Friday, October 28, 2011

Seriously. Let's just do Cyberpunk or something instead.

So that's my RPG philosophy. Do I practice what I preach? Not at all.

The whole idea is that everyone in the game should have fun. And a lot of the people I play with don't like the same things I do. If I'm running the game -- and I probably am -- it needs to be a game that they'll like too. F'rinstance, my wife has no interest at all in acting like a character, developing a persona, or exploring her PC's personal goals. She wants to solve puzzles and interact with her environment in clever ways. As a GM (or as a fellow player) I need to make sure that she gets to do some of that. If each person has some fun, every person has more fun.

Or if my friend Mateo is in playing, he'll go so far into the method-actor style that he'll forget his own name. That's farther than I want to go, but it's what he enjoys. There should be some space for him to do that whether or not it's my cup of tea. With some experience, you learn that Mateo will crash the entire game on the shoals of his character concept, so he takes some handling. But it's worth the effort. He's fun.

I read an article in Dragon magazine years ago that explains play styles better than any theory or model or whatever. It broke players down into three basic groups. At one end of this spectrum was the powergamer, which we used to call a "munchkin" before Steve Jackson took that word back. The powergamer wants to Win The Game -- have the best character possible in terms of mechanics and abilities, regardless of impact on the rest of the game. At the other end was the method actor, who wants to Be Somebody Else to the fullest extent possible, also without regard to the impact on the rest of the game.

But in the middle you find the vicarious participator, someone who's playing a game and being a character and having fun, but is fundamentally being themselves.* Whatever the details of their character, it looks a lot like who they are in real life, or maybe a reflection of who they'd like to be. Whatever the details of the game, they aren't something the player is driven to master. This is how my wife plays -- her characters are very much like herself, only with daggers. And it's how I play -- my characters are the fast-talking con men that I don't get to be.

The point, if I still have one, is that while I think there is One Best Way To Play, it's not what's going to be the most fun for everyone. And maximizing the fun is the most important thing. Would I have more fun if everyone played the way I do? Perhaps. But it's more important to play with the people I like, and they enjoy all kinds of styles. If Kevin doesn't want to share any background or history for his character, that's how it's gonna be, even though I love working with that stuff.

All that said, I still don't wanna play through your dungeon crawl.

*Or possibly "being themself." It reads badly both ways.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The short summary

You're telling a story about last night's RPG session...

If you keep talking about what your character did, you're doing it right.
If you keep talking about what you did, you're doing it wrong.
If you keep talking about what your GM did, you're in a cult.

The long summary

You use a telephone to do one thing, and a radio to do another. Seems like a simple idea.

Different mediums of communication/interaction (let's call them media) are suited to different things, thanks to the laws of spacetime. The telephone is excellent for transmitting sounds between two specific users who are in different locations. The radio is excellent for transmitting sounds from one broadcaster to any number of receivers in other locations.

That doesn't mean you have to use them that way, of course. I could hold up my cell phone to a CD player, allowing the person on the other end to listen to music. Or I could broadcast specific messages to my wife over the radio, letting her know that I'll be home late from work. However, these aren't the optimal ways to use telephones and radio. People use the phone when they want to talk to someone specific, and they use the radio to listen to music or generalized talking. It's a matter of using a medium for its strengths - figure out what it does best, and do that with it.

And sometimes different media replace each other. For example, telegraphs used to be very common. If you wanted to get a message to someone and you couldn't wait for the mail, you sent a telegram. With the advent of phones, though, telegraphy went into decline, and the internet has finished them off as a practical option. Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006. Radio is also an example of this evolution. It was the first medium to allow simultaneous one-way transmission from a central point to many receivers; in other words, lots of people could listen to the same thing at the same time. So radio became the home of music, storytelling, advertising, conversation, etc. That is, until television came along.

Since TV could actually show pictures, it rapidly took away several things that radio had previously done, especially storytelling. People who used to gather around the ol' Philco, listening to all-audio tales of cops and robbers, switched to actually seeing the stories acted out by live people on screens as large as a few inches across! So television displaced radio for certain things, particularly those things that were best served by having visuals. Radio hung on, though, by doing things that lent themselves to an all-audio-no-visual format. If people want to hear music, radio is suited to the task.

