Friday, January 16, 2009

The best way to win is not rolling the dice?

Here's an interesting post on I know a lot of other bloggers are linking to various chunks of this exhaustive thread, but I'm just starting to skim it and I came across this post. I'll block quote it here if you don't feel like clicking:

I think an aspect of "old school" gaming that many folks miss these days is that you're not actually intended to use the rules.

No, that's not intended to be snarky - let me finish.

Based on my own experiences, there seems to be a design principle at work whereby lateral thinking is encouraged by punishing the failure to engage in it. Many of the game mechanics are punitive in nature, in the sense that if you reach a point where the mechanics are actually invoked, you're already hosed. This is mostly clearly seen in the case of the combat system; the extremely low survivability of combat encounters, especially for "low level" characters, serves to encourage players to find ways to resolve encounters without resorting to combat. Traps, deception, manipulating other characters into fighting for you, and so forth are all preferred mechanisms for conflict resolution - anything that avoids the possibility of actually having someone roll to hit you.

This is the diametric opposite of newer approaches to mechanical design. My own preferred approach is to implement the most rigorous mechanics for the most frequent in-character activities: the guiding principle is that the mechanics should address the primary mode of play. The "old school" approach, however, implements the most rigorous mechanics for the in-character activities one wishes most strongly to discourage. The underlying design principle is that the mechanics absolutely should not address the primary mode of play.

This is one of the reasons that many gamers of the present generation have entirely the wrong idea regarding what old-school games are about. They look at the mechanics and assume that the game is about the things that have the most rigorous mechanics for them, when very often, the precise opposite is intended.
A pretty interesting way to look at gaming, if you ask me, and one that I've seen a lot of people advocate - the idea that one of the reasons the D&D rules are so "light" is that the players should be "playing out" all the stuff that more modern, "heavy" systems handle mechanically. I.e., when you search a room for loot in OD&D, you tell the DM what you're doing and how you're looking around ("I poke at the walls with the tip of my sword / I stir through the debris with my staff / I'm tapping the floorboards listening for a secret compartment"), while in other, more modern systems, you make an Observation or Search or Perception skill check.

There are positives and negatives to both approaches, and I won't staunchly defend either point here. However, one argument that I will make for this older approach is the old adage that you only take a gamble when the stakes are worth it. In other words, leave to chance only that which you must leave to chance, and find ways of making sure everything else is a "sure thing'. If you can figure out how to find the hidden widget or talk your way past the palace guards without leaving it up to a potentially disastrous roll of the dice, so much the better. It'll require more engagement from both the Players and the GM, but in the end, isn't "engagement" in the game part of the fun?


Chris said...


Is that an intentional "Wargames" allusion in your title?

Jack Badelaire said...

Oh, you are good.

The original quote would have been a little ill-fitting, but yes, it immediately popped into mind when I started writing this column.

Darkwing said...

Not rolling the dice makes it sound less like a game and more like just sitting around and "telling stories."

That might feed into the egos of "old school" DMs who pride themselves on being great storytellers, but it also seems close to railroading, which is another method of DM powertripping.

If I tell the DM I want to do X, Y, and Z, and he says "doesn't work, doesn't work, doesn't work" it gets frustrating. Even if he intends to railroad me, the act of making me roll to see if I succeed at least provides the illusion that there's a nonzero chance of success.

Am I there to take risks and play a game, or am I there to stroke the DM's ego? Let me roll the dice.

Christopher B said...

I think the original quote explains - if not as succinctly and clearly as it may have - the difference between two modes of play. I wouldn't necessarily call them "old school" and "new school," since both modes existed - to some extent - "back in the day." (E.g. D&D v. CoC.) For easy reference, I'll call D&D's mode "GM Empowering," while CoC's mode could be called "GM Monitoring."

I also thing Darkwing's bitterly toned comment aptly illustrates what is quite possibly the heart of the conflict between "old-school" gamers and "anti-old-school" gamers: the frustration many gamers harbor about the GM Empowering mode. Without a strictly codified set of rules to protect them from antagonistic or story-forcing GM's, players like Darkwing tend to take a negative view of such a mode of play.

It's too bad, really, because with a good GM, the GM Empowering style can lead to games that are so much more rewarding than those burdened by an overabundance of player-protecting (or even -empowering) rules. I've always played and run games with the "GM is God Here" motto, and have had few bad gaming experiences - and many great ones. The games I've enjoyed the least (to play or run) have been those in which the rules became another GM; one who leeched the creativity and fun - even if in small doses - from the game.

When it comes down to it, I don't think this conflict is so much about games and styles of play, per se, as it is about our experiences as gamers. If more people understood this fact, I think there would be far less animosity and heated discussion over the two modes of play.

That's just my two pesos.

Joshua Macy said...

