Thursday, 14 May 2020

On the RPG Hobby's Structural Bias and Being D&D-Critical

Patrick Stuart, one of the players in my online Ryuutama campaign, put up this interesting post yesterday. In brief, Ryuutama is not really very good at producing the type of play that it presents itself as - a kind of Ghibli-meets-the-Oregon-Trail - and we've ended up really just doing old school D&D with a slightly different system.

Although I'm having fun running the campaign, this analysis is completely correct. What has happened so far has not really been very different to what would have happened if we were playing BECMI.

It's hard to know whether this is Ryuutama's fault or mine. I think partly it is down to weaknesses in the system, but also due to my own pre-existing biases; I didn't intend for the party to end up exploring a dungeon, but rolling on random tables led that way - and since I was the one who created the random tables, it's hard for me to lay the blame at anyone else's feet.

Nevertheless, all of this raises a set of more profound questions about the nature of 'feel' in RPGs. How do you successfully make a session or campaign have a certain atmosphere or mood, or emulate a particular genre or work of fiction?

My instinct is that there is what sociologists would probably call a 'structural bias' in the hobby, in that D&D has by far away the lion's share of the market and is the game through which most people first experience role playing. So regardless of its actual substantive qualities as a game, it dominates everybody's understanding of what an RPG is all about. All other things being equal, actual play leans towards being like D&D. There is a very faint inertia involved in anything that isn't dungeoneering.

The key phrase there, of course, is "all other things being equal". I don't mean for a second that it's impossible to play Pendragon or Call of Cthulhu or Traveller and not have it descend into dungeon exploration. That would be absurd. Clearly, there are other factors at work, including the substantive rules of whatever game is being played; the way they are presented; the art; the writing; the people involved in playing any given session of the game, and so on. Being "not D&D" is perfectly easily achievable when those factors align.

I increasingly, though, think the most important factor of all may be the people involved - their attitudes and what they want to achieve. Put another way, I am sure that if in my Ryuutama game we, the DM and players, had consistently encouraged each other to adopt a more Ghibli-like approach, we would have ended up with a more Ghibli-like campaign. We could, in short, have been more explicitly D&D-critical. When I was drawing up my random event tables, I could have reminded myself, "No, don't put anything remotely dungeonish in there - it wouldn't fit with the mood." I could have made the effort a tiny bit more strenuously to avoid leaning back on old crutches. A lot of 'feel', I mean, is really just down to effort and expectation.

One of the RPG campaign concepts I would dearly love to run would be an "in search of the Blue Wizards" game set in Middle Earth, with the PCs taking on the task of heading Eastwards, say from Rivendell, on a quest to find the two lost wizards and seek their aid in the war against Sauron. I have always been reticent to do so, because: a) it would involve a lot of work; b) it would be really hard not to have it end up as a railroad; but also, chiefly, c) I'm worried it would end up devolving into old school D&D. Maybe the problem here is just me - I don't trust myself to be sufficiently D&D-critical to make it work.

34 comments:

  1. Great points, thank you. I've been thinking on this during a struggle to find a game system that emulates a very specific experience, namely GW's space marines. Most of the "standard" RPGs, modern D&D, OSR stuff, Traveller etc all miss something fundamental that I'm after. In this case, it's the competence of the protagonists. Space marines are extremely good at fighting, so any system that has at it's heart PC:"I want to do a thing", DM:"Okay roll" isn't going to work. Space marines can just do stuff. So I've ended up homebrewing a mechanic that works a little like a dice pool with more certainty. The combat aspect of the game becomes more about resource management than luck. Considering being D&D-critical, it helps to break it down into specifically which mechanics are causing the game to veer into basic dungeon crawl, and ask could any other fundamental mechanics be added to alter the basic flow of the game. Or something. Ghibli is a hard one to fix with my "y'know, just add a mechanic" theory, though.

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    1. Have you read/looked at 3:16? I only say this because if I remember it is predicated on the PCs being uber competent space marines.

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    2. I was also going to recommend 3:16. Our games are like Space Balls, but by default it's somewhere between Starship Troopers and 40k.

