Monday, November 15, 2010

The Three D's of Role Playing Games: Dice, DM and De Players

Forgive me the questionable attempt at alliteration in the title.  I think its time to lay down some fundamentals in terms of how I now define, approach and play D&D. My belief is that any role-playing game that can be considered as such needs all three of the eponymous items in nearly equal measure.  When one talks about the nuts and bolts of the RPGs we love, the concept of "agency" is often considered. defines this as follows: the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.  What I'm saying is that the dice, the dungeon master and the players must all be exerting power in nearly equal measure for your RPG to be any good.  Indeed, you might not even be playing an RPG if things are otherwise.
 Dice.  DM.  Players.  

Looking at things objectively and with an abundance of personal, anecdotal experience at my command I'm left with the simple but stunning revelation that every bad gaming experience I've ever had can be related directly to an imbalance in the amount of power the dice, DM or player were allowed to exert.  Of course we've all at least heard the horror stories involving the abusive and/ or self-aggrandizing DM.  Less offensive  is the well-meaning but inept DM whose inability to manage this balance throws the game out of whack. Combine this poor soul with a self-aggrandizing player or two and watch things collapse quickly.  Consider also the die roller, whose desire is that every move in the game be determined by the dice, flying in the face of common sense, player agency and playability.  His arch-nemesis, the narrator, simply determines for herself how things should be resolved, for the sake of the narrative.   Each of the fundamental  problems underlying these archetypal participants involve an imbalance in applying the influence of one or more of what I feel are the three necessary agents.

This view might not seem particularly revelatory (or conversely you might think me a pedantic ass), but consider it closely for a moment either way.  It immediately eliminates a lot of stuff that gets labeled as an RPG.  First and foremost would be computer-based RPGs.  They fail on all three fronts.  Following behind would be "diceless" indie RPGs.  I don't know enough about LARPs to say for sure... but I suspect in practice they're not, but suppose there's nothing actually stopping them from being RPGs if they allow for all three of the above.   I'll get into this all in more detail below, but first a definition. 

Wikipedia defines role playing games as follows:

A role-playing game (RPG) is a broad family of games in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting. Players take responsibility for acting out these roles within a narrative, either through literal acting, or through a process of structured decision-making or character development. Actions taken within the game succeed or fail according to a formal system of rules and guidelines.

I can accept the above as the starting point when defining RPGs...  but it is too broad.  It inconveniently  accommodates what I have eliminated above, so for my purposes it is adequate but insufficient.  I honestly can't see how a computer role playing game (CRPG) or diceless roleplaying game even inhabit the same universe as a table-top game, and I'm saying this as a guy who enjoys the former and might enjoy the latter.  Let's talk about why.

Considering CRPGs, my stated opinion is that they fail on all three fronts in possessing appropriate levels of dice, DM and player agency. The DM, or a ghost of the same, is there in the form of the programmers and writers that developed the game.  The problem, of course, is that this participation has been conducted in advance and is constrained by the limitations of technology and one human being's ability to anticipate another human being's interface with the cold, hard logic of a pre-programmed machine.  The DM's agency in this case is at once undermining the player's agency (i.e. if the developer didn't think of it ahead of time, the player can't do it) while being itself undermined by the player's ability to simply start over from their last saved game after their character or party dies or a situation doesn't pan out as planned.  The player is similarly limited by selecting from a finite and often unsatisfying number of optional outcomes for any given "scene".  

In the CRPG, the role of DM, described at times as architect, performer, artist and arbiter (see here for two out of four) is reduced to quest spewer, provider of rolling scenery and, if you're lucky, facilitator of interesting dialogue options.  At best the player may participate (at worst as mostly an observer) in an epic story arc that the game designers have presented (see here) or meander through an open-ended sandbox with limited meaningful interaction with any of its people or characters (see here).  While on the surface the randomness seems appropriately in place (how tough is a random number generator?), how meaningful is that when it too can be undermined by the player re-booting and re-playing his or her game until a desired result is achieved?  In fact, in most cases this need to replay certain parts of the game is considered a necessary or noteworthy feature. What other game is like that?  Certainly not one involving more than one person.

