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Friday 11 December 2015

Even in the Best Case Scenario, Saying 'Yes' to Player Narrative Authority is a Terrible Mistake

Nevermind the Forge Game standard-scenario of a castrated GM with about as much power as a Monopoly banker, completely subservient to the 'genius' game-designer on the one side and the primma-donna players on the other, forbidden absolutely from ever being allowed to say "No".
Forget about 'say yes or roll the dice'.
Let's look at the best most ideal possible scenario of player narrative influence in a game.  Because if we look at that, we understand why the concept itself is fatally flawed.

Player Narrative-control is counterproductive to the goals of play in D&D (or any regular RPG). In an RPG, it is the GM's job to create the world, making it emulative (that is a fancy way of saying 'to make it feel like a living world with its own internal rules').  The player's goal is Immersion, to get so deep in the world and that sense of it being alive, and simultaneously breathing life into their characters, that they eventually feel the character has a life of its own.

Every time the Player has to abstract from identifying with his character's point of view, it runs counter to the Immersive goal.

If a player can jump out of his character and start to define things about the world, it reinforces that the world is not alive. They see 'past the matrix' and the world becomes more of a fiction. It dissociates them from identification with their character.

So even within the boundaries of what you are arguing, making players part of the process of creating the world is counterproductive to the RPG experience. Fundamentally counterproductive, regardless of how much authority the GM retains.

Let's look at the best possible scenario of narrative control, ok? One where the GM has absolute veto power.  Not a point-system where if the player spends a point the GM must obey it, or a Forge game where the player gets to trump the GM every time.

Even in a completely voluntary system, you create an issue with GM-authority, because as soon as narrative control is granted even once, the expectation of Narrative control is created. Then you get players arguing with the GM about why the idea they're pushing this time for changing reality should be 'allowed', and the chief argument will amount to "you let Bob change things, why don't you let me"?

Players will be routinely stepping OUT of the emulative experience, to think instead about what part of reality they could retroactively edit in order to get an advantage in the game. They'll be squabbling with the GM and with each other about what is or isn't 'reasonable', and expressing resentment and accusations of favoritism at each other about whose narrative controls are allowed and which are not.

Why should a GM submit himself to that hassle, and potentially cause all kinds of inter-player problems and resentments at the table, just for some kind of ridiculous ideal of 'player agency'?
What benefit is there, if it only reduces Immersion?


So forget about it. Even in the best of all possible worlds, its effect on the game is far more detrimental than beneficial.


Currently Smoking: Brigham Anniversary Pipe + Image Latakia


  1. I have no problem with players making suggestions but the moment to do this is after a session, not while we are playing.

  2. Players write their characters into my setting. Anything they want. I ask them for their character's bio. I then modify it to make it fit in my setting and to make it challenging for the players. You say you are God Almighty. I add that you start the game having forgotten who you are. Never had a problem. I had to add sections to my setting to account for some of the player's origin, but mostly, players come up with generic D&D bios, ask for nothing extraordinary, and accept my additions making them setting-specific with hardly a comment.

  3. This is definitely one of the critical factors when it comes to "going meta", "actor stance" vs "author stance", etc. The game's answer to this question will be one that classifies what sort of game it actually is. There are alternative approaches possible in design space, but they move away from "trad" definitions.

    Case in point: In "DayTrippers" I decided to use Player Narration at the Action Resolution level: that is, while they cannot add things to the world (unless they happen to say something the GM likes and then tweaks without them knowing it), they can, in the best circumstances, narrate exactly how a particular action succeeds awesomely, taking a non-trivial amount of agency in doing so. You may say this crosses the line into meta, and I admit it can, but I feel it remains within the boundaries of the PC's own idea - i.e. the character's internal projection of exactly what they totally wished would happen. So. This is all just to say: "This is a categorically significant design question", and "There are various levels and ways to jiggle the knobs on this question" - although it will definitely move your game beyond "trad" boundaries and into another class, or a hybrid class.

  4. All of this only holds if your primary goal is immersion.

    1. Immersion is the primary Player goal in RPGs.

    2. Well, for me personally dungeon crawling (which is what I play mostly these days) is much more like a boardgame; it has a very procedural gameplay and a way to measure your score as well. My primary goal as a player is to obtain as much treasure as a team with as little sacrifice as possible.

      Also, I believe the label story-game signifies that the particular game has design goals other than the traditional sort of RPGs (just as "old school" signifies how another game differs in design principles from other games of different paradigms).

    3. Yeah. I can acknowledge the possibility of someone running D&D as a 'roguelike video game sim" or something like that. Where they play it just like it was pretty well a board game with no roleplaying really going on.

