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A couple of weeks ago, one of my posts raised some questions from my social media contacts both on Facebook and Twitter. Specifically, they were wondering what I meant when I said I played Dungeons & Dragons differently from most others. It’s tough to express what I mean by that, but there’s been some back and forth, so I’ve given some thought on how to express it. I’m going to do my best here in an uncharacteristically long post. I’d like to make four quick points for context before I explain.
1. For RPGs, I limit myself to D&D out of necessity. I could play other games (and have), but nothing is more accessible than whatever the current edition of D&D is, especially in light of the living campaign being run for that edition.
2. There’s no right way to play D&D. Nothing I’m saying is a criticism of how other people play except to the extent that I’m saying I don’t prefer to play that way myself. Moreover, I was in Sly Flourish’s home game for years, and people like me can absolutely coexist on the same table as people . . . not like me. That was probably the best gaming group I’ve ever been in because no matter who was in the group, everyone let everyone else do their own thing. I credit the DM for creating that atmosphere. He certainly guides the game but always places fun ahead of his own ego. Not many DMs do. Unfortunately, my gaming experience has conditioned me to go along with what other people expect, so even in that game I’d often sabotage myself by becoming what I didn’t want to be. But if that’s the way you want to play, then go for it. Some people reading this will know I’m talking about them and their play style. They shouldn’t be offended. None of this is meant as an insult.
3. Combat is part of the game, and I’m capable of enjoying a good combat.
4. Luddite_Vic and I have been designing our own RPG for a few years now. It’ll probably never see the commercial light of day because we’re too busy to meet regularly, but to some extent game design can absolutely accommodate my play style. It can even encourage it, though the best game system is going to be one that allows anyone to play it the way they want to play it.
So, what am I talking about?
I’m an Actor
No, you shouldn’t be asking me for my autograph. I didn’t say that I’m a good actor.
There are several player types. Some players change their type over time, and some fall into several categories at once. I’m certainly what I call an actor. I create a character with at least one notable, obvious personality quirk, and I play that up for maximum effect. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it isn’t, but it always defines my character, so much so that years later people reference the quirk by shouting, “Honor duel!”, “Bongos!”, or something referencing a character, when they see me. Whether I’m in combat or not, if I’m not playing up that quirk (or quirks), I’m not having fun.
Sometimes character concepts fail, so in theory I could impose an annoying play style on others, but I don’t. If I make a mistake with a character concept, or if it just doesn’t work within the game system, I move on from it before it becomes a burden. I’m self-aware of the impact I have on others, so if I’m annoying you, it’s intentional 😊, but I avoid doing that with characters.
The key to me having a good time is true immersion in the game world. I don’t think many players do that, and I think the best way for me to explain this is through a few examples.
The simplest and most talked about example of that is alignment. If you’re playing a lawful good character, then your character should act as such. I see far too many players choosing an alignment because of some mechanical bonus it gives, or because it serves a class build well, but then they act according to tactical needs rather than character philosophy, and their alignment goes right out the window. Again, if it makes you happy, fine, but I think you’re losing something valuable by doing that. After all, rolling a critical hit isn’t really an accomplishment. It’s random unless you’re cheating. As the great philosopher, Neil Peart, once wrote, “The point of the journey is not to arrive.” Misplaced modifier aside, by that he meant that how you get somewhere can often be more rewarding than where you wind up.
Assuming your character has roughly the same alignment as you, is that how you’d behave in the real world? If you’re playing a character with vastly different morals than you, is that how such a character would behave in the real world? If not, you’re not immersing yourself in the game world.
Here’s a better example. I openly wanted to test a story line but covertly wanted to test whether others would be interested in my play style, so I took over a 4e campaign when our characters hit paragon level (11th level). This is 4th edition, so even the bard had at least 70 hit points. The first encounter in the paragon campaign was clearly underpowered. It was designed to be a “James Bond” moment, where everything started off with a bang, but the point was to deliver the story hook. Any experienced player could recognize that, and in fact they all did.
