Monday, May 31, 2010

The Dramatic Effect

I don't think there'd be much agreement on precisely when things changed in the history of the hobby, let alone whether those changes were good ones. But I do think that few would deny that things changed. I was reminded of this recently, because I was reading through the one and only supplement ever made for Chaosium's Hawkmoon RPG, which I now own thanks to Andreas Davour. 1987's The Shattered Isle is a collection of scenarios taking place in Eire and includes some rules additions as well. In a section devoted to "Non-Player Character Tactical Combat," there's a sub-section called "The Dramatic Effect." Here's what it says:
Whom do you really want to win this fight? Yes, a gamemaster is supposed to be neutral, but you know how you want the adventure to go, so make it work out. Simply describe the other fights in glowing terms, with much hewing off of heads and sundered limbs, while running the player-character battles normally.

Thus, if the player-characters are losing when you want them to win, simply describe how their allies are defeating their foes with ease, then turning to assist the adventurers.

Similarly, if you want to drive off the adventurers and they are doing well in their own fights, describe the steady attrition of the allies until they find themselves fighting multiple foes, by which time the intelligent adventurers should try to get out of the mess they're in by voting with their feet.
Take note of the sentence I've bolded above. I highly doubt that this is the first time that this sort of sentiment appeared in a RPG product. Indeed, I suspect that some enterprising person could probably cite an example of a similar sentence in a product from the first five years of the hobby. Likewise, I think it's pretty clear that advice presented in The Shattered Isle is not intended to be a manifesto of a new way of roleplaying. It's just reassurance for the referee to trust his instincts in ensuring that things "work out" as they should.

But make no mistake: this does represent a shift in the conception of RPGs and the role of the referee in RPGs and not one for which I have much liking these days. I think it lends more credence to the notion that the mid- to late 1980s are when certain changes in the hobby became not only widespread -- they were probably popular long before this point -- but when gaming companies began not only to acknowledge but to encourage them.

36 comments:

  1. I remember in B4: Lost City, there is a boulder trap ala Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    The DM is instructed to make the rolling of the boulder a dramatic event, with much crashing and rock chips flying, but the DM is supposed to allow the players to race just ahead of the boulder, jumping out of the way in the nick of time.

    Seemed a bit hand-wavey, but not necessarily in a good way.

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  2. I think there might be a word missing from the boldface sentence (like possibly "how")?

    I'm amused by the implication that although our touchstone texts (AD&D DMG) firmly advocate DM neutrality, this writer assumes no one could ever really think or play that way.

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  3. From B4:

    "This boulder trap is not meant to kill player characters, only scare
    them. Unless the party does something obviously stupid (like
    standing and arguing while the boulder is rolling toward them), the DM should let the party escape after a close shave—into the room or around a corner. The DM should describe the rolling boulder as graphically as possible: crashing sounds echoing down the corridor, stone chips flying where the boulder smashes against the wall, the corridor floor shaking from the force of the boulder, etc. The encounter should be exciting, but not deadly."

    I had totally forgotten that and now I know why. FWIW, B4 was published in 1982.

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  4. I'm amused by the implication that although our touchstone texts (AD&D DMG) firmly advocate DM neutrality, this writer assumes no one could ever really think or play that way.

    Sadly, it's not only the Chaosium writer who assumes this. Lots of gamers nowadays seem to believe something similar and indeed will gleefully assert that they never knew anyone who played the way game books stated you ought to.

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  5. While I like your blog, when I read posts like this, I'm really glad roleplaying changed from how you think it should be. I am a big proponent of the DM being able to adjust things to tell a good story, instead of having the dice force everything. But your post is still pretty cool, historical-wise.

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  6. "the intelligent adventurers should try to get out of the mess they're in by voting with their feet."

    I'd like to say something snide about intelligent players opting out of rigged games. But in fact, that probably becomes a game, too-- players can learn to manipulate the GM to make things come out their way.

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  7. Not trying to run down B4 Lost City, or course. It's one of the meatiest of the old-school 'sandbox' adventures. Dwellers of the Forbidden City ranks up there as well.