      But in that scenario, the problem with narrative-control would be equally bad. Just for other reasons.

    4. I never said I give narrative control to my players when I'm running a dungeon crawl. But nevertheless, I don't think that my campaigns are not considered playing RPGs because of the difference in primary player goal, so why should certain other games with different goals be treated the same?

    5. If your primary goal is obtaining treasure, then you (the player) and you (the character) both consider the treasure to have some value and the accumulation of it to be an accomplishment.

      It may be simplistic, but this is case where the player is trying to accomplish the character's goal and enjoys succeeding. That definitely sounds like immersion to me.

    6. Maybe, but it seems like a post-facto thing to me, as my actions are not determined by my character's personality (they have very few things going on on their own anyways) but may be attributed to it retroactively for sure.

      It's not like I one day say "I wanna play a heartless tomb-robber today, let's play D&D"; it's more like "I saw this cool game which does the binary gameplay of Persona 3, can we try that?".

      It's not that immersion is not a thing for me (obviously it is for everyone who ever watches a movie or reads a book), it's just not a primary factor in my gaming.

  5. Well, that's another problem you point out; but even if we assumed a really objective and solomonically wise DM, it would still be a problem. It would still have players jumping out of Immersion and into thinking like a world-designer.

  6. Where is your evidence that it is the primary player goal?

    It certainly isn't MY primary player goal for most games*.

    I mean, when myself, my wife, and three friends sit down to play through a conversion Rise of the Runelords to 4th edition DnD, embodiment of an avatar is about the furthest thing from my mind. I still roleplay the character, but the tasty, tasty, tactical combat and the company is the real reason I shlup over to my mates house each friday. According to my wife, it is all about the loot.

    When I sit down to play in my mate shaz's cthulhu game, I'm there for the hot brain on puzzle action and the pizza.

    When I attend the Strategic Information thinktank(the joke name of our 3.5 group made up prodominantly of computer scientists), at essex university, I am there primemrally to find amusing ways to abuse DnD's magic system.

    When I used to play Exalted, it was all about the performance of cool stunts.

    Mage is about interesting spells.

    So, no, immersion is not my primary reason.

    There are a few people in this posts discussion section questioning the idea already, so lets move our defensible statement to, not some people aren't playing primarily for immersion.

    But you know what, I am pretty sure, based on observation, that immersion is actually not actually the primary reason for play, in most cases.

    Why do I say that? Well, the threeo reasons that come most immediately to mind are these:

    -When people pitch games to one another, they don't talk about how immersive it is. They talk first about Genre and second about neat game-able aspects of system.

    -People spend vastly more effort and ink on elements of gaming that are not immersion or which are in fact at odds with it odds, than they ever do one areas of the game that directly increase it.

    -high immersion games are vastly less popular than low immersion games. I mean seriously DnD is terrible for immersion, high production value cthulhu larp, amazing for immersion. Which do you think gets more players?

    1. There's probably a lot of players who, if asked "what do you like about roleplaying" wouldn't answer "Immersion" even if they knew the term. But if you press them about what their greatest moments in the game were, they'd recognize that they were those moments where something so perfect was happening that the character had taken on a life of their own in a situation/world that 'felt real'.

      You say "when people talk to each other they don't talk about how immersive it is. They talk about genre and game-able aspects of system".
      When they talk about genre, what they're doing is in essence a sales-pitch for Immersion. "It's a game where you play 17th century aristocrats involved in an occult conspiracy" makes you immediately think about imagining yourself playing (i.e. virtually being) a 17th century aristocrat involved in an occult conspiracy and whether this would be interesting to you.

      Immersion is why a game where you play elves and wizards in a fantasy world is more popular than a game where you play teenage girls taking a smoke break behind their minimum-wage place of business, in spite of all the Forge's best social-engineering efforts.

      You say people spend more effort on non-immersive stuff than immersive stuff. That's because you HAVE TO. The non-immersive stuff is all the stuff you can't just do by roleplaying. Immersion is what EMERGES from role-play. You can't make it with rules, which is why the Forge hated it and wanted to pretend its not the most important thing (in fact, they wanted to pretend that it either doesn't exist at all or that only mentally ill people could possibly experience it). Because if not, their whole agenda of mechanically defining roleplaying would be doomed to failure, because the answer would NOT be in just 'making the right system'.

      Finally you say D&D is terrible for immersion. Total bullshit. D&D is GREAT for Immersion. That's WHY it is the most popular RPG in the world.
      You know what games are terrible for immersion? games full of 'social mechanics'.
      D&D's lack of social mechanics forces you to fucking ROLEPLAY it. And Roleplaying is the thing that generates Immersion.