And so I circle back to roleplaying. A while ago, I was blogging about GNS Theory. Although not a perfect model, GNS Theory provides us with a useful set of concepts for discussing RPGs. Some people, it says, are Gamists who primarily enjoy the challenge and competition of playing a game. Some people are Narrativists who want to expose themselves to difficult emotional conflicts. And some people are Simulationists who want to emulate things outside the present world, like being a specific character or experiencing a particular location. While discussing this, I said I was working on a robust and philosophical defense of Simulationism. It took a lot of "Matt-likes-this-and-dislikes-that" blogging to sort it out in my head, but here it is.

Roleplaying games are a medium, just like telephones and radio. They're a set of methods and rules for human interaction, for the transmission of ideas. Like other media, RPGs are better at some things than they are at others. So it makes sense to use them in ways that play to their strengths. And what are those strengths? What do RPGs do better than their peers? Pretending. Roleplaying games are superb at fostering the suspension of disbelief, at creating a certain detachment from the rules and constraints of material life in the here-and-now. In short, RPGs excel at simulation. So let's use them for that.

It's not that they can't do other things, of course. They are games, after all, and you can use them to manipulate rulesets and engage in abstract competition with other people. But you can also do that with Monopoly or Axis & Allies or chess, and frankly those games do it better than RPGs do. If you want to compete, play go. Or take up racquetball. Or join a fantasy football league. Those are all better-designed for your competitive urge than RPGs. The rules in an RPG are there to help you resolve uncertain situations, not as a metric for beating other people at the table.

The same holds for people wanting emotional drama. RPGs can and do deliver that. But novels and movies do it better. If you want to focus on wrenching internal conflicts and difficult decisions, try reading Sophie's Choice or watching... I don't know what you'd watch. I'm not a fan of wrenching internal conflicts. But I know they're out there in other media, media that are stronger at providing them and that are weaker in engaging the participants' personal imaginations. For that matter, there's plenty of emotional drama in real life. It's a reflection of my preferences, yes, but I don't grasp why people would want to pretend to make hard choices when so much day-to-day existence involves really doing so.

Simulation is the one component of an RPG that you can't strip away from it. If there isn't pretending, if someone isn't imagining their personal version of a not-here-and-now, it's not a roleplaying game. It may still be a game. It may still have elements of improv acting. But it's missing the core of what makes this medium, this hobby, different from anything else. Roleplaying games offer an unparalleled chance to be someone you're not, in somewhere that doesn't exist, doing things you can't really do. All the other elements are useful, yes - but simulating stuff is what it's all about. It's a powerful theraputic tool. It's a useful creativity exercise. And it's pretty damn enjoyable.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

There's actually one more of these en route...

What do I like? What do I dislike? The answer to both questions might be "limits on my characters." In this, our final installment of Matt Talks About Roleplaying At Greater Length Than Anyone Really Wanted, we examine one of my greatest Likes and quite probably my single biggest Dislike...

Two years ago I was running a D&D game for some teenagers. Most of them had little or no roleplaying experience, so I gave them some props to help with character creation. One was a notecard with around 9 different language options on it. The official D&D language options are boring, so it was a list of languages I made up along with notes like "The language of a rival nation" or "Obscure click-language known only to scholars." Nothing special there - except that they got sooo into it. Forget the decisions about race and class; these new players' imaginations were fired by the choice between speaking Rivan or Jajanya. And of course, most of them took the obscure click-language.

Languages are a fast, entertaining way to customize a character. They provide an interesting choice -- should you be practical or quirky? They also cause you to ask: where has your character gone and who have they known? When I make a 350-point Champions character, those 2 points I invest in Spanish or Arabic have as much to do with defining him as the 60 points I put into Energy Blast.

Languages also let the GM define a world very quickly. How many cultures are there? Are they related in some way? How prominent or obscure are they? Take 5 languages and come up with a sentence for each, explaining who speaks it and why. You've got the foundation of a world right there. Language lists are one of the best setting-generation tools out there.

Don't tell me how to play my character.

Don't tell me that there are only 8 ways to be, and that I have to pick one for all time. Don't tell me that characters are interchangeable units. Don't tell me that your game defines people by how well they fit an arbitratry role. Don't slap me with limits on how I can play.

Character classes are a barrier to fun and a prison for imagination. I have never seen a game that was improved by them.  Aside from hanging out with my friends, I think PCs are the very best thing about roleplaying. My character is an expression of my interests; it tells the GM what kinds of things I want to do. Give me options. Don't give me classes - they're a straightjacket. Classes are a way of saying There Is One Right Way To Play. And there isn't. So get rid of them.