When others describe table top gaming as a transitional technology, akin the the Walkman or eight-track players I'm seriously at a loss.  I think its obvious where James Mal's personal sentiments lie in the linked post, and I think he'd be sympathetic to the following:  If playing table-top FRPGs is just a means of scratching a fantasy itch that can more easily be accommodated via Bioware's games, than I think you miss the point.  If that marginalizes the table-top gamers, so be it.  I think it helps to begin drawing the necessary distinction between  two rather disparate things.  The Walkman was replaced by the ipod because the latter was simply much better at what the former did.  CRPGs aren't even RPGs by my reckoning. 

I'm wandering a little off topic a bit there, I know, but the point I'm trying to make is that a true RPG is a unique animal and defined by its capacity to allow a combination of randomness, DM and player agency to create an entertaining and worthwhile experience.    

Stepping back for a minute, Wikipedia's entry for games includes criteria established by French sociologist Roger Caillois, in his book Games and Men.  Games must be:
  • fun: the activity is chosen for its light-hearted character
  • separate: it is circumscribed in time and place
  • uncertain: the outcome of the activity is unforeseeable
  • non-productive: participation does not accomplish anything useful
  • governed by rules: the activity has rules that are different from everyday life
  • fictitious: it is accompanied by the awareness of a different reality
Consider # 3 in the above.  Uncertainty.  Card games like poker or bridge create it through requiring the deck be randomly shuffled and a limited amount of information being available to any given player until the close of the hand.  How could an RPG create this element of uncertainty without randomly determined results?  How does a diceless (i.e non-random) RPG function as a game?  In my view it doesn't.  Like CRPGs it becomes a sort of interactive story-telling medium whose outcome might be every bit as enjoyable as any other form of entertainment, but does not happen to be a game.  

As an aside and different from cards,  chess theoretically provides all of the information in equal measure to each player and gives them each an identical starting point and number of resources. It is a game of observation and timing.  It might even be the ultimate test of skill.  Chess lacks randomness to such a degree that I think one could even make a compelling argument for why it isn't a game at all, were one to subscribe to Caillois's definition above.  A competitive puzzle perhaps?  I digress...

This post began forming in my mind a week or so ago in response to a comment on another blog regarding the necessity for a common reaction/ interaction mechanic between players and NPCs.  It further took shape when Alexis, the author of said blog, asked me to put up or shut up in providing another analogy to DMing to his two provided here.  I haven't exactly gotten around to addressing either one, because what began as a response ended up as a deeper exploration and statement regarding my most essential beliefs regarding RPGs...  what defines them and therefore makes them a singular and unique entertainment medium.    I know I'm not the first person to have said what appears above, but maybe it was necessary to state them in my own way as a foundation for future posting.  My hope is to further develop this in forthcoming posts.

Resumed and Developed Further Here


  1. Allow me to provide another address to this situation that is almost always, always, not considered.

    CPRG's allow me to be a kind of player. They do not, and never will, allow me to be a DM.

  2. You know, I've been thinking that very thing but never finding those precise words since I first played Zork on my Commodore 64 as wee lad.

  3. I wrote a whole post, then deleted it to start from scratch.

    First of all, CRPGs will not be able to replace RPGs until we get some nice AI going. CRPGs, like you said, are not able to react to a human player in any meaningful way.

    I like your point about puzzles, actually. When I play a CRPG I ask myself questions similar to ones I would ask if I were trying to solve a math problem or some such. It is assumed that there is a correct way of doing it, and any deviation will lead to meaninglessness. There are limits in the CRPG that cannot be crossed for lack of programming and an inability to spontaneously program. Simply put, becoming a successful farmer in Elder Scrolls is not only impossible, but pointless as well, especially since no one in the world apparently needs to eat.

    I have never felt those sorts of limits in an RPG. Sure, once you've started a quest, you're sorta stuck on that path until you finish it, but not necessarily. Also, the way in which players measure success in a particular quest might fluctuate drastically during the adventure.

    I think that a successful blend of CRPG and RPG might be to take the technology of the CRPG and put it in the hands of a GM. Players login to the game, but do not find the exact same world as all 10,000,000 other users. Maybe there is a program like that, where the GM has an interface and can change the world as players move about it, but I haven't looked for one.

    I like my friends around the table with me. I like that every monster and NPC becomes an inside joke that brings us closer. I like how great ideas (and not so great ones) can be immediately tested in the sandbox of out minds. I like how one of my GMs, back in high school, would always say the monsters use bite attacks whenever he got hungry.

    "It runs up to you and bites your arm off!" he'd say.

    "Uhh, Jon, do you want us to order pizza?" someone would ask.

    "Actually, now that you mention it, yes I would."

    No CRPG can ever come close.