The characters were visiting “the Lawns,” which was an area of the city best described as a much smaller version of Central Park. Commoners were everywhere, and I had the PCs place themselves randomly on the board. There were three magical cages containing a bear, a destrachen, and a manticore, all of heroic tier. Collectively, they were no match for the PCs. A blast of energy wipes out the vegetation in the immediate area and causes the cages to burst open. The bard wins initiative. He’s standing near the bear, an elf, the elf’s two small children, and a human. He elects to run over to the manticore to gang up on it with two other PCs. I say, “Just in case neither the minis nor I have described the scene properly, you have the jump on the bear, and the bear has the jump on the commoners. If you run away, those commoners, including two children, are as good as dead.” He said he understood but was going for the better tactical move, and the other players agreed, saying, “Get over here!” (or words to that effect).
I know these players well, so I knew this would happen — this encounter was also designed by me to be an ethical set up — but I couldn’t believe they fell for it. What exactly is the “better tactical move”? In my mind it was to limit as much damage to the citizens as possible. That’s what heroes do. (If I recall correctly, only one character was neutral on the good-evil axis, and I know it wasn’t the bard.) The party instead defined “better tactical move” as personally taking the least amount of damage possible. (Later, I’ll provide more evidence that this is their thinking.) This was the case even though the bard would be looking at taking, at most, one healing surge worth of damage in a one-on-one combat against any one of them.
When the bear got its turn, I described the event in gruesome detail. The elf shouts out, “Run to your mother, children!” right before he’s disemboweled with one claw. Then the human has his face ripped off by the other claw. I don’t expect the players to lose any sleep over make-believe characters getting killed, but not one of the characters expressed the slightest bit of sadness or regret. And don’t think for a second that I missed it. I was watching them carefully and prodding them in character (through NPCs) to let me know what they thought about these events. From a meta perspective, that was the entire point of me taking over the game as DM.
Isn’t a role-playing game supposed to be about writing a story? What kind of a story are these “heroes” writing?
As I said, I knew this would happen because I knew these guys, and part of what I was testing was this principal of immersion. I was trying to see if the right story would change the players’ approach to the game. So, I had some more tricks up my sleeve. I bit my lip for three months waiting for the story to progress to a specific encounter. The players needed to research some very obscure information, so they visited the “Black Library.” This place held all the knowledge of the universe in special crystals, including dreams and memories.
The Black Library was at a very important place in the multiverse. It was near the “Grand Stairwell,” which (as far as mortal minds could perceive) is a stairwell that leads up and down to each of your potential final resting places after death (e.g., the Nine Hells, Archeron, Nirvana). There was always a long line of souls of the recently departed waiting their turns for final instructions. Go up four levels, go down two levels; whatever.
I asked the players to make a Perception check. It didn’t matter what they rolled. I said, “You seem to recognize one of the people in line,” and they took the bait. It was the elf they let die. He confronted them, and once again all of the player characters showed no remorse other than an insincere, “Sorry, but . . . .” I gave them one more shot though. The elf said, “Okay, I don’t agree, but I at least understand the tactical approach. So did you at least make sure my children were okay? Did they find my wife? My wife and three children, one of them a newborn, depended on my farming to earn a living. My wife doesn’t know how to farm, and now she must feed three young children on her own. How are they doing?”
This sounds really sad, and it was somewhat predictable considering the scene in which the elf (and human) were brutally killed. Nevertheless, I received no showing of true sympathy despite closely looking for it. Instead, the characters (players, really) stood their ground and responded (essentially), “It wasn’t our problem.” They were so intent on being right that they couldn’t muster any sympathy for such a tragic circumstance their choices created. And of course, even after this conversation, not one of the characters even suggested checking in on the elf’s family. These were 15th-level characters at this point with more wealth than entire towns, but they just didn’t care. If that’s how they wanted to play, so be it, but that’s not immersion.
As I said, when bad things happen to innocent but make-believe people, I don’t expect players to be sad, but I do expect their characters to be, especially where the bad things were the result of the characters’ own choices.
If you were in an analogous situation in the real world, would you have behaved this way? Would you have any remorse for these circumstances even though there was no financial reward or information to be gained?
