Read And Respond (+ JOESKY Tax): Cobblestone Chaos: Philosophy and Games

Cobblestone Chaos: Philosophy and Games: SVC II.

Infamous’ post starts so well; I wish I’d thought of the word ‘Romantic’ when I was trying to describe the difference between RPGs and wargames, and I could agree harder with him on the player/character skill divide (GMs of the world, please don’t stop games just because “someone’s character wouldn’t have known that” – advance the game by asking them HOW their character knows that. Players, take that as a means to advance and not a coded “you have done something I disapprove of”). But as he gets into talking about the problems that seasoned wargamers have with playing RPGs, though, some rhetoric comes up that puts FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE.

FLAMES ON THE SIDE OF MY FACE do not make for happy, constructive discussion of games, but now that they’ve gone down a bit, let’s see if we can’t unpick some game-breaking assumptions.

4. Knowledge is Power- At the end of the night, when I come home my wife says; ‘Did you have a good timing playing your game tonight?’. She doesn’t say; ‘Did you have a rewarding collaborative storytelling experience?’. Roleplaying Games are games. There are no winners and losers. Bullshit. There is a loser, The DM. The DM should lose. That’s the thing. The DM provides a framework and a reason to go out and do something, but it’s a bit of a newspeak double-talk. This is the real power knowledge that some people forget. Do I like building out that story? Hells yes. The point is that it is a game.

Before I start getting all het up, let me remind myself and you that Infamous says this is a problem with how he plays RPGs. I’m likely to forget that, since the tone of writing in this little extract doesn’t make it seem like there’s a problem there at all.

I think it’s interesting that Mrs. Infamous says “did you have a good time?” and not “did you win?”, which to my eye illustrates something quite fundamental to RPGs, something that lies in the idea of what a ‘game’ is.

If we attempt to apply Crawford’s dichotomies (I’m linking to the Wiki and not the book because you don’t need the book to follow this process) to an RPG, and ask ourselves whether it actually qualifies as a game, we come across a couple of potential sticking points.

I think we can agree that RPGs are entertainment and not art (as their value is not in the beauty of them as things), and that they are interactive and thus playthings. Since RPG play is almost always goal-oriented – slay the dragon, explore the spaceship, be in charge of vampires in Constantinople – they are assuredly challenges. It’s at the fourth stage that things get interesting. Does an RPG have “an active agent against whom you compete”, qualifying it as a conflict, or does it not, qualifying it as a puzzle?

An active agent, for our purposes, is able to exploit opportunities during play, while a passive agent just sits there and has exploitation done unto them. Now, activity and passivity are tricky things to track in an RPG. A monster is more active than a trap is more active than a door, for sure, and you can make a case that a locked door is a passive agent as far as the session of play is concerned.

Except it’s not, is it? It’s been put there. And it’s been put there on two levels. In-game, it’s been put there by something more active, a door-building creature of some kind. Meta-game, it’s been put there by the DM… so the DM is an active agent, right?

Really? At this stage we should consider that the earliest iterations of the RPG call the DM a Referee, and that rules arbitration is still a part of the role today even if it’s called something else. A Referee is a different kind of agent. A Referee does not compete against the other agents in play, but moderates a competition between them. If the players are collaborating with each other, what are they competing against?

I hold that it’s the system. The system presents these rules for traps and monsters and perils, but they have to be moderated – brought into contact with the players, and that contact administrated – by the Referee or DM or whatever. DMs don’t kill PCs. Systems kill PCs. Even if the DM has made up a new spell, there will be a system for it – even a save vs. death has a moderate-able component in the saving throw. Only by fiat, overruling the system, can the DM remove a PC from play without moderating and refereeing the system – and ‘rocks fall, you die’ is bullshit of the highest order.

If the players were truly competing against the DM, the DM would never award modifiers in their favour. If a PC falls down a hole, they will not find a handhold to catch, land on a flumph, or be knocked out and dragged off to a cave where they can regain consciousness and their player can remain in the game. They would simply be eliminated. One less competitor. And the DM would have to be honest-to-gods thick as pigshit to allow that player a new character, as that would put another agent in play against the DM and reduce their chances of winning. “Sorry, you lost the game, go home.” Even allowing players to take over monsters or NPCs is dangerous to the competitive DM* – how do you know they’re really on your side, aren’t they going to go easy on the others?

