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Monday, 5 May 2014

Yes, Virginia, you can be Literally Logically WRONG About RPGs

I know, today is usually "Cracked Monday", but I decided to shake things up when over in my blog entry about the #rpgnet chat, I got someone (calling themselves 'patriot online', but let's call them "Virginia" instead) giving the tired old pundit-hater Swine-troll rant about how irrelevant I am, which 'irrelevancy' he felt absolutely obliged to point out on my own widely-read blog, after my All-star chat participation, etc. etc.

He said that I didn't convince any of the other panelists (note that not all disagreed with me, on a vocal minority) of anything, that I didn't "set them straight" in the sense of getting them to change their ways.  As if that was what I'd meant.   Dude, this is elementary-level rhetoric right here, seriously.
It wasn't them I was trying to sort out, it was the audience.  When you engage in a public debate, the point is never to try to convince your opponent to give up his rabidly-held beliefs, it is to convince the audience that your points and the logic of how you've structured them are better than his.

In said rant, he also jumped in to talk about, and I quote:
"There is no one true way to play. If you are playing and a story comes out of it, that's playing correctly as long as everyone has fun. If you are playing to form a story and everyone is having fun, you are playing correctly. Both ways you are valid and playing Role Playing Games as long as everyone is having fun."

And this was what prompted today's suspension of Cracked Monday. I felt the need to respond yet again to the sheer stupidity of this type of claim, which many have made before.  The Story/Game question is not a matter of taste, opinion, partisanship, or feeling; its just about logic.

And yes, in this case, because we are dealing with Logic, there very much is indeed a LITERALLY WRONG way to play. 
Let's say you made a new game of snakes and ladders or something like that, and you were explaining and promoting this as a game where "everybody wins". But then in the actual play, it turns out that not only does everybody not win and the game does in fact still have a single standard winner, but that the modification to the game is that if you land on another player's spot he's immediately and permanently eliminated from the game.

Logically speaking, on a purely FACTUAL basis that is in no manner affected by opinion, the claim being made is thus WRONG.  It is a logically incorrect statement to claim that this game is one where everybody wins.
In order for the claim to be true, you would have to change the rules.  And as long as you're still playing snakes and ladders, your claim that everybody wins cannot be true.  You may end up altering the game radically with new rules and then still trying to call it snakes and ladders, but if the game is so totally different at that point, why still call it the same thing?

On the other hand, you may try to just ignore the rules, conventions, structures, and traditions of the game, like you might for very little children, and say gameplay continues no matter what and that the point really is for the little tykes to ALL get their man to the end so everyone can do just what they wanted and no one needs to have a tantrum.  But at that point you're not really playing the game (or indeed, some would say any game) at all.  You're just engaged in creative babysitting with the dice rolling reduced to mere meaningless busywork, since the results are a foregone conclusion: no one will get unexpectedly eliminated, everyone gets to the end... or little sally gets to have her piece stay on the snake's head because she thinks its funny, or tommy's guy can just 'teleport' to the end because he doesn't want to play anymore but also doesn't want sally to tease him for losing the game. Anything goes, because gameplay has become utterly secondary to babysitting spoiled brats.

In fact, in either of these "fixes" the claim "snakes and ladders is a game where everybody wins" would still be factually WRONG.  Because in the first fix you are changing the game's fundamental structure (not just a detail like mere mechanics, but the whole point of the game) into something that it is not; and in the second you are just ignoring the 'game' concept altogether. 

It is exactly the same way with RPGs and stories.  An RPG is made to simulate a world, full of random events, hopefully done well (by a good GM) so as to have verisimilitude, to be as Immersive as possible. It is a world where the CONSCIOUS creation of story is impossible, any more than in the real world you could just decide "ok, tomorrow I'm going to win the lottery, and then later have a drug cartel chase after me only to discover that the drug lord is my own grandfather! Wow, I didn't see that one coming. But it'll be ok, even though I'll be in a shootout I get away in the end".
Just like in real life, whatever plans you may have, in an RPG where the rules actually apply, can be completely thwarted by some random element, be it an encounter with a goblin that puts a swift end to your dreams of going from farm boy to lord wizard, or a bad roll on a jump check that leaves the would-be heroic rescue splattered on the floor.

If you say "well, let's make new rules, so the whole point is that the rules control the flow of story itself and not the environment. The environment will just be a facade, a potemkin village, that doesn't really mean anything or do anything but acts as a backdrop for the flow of our story, which is what the rules will allow us to control"; well then, you've changed the most fundamental thing that the game affects. What you've created is something radically different from an RPG.

If you say "well, we're playing RPGs but our goal is to create a story, and when the rules get in the way of that we just fudge it", then you're not actually playing the game at all. If your games are all railroads or illusionism, if no PC can ever die from a random goblin strike or 20-story drop unless the STORY demands it, then you're no longer putting the game first.
And on the contrary, if the story-ambitions of a player or GM can be thwarted by a bad roll, then GAME must be taking precedence over story.

