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GMing God Robin Laws speaks great truths

Robin Laws (robin_d_laws) is a GMing God.  I've said it before, and will undoubtedly say it many times in the future.  He has a gift for clarifying GMing concepts that I know and practice, but can't articulate.

Head over to this week's Page XX for a wonderful article on the impact of randomness on storytelling.  The telling quote: "Failure is usually boring. It is the credible but unrealized threat of failure that is interesting."

I know, I know, I still haven't spilled about GenCon SoCal... all in time, I hope.


( 1 comment — Roll the dice )
Dec. 20th, 2004 10:08 pm (UTC)
Failure vs. Disempowering Players
I have to both agree and disagree with Robin Laws here.

I could, for instance, make the counter-statement that success is usually boring. In fact, one of the hard rules in Jack Bickham's "Scene and Structure" is to never let a scene end in unconditional success -- quote: "Every scene must end in disaster." Or, more generally, a conflict must continuously escalate throughout the story, and the hero getting exactly what he or she wants ends the story quicker than anything else. What you get with constant, unmitigated success is at best a Mary-Sue-style wish fulfillment fantasy. (An aside: In my opinion, Bickham's approach is a bit too formulaic, and ought to be taken with a liberal helping of salt, but the general ideas are still applicable.)

Obviously, Robin to some extent alludes to that when he talks about reversals, but the point is that what you want avoid are boring failures, whiffs, null effects, not failures as such. The example combat in Theatrix, which is as cinematic as its gets -- even if it is brimming with cliches that no TV producer would dare trot out -- is chock-full of interesting failures. Each of them either furthers the microplot of the scene or contributes to characterization. Which is not surprising, since in Theatrix success and failure is a function of roleplaying and the requirements of the plot, but it is still a good counterexample.

The underlying problem that Robin addresses is a bit more complicated, I think.

First of all, there is the issue of player disempowerment. 90% of all modern roleplaying games focus their rules on disempowering characters. For example, I have sometimes joked that D&D feats were designed by somebody who didn't get Feng Shui schticks -- they are a tool for player disempowerment, not empowerment: by the simple presence of, say, a "hamstring" feat you automatically ban everybody who doesn't have it from hamstringing an opponent. (It is somewhat unfair to single out D&D here when most games do similar things, but it is probably the most familiar example.) Similarly, there is the popular habit of, come hell or high water, starting the characters at a ridiculous level of incompetence. The equivalent of first-level characters on TV would almost invariably be comic relief figures (e.g., Xander in the early seasons of Buffy). In this context, where failures have been stripped of most of their dramatic potential, they reinforce the notion of how little you can do instead of providing tools for characterization and plot development.

Second, there is the risk of the dice becoming a substitute for the action. In standard beer & pretzel roleplaying, you describe your intent, roll the dice, and the GM describes the result of the action. The only thing that the player is really contributing is the statement of intent and the roll of the dice. Assuming that the dice are a reasonably random device, the player could just as well pass that task off to the GM, without endangering the chance of success. But absent any other possibility of influencing the actual result, the die roll becomes a symbolic representation of the action -- which is where elaborate dice rituals and similar superstitions come from.

The problem here is that in a vain attempt to empower the players, GMs often let them roll dice to simulate character activity even when there is no bloody need in hell to do so. Whether it's a barrage of perception rolls ("everybody make a Spot/IQ/whatever roll, please") or letting the player roll the dice to open a bog-standard lock (because otherwise the GM would just tell the player that he or she manages to do it, taking away any sense of "doing"), not only does the group spend too much time on "garbage time activities", but it creates pointless frustration whenever such a gratuitous garbage time task fails.

To have true player empowerment, they must have either (1) meaningful decision points or (2) narrative power over events. Which in most roleplaying games is provided by either (a) round-based action scenes, (b) dialog scenes or (c) off-screen character creation/advancement/equipment. Interestingly enough, some of the bestselling roleplaying products these days emphasize (c),
instead of (a), (b), or using the (d) "none/all of the above" option.
( 1 comment — Roll the dice )

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