I've practiced what I preach here. My various abortive Cyberpunk games have been class-free. I created a pretty effective class-free version of D&D 4E. I didn't do the same with my 3.5 stuff, but I did create new classes with great abandon, so that players would have more freedom to play what they wanted to play. For what it's worth, I created a new core class that Monte Cook put in his "Year's Best d20." It's called the yogi, it's rooted in Hindu mythology (and my desire for a Constitution-based character), and it's pretty good. I think I know a few things about how to make classes work.

But it's better to not have classes at all.

Monday, October 24, 2011


Hark, it's the penultimate entry in what one person has dubbed the Mattifesto. Nothing too dramatic here -- the symmetry-loving part of me wishes that these somehow aligned, but really they're just the second-to-last entries on the piece of paper I'm looking at.

I like pretending, I like exploring, I like world-building. But that's not why I roleplay. I do it because I like hanging out with my friends. The social aspect of roleplaying is the most important thing to me. Spending time together, laughing at the same old inside jokes, trying to separate Jason from the popcorn bowl - that's what it's all about. Some people watch football together or go to bars together. When my friends are gathered, I like to roleplay. As a GM, I run a pretty loose table. Out-of-character conversation and interaction isn't a problem to me, unless it's actually drowning out the events at hand.

One odd side effect of this is that I don't particularly enjoy conventions. Playing games with strangers isn't a lot of fun for me, since there isn't much of a basis for interaction. You're all just trapped at the table together, manipulating a ruleset until the time slot expires. Yawn.

If I wanted a tactical minis game, I'd play Warhammer 40K. I don't and I'm not. Don't slow combat down to a crawl so that everyone can consider all the ramifications of every possible +2 modifier. DO STUFF AND MOVE ON.

This doesn't entirely square with my longstanding passionate affair with the Hero System. However, most of my other favorite RPGs (Star Wars, Castle Falkenstein, Cyberpunk, 7th Sea) have very quick combat systems. Real combat moves fast. So should roleplaying combat. Otherwise, you've got a recurrence of the split-the-party problem, where one person's doing stuff and everyone else is sitting around, waiting for a chance for their character to do cool things.

...if I were to tie this all together, I could point out that the Social Aspect can be used to fill the holes caused by Slow Combat. But I'm not that compulsive.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

According to Chris Sims, Iron Man once fought Frankenstein

After reading these, it shouldn't be a surprise that my current project is making a superhero setting that works like a hexcrawl/sandbox. If I get really ambitious (I won't), the plan is to design it for a version of Champions that's been boiled down to a Castle Falkenstein-like level of detail. Ah, grafting unlike things together... DOCTOR FRANKENSTEIN HAD THE RIGHT IDEA.

I have the most fun when the players, not the GM, are deciding what the session will be about. The best games I've ever been in are the ones where players seized control of the action and the GM's job was just to keep things rolling.

When I'm roleplaying, I want the game to be about my character. This is my big chance to be some cool fictional person and have cool fictional adventures. I enjoy the acting/pretending part of RPGs more than anything. So I want that to be the center of the action - my characters Want To Do Certain Things. I'm probably more interested in these Certain Things than I am in the GM's plans. If I want to form my own breakaway thieves' guild, let me work on that. I'll be happier as a player, and you'll have more material to work with.

Same goes for the other side of the screen. As a GM, I consider it my players' job to figure out what happens next. I'm mostly there to provide background and throw in complications. The best campaigns I've run have been ones where the players were pushing to reach certain goals - my task wasn't to set those goals, but to make the pursuit interesting. Perhaps the PCs are sword-and-sorcery rogues who find that the dead monarch's missing daughter has secretly joined their carnival. They get to decide what to do about it - it's not my job as GM. And if they decide to restore her to the throne despite the long odds, all I have to do is keep tossing out challenges and opportunities. Adventures are more fun when the players are in control of the overall narrative direction.

Roleplaying is more fun when the players want to do certain things, and when the GM's main priority is advancing (or complicating) their ability to do those things.

On Star Trek, the stories follow a pattern. The spaceship is directed to enter a new area by offstage bosses. This new area has a weird environment, culture, or inhabitant. Said weirdness causes problems for the crew. The crew figures out a way to resolve the weirdness. Status quo is restored, the spaceship moves on, little or no long-term change occurs to characters or setting.

Man, that's boring.