I think Darkwing misunderstands the nature of the game. No amount of rules or dice-rolling can save you from a DM who intends to railroad you. The DM always gets to set the difficulty of the check you have to make, or even if there's a trap there for your skill to find, which means that he can as a matter of brute fact make your rolling be an illusion of control. You're better off trying to find a DM who won't abuse his inherent power over the scenario and doesn't *wan't* to railroad you (or persuading an abusive DM to stop so that you'll agree to continue playing), or get rid of the DM entirely and play some kind of board or story-telling game, than to try to find or create a system that completely hems the DM in and prevents any railroading without sacrificing the players' scope of action, reducing them to picking from a menu of skills. "Ok, I tried Search, and I tried Listen, didn't find anything so I guess I have to move on."

Precocious Apprentice said...

So this basically comes down to control. You can place it in the GMs hands, you can place it in the players' hands, or you can place it in the games hands.

Problems only happen when there is a dispute about what is fun. In a mature group, even if the game system says control should be in the games hands, the players and GM usually feel OK about taking back control. You just play the way you like, and the game has no ability to protest. You can move on with no conflict.

When the game puts the control in the players' hands, then players feel comfortable, and in the end, the GM actually has most of the control anyway, he canset higher DC, he can change encounters, he can effectively railroad, just on a macro instead of a micro level.

When all of the control is placed in the GM's hands, then there is no redress. Players feel uncomfortable for the most part because the DM can jsut say what happens. That just sucks.

"I try to.."
"Nope, doesn't work."
"Then I try..."
"Nope, doesn't work."

The only redress is to find another GM.

This problem is usually avoided if the GM give up a little control. When players feel OK about the level of control they have, then they are OK whe the GM makes the occasion fiat decision. Because they usually have control. The only time a GM has problems with this is when he is controlling to the point of being antagonistic. A good GM can either say "Guys, this is important to the plot, do you mind if I fiat?" or he can retcon a little to accomodate for the fun of the group.

I have way less fun in a game that requires that the GM have absolute control. The world is better when we all create it, it is more fun for me as a GM when my players surprise me with narrative control, and my players like it better when they feel like they actually contribute to the cam and not just get strung along. If I wanted to be strung along, I could play a computer game. Some of them are even beginning to be able to retcon based on player choice.

Like most things, I feel that things have gotten better than the way they were. Gaming included.

Anonymous said...

I agree; the best way to win is not rolling the dice.

My take on dice-rolling is that I only really do it when the outcome of the action is in doubt--combat, crafting, noticing things, and occasionally if I want to make sure a character actually has the background to draw the conclusion his character has just drawn. It's a Dogs in the Vineyard sort of approach, a lot of the time: Say yes or have them roll. It's a lot faster that way, and I don't have to worry about them not being able to do something that I think would be both feasible and really nifty just because the dice don't like them that day.

Darkwing said...

First I want to say that I didn't intend my comment to sound as bitter as it might have. Second, I agree, it's all in the GM--get a good GM, and it doesn't matter where the control is, the game will be good, and vice versa.

But I will say this: One of best parts of the game (in my mind) is the risk-taking. The only way you can take a risk is to roll the dice (or introduce some kind of random element).

If you don't roll the dice, whether or not you succeed is entirely up to the GM. There is literally no risk, because all you're doing is putting the decision in the GM's hands. Now where's the fun in that?

I think that introducing the random element that dice provide makes for a more interesting game, neither the players nor the GM knows the outcome ahead of time.

I agree with Ravyn's 2nd paragraph--"you only need to roll the dice when the outcome is in doubt." But if the outcome isn't in doubt, then why are you playing the game in the first place?

I totally agree that in the real world, the best way to win is not to roll the dice (or take risks, etc)--and it's a lot less stressful! But isn't the game more satisfying and fun if success always hangs in the balance, and you're forced to take risks...and then you win?

I think the presence of the extra game mechanics in the rules are good additions to the game--but it's always up to the GM whether or not to use them. I think it's the GM's role to determine when it's important to the game to include them or not--whether or not they'll add tension and excitement to a given situation.

Joshua Macy said...

Actually, I'm largely in agreement with Darkwing about what dice are useful for. Two observations, though:

1) I still favor making the world concrete enough that the GM would be able to tell whether the players actions make sense and would work. E.g. if there is a key hidden in a desk, I think it works better if the GM knows the key is taped to the underside of the middle drawer of the desk. I think this is true even if the players elect to search the room by rolling against their search skill instead of detailing all the actions they take.

2) Just because the rules lack a detailed mechanic for how to use dice doesn't mean the GM doesn't resort to dice of adjudicating things where he doesn't already know the answer. It was extremely common back in the day for the GM to roll, say, 1d6, high is good to resolve such things, or to re-purpose a similar rule to resolve the question (e.g. using the same rolls as a surprise check for a chance to notice something, using a morale check to see if the lie is believed).

trollsmyth said...

Yes, yes, YES!

The dice hated you, the dice were evil, and if you had to roll the dice, a PC was likely to die.

Which didn't mean that we avoided them entirely. It did mean that we did everything possible to stack the odds in our favor. We built traps, lay tripwires, and dug pits. We bribed the orcs to fight the goblins, then sold healing potions to the goblins. We plugged hallways, collapsed tunnels, burned down abandoned mansions, and diverted streams.