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    3. Fantastic. This is great. Thanks!

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  2. =="in search of the Blue Wizards" game set in Middle Earth, with the PCs taking on the task of heading Eastwards, say from Rivendell, on a quest to find the two lost wizards and seek their aid in the war against Sauron.

    A bit arrogant but ok, what else.

    ==I have always been reticent to do so, because:
    ==a) it would involve a lot of work;

    Yes. Seven Pillars of Wisdom work.

    ==b) it would be really hard not to have it end up as a railroad;

    No, the campaign should be set in the east and it doesn't matter if it succeeds. In fact by the book it should fail so anything can happen.

    ==c) I'm worried it would end up devolving into old school D&D. Maybe the problem here is just me - I don't trust myself to be sufficiently D&D-critical to make it work.

    Yep, you and PS et al. don't have a noticeable understanding of OAD&D but that just takes practise.

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    1. Occasionally you can still come up with nuggets of lucidity, Kent. You are completely right. It doesn't matter if the search for the Blue Wizards succeeds, so there is no threat of a railroad.

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  3. I find that one of the things that ruins feel is allowing players to create PCs without restrictions and guidance when they know the system. I fall into this too, but I play with a lot of people who are more into mechanics than thematics. So, they will build more mechanically competent or weird PCs or something they haven't played before but which doesn't fit well into telling certain types of stories. Parties start off far too diverse, but that's a whole other problem. Anyway, I think I find that play has more feel when either the players don't know the system well enough to build their own characters (but the GM does know) or the campaign puts major limitations on what sort of PCs are acceptable.

    Of course, the reason why this even comes up is that I tend to have very different ideas of "feel" from my players.

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    1. Yeah, D&D works fine with a "grab bag of weirdos" party. Other games either need a similar unifying motivation that works like D&D's "let's go get treasure!" or more cohesive parties.

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    2. CP:2020 works well for the same reason.

      From the opposite tack, Pendragon works by being very restrictive about what you can be.

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    3. No wonder D&D is so popular. You can plug in virtually any character you want, and it'll still be D&D.

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    4. Well the problem with a lot of RPGs is that there's often nothing to plug people into. Games really need a default adventure structure to get people on the same page.

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  4. I've long felt that one reason so many folks start with D&D is the dungeon. The dungeon acts as training wheels for role playing and DMing. Most games move beyond the dungeon once the everyone knows what they are doing.

    Most other games make a point of avoiding dungeons as one of the ways to differentiate themselves but by doing so they make it harder for true RPG newbies to get into the game (as opposed to those coming over from D&D looking for something new).

    That to me is the structural bias towards D&D. Other games have dungeons but they tend to be D&D-like games so for this I'm lumping them together.

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    1. I also genuinely do think dungeon exploration is really fun, though, and often the best part of playing RPGs. It's when choices matter, and when the atmosphere also cranks up.

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  5. One of the things that struck me about Patrick's post is that while I'm generally pretty good at improvising dungeon or murderhobo type adventures on the fly, I would suck big time at doing the same for "ghibli" style problems where violence doesn't work (he gives the examples of a village being faced with a lack of water, a bad sickness, a missing child or an alcoholic farmer). It's not that I don't find the idea attractive, I just wouldn't know where to start. And yes, the various tables I have are not really helping :-)

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    1. Yeah, I also have that problem. I suppose it would come with practice. But the truth is I also just like fighting and combat.

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  6. The game should be doing the kind of heavy lifting you talk about. If our premise is significantly divergent from the norm, then it follows, that more effort is required to allow players and GMs the required agency to be creative.

    If I might make a suggestion which is profoundly NOT OSR, whilst also not being another AW clone, the game Chuubo's Marvellous Wish Granting Engine by Jenna Moran, whilst being incredibly fucking weird (from my reading), certainly takes a lot of weight upon it's shoulders when it comes to Studio Ghibli vibes.

    I've not seen too many games with a detailed mechanic for drawing experience from putting on a local festival, for example.

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    1. Interesting! I will take a look.