      LARPing, by the way, are also not RPGs. Just another related hobby. Their goal is probably immersion too, but it is a totally different kind of immersion. Literal theater, rather than theater of the mind.

    2. Forgive me as a doubt that there are hordes of RPG fans who are unfamiliar with the term immersion. If your right then clearly the computer games industry has badly misjudged its marketing terminology.* Of the people I have played with in the last decade or so, only one person gives me the slightest doubt about them having any idea what the term means.

      But putting aside the idea that people don't know the term, and the fact that your effectively saying people don't know what they want out of a game, you haven't done a thing to demonstrate that immersion is what people actually want. I'm not asking for a large scale study, with questionnaires that take Acquiesce response bias into consideration, but it would be nice if your argument at least had something backing it, even something as flimsy as anecdote and a logical argument.

      Lets apply occum's razor to the use of genre by gamers to discuss and pitch games.

      Which is more parsimonious

      A. that gamers use genre to pitch games, because they are interested in the narrative structures and tropes that will be in the piece of media which they will be consuming, a tool for which genre exists.

      B. That gamers avoid the use of the term immersion, or any discussion of how a game helps to encourage it, and instead use the language of literary and narrative discussion in place, with the idea of genre being the frame for what the players will be immersed in.

      You also completely ignore the fact that interesting quirks of system is almost as an important aspect as genre.

      Next, you seem to have managed to confuse immersion with escapism. You don't seem to have realized that the major games which came out of the forge are all escapist in nature, not as you characterized it "teenage girls taking a smoke break behind their minimum-wage place of business". Also, your totally ignore the fact that a big part of why DnD is the most popular RPG has nothing to do with it's themes, its escapist setting or its over all quality, so much as it was the first RPG, and there being lots of gamers who play it and then never try anything else.

      A player does not HAVE to spend hours of time and effort on researching optimal builds, yet there is vastly more effort put into that then there ever is to the sharing of information of acting techniques which directly improve immersion. Where are the grand 300 page threads on method acting in the RPG community? There are plenty of such threads on how to scratch out a few more points of damage, which is something what has no impact on immersion, and can have a cooling effect on immersion at the table, by say damaging verimalistude or distracting attention form roleplaying to mechanical issues.

      Claiming that "D&D is GREAT for Immersion. That's WHY it is the most popular RPG in the world." is pretty close to circular reasoning.

      Regardless of LARPing being RPGs or no (I have yet to see a definition of RPGing that excludes LARP as being a form of RPG, that doesn't also exclude other RPGs), it doesn't change the fact that the only difference between the immersion I sometimes find in RPGs and that which I find in LARP is intensity.

      If Immersion is the thing, why are you still table topping when LARP will provide you the thing you want so much better.

    3. You talk about "pitching genre" as if that would be a goal in itself. That's like saying that just saying the word "Jamaica" should be equally appealing as going on vacation TO Jamaica.

      As soon as you ask "WHY would genre matter?", the winner of the argument becomes obvious. If you say "would you rather play a group of demon-hunters in a dark fantasy world who go into tombs to kill the forces of chaos, or would you rather play sexually repressed victorian university professors having a conversation in a parlor?" the reason that most people will pick the first rather than the second (aside from the fact that the second is one of the most fucking stupid concepts ever imagined for a game) is because...? That's right, because they think they're going to have more fun PLAYING THE FUCKING CHARACTERS in the first one.

      That's Immersion. Immersion wins, bitch.

      And yeah, I'm sure Nicotine Girls would be JUST as popular as D&D and have done just as well. The whole reason the Forge catastrophically failed was because it just couldn't beat the fact that D&D was merely first.
      Even though according to the Forge, D&D was such a horrifically Incoherent system. Even though, according to the Forge, D&D promoted all the wrong things (emulation of setting, which no one was supposed to like according to them, and Immersion, which according to the Forge doesn't actually exist and people who think it does are dangerously insane). Even though, according to the Forge, their own GNS type theories were made to produce games that would be super Coherent and would address the 'creative agendas' of all the people who Ron Edward insisted were 'secretly miserable' playing D&D.

      In spite of all that, they couldn't beat D&D, when we all know the one and only reason D&D was so successful is because it was FIRST!

      Oh but wait, there's more! At one point a group of morons gave over D&D to people deeply influenced by Forge thinking. They remade D&D into a Gamist-model game. Now let's think this through: if the Forge was right, that should have made it the most popular version of D&D of all time.