And who in the name of Vecna and all his detached body parts runs like that? Arses, that’s who. Unholy, paranoid arses who would rather their friends sit there being bored and not playing games, just so that they (the arse, not the friend of the arse) stand a better chance of ‘winning’ a game which they’re arguably not supposed to be trying to ‘win’ in the first place, being as they’re a referee and not a player.

A Referee can’t lose, since their role isn’t to win or lose the game but to ensure that some sort of consistent system is being maintained, that infractions and errors have consequences, and that players don’t cheat. Sure, the DM constructs the challenges that the players are interacting with, but ‘constructing challenges’ isn’t ‘playing games’, in either Crawford’s eyes or mine. Constructing challenging is just a way of bringing the rules that kill PCs into contact with the PCs. Even making stuff up uses the existing rules – you may invent a new trap, but it works through saves, and damage, and existing aspects of the system. Only fiat avoids system, and fiat is not interactive; not even a plaything, let alone a game.

* – that said, this is perhaps worth exploring; one player against X, but every time one of the X ‘loses’, they change sides. Gradually, the odds shift in favour of the player who started out alone – the longer the game goes on, and the poorer the decisions are, the more likely we are to see one remaining ‘adventurer’ pitting their wits against X ‘DMs’. Interesting. I want to try it as a hack for Zombies!…

Oh yeah. JOESKY Tax. Have a magic item.

The North Star is a rapier forged from meteoric iron by a Celestial wizard. Besides just hitting things, it acts as a compass (put it on the ground, it’ll always  spin to point north), an aid to divination (while you’re carrying it, you don’t need to speak or move your hands to cast Divination/Heavens/other future-seeing magic), and it also unsettles fairies, demons, and anything else that has trouble with cold iron.

In D&D terms, it can Turn fairies and demons (possibly of Type lower than the bearer’s level) as if they were undead; in Warhammer FRP, it causes fear in daemons, dryads and suchlike, even if they’d ordinarily be immune.

(Tarot flip: Star, Queen of Swords)

Author: Jon

Sententious, mercurial, and British as a bilious lord. Recovering Goth, lifelong spod. Former teacher and amateur machine politician, now freelance writer and early-career researcher.

4 thoughts on “Read And Respond (+ JOESKY Tax): Cobblestone Chaos: Philosophy and Games”

  1. Wow, so much talking about my posts. I find it very interesting that everything that everyone posted in response has been things I’ve totally agreed with. I find that funny- funny interesting, not funny haha. I must admit that I love reading the responses as much as I did writing what I did. I write things as much to clear my own mind about them as to introduce them to other people.

    As always, Von, a great piece of writing. I enjoy what you put up. Other people might not mention it too often, but I like to tell others that I appreciate what they do.

    1. Thanks, dawg; I write for much the same reasons that you do (thinking aloud in company) so I can see where the interest comes from. And thanks for stopping by with the return comment as well, it’s always good to hear from people who’ve been Read and Responded to.

  2. +1 for the Clue reference.

    I think this is one reason why a lot of WW games specifically refer to the DM player as the “Storyteller” rather than any sort of master (dungeon, game, or otherwise). They’re there to create the world and tell a story that is shaped by the player’s actions, not to oppose them doing so.

    This might be a stretch, but I can almost think of the DM as a tarot reader. He chooses the layout (background/world), but the cards are beyond his control (the players actions). His job is to make sense of what the cards tell him and make it into a coherent story/framework (interpreting the players actions to create a joint adventure).

    1. I agree that the WW games are trying to be ‘about’ something different, but I don’t think ‘Storyteller’ is as unproblematic a title as it seems. It still has an implicit authority and authorship, a kind of transmission model – “I tell stories, you listen to them.”

      The Tarot reader is an excellent analogy though, and I’m not just saying that because I use Tarot flips in world-building. If I were to write my own system I might conceivably go with ‘Reader’ – that or ‘Referee’ – as a title for person-running-the-game.

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