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    2. It an intimidating book to flick through, masses of moving parts, cards being held up representing emotional states and such... also diceless. I can't imagine actually playing it... But I think it represents the micro managed extreme of the 'supported play style'. I'm fairly sure it has a committed fan base.

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  7. An interesting question. I have played Ryuutama only a handful of times and each of those times felt quite unlike D&D.

    As you note, this maybe because there was a very different dynamic at work. In each case I played with groups consisting of Anime/Manga fans who were not particularly into D&D (myself included).

    Studio Ghibli films and 'Slice of Life' Japanese series like Genshiken or Yotsuba& come more naturally to the group in question than 'kill it and steal its belongings' does, which often requires some greater motivation and thought among this particular band of gamers.

    Currently I am running a Dark Comedy/Sci-Fi campaign using the Alien RPG by Fria Ligan, but using the setting of the SF Britcom Red Dwarf. We've had three sessions and the only one that was good but not amazing with the action-packed third one. It was fun but it didn't feel as special. It could have been any game of Traveller, Star Trek, or anything else.

    What you put into it, pre-conceived notions and all, are definitely a major factor in determining the results of any endeavor, yet I also try to consider what I want out of it before I start. Do I was to have a rip-roaring, though basically traditional, good time or am I looking to experience something out of the ordinary?

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    1. Although sometimes it's good to be surprised. I'm still very much enjoying the game I'm running.

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  8. Player buy in would be the hardest component I'd imagine. Most people kicking these ideas around online are GM-types who can't help but spend an inordinate amount of their time thinking about games and game concepts, but that's usually not the case for most players I've met. I think RPGs might skew violent because applying violence to a responsive sandbox isn't an experience plauers can reasonably get anywhere else but video games (which are limited in the scope of their simulation and responsiveness). They can look at nature, have social relationships, and help out local communities in real life but this is their only outlet for fantasies of being a band of graverobbing goons.

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  9. I think the observations in this post are interesting and important. To me, it's part of a larger question: What are the sources of the generic fantasy?

    What you hit on here is what we might call the "folklore" part of the answer. People have customs in gaming and those customs are hard to break.

    I think that there are other, large, parts of the answer, too. One is game system. I don't know about Ryuutama, except the bit that I found described online, but, in my view, any system will imply both a certain kind of setting and a certain kind of play. It's up to the game as much as the game master to come up with suspenseful situations in which player choices matter within the proposed setting. If one wants to move on from D&D-typical scenarios, then I suppose one needs a list of things that could happen that will interest players and raise suspense and, in effect, require meaningful dice-rolls, that are not D&D-typical events.

    This leads back to your observation: the players' input is critical. There are some good essays about variation in players' needs. Some players need to feel that rush of success, some need to "beat the game," some need to create a believable world, some need to realize a drama, and so on. I don't know where these different needs come from and we all probably don't need to know. But your players' proclivities will lead to different kinds of play, I suppose. If something falls flat, it's not squarely on the GM. GMs are not solely responsible for inducing shared fun.

    I'm still thinking on the roots of generic fantasy, and I will be writing about that when the thoughts are presentable. I am glad to find others interested in this problem.

    About the tendency to go into a dungeon, I agree with someone here that it's like training wheels in the sense that it is a constrained environment in which choices are therefore limited and survival and power-ups are the simple major goals. But it is also incontrovertible that there is a historical basis to all of this, going back to Arneson and all his imitators that launched the hobby. Custom and economics are at play. If Arneson had found a way to do this without dungeons, what would we be trying to break away from now, in 2020?

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    1. Or is it possible to do it without dungeons at all?

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  10. I think this mostly comes from a decision-making issue, with resources and information influences as well. What I mean is, do the players really have enough information to make interesting decisions? In my experience, a lot of GMs run non-D&D encounters in such a free form manner that the players don't end up with enough information to turn the encounter into a game. For example, if the premise of the campaign is "travel from here to there and try to befriend or help every NPC you meet along the way," then each NPC needs multiple ways to help them and the players need systematic, consistent methods to find out those ways to help. Then they can weigh the pros and cons of each method. This part is key. Without players able to compare choices, there is no game.