And only then, when we'd done everything we could, and exhausted every other possibility, did we reach for the dice.

And there was very little "No, that won't work." Sometimes, things were not exactly as we would have liked them ("A tripwire won't work here because the sand is too soft to anchor the ends.") but there was usually some way to accomplish the same goal by different means ("We bury those washed-up logs we found on the beach and run the tripwire between them.").

We didn't have the phrase say-yes-or-roll-the-dice, but we mostly lived by it. Anything that was reasonable was fair game. The trick was finding a DM who had an acceptable definition of "reasonable", which wasn't as hard as you might think.

This is why the Caves of Chaos look the way they do. The point wasn't to run through the DM's preplanned story. The point was to explore this sprawling complex of caves, carving your own story out of the events and situations that the players and DM created working together.

- Brian

Dwayanu said...

I think the issue comes up primarily when people don't want to play the game. "Forget the rules of Chess and just let me roll a die to get you in checkmate."

In my experience, in 4E, situations often arise in which the dice determine whether you succeed and then the DM narrates how. The corollary is that a sensible plan must fail with the same pre-determined frequency as one that's idiotic. The "players" are just mechanical dice-rollers.

Sometimes players just can't handle "losing," in the sense that their proposed solutions happen not to be among the ones that work.

Suppose you really want a confounding dungeon door to stay open, but even spiking it doesn't work. Well, how about popping the hinges and removing the dang thing? It can't close then!

K. Bailey said...

The idea of a DM kindly asking players if he may fiat a roll because it fits his "plot" sums up exactly what is not old school.

Jack Badelaire said...

How do you mean exactly? I think the idea is more the PLAYERS avoiding die rolling so they don't have to "play the odds" so much (which, for low-level PCs, isn't such a good idea).

But having a GM handwave a die roll for the sake of "plot" is indeed kinda lame.

Anonymous said...

Sorry for the long post, but this really got me thinking.

Darkwing, I would suggest that the element of risk for the players in an "old school" or "DM Empowering" context is in many ways the same element of risk faced by the characters - i.e., the fact that a poor or unfortunate decision can lead to a bad end, rather than success or failure depending mainly on luck.

The idea that putting the decision in the DM's hands is entirely without risk is, I think, a flawed conclusion. Assuming that the DM is skillful and fair-minded (an important assumption for this sort of game), the basis of the decision is less about whether the DM wants the players to succeed or fail, which I infer is the perspective on which you base your comment here. Rather, the decision derives from the situation which has been created in the game. That is to say that when the DM creates an obstacle or trap, he might not come up with a solution which the players must guess, but rather develops the idea so completely that he can accurately describe what results the players' actions bring about.

To borrow an example from Trollsmyth, when the DM created the dungeon, he determined that such-and-such an area was especially sandy, likely guessing that this would be an obstacle to his players trap-laying ways. When the players think of burying logs to get around this dilemma, a poor GM would make up new details to veto the plan, because he doesn't want a trap to be set here. A good DM knows his creation well enough to realize that this plan, which he had not previously considered, is at least plausible.

Thus, part of the fun in designing the dungeon the old-school way is in anticipating your players' methods, and challenging them; part of the fun in delving the dungeon is in out-thinking your friend the DM, and succeeding at doing what he thought you couldn't do. This is also where the risk lies, as the DM's devious design is laden with dangerous surprises which may be sprung by foolish decisions (tromping into the goblin lair when they outnumber you vastly) or by unfortunate ones (attempting to open parley with the orcs by a show of bravado, not realizing that this particular tribe will respond aggressively rather than respectfully). Ideally, sufficient leg-work will help to eliminate the risk of unfortunate decisions, and sufficient forethought will avoid bad decisions, but you never can be sure.

This is of course just a matter of taste. I know that even in player-empowering, crunchy, new-school games I've run, there have been players who liked to plan encounters to such practical precision as to eliminate virtually every element of risk, and to them this was the source of fun; while in DM-empowering, high-trust, old-school games I've run, there have been players who would gladly stake the lives of their PCs and the entire party on the roll of a die without any knowledge of the odds or any effort to influence those odds whatsoever - and for them, the total unpredictability, and subsequent fallout, was the core of the fun. All kinds of players will fit into all kinds of games, to one degree or another.

So I totally respect that what is being described here may have no appeal to you whatsoever,or at any rate might not tickle your fancy as much as another style of play does. At the same time, I hope that you can see what it is that the old-school gamers are enjoying - particularly that there is a kind of risk involved, though a very different kind from what you describe, and that there is fun to be had, though it might not be your particular flavor.

And hey, if you've never given old-school dungeoneering a try, I would totally encourage you to find a DM you trust and whose wits you'd like to engage, and try it out. Even if it proves not to be your thing, you just might find some new elements of fun you can bring to your usual game and get even more out of your gaming than you have before.