    Again, thanks for highlighting the difference between 'emergent' and 'pre-scripted' stories.

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  8. The classic Interactive Toolkit essays has a great insight into why this sort of adventure writing became so endemic. Succinctly, writers got the inclination that games were about telling stories, but didn't fully think out how to implement that as something distinct from dungeon-delving.

    http://www.rpg.net/oracle/essays/itoolkit2.html

    As for B4, I think its fairly blameless. The boulder trap scene is clearly presented as flavor-text with no required tactical decision. Like a dragon flying by in the distance or a crypt smashed open from the inside, it strikes me as a mood setter and a data point for the party to judge the situation by. Whereas the Hawkmoon text is a total con, a invalidating of the party's choices.

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  9. Wasn’t there something like this from one of the Slavers series?

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  10. Sben,

    There's a section at the end of A3 that states something along the lines of "if your players beat the Slave Lords but you intend to play module A4, find some way to get them captured or else the module can't be used." Much as I loathe that approach, I give it a slight pass because the A-series was written for tournament play (like many early D&D modules) where such contrived situations are often required. That said, I think it was lazy on TSR's part not to rework the modules to better respect player decisions and certainly don't laud them for this style of presentation.

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  11. If I wanted a story I would read a book or watch a movie. I like the random chances. It makes accomplishing something meaningful.

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  12. I don't object to plotted adventures per se, but that quote from Shattered Isle goes much too far. It's one thing to set up a story or outline of what will happen if the players don't intervene, or events that will take place independently of play PCs but to direct the result is lazy game writing and lazy GMing. (One reason I liked Fate Points in WFRP was they made it easier for the GM to play the dice as rolled, since a player could spend one to avoid certain death and the GM was forced to improvise a satisfying alternative.)

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  13. Well here's my 2 cents: I think that if one is running a game and scenario comes up where something really BAD could happen, you got to ask yourself a question: do you feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya? :)

    All kidding and references to Dirty Harry aside, a GM has to be either willing to run his game one way or the other for the most part. I know I do (in the case of BAD things, I go with fate; takes me out of the equation and roll dice in front of them) and I tell my player's up front about this. However, I would never do or go along with something that may make a campaign come to a grinding halt.

    A GM should look at his material ahead of time and do his/her best to plan for contingencies, and be prepared for the consequences of PO'd players, so long as you are being fair.

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  14. When I was running a Red Box D&D campaign in the 80's I came down somewhere in the middle. I was not above fudging some die rolls if it just did not feel right. I never mentioned it to the players. We all seemed to be having fun. Was I cheating them? Not sure? I don't think I would run things like that now but now my players are more mature.

    tegeus

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  15. A module or situation in an rpg where you cannot lose is much like a game of musical chairs with enough chairs for everyone. A situation where you cannot win is just as unsatisfying.

    What's the point of playing a game where the GM has already decided the outcome of the adventure?

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  16. "you know how you want the adventure to go"

    I do? ;)

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  17. Not to throw too much of a red herring into the fray, but consider how our entire CULTURE has shifted since the 80s. We give trophies to everyone who shows up to play, not just the winners. People are conditioned to immediate gratification and gamers who lose too many characters (often to stupidity) are prone to quit. Ergo, warm fuzzy games were the good guys always win, everyone gets a trophy (magic item) and the evil doers are justly vanquished. Sigh..

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  18. As a player, I would feel cheated if the ref had already planned on something happening, with or without my luck or skill. Would you want to fight in a rigged boxing match, where the other fighter is going to throw it no matter how much better he is? Why would I show up to a game session when I know that we will rescue the Princess anyways? To hear the DM's amazing oratory skills? PFFFFT.

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  19. "If I wanted a story I would read a book or watch a movie. I like the random chances. It makes accomplishing something meaningful."

    ... I also like good player choices. Sometimes folks characterize old school styles of play as purely dependent on dice. But great players also tried to make sure the situations were at least slightly skewed in their favor!