The Star Trek model is little more than a series of mobile puzzle-solvings. The characters don't really grow or change. The setting isn't consistent, and it's not explored in any depth. It's just a series of short stories told by the GM. I can get that from, y'know, a short story collection. I prefer games where the characters are based in a defined area, with recurring NPCs and ongoing subplots, offering chances for them to change who/what they are as the players see fit. I like change. I like consequences. I don't like going from one arbitrary location to the next with a cast of stereotypes and broad caricatures.

My favorite Trek was Deep Space 9, which puts me outside the mainstream of that particular fandom. And I liked Babylon 5 even better. Make of that what you will.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Today we metagame it

For me, three players is the sweet spot. With three players, everyone will get a large share of spotlight time. They'll get to play the game their way. They'll get to tell more of their story.

Also, in a three-player game, everyone is important. Each character will have a lot to do (assuming 1 character/player), since there aren't a lot of other people they can turn to for support. At the same time, it's not hard to challenge a three-player group, since they probably can't cover all the necessary bases every session. They'll have to improvise, generalize, and/or turn to NPCs for assistance. Everyone gets to be a lot more resourceful in a three-player game. I enjoy that from both sides of the screen.

This one puts me pretty solidly outside the mainstream, I know. But as they say in Lake Wobegon, sumus quod sumus - we are who we are. And I'm someone who doesn't enjoy it when my roleplaying is an appointment. As a GM, I can't guarantee that I'll have a good idea every week. More likely, I'll just get burned out by the pressure of prepping that much material. As a player, I can't guarantee that I'll show up that often. This isn't a new development - even before I was an old person with job and spouse and kids, I rarely committed to a recurring game.

Scheduling your roleplaying that rigorously, to me, takes some of the fun out of it. Now it's not something we do because we're in the mood - we do it because it's an obligation. We have to play, whether we feel like it or not. I'd rather only play when I feel like it. And it's rare that I'll want to play once a week.

I did run a weekly game for about a year. It was a good time, too. That was entirely because of the people I played with - close friends all, and we knew that this was a limited opportunity because of jobs and weddings and stuff. If we tried to make it a permanent thing, I think we'd have driven each other crazy.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Never take your eyes off the Aztecs

It's been a while since my last Like/Dislike repost. There are only a few left in the series, so we might as well collect 'em all...

Give me some charts to roll on, and I'm happy for hours. Or, in the internet age, give me a way to generate weird modern-Cthulhu items or maybe some old-school fantasy henchmen and I'll make my own fun.

It's not that I lack for ideas. However, the beauty of randomly generated stuff is that it forces you to consider things that you otherwise wouldn't. Integrating your own tastes/biases with those of an impersonal list can lead to really cool things that you would, by definition, never have thought of on your own. For instance, I don't much like time travel (see below). But when this nifty random Champions character generator gave me a supervillain with Summon - a power I would never, ever use on my own - it sparked all kinds of ideas. So now I have not just a superintelligent apeman from the far future, but I have his time-traveling court and a the outline of a future history and even some thoughts on how medicine will evolve in this setting.

Seriously - randomly generated game elements are awesome. They force you to work with things that you probably wouldn't even have thought of, much less tried. I can't go so someplace like Chaotic Shiny without making a couple of cultures or artifacts. I love fooling around with Hexographer's free map generator. Using random elements is like having access to other GMs' brains. And who wouldn't want a big pile of GM brains around the house?

My superintelligent apeman nothwitstanding, time travel and dimension travel are usually excuses for cheap, lazy storytelling. They're a way to say "what if?" followed quickly by "just kidding!" When used in roleplaying games, in my experience, they're usually used for one of two things, neither of them being very interesting.

First, as an excuse to fight something cool, like dinosaurs or robotic Schwarzeneggers. I'm not opposed to cool fights. It's just that there are other, more creative ways to get them into your game. Saying that a rift opened in time and X stepped out is just weak. You can do better.

Second, as a halfhearted way of exploring what happens if Things Go Wrong. Time/dimension travel plots often boil down to "here's an alternate version of your world, but the bad guys are in charge." You go there, fight some bad guys, maybe fix some stuff - but it's not your world. It doesn't really matter. Even if you screw up, the reality you know isn't in any danger. These plots rob roleplaying of one of its best elements - the ability to show how PC actions have consequences on their surroundings. Not on "some other time's" surroundings, not on "alternate dimension where the Aztecs won our Civil War" surroundings.