Let’s start with a history review. A long time ago in a land that now seems so very far away, a man named Gary Gygax published a game named Dungeons and Dragons (1974). It was the first commercial RPG in the modern sense. What this game did was to compile rules for games that people were already playing based on another type of game: miniatures wargaming.
So let me explain what I mean in that last sentence. It’s very important. Dungeons and Dragons was NOT inventing a game. It was describing a game people were already playing. DnD did not create roleplaying, it simply catalogued roleplaying. Even more, roleplaying at the time was not what we tend to think of it today. It was much more like a miniatures war game where the object was to simulate dungeon combat, slaying a dragon, or an encounter between armed foes. The authors just assumed anyone who played the game would have this sort of background knowledge on wargaming and that explanatory text would be redundant (and more expensive to print). Therefore, it did not PRE-scribe play, it only DE-scribed play.
1975 saw the release of Boot Hill, a Western themed RPG. Props go to them for being original with their setting right off the bat. It was non-fantasy, leveless, and made the player-characters the focal point of the design, but the game was heavily geared towards the showdown and accurately simulating a gun fight. The game even touted itself as based on western miniatures. So the same basic assumptions were made- people playing Boot Hill knew how to play miniatures and just needed some extra rules for “roleplaying.”
Also, Tunnels and Trolls was released that year. It was the first in a long line of “Lord of the Rings except not because we can’t get the license” game. It did many of the things that D&D did, but it also held over the mass combat rules of miniatures and tried to be as realistic as it could be.
What DnD and these other games that were like it did accomplish in the 70’s was to make hundreds and then thousands of more people aware of what was going on. That awareness turned into participation. That participation turned into creation. But as time rolled on, the way people played these games started to change. Suddenly, people who had no background in miniature wargaming were picking up D&D, T&T, and Boot Hill and trying to play it based on their background in writing, storytelling, boardgames, make-believe, acting, imrpov, or whatever else. The core market for early RPGs suddenly expanded to whole new demographics.
DnD and these other RPGs were later supplemented by magazines such as TSR’s Dragon and RPGA’s Polyhedron published adventure modules meant to be used in a tournament format at conventions. For some people, the object of playing became to win. For others, it became a place to create stories in the English 101 sense where you have protagonists, rising action, climax, and theme. For others, it meant being true to the vision of whatever gaming background or literary background they came to the table with.
By the late 70’s it was clear that people were using RPGs to do all sorts of things that the texts did not support. In fact, it could be argued that from the very get-go, the texts did not support the play since they weren’t inventing anything, but simply describing pre-existing behaviors.
The results were threefold. The first effect was that the game texts at hand were all incomplete. They didn’t tell you how to play or what to do, they just had a bunch of text that provided resources people already familiar with how to play could use to supplement their gaming. For people who heard about this game and picked up trying to figure out how to play it, there was nothing to really grab on to. Instead, the players had to improvise and make up a lot of stuff and ignore a lot of other stuff. Imagine trying to play D&D 3.5 if the only book you had was Castle Ravenloft. That’s about what it was like. You had people all over the country playing the same title without playing the same game (make sense?). Thus, a tradition was established in RPG publishing where communicating exactly what was expected during play and providing rules that supported that play was a non-essential thing. It really didn’t matter, the thinking went, just so long as you provided really evocative tools for the players. They’ll figure it out eventually, publishers supposed.
The second effect was when publishers figured out that there were large segments of the audience who weren’t playing the game like they had envisioned, they changed their texts to try to suit everyone. A game like Bushido (1979), for instance, tried to downplay the role of miniatures-style combat and stress the importance of the people at the table and what things like honor, duty, and heroism really meant to them. But at the same time, they included plenty of combat rules, magic, and ways to introduce supernatural monsters into play even though the game wasn’t really even about that stuff. They figured that if they didn’t have it, no one would want to buy the game. This was only exacerbated in the 1980’s where we saw an explosion of RPGs trying to cater to everyone and everything all at the same time.
The third effect was that social conflict amongst the players became the norm. The tales of dysfunctional groups, incoherence, and arguments over what was the “right way” to play a game are well documented, and I don’t need to go into them here. Tournaments and conventions (especially GenCon) brought people from all over together in one place. This was great, in that ideas could be exchanged, but at the same time it brought people into conflict because they weren’t interpreting the vague rules and guidelines the same way. This problem increased in the 1990’s when GenCon, Origins, and DragonCon really started taking off. Then the Internet hit and everyone started talking to each other. This talking often consisted of a lot of arguing and belittling people for not playing “right” or whatever.