      Instead, it was the LEAST popular of all time and led to a mass exodus.

      But wait.. if you are right and D&D's only reason for popularity is its being the first game, no one should quit it. It shouldn't matter if D&D is really good or a piece of shit, right? In fact, that's the whole premise of your dumbass argument: D&D is a piece of shit but only stays popular because it was first.
      And yet in 4e, when D&D was handed over to the Forge Theorists, it did far WORSE than ANY version of D&D ever before. SO how the fuck did that happen Bucky? How did a game that you already claimed was a piece of shit do worse?

      Huh. No logical possibility really unless, wait. What if your premise is UTTERLY FULL OF SHIT, and in fact D&D is hugely successful because it hits just about every point necessary for a great RPG?
      Yup. That would do it. That would explain why all the Forge and its theory couldn't design better games. Not antiquity, not 'brain damage', it's just that the Forge WERE A GANG OF FUCKING MORONS who got it totally WRONG. Their theories were WRONG, and thus they failed to dethrone D&D.

      It would also explain why 4e, the most Forgist D&D of all, was a PIECE OF SHIT! Because it was using Forge theory, which is WRONG. And thus lost two-thirds of its customer base.

      Until I came along and saved D&D.

      Man it must suck to be you.

  7. I think there is a middle ground here. I've spent a long time playing games that have limited amounts of player agency: 7th Sea (drama dice), Savage Worlds (bennies and the adventure deck), and even Lejendary Adventure (Luck Ability). Each of those games give the player a certain amount of plot protection and agency, but not at the expense of GM control. In fact, with SW, all player agency is generally run through a GM filter. It doesn't make things magically appear out of nothing, and when it does it often empowers the GM to make the group as miserable as he or she wants (Out of the Frying Pan, Reinforcements, Angry Mob, etc.).

    Furthermore, I think (and I could be wrong – I've never been a big Forge follower or Indie game player) this is a pretty extreme reading of "Say yes or roll the dice." That philosophy discourages shutting down a player in toto, and actually kinda goes back to the early D&D approaches of randomness. "I talk to the goblins. What happens?" That sort of thing. It's not much different than the old "1% chance that your god hears you when you invoke him" rule that we used to play by. "Roll the dice" by definition leaves the degree of chance to GM discretion. In my games, I often respond to strange or unexpected requests for information with, "what do you call? High or Low?" Same principle.

    Now, does that mean I want players to have total agency over my plot? No. I'm not in the business of collaborative world building. Because where is the fun in that. I *LIKE* working on things behind the scenes. I like having secrets and mysteries and surprises, all of which are somewhat mitigated by extreme player agency. OTOH, I love the concept of the mini-game in RPGs. I like that exploration can surprise both player AND GM (random encounter tables).

    So no, I disagree with your assertion that ANY player agency, no matter how small is counterproductive. But I think the best GMs allow player agency without needing the game system to reinforce it. They always have and always will. It's when you start codifying those sorts of things into the rules and tying the GM's hands, as you've described, that things get problematic. But while it isn't quite apples and oranges, its not a direct comparison.

    1. My answer to you got so large, I had to make it today's blog.

  8. >and the chief argument will amount to "you let Bob change things, why don't you let me"?
    No, it never will, as long as you have RULES that govern when and to what extent the players are allowed to make their input.

  9. My usual experience reading your stuff, 'pundit, is to agree 90-95% but end up thinking there's no need to take such an absolute stance. That's how I feel about this. Overall, I agree, but I think your depiction of the slippery slope depends a lot on your player group.

    Also, as a GM, I have trended away from designing the entire world within an inch of its life. Sometimes I invite the PCs to fill in parts of their background, and in so doing, engage in some very limited world-building. For instance, in my current campaign, a player wanted to a be a kinda-paladin. I had not designed an order of templars, but there was no reason my world couldn't accommodate them, so I let him go ahead. Since this wasn't going to be a traditional paladin (I had something more in line of Knights Templars with magic), I invited the player to design some of the details of his order...even in the midst of play. All with the understanding that I would step in if he violated underpinnings or feel of my game world.

    Of course, I don't have your ideological hatred of storygames. I don't even care if people want to call them RPGs - these categories aren't hills that I care to die on. Fiasco seems like a terrific game to me, whatever you want to call it. I definitely get something different out of it than a more traditional RPG. If someone starting claiming that racquetball was an RPG, that would be pretty silly, but I'd still enjoy racquetball. Fiasco might not be your cup of tea, but just because some idiot says that it's an RPG doesn't mean we have to choose one over the other.

    Of course, it's also perfectly fine to hate Fiasco on its own merits.