These are OPPOSED concepts.  What you are playing depends on where you decide the buck-stops.  If you decide that the Story is important enough that in the end any rule can be ignored for story's sake, then you're not playing a game. If you decide that the Game is important enough that no storytelling sense of 'that doesn't seem very cool' can prevent the truth of what just happened in your virtual world, then you're NOT creating story, you are playing a GAME of a virtual world.

You can't have both. And that's not opinion, its logic (as in "A is not B"; it is a question of mathematics, where any personal feeling or opinion has FUCK ALL to do with it).

So yes, Virginia, you can say that there is a right way to do RPGs.  I know, it makes me a terrible meanie for all the would-be artistes and novelists out there.  But fortunately, the majority of gamers, of regular roleplayers, actually want to play that way. That's why D&D has stayed so popular over the years, while expressive story-crafting exercises about sexually-confused victorian college professors has not.


Currently Smoking: Ben Wade Rhodesian + Image Latakia


  1. Well since you are talking about me, I will cover the points you state point by point-

    1) I am not a swine (a personal attack is clear sign that your argument is weak and has been exposed you have to make a desperate attack to someone). Also, please point to any of my posts where I said you were irrelevant or admit you are lying. I never said you were irrelevant so starting out your post with an insult and a lie shows you have very poor debating skills.

    Secondly, all I said is most likely you trying to say yours is the one true way (which of course if hypocritical because you claim so much that you dislike One tru Wayism). I also said and I quote "Dollars to Donuts people aren't going to change the way the play because they way they play is fun to them- or something like that- it's not word for word but close). Of course you respond with Hyberbole.

    Then you take what I said as being a fan of storygames (which I am not) and the fact I was talking about playing RPGS in general (I wasn't talking about one game style). So you clearly like to jump to conclusions and make inferences statements that were not made.

    I am going to ignore your snakes and ladders references because, they have nothing to do with the subject and are just hyberbole.

    You are saying that if a group is playing the game to form a story that's opposed concept, well that is true, but it is only opposed to people like you who don't like that type of gaming. It's not opposed to all gamers.

    Again, and it was said by the panelists in the chat that if the group is having fun, they are playing right. That's playing role playing games correctly. You are welcome to have your opinion and it differs from most gamers I know, but from the gamers I know the way you game is in the minority. Doesn't mean you can't have your opinions or you are irrelevant (although I never said that in the first place) but you speak for a small portion of gamers out there.

    I think you take the hobby way too seriously. It's about having fun, and if the group is having fun how you are playing/running the game then you are playing rpgs correctly. And that will never change

  2. "while expressive story-crafting exercises about sexually-confused victorian college professors has not."
    This sort of stuff is now fundamental to the dislike of RPG Indie hipsters. It's not their gaming preferences so much add the pretentious, group therapy crap. They remind me of left anarchists. Hell, they're probably the same crowd. That stuff is gayer than Liberace on a unicorn.

  3. They are definitely the same crowd.
    Yet I tend to agree with the "have fun" axiom. If it floats their boat, let them be Victorians in sexual angst. And as much as quasireligious ruleslawyering makes for a poor rpg evening, so does excessive carebearism. The rp-style differs from group to group, somewhere between the poles, and that fluid social contract is what makes the hobby so much more interesting than, say, Carambol. Or Snakes and Ladders.

  4. I have to disagree. I would wager money that every RPG book you own has a line, paragraph, rule or page says the cardinal rule of the game is that everybody have fun and if the rules get in the way they should be suspended, ignored, or altered. Even 1st edition AD&D has a statement to this effect.

    1. Changing or ignoring rules isn't the same thing as ignoring them for the sake of story. Pundits argument is that story games are not role playing games.

  5. This is not, again, an arbitrary argument, its just a logical proof. And the fact is that Ron Edwards makes exactly the same point in his Forge essays. Its very simple: RPGs, as they're designed, are not made to "create story". That's his huge criticism, for example, fo the White Wolf "Storytelling" games, that they have NOTHING in the mechanics that make them any more effective at "telling stories" than D&D; and all the same problems that would get in the way of actual 'storytelling', because the game mechanics would always be at odds with any goal of CONSCIOUS story creation.

    Of course, his conclusion is that RPGs should be radically altered in order to be mainly about creating story; while mine is that RPGs should be about exactly what they are and people who are seeking to "consciously tell stories" should reassess their idea that RPGs are the way to make that happen. Same understanding, totally different conclusions.

    I'll note too that while people who recognize this problem and insist on trying to "Make" RPGs tell stories are doing it wrong; they're not doing it nearly as wrong as the people who are clinging to the logical fallacy that you can somehow have it both ways, that you can make both "game" and "story" absolutely equal priorities in your RPG play. Those people are being illogical idiots.