During this time, derogatory words entered the lexicon that labeled people and play styles who went against the grain. Powergamer, Grandstander, Munchkin, Rules Lawyer, Monty Hall GM, Wussy, Hack ‘n Slash, Blast ‘n Burn, artsy-fartsy-story-telling-wannabes, and turtling were enshrined as the proper way to refer to non-conformist players in dozens of advice books such as the AD&D 2e Guide to Creative Campaigning (1993).
So what was the end result? Well, people did try to come up with solutions. First was the so called, “Rule Zero.” Basically, that rule stated, “any rule you don’t like, get rid of it.” Other variations include, “Make up rules if something happens that this book doesn’t account for,” “Not everything that happens during play can be accounted for in the rules, so improvise as needed,” “It’s the GM’s call” or even worse, “The GM is God!” Sometimes they’d dress it up as much as they could such as in the AD&D1e DMG: "It is the spirit of the game not the letter of the rules, which is important. Never hold to the letter written, nor allow some barracks room lawyer to force quotations from the rulebook on you if it goes against the obvious intent of the game." Thus, game texts continued to be vague and lack focus on making rules that actually worked and actually told people how to play.
The other solution that was widely practiced was more insidious and brings us closer to the original point of this entry. During the 90’s when the first Goth wave hit, White Wolf ditched games like Ars Magica and switched to the World of Darkness titles like Vampire: The Masquerade and Mage: The Ascension. In these books, they presented the idea that the GM just needs to write out a plotline that the characters follow, using the rules only when necessary. Thus, a lot of the conflict in a group would be solved and everyone could have a nice story at the end to be proud of. The catch was, in order to get this to work right, the GM had to force the players into following the story. Since human being tend to be individualists (especially in America), this was a real problem. So instead, these games encouraged GMs to do this covertly, i.e. behind the veil. Play became based on deception and manipulation. The better a GM could hide how he was making all the choices for the players, the better a GM he/she was said to be. The problem is, all this subversive manipulation is just not a recipe for long-term success.
To communicate this style of gaming without totally turning everyone off from the get-go, a phrase was developed and presented in game texts as the proper way to play. It goes something like this, “The GM writes the story and the players decide what the characters do.”
Now, if you’ve been playing RPGs for a long time, that phrase probably makes sense to you. If you haven’t played many RPGs, that sentence probably makes absolutely no sense at all. If it does make sense, read it again. I’ll break it down.
The GM writes the story. The players decide what the characters do. If you have one, you can’t have the other. If the GM has written the story, the decisions of the characters must already be known. If the players decide what the characters are going to do, the GM could not possibly have written out the story since none of the characters had taken any actions prior to play. Those two sentences are totally and utterly incompatible. Yet that phrase, or a variation of it, is presented in numerous roleplaying texts across the spectrum as the way things are supposed to be done during roleplaying. That, right there, is “The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast.” TITB4B. Also, sometimes called “illusionism” or “railroading.”
So why is this bad?
Well, let’s look at what TITB4B causes. First, the GM has to force the players to do something. Not only that, he has to do in covert ways, basically conning them to go along with his plan without ever communicating that plan in a truthful and upfront way. That’s certainly not a sound foundational basis for a functional social group. And, as a result, it didn’t solve the problem it was trying to solve.
If the players became bored with the GM’s story, they would often try to veer off course. This caused conflict with the GM because his well thought-out and beautiful stories were being ruined by people daring to express their free will. Not only that, the GM would be caught totally off-guard and unprepared to deal with these new developments. Consequences included heated arguments, long and boring pauses in play while the GM figured out what to do, sessions cut short so the GM could prep for what was going on (usually, just more machinations to get the characters back to the original plot), or some players being left out of the game completely while those who did choose to follow the GM’s premade plans were rewarded with screen time. This can and often does lead to other social and in-game conflicts amongst the participants. Most bad experiences with RPGs can be tied to this phenomena right here.
So what can be done about TITB4B?
