Thursday, December 17, 2015

Who's In Charge Here?

Usually, +Kasimir Urbanski (aka TheRPGpundit) and I see eye-to-eye on things (RPGs, magic, entertainment, etc).

Recently, he blogged about the insidiousness of "narrative control"... or allowing the players to dictate what happens during the game.  In my opinion, his argument became a bridge too far.  Or, at least, it appeared as though he was throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  I thought it worthwhile to point out my disagreement.  Perhaps it's not really a disagreement at all, but a slightly different perspective.

At this point, some of you might be scratching your head, wondering what the hell he's going on about.  Well, back in the 00's, a particular niche of the RPG community gained a certain amount of prominence.  Enough to sustain an indie, albeit short lived RPG industry.  Do people still buy Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, and My Life With Master?  I have no idea.  But only a decade ago, such games were considered moderately popular.

The basic idea was that players could GM just as well - if not better - than the GM himself, dipping their creative control oars in the water (either whenever they felt like it or when the game's rules gave them permission).  Also, sessions and campaigns should focus on weaving a story, rather than the fun or strategy of  treating RPGs like a game.  Additionally, the emulation of a certain genre or format had to take a backseat.  This new philosophy of roleplaying was closely aligned with The Forge, an online forum that propagated these ideas.

One of the more inflammatory statements coming out of the narrativist / story-game movement was that D&D caused brain damage.  By that, I believe, they meant that older (70's through 90's) RPGs were "badly designed" and did not fit in with the Creative Agenda of Narrativism, even going so far as to compare what we commonly understand to be the roleplaying game experience to child molestation.  Really?  WTF, guys!?!

Thankfully, that whole era of RPG design turned out to be a dead-end and pretty much petered out by 2010.  There's still an understandable amount of hostility aimed at those still preaching player narrative control.  Although, there must be so few storygame holdouts that I wonder why RPGpundit even bothers.  Still, it does us well to remember our history, lest we are doomed to repeat it.

I think we can all agree on the following...

  1. Player agency is a good.  Players continually forcing their ideas onto the GM and the game world is bad.
  2. There shouldn't be any kind of absolute law that binds the Game Master to a particular rule, play style, or game mechanic.
  3. Immersion is important for the roleplaying experience.

On the first point, I don't believe "the danger of player-agency over the [game] world" is as much a danger as RPGpundit supposes.

On the second point, player and character wants should have an influence on the game, but to a much lesser extent than what Ron Edwards would have us believe (though, I'm not sure even he believes in that type of thing anymore).  That doesn't mean GMs should just roll over anytime the PCs want something, but every once in awhile, the "living world" should conform to their will.  Think of it as the Law of Attraction, if that helps.  The real world occasionally conforms to our individual and collective will, so why not a roleplaying game?

The GM should never be a slave to the players or any agreed-upon dramatic arc.  He's the boss, benevolent dictator, or good king.  One part entertainer, one part narrative coordinator, and one part referee.  I'm of the opinion that players frequently have good ideas and that it doesn't do the game any harm to occasionally use their suggestions.  Which brings me to...

Number three - immersion is not lessened by rolling dice to decide if such and such a thing exists, occurs, or reacts a certain way.  The GM has a lot on his plate and he knows the game world better than anyone else at the table... and yet, how could he know for certain if a book on a particular subject is contained in a 1,000 book library (let alone a 10,000)?  Shouldn't the gods decide such things more often than not?  What about the oracular power of dice?

After all, isn't the library and all the books it contains real (in our imaginations, if nothing else) while simultaneously being a minor backdrop in a larger story?  I mean, the point of this hypothetical adventure isn't - I hope - to explore a library.  Chances are, it's the saving of a princess, acquiring more credits, or protecting the city from some unspeakable thing.  In essence, the library serves the story.  But that doesn't mean a GM who allows a PC to find a botany book is a slave to the story or that particular player.

While RPGpundit isn't against rolling to see if a book on botany can be found in the library, my preference is to always roll when the outcome is a gray area.  Just as I'm likely to roll (see my 33% solution in How to Game Master like a Fucking Boss) every time a player brings up a question or suggests something that's not only possible but intriguing, as well.

To me, that's part of what makes it a "living world".  The idea that a GM might lose his authority or ruin the immersion because of his flexibility and fluidity seems absurd to me.

As to the distinctions between a fictional world and virtual world, that will probably have to be its own blog post.  Defining "reality" is not easy.

In conclusion, this is just a snapshot impression of the gigantic discussion issuing from his aforementioned blog post and my thoughts on the matter.


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