Another Example: The Puzzle Encounter
I created a puzzle encounter, which I’ll describe here. There’s a magically charged, metal plate with an array of 100 lighted buttons (10 rows of 10) in front of it. Each button is numbered from 0 to 99 in order (left to right). You must figure out which buttons to push and in what order. If you fail, the plate will light up and zap you (but not your allies) for an amount of damage equal to the number of the button you should have pushed. For example, if you should have guessed 4 but pushed 87, you’d take 4 points of damage (not 87!). You then should push the 4 and continue with the sequence. Remember, at this level, the relatively fragile bard (now at 13th level) has at least 80 hit points, so even a 4 would result in 5% of his total. If you couldn’t figure out the answer before running out of buttons to push, you couldn’t try again in your lifetime, so another player would have to try this level. If you push two correct buttons in a row (something you could pull off by guessing in some cases), the plate acts as an elevator and moves you and your allies up to the next level, where you face the identical situation but with a different code. There are four levels you must pass to get reach your goal.
All this information was deduced care of an easy Arcana check. My intent wasn’t to hold back the nature of the puzzle at all, so if someone was confused, I freely shared any information they needed. What they never got was a hint as to what the code was applicable to each level. The only way to discern the codes were through trial and error, and that was the actual puzzle. Hit some buttons, get zapped for a tiny amount of damage, but figure out how to avoid it and move forward.
Answer: FYI, the codes were based on various sequences. The first sequence was a series of squares (i.e., 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, etc.), the second was a series of cubes (i.e., 1, 8, 27, 64), the third was the Fibonacci series (i.e., 0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13), and the fourth was the digit product series (i.e., 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 22, 26, 38, etc.). Again, the only way to discern the codes were through trial and error, and the players were angered by that. More on that later.
The point is this: If you truly immersed yourself in the game world, you wouldn’t have a problem with this puzzle. In fact, you’d expect this because of course this is how a puzzle would be designed. These are meant to keep out would-be intruders. They aren’t supposed to give you an out in which you take no damage, and logically you wouldn’t expect there to be any way to deduce a code unless you personally knew the puzzle’s creator and the way he or she thought. If anything, puzzles should be a lot harder (e.g., a simple 6-digit pin impossible to guess), but that makes the game inaccessible, which we don’t want. However, it’s reasonable that 1) you’re not going to be able to reason out the code except through trial and error; and 2) you’ll be punished when you get things wrong; however, 3) the initial punishment is easy in case the puzzle-maker himself makes a mistake or forgets which code goes in which order.
Remember when I said above that I’d provide more evidence that the players define success by how much damage they take? When we were finished with the third level, the players had had enough of my nonsense. They accosted me because the puzzle was unfair. The straw that broke the camel’s back? The third sequence was the Fibonacci sequence, which means when they got the first number in that series wrong, the plate lit up, and one player took a whopping . . . zero (0) points of damage. That’s right. A couple of them actually raised their voices and complained because one of them took 0 hit points of damage. After they were finished complaining, we continued. They pressed the one (per the instructions), then a two (which zapped them for one point of damage), and that’s all the damage one player took. Another player immediately deduced that 0, 1, and 1 were the start of the Fibonacci sequence, so for this sequence, a single 13th-level player with close to 100 hit points took exactly 2 points of damage, and that was unacceptable to all of them. I was so annoyed at this point that I didn’t tell the about the fourth level. I just said that they had reached their goal after the third puzzle (essentially, “Congratulations! You won D&D!”). The digit product series would have been a bit tough anyway, so frustrations aside, that was probably a good call.
Explain that any way you want. To me, it’s as simple as this: Some people just want to win D&D flawlessly, but that won’t always be possible if you immerse yourself in the game world. You always lose at least a little. I don’t get this at all, but I at least respect the fact that some of these players admit that immersion isn’t what they want from the game. Others claim they like immersion, but it seems like nothing but talk to me.
So Why Is This Important?
Why is this important to me? Why do I think this sort of thing would matter to far more players than it does if they ever gave it a try? Simply put because all mechanical bonuses and victories in the game are illusory. The only true successes or failures are story-based.