There have been some failed attempts to fix this. GUMSHOE (2007) for example touted itself as solving this problem for mystery games by having not only a Fortune based mechanic for clue finding but also a Karma based resolution. “Although it came up in playtest, I confess to being a little surprised by the idea that The Esoterrorists, by creating a mechanism to ensure that PCs in investigative games always get all the clues they need to start piecing the mystery together, encourages railroading. The GUMSHOE system doesn’t in fact change the inherent structure of investigative games at all. They are no more or less linear in GUMSHOE, on a structural level, than in a traditional procedural campaign using the roll-to-get-a-clue model,” wrote Robin Laws on his blog.
I have to admit I was a little surprised that he was a little surprised that his game received the same criticism previous mystery games had received since GUMSHOE does nothing to “change the inherent structure of investigative games.” I wondered it Mr. Laws had played Inspectres (2002)- a game that does change the inherent structure of mystery games and makes them non-linear, but in the comments section of his entry, he reveals that he had not.
The old paradigm was still alive: the GM writes the story (in this case a mystery) and the players play along finding the pre-arranged clues and breadcrumbs left by the GM. The fact that they could spend points to get the clues instead of whiffing endlessly on their rolls did, as Robin states, nothing to change heavy-handed, GM-centric nature of play despite being presented as a game that liberated the players from the traditional travails associated with mystery games.
However, there are several viable solutions to TITB4B. As with many things, it seems, in RPG theory, there are names for them: Trailblazing, Participationism, and Bass Play/Sandbox Play. I’ll get to these in another article which, I have a feeling, will be more pertinent to design. For now, the main thing that I hope people come away with from this article is that “the GM makes the story and the players decide what the characters do” is a nonsensical statement that should be avoided in gaming texts.
Friday, December 17, 2010
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This post is full of EPIC WIN.
:hunkers down to wait for part two:
Longtime forge refugee here.
Great post. With my longtime D&D group, they simply cannot understand the concept of The Impossible Thing.
Whenever I explain it, they keep saying a "good DM" should be able to take interesting suggestions and cater to player wants and pc wants (eg. fitting in player-written backstory and npcs) while still maintaining their own preplanned story.
In practice, I see time and again this DOES NOT WORK.
Yeah, for people who've been indoctrinated by TITB4B for many years, it can be hard to break loose of it. Despite the fact that it's complete non-sense, it can seem quite natural.
TITB4B only really becomes a problem when the players start having conflicts with each other at the Social Contract level. Unfortunately, that seems to happen a lot with texts that aspouse things like Rule Zero and The Impossible Thing.
If they're happy with their gaming experiences, then I say leave 'em alone. But if they keep finding that their play is unfulfilling or that person-to-person conflicts frequently arise, then keep at it. One day they'll understand what you're saying :)
Isn't this all covered by the two ways to do things?
On one hand tools like Schrodinger's Plot Point and Chekov's Gun which deal with direct manipulation of what is important and what the players happen to find in relation to the context of the predefined story; On the other hand is the Tom Sawyer method where the players do the work of building the creation and story while the GM moderates action.
Troy: Thanks for the reply. My group may be too "set in stone" with their fixed notion of what an "rpg" is supposed to be like.
A couple times I ran a ripoff of Universalis and suddenly they "got it" and interesting game sessions happened.
But once I referred to it as an "rpg" and said now you are each responsible for one pc, they completely went into "my guy" mode.
To refer to another forum, maybe I should keep saying "Story games" instead of rpg!
Tony: I'm not familiar with your terminology.
Yeah, Tony. I think DiTV and Inspectres fit your two catagories quite well. In part two of this article, I'll go into more detail on those styles.
Ken, I agree. Sometimes using the word Story Games is better than saying RPG. In my particular area, if I say RPG, people think of WoW or EverQuest.
It's clear that Troy never played T & T or even read the rules. I"m not buying his analysis or history of role-playing at all.
Care to point out where I'm wrong?
Hi, Troy— I posted a comment a while back, but it seems to have gotten caught in Blogger's spam filter. The only problem I had with your analysis of T&T was that Tunnels & Trolls was designed without any reference to or familiarity with miniature wargaming. Ken St. Andre looked at original D&D and couldn't make heads or tails of it, so he designed a game that made sense to him. T&T combat is handled entirely without any interest in simulationism, and with a lot more focus on fictional positioning than classical D&D.
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