Lies they told you about gaming

I originally posted this on my old blog but it was a good enough article that I figured I should reproduce it here.  These are a few pieces of general wisdom about RPGs that I've found are at least partly - and often totally - untrue.

Awarding experience is an integral part of traditional RPGs

Experience and character levels are a pacing mechanism, nothing more. These are essential in computer RPGs, where they both extend gameplay and allow "completist" players to grind for high-end rewards. But in tabletop games you can achieve a much more coherent effect by stepping up power levels at critical points within or between story arcs.

Awarding experience based only on how many obstacles the players overcome is problematic:

  • Since it's not clear how many challenges the party will face and how many they will avoid, balancing future challenges becomes difficult.
  • Rewarding exhaustive exploration can cause parties to bog down when they should be moving ahead with the adventure.
  • Characters may end up at different power levels. This lets some players waltz through challenges while others feel ineffective.

A game's rules should support the intended gameplay. Levels allow characters to grow and prevent things from getting stale. Challenges are balanced by level.  Level increases, therefore, should drive the story forward and open up opportunities for new and more difficult challenges. Allowing an arbitrary XP system to drive advancement puts the cart before the horse.

Critical plot information should only be revealed when the characters discover it

This is an outgrowth of the "GM tells the story" model, but also comes into play when one character has a secret the other characters don't know. People assume this is the best way to play because (a) not everyone can separate in-character and out-of-character knowledge, and (b) it's the way it's done in non-collaborative storytelling like novels, movies, and computer games. However, for this to work:

  • The GM must be able to tell a compelling story.
  • Player(s) with secret information must be able to work with the GM to plan their reveals and make them dramatic.
  • The other players must be willing to go along with the plan, whatever it turns out to be.

In other words, there's a lot of implied trust with very little assurance. Players may resent being "railroaded" to a particular plot point, or may unwittingly (or knowingly) subvert the GM's plan. The GM must do all of the steering, foreshadowing, etc. - and do it in a way that's not completely obvious but that the players don't fail to notice! A very, very good GM with cooperative players can succeed with this approach, but for most groups it's hopeless.

A better alternative is to let the players know more than their characters would - not necessarily everything, because surprises are awesome too, but major plot points which their characters will have to participate in. This has several advantages:

  • The players can collaborate to improve/add good ideas before the plot event occurs.
  • The players can guide their characters to help set up a dramatic moment or critical reveal.
  • The players can think beforehand about how their characters will react to the plot event, which will improve the quality of the scene when it actually happens.

This approach requires less trust - or rather, the players don't need to trust the GM as much, though the GM does need to trust the players more. I think overall it's a net positive - it prevents feelings of railroading (since players are participating rather than being swept along) and reduces the desire to subvert the story.

And, in the end, if the you decide to pull a Shyamalan, you still can. Here's a handy chart.

The relationship between the GM and players is adversarial

This is a no-brainer. The players and GM are playing a game together.  It's supposed to be fun for everybody. If it's not fun for the GM, the game ends. If it's not fun for the players, they'll quit.

Unfortunately, in traditional tabletop games, the most common interactions between the GM and the players are adversarial. NPCs want to thwart or cheat the characters. Monsters want to kill the characters. And while the player winning or losing isn't the same as the character winning or losing, the two are usually related.

The role of the GM is to set up appropriate and fun challenges for the players and to help them tell a compelling story. It is not to try to obliterate them at every opportunity. The role of the players is to play in the game, cooperating to have fun and tell a good story. It is not to subvert the GM and the rest of the party.

When one participant sees his "win condition" as something that requires another participant to lose, then the game is no longer fun for everyone. (Also, s/he's being a jerk.)

Sometimes players can have fun when their characters lose or die. Having a heroic or tragic death can be awesome. There are some games (Call of Cthulu, Paranoia, Dread) where the whole goal of the game is to die as spectacularly as possible. There are some games (D&D, for example) where characters can die due to bad luck or foolishness, and that's fine too. The important thing is that the players understand what they're getting into ahead of time and nobody dies as the result of malice between participants.

In the end, everybody needs to remember they're on the same team.

It says so in the rulebook (or it doesn't say I can't)

It might. You might have found a loophole that allows you to do something that's clearly outside what the designers wanted and that they haven't errata'd yet. But you have to ask yourself why you're doing it. Do you need the advantage you're going to get? Do you need to be mechanically better than the other players? Does it bother you at all that what you're doing clearly wasn't intended by the designers of the game?

Many game designers have a policy that when the letter of the rules and the spirit of the rules conflict, you always go with the spirit. If you're not sure if there's a conflict, it's a good idea to check with all of the other participants so that none of them feel like you're getting an unfair advantage. And if you have any twinge of doubt, well... My college marching band had an informal policy: "If you have to ask, don't do it."  I think that's just good life advice.

There's nothing wrong with ignoring or modifying a rule if everyone can agree. But actively looking for loopholes is a violation of all kinds of trust. In fact, if there's a legitimately printed rule that seems broken or easily abused, you should avoid that too. In the end, the game will be more fun if the challenges are actually challenging and your character is balanced with the other players' than if you manage to find the Tecmo Bowl long-pass-down-the-right-sideline that always results in a touchdown. Because if you're scoring a touchdown on every play, what's the point of playing at all?

Min-maxing and character optimization are bad

The Brilliant Gameologists addressed this very well in a number of episodes, but it bears repeating: there's nothing wrong with creating a character that is good at stuff. If you want to play the very best swordsman in your kingdom, you'd better put a bunch of points into sword.

Every character has to contribute something. Unless that something is comic relief, you should be choosing things that help the party. And if you're trying to build a character that is good at X and Y and Z, there are right ways and wrong ways to do that. Learning the rules and learning how to build effective characters is part of the game.

That said, there are pitfalls. Some players like to make a character that is very good at one thing and one thing only. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So that player is going to always want to solve problems one way (which is guaranteed to annoy the other players), or be useless in situations that don't involve nails. Also, when nails do appear, the hammer guy is going to steal the show and everybody else is going to be standing on the sidelines wishing they had enough points in hammer to be useful.

Also, confine min-maxing to character design - don't bring it into play. Yes, obviously, you want to use your rule knowledge to solve problems, but not at the expense of the story and other players' enjoyment. Sometimes role-playing means making mechanically sub-optimal choices because that's what your character would do. Sometimes you need to hold off using your winning move for a bit to increase suspense or because the other players are still having fun flailing ineffectually at a problem.

I understand that there is a certain class of player for whom RPGs are only a sort of adolescent power fantasy, and the only payoff they get is from making things explode as spectacularly as possible. And if you are playing with one of these people you need to feed that need. But you also need to help that person grow, if not by appreciating other aspects of the game, then at least by learning how to defer gratification for the benefit of other players.

If you are one of these players, then I want nothing to do with you. I'm too old to babysit.

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