideal of bathos in RPGs that Noisms has so well written about previously).

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  11. Pre-determining dice rolls? I might as well punch my own baby.

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  12. I punched his baby, and I got a natural twenty. I'm rolling on the critical hits chart.

    1. There is a simple reason to almost never pre-roll. Nothing is as satisfying as making players twitch when they hear the sound of your dice rattling on the glass. Coupled with a falsely casual "Oh nothing" in answer to their queries, you can send them into a spasm of fight or flight, convinced they just missed something. Call it Pavlov's dice roll. The only thing I'll pre-roll is noticing a secret door.

    2. D&D is improv, as the players are always out of the box. Which is why those Choose Your Own Adventure books and solo modules always failed horribly. Precisely because it's not choose Door A or Door B, far too often it turns into what if we just fly to that balcony,I use my rock to mud spell to tunnel into the vault, let's dress as sheep, or let's show up twelve hours late to the temple when everyone is passed out. You need the random factor to keep them off balance and to keep it fun for you, otherwise the adventure turns into one of the TV detective shows where you can pick the killer in the first ten minutes, because why else would that Frazier guy be on Law and Order if he wasn't the killer. The second time you show them "Chekhov's gun" some bright boy is going to remove the firing pin just as a matter of course.

    2a. Ever tried to explain Andy Capp to someone who didn't encounter it as child? Who only knows him from the snack food? By the time you mention you read this "comic" strip about a drunken, abusive husband daily as a child, they're looking at you like you just admitted to being bad-touched at bible camp.

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  13. I've had pre-rolled sheets for attacks and saves, even figured out if a roll was a crit or not and had oodles damage rolls prerolled. sure the first d20 roll of the night might be a 17... but i have no clue ahead of time if it will be a gnoll attack, a rat attack, or kobold saving vs fireball. There are also literary trends and some game abilities about precognition... how's that supposed to work without rolling ahead of time?

    I didn't keep doing it because dice rolling is fun and does kee folks on the edge of their seat in a manner page referencing never can,

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