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  20. As a DM I rely on the credible threat of character death to motivate the players to be focused, cooperative and creative which ends up being a lot more fun for me. When I first started in the hobby I sometimes fudged things to prevent PCs from dying and ended up with careless roll-the-dice players who were much less fun to DM.

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  21. I'm glad you enjoyed the book, James!

    I love Will's comment! :)

    I had forgotten the Fate points of WHFRP. That might be a nice middle ground, a way for the players to tell the GM when they think it's ok to retroactively "rig" the game.

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  22. I think it's important to note that the Hawkmoon quote appears to be talking only about the GM's declaring of the results of NPC-vs-NPC battle, not fudging of dice rolls in PC-vs-PC. I don't see anything wrong with the GM deciding "these NPCs will beat these NPCs" without rolling it all out. To me a winning or losing battlefield is simply an environment, like a dungeon or a haunted wood. Perhaps the battle is so finely balanced that the PCs can affect the outcome, but no reason that should always be the case.

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  23. I meant fudging in PC vs NPC, not PC vs PC, of course.

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  24. This all started the day GMs began making dice rolls behind a screen out of view form the players.

    Roll all dice in front of the players. Or even better (and as I do) let the players roll the dice for opponents as well as the PCs. As a GM I hardly ever roll dice. I don't even bring any of my own to the game session.

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  25. I think the consensus here is that the PC actions must matter.

    But, I think S'mon is bringing a important distinction to the front here. In this case, is it really about making the PC actions pointless?

    I think it is totally ok to have a level in the campaign where things are happening without PC influence.

    Let's say you have a great battle between armies, and the PC are just grunts. Does it really invalidate the actions of the players if you say they don't tip the battle by their actions?

    If the players are all name level, that's something different. Then you should be making a difference on a higher level.

    Note, this doesn't invalidate anything James posted about a change in the attitudes in the hobby at large.

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  26. I wonder if the rise of videogames (particularly home consoles) had anything to do with the changing attitudes in RPGs - videogames tend to have a (more or less) linear "story" to tell, and allow for multiple "re-starts" if things don't proceed to your liking. Perhaps there's some parallel between the expectations/aesthetics of videogames and tabletop games?

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  27. T>his all started the day GMs began making dice rolls behind a screen out of view form the players<

    You mean somewhere around 1978? That is when I started seeing DM screens with dice getting rolled behind them. Wow, that sure is a modern concept.

    There are plenty of places in early D&D where is is suggested the players do not see at least certain die rolls. This is not a contemporary concept.

    I roll out of view of the players because that is where the mechanics of the universe happen. In real life we don't get to "see the roles." I'm not going to start doing it in the open in my games just because a player or two might be worried I'm fudging. That is on him, not me.

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  28. >>You mean somewhere around 1978? That is when I started seeing DM screens with dice getting rolled behind them. Wow, that sure is a modern concept.<<

    Never said it was a modern concept. Also, the point of the screen is/was so the players could not see maps or stats or information the PCs don't have access to in game, not to hide dice rolls.

    >>There are plenty of places in early D&D where is is suggested the players do not see at least certain die rolls. This is not a contemporary concept.<<

    Never said it was a contemporary concept either. Just because is was "suggested" in early D&D doesn't mean it is not related to the "Dramatic Effect" James posted about.


    >>I roll out of view of the players because that is where the mechanics of the universe happen. In real life we don't get to "see the roles." I'm not going to start doing it in the open in my games just because a player or two might be worried I'm fudging. That is on him, not me. <<

    The players see the "mechanics of the universe" every time they roll their own dice so your analogy seems misplaced.

    My point is if you roll the dice in the open (or just let the players roll everything) you eliminate what I believe to be a prime factor of this whole "Dramatic Effect" issue. Let the dice fall where they may is what I believe is all.

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  29. I wonder if the rise of videogames (particularly home consoles) had anything to do with the changing attitudes in RPGs -

    I really believe that this is a significant topic that hasn't gotten the attention it deserves. Alas, I'm not the man to write it as I was never the into video-games and stopped entirely by the late 80's. But I do think that a study of the relationship between role-playing and video games would tell us a lot.