    1. "I'll note too that while people who recognize this problem and insist on trying to "Make" RPGs tell stories are doing it wrong; they're not doing it nearly as wrong as the people who are clinging to the logical fallacy that you can somehow have it both ways, that you can make both "game" and "story" absolutely equal priorities in your RPG play. Those people are being illogical idiots."

    2. I agree, in "good" roleplaying, story is incidental, not conscious. The "story" of a group's campaign (again, in "good" roleplaying) can only be seen AFTER a game session. During said session, there is an interplay between the GM, the players, and the randomness of the dice combined with the randomness of the players' decisions (which arise from their whims, creativity, deductive reasoning, and all their other faculties).

      A "bad" game session is little more than cooperative storytelling, which is not bad in and of itself. It's just not roleplaying in the sense of the word connected to RPGs. If you've determined the plot with a heavy hand BEFORE a game session begins, that's the little thing we like to call a "railroad."

      Honestly, I don't know why people are still confused by all this stuff...

  6. What about games where there are mechanisms specifically for altering the plot built in (such as Fate, Cortex, Savage Worlds, etc)? I'm talking about Hero points, plot points, whatever, where the players have some agency in altering the world built in to the game?

  7. In some cases, these "plot points" etc. may appear to be story-related, but are actually about enforcing the emulation of the world. In those cases its not really about "and then this happens" as it is "I can use power x" or "I get a +2 to my roll".

    In other cases these are really an attempt to enforce story. So let's look at those with the same logical structure as above:
    You have points that are supposed to allow story to happen in the game, right?
    So does it? If you are in a situation where you are losing, do you use the plot point to win?
    If you do, is it for "the sake of the story"? If not, then you're not using it according to its alleged purpose, and are engaging in game-play not story making.

    That aside, let's say you use it for story purposes. Can you use it, and then the change doesn't actually guarantee a result that creates a better story? For example, if it just give you a bonus to try to achieve something, but you can still fail at that something (said something allegedly being something that would improve story), then its failing at what it claims to be for. It still ends up being just a fucked-up kind of game play.

    What if you run out of points, and a situation where the rules contradict what an ideal story-result would be emerges? You're right back to the start: ignore the lack of points and change things for the sake of 'story' anyways, and you're no longer playing a game at all. On the other hand, stick to your guns and you've once again sacrificed "Story" at the altar of gameplay.

    So even those point-type systems that are an attempt to infuse story into a game do not change the fundamental Pundit Paradox: It can't be about BOTH "story" and "game".

    1. It almost seems to actually validate that it can be ABOUT both story and game, and it just has the potential to fall short of either.

      Essentially, those points/etc. give the POSSIBILITY for successfully blending story and game, and one that increases with the group's experience and skill at playing that particular system.

      During those successful runs, where they drop plot twists and deftly manage points, they've sacrificed neither and enjoyed both. They didn't have to choose one or the other. What do you classify those games as then?

      (I, personally, would argue that they were gaming, and leave it at that. But I have a different, more technical, less traditional view of what an RPG is, different from the one that's stated in this article.)

  8. Its about ultimate fulfillment. First, yes, while you can impose certain story-elements into a game, these are almost always done in ways that will actually thwart the gameplay element. Railroading and "illusionism" are both classic examples of what happens when GMs try to impose story on the game; players lose their sense of agency, and the world its sense of virtual realism. These, as well as any method that requires players to step up out of the mindset of their characters and make reality-affecting "meta-decisions", all end up damaging the ability to engage in Immersion in your character and the world.

    And at the end of the day, you hit the paradox sooner or later. A player who has come to believe that RPGs are about "making story" will not be satisfied with the argument that 'this is how the dice dropped' when his would-be Luke Skywalker gets shot to death by nameless stormtroopers the second he lands on the imperial planet his player was planning to liberate.

    On the other hand, the player who actually wants to play the RPG will be just as frustrated if he feels that all his gameplay was ultimately meaningless because it all gets handwaved away by a GM who wants to make sure the "story" turns out right.

    1. You're still defining a case solely based on its failure scenarios, though. There are successes. When you play those games as they were intended, with good faith effort, you will (at least some of the time) end up with a successful blending of story and game.

      Traditional RPGs also occasionally fail to be immersive or possess verisimilitude sometimes- we don't summarily dismiss them as failures wholesale because of it.

  9. Jeffrey: no. In the best case scenario you end up with an ILLUSORY "blending" of story and game. There's no actual blending. In the best case scenario, one of the two or both still has to die a little in order to let something happen that isn't really a great game and could probably have been a better story if the rules weren't in the way.

    And yes, if a "traditional" RPG fails at Immersion or Emulation, then we very much do dismiss them as failures. Consistently, the RPGs that do the best possible job of encouraging both these qualities end up being the most popular RPGs. That's why D&D is more popular than Cyborg Commando.

  10. Tee hee, this stuff is hilarious, keep it coming!