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    1. You are so right. In fact you just described in a nutshell why every such game I have ever played in has been not only a disappointment but actually rather irritating.

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  11. I find with non-standard setting it helps to treat the setting almost like the GM’s character. So when the players do something unexpected you can think “how would the setting respond to this”. This gives the players a consistent and immersive response and encourages them to interact with the underlying logic of the setting.

    Making character creation more of a dialogue between the player and the setting also helps, either with random generated elements or more pointed character background questions. I find a good balance is to have mechanical options purely as player choice and background elements as setting led but with room for player interpretation. This ties the characters to the setting from the start and helps bring the party together as a group.

    Tying reward mechanics to the main method of interaction you are hoping for also helps. I find its best to keep these to broad themes rather than being to prescriptive and try to have several methods of earning rewards.

    If I was setting up a “Search for the Blue Wizards” campaign I’d probably tell the players the hook before they made characters “Elrond has asked you to travel East and find the Blue Wizards”. Then I’d ask the players to work out how they know Elrond and why he would send them on the journey (taking care to be clear with the relative power level of the player characters). I’d also set up xp rewards which reinforce the aim but aren’t to prescriptive: minor xp rewards for overcoming servants of Sauron, moderate xp rewards for travelling eastwards and major xp rewards for uncovering information about the blue wizards. This gives the players enough leeway to interact with bits of the setting they find interesting whilst keeping impetus towards an overall goal.

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    1. I can definitely feel an "in search of the Blue Wizards" post coming on...

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    2. Excellent last paragraph for suggestions, anon. Would steal for a Blue Wizards or any Big Quest campaign. Too bad DM guide type books don't contain these simple suggestions to focus players without railroading them (looking at you, 2e DMG)

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  12. This reminds me of an old rpg.net thread: https://forum.rpg.net/index.php?threads/crunch-fluff-and-the-other-thing.433358/

    D&D has a well-defined "rut" that ties into the mechanics well and WORKS while letting you have freedom to do other things. A lot of games don't have a well-defined "rut" so players tend to flail about, especially when they have a grab bag of PCs all with different motivations. Some Indie games have such a tightly defined "rut" that that's basically all you do or can do which becomes a bit oppressive.

    Having a good "rut" in terms of a default adventure structure that's easy for people to grasp and having rules that cater to that (but not ONLY that) is probably the single most important thing in an RPG. Most successful non-RPG games have a similar "rut" that's easy to lay out, Traveler, Paranoia, Shadowrun, CoC, etc.

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    1. I very much agree with that premise.

      Which suggests that any putative game designer would be best trying first to think about what 'rut' he or she is interested in.

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    2. Yeah, it's really really vital. The whole game should ideally be built around the rut while leaving room to build off that and head off in other directions.

      Good games have resource management and a set of clear options build around the default option.

      DnD has stuff like encumbrance tracking, hit point and spell slot attrition, GP = XP, wandering monsters, the whole turn structure, the sort of things characters are good at, the trade-off behind pushing deeper in and heading back, the whole game is based off the rut of dungeon exploration.

      CoC does the same thing with paranormal investigation. Shadowrun has a very clearly defined rut (get hired by Mr. Johnson, scope out the target, buy stuff, break in, get screwed over by Mr. Johnson) and Paranoia very much as well.

      A lot of games with clear ruts can be a bit of a mess rules wise but they work because the rules are all pointing in the same direction.

      A lot of games that read well and have small rabid online fanbases but never really catch on don't have any real rut. A lot of Indie games (My Life With Master for example) lock you so tightly in your rut that you have no room to breathe.

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  13. I think the "exploring dungeons" rut is actual a very limited view of OD&D. Sure, it does most frequently start (and end) there, but in a long-running campaign the game opens itself up in surprising ways.

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    1. Yes but having that common starting point that you can later branch off of is something that works well. Simple Old Schopl dungeon busting is a perfect starting point for teaching my sons RPGs for example.

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