    For instance, early video games had no real story: fight the invaders! eat the power pellets! fight the invaders (again in many variants)! Playing Space Invaders isn't that much different than the cliched hack-and-slash dungeon crawl. I've wondered if some of us 2nd gen players didn't unconsciously take that as a model of rping.

    As time goes on, more and more story enters the games. And the story seems to open up the scope of player choices, but in many cases actually narrows the real choices. Recall (if you can) Dragon's Lair, in which the player might as well have not even been there as you just move from one pre-recorded scene to another.

    DL was more like playing a Choose Your Own Adventure than an rpg. And that seems to have become the dominant model of gaming--in both genres--where the goal is not to mess up the designers/DM's story.

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  30. I roll behind the screen. That's where I am, and so are my dice.

    Other DMs, who I highly respect, roll in the open.

    But the location of the rolls is not the issue: whether one uses or ignores the result of the roll is.

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  31. This all started the day GMs began making dice rolls behind a screen out of view form the player<

    >Never said it was a modern concept<

    No, but the assumption seemed to be that it was something that came much later. Sorry if I read that wrong, but don't know which other way to go with the comment.

    > Let the dice fall where they may is what I believe is all<

    Sure, that is why we "roll" 'em.

    And I feel there are rolls made by players, which are usually the mechanics of that particular character and it's personal sphere, and the DM rolls tend to be about the world around them. To me, DM dice rolls are part of emulating a mysterious universe. Much less mystery when the player are gawking at your every move i.e. dice roll, much less making those rolls for you.

    Hey, I'm just old school. I want my players to enjoy the sausage, not come into the kitchen and watch me make it. if I use a wandering monster chart, should they get to look at it while I try to generate a number? How involved should they be (if they are making the rolls for you, then I think they are way to involved IMHO)?

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  32. >>But the location of the rolls is not the issue: whether one uses or ignores the result of the roll is. <<

    Ignoring a roll seems particularity pointless to me. Do gamers really do this? If so, why bother.

    To me what is probably more common at game tables is DMs fudging rolls behind a screen for dramatic intent. "The heroes must prevail so the mage misses his save just in the nick of time!!" Or, "The villain can not be dispatched that easily so he makes his save just in the nick of time." This to me is what rolling in the open makes much more difficult for a GM. Keeps him from giving in to his "Dramatic" impulses.

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  33. Brunomac,

    Regarding your comment on how involved the players should be. I allow them to roll (or at least see me roll) opponent combat rolls, not every roll that needs to be made.

    Give it a try sometime. Nothing like having a player roll for his enemy during a battle and suddenly have to root for misses instead of hits. Often they can't help themselves but cheer (briefly) natural 20's and such. Haha!

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  34. Despite the passage quoted by James, I really liked The Shattered Isle. I think that Eire is a great setting for Hawkmoon.

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  35. Cibet,

    That's cool, and your way is as good as mine or anybodies if you're having fun games.

    I personally prefer to make the rolls for NPC's and stuff. It's part of my fun, and makes the players own character rolls more special (to the player in question). I've also been using my game world for over 30 years, so it's fun for me to roll for the things that happen therin.

    Don't forget, back in the day it was often suggested that the DM make the moster rolls AND the player character rolls! Now that is extreme!

    I have fudged only in cases like using a random monster or treasure chart, and I don't think the results fit or are appropriate. In those cases I usually make a second roll rather than just make something up (or maybe half the treasure indicated or something).

    I think the case of the boulder that is just for fun and does no harm is dumb and I would not do something like that. I would at least make it survivable (give a dex roll and a save or something). Danger is no fun when it isn't dangerous!

    WV: "fistible" - we don't wanna know what it means!

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  36. Re: story, the whole point of having chance as well as player/GM interaction as part of the game is that the GM has to improvise in response to the unexpected. If you just want to "tell a story" by controlling the outcome of every little thing, and don't like chance, don't use dice.

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