Let’s first look at the mechanics. Game designers, take note. As a DM, you may want to balance your encounter or campaign to be easy, even, or hard. I don’t care which; that’s not the point. The point is that you want a certain “balance,” which I’m using as a general term that doesn’t necessarily mean having a 50% chance of success. If a game is designed such that a 3rd-level PC is expected to have a +1 sword, then that disturbs your balance. It doesn’t do something cool like 4th edition frost brand weapon does. It simply increases your chances to hit by 5%. To keep the game balanced as you want it, the NPCs must have built within their mechanics a boost to defenses at 3rd-level (more or less). That means that the +1 bonus isn’t a bonus at all; it’s just keeping things consistent. Maybe you’re falling for that, but I’m not. I see it for the poorly-disguised illusion that it is. A frost brand weapon, on the other hand, allows (for example) a fighter to become a wizard for just a moment or two by giving the fighter a limited-use blast attack. It’s not enough to steal the wizard’s thunder, but enough to mix things up a bit. It’s a far more legitimate reward, though even that is still a bit illusory (just not as noticeably). It also allows the fighter to get a nice boost of damage against cold-vulnerable NPCs (if the game designers would ever create such creatures!), which mechanically is balanced by the fighter’s reduced damage against cold-resistant creatures. Thus, the reward is that the fighter has yet another avenue to get their moment to shine within the story. That’s much closer to a real reward.
The same can be said of encounters. If you’re trying to sneak by a campsite but get caught, you have an extra fight on your hands. Worse, if they’re able to sound the alarm to their allies, you have a single fight on your hands against, let’s say, 25 opponents. Levels don’t matter at that point. Even 25 kobolds 5 levels below you will likely be unstoppable. So, what does the DM do? He fudges it. He has the kobolds choose poor tactics by not all rushing the PCs, or he eliminates an encounter or two so that this extra encounter doesn’t upset the balance. Sure, the math allows some wiggle room here, but not a lot. Too many encounters, and you’re facing an inevitable TPK simply because you stepped on a dry twig. Because DMs don’t allow for a single twig to result in a TPK, the punishment is also illusory.
So, what’s a real reward or punishment? A story-based one. Let’s say you’re approaching that same campfire, but the kobolds have prisoners. The prisoners are commoners who have no money, no information, and aren’t even important enough to have names. If you immediately charge, one of commoners gets their throat slit before you get there. If you’re sneaking but step on that dry twig, a few get their throats slit. Before you know it, you’ve got a lot of dead kobolds, but also a lot of dead commoners. That shouldn’t be seen as a victory despite the dead kobolds. Instead, the dead commoners should be your punishment for your failure. The more that die, the greater your failure. After all, aren’t you adventuring to save the world (assuming it’s not an evil campaign)? Unfortunately, commoners aren’t a concern to anyone unless they find enjoyment in immersing themselves in the game world. I haven’t met many of you that truly do, or perhaps most of you (like me) have resigned yourself to how things are done, so you don’t play that way despite it being your preference. I don’t know what’s in your heads; I can only guess based on your words and actions, and I’ve never heard anyone voice these specific concerns. Many adventure and game system writers don’t write that way either. Ergo, gaming has grated on me, and I no longer enjoy playing. The one time a year I do is at Winter Fantasy, but if I play too much, I get into a bad mood.
That’s it. Rant over. I hope that explains my position. Please keep in mind that if all of this is falling on deaf ears, that’s fine. You don’t have to agree. None of you owe me a game played the way I want it played. If I’m not enjoying the game, I’ll find something else to do. We can still catch a movie together when the pandemic passes. That’d be fun. I rarely drink, so I can be the designated driver if necessary. 🙂
Side Note: 4th Edition D&D
In response to something someone said to me on Facebook, I’ll add that I love 4th edition. It’s my favorite edition of D&D. Despite the way I want to play, and even though it’s largely a combat simulator, I really enjoyed it. The math and logic were largely normalized, meaning you could focus on story above the math, which was easily dealt with as you went along. I wish more people took advantage of that. Instead, I think people prefer the convoluted, illusory math because they want that to be their focus. If true, that’s rather ironic considering the primary criticism of 4th edition is that it’s too rules heavy. But now I’m just picking fights. 🙂