The Goals of an RPG, or the R.P.G’s of gaming

If it’s not fun, don’t play.

-One-Eyed Man

I imagine we all agree with the preceding statement unless we have issues with masochism or other self-interest eschewing disorders. That said, I have been coming across repeated statements ‘out there’ that the purpose of the GM in an RPG, and by extension an RPG’s ultimate goal, is to ensure, or at least enhance, the chances for the success of the players. More strangely, I have heard this most often, paradoxically, from the same sorts of gamers who decry instances of what they perceive as railroading or ‘rigid narrative control’ on the part of the GM.

To be blunt, that seems to lead me to conclude this about what those people want:

“The GM should not interfere with players’ freedom of choice, nor provide challenges which might impact on those choices negatively, nor cause negative consequences to occur which frustrate the player or the character, should not force, by compulsion or restriction of information, the players down a path which serves the plot envisioned by the GM, but must alter the flow of events and results of randomizing mechanics to allow for the success and benefit of the player characters.”

To paraphrase: “Entertain me.”

I know I am not alone in thinking this is an untenable position to hold, but why is it that when I am reading RPG commentary ‘out there’ so much of it seems to go that route? Who are all of these people who seem to be thin-skinned, wish-fulfillment junkies, and why do they post so many contradictory opinions about their own beliefs?

My view, and I know also that I am not alone in this view, is that a thing unearned has no value. Although we are reportedly living in the Age of Entitlement, and the idea of earning something rather than just automatically deserving it might be an alien concept to some, it is actually the point of games to obtain victory. If you have, or are assured, victory when you start, why play? If you are not prepared to do this, then really – you are not prepared to play a game. In an RPG, this is no less true than other types of G. Fun and the earning of rewards are not mutually exclusive – in fact, when combined the best results are produced. If you are in it just for the RP and not for the G, then there are many other ways to achieve that end without poisoning your fun with an unnecessary G dosage.

If one intends to play a game, I believe one has to learn how to play it. If the learning process does not produce the desired effects (better play, and more fun) then it is best to note this, and choose to play something else. If it is game play itself which is the problem, then it is best to note that, and do something else, even if mechanics for simulation or task resolution need to be maintained, but that troubling element of game play needs to be removed for whatever reason. All you have really done is enter the realm of theatre games, and these are just as much fun as games that involve actually playing a game.

Warning: Theatre games have goals, too but… as they are to resolve the scene in accordance with the agreed upon setting, no one should have trouble with them. If you do indeed have trouble with them do not fear, there is still hope for you: reading and writing. Have fun!

Sherman, set the Way-Back Machine…

-Mr. Peabody

I was in my early teens when role-playing games were not so much new as newly accessible. Yes, we are talking time measured in multiple decades. Deal. Choices of genre were limited, at first, but the hobby was expanding at a prodigious rate in that regard. It progressed more slowly in the realm of mechanics or systemic approaches. As we got more comfortable with the discovery process of learning new games without outside resources, it got a lot easier to learn new games. As this process expanded, the games began to evolve, and underlying principles of design began to receive attention. That, of course, began to have people dividing up into camps aligned along poles of ‘what is good, and what is bad,’, ‘what is fun, and what is not,’ etc.

The games that came later were in reaction to that phase of discovery, error-making, and revelation-having.  Games were being made by people who had grown up in the hobby, and were looking for a new way. They were being purchased, however, by people who had not. Greater access to the opinions of others, combined with the new era of existentially angsty and oh-so-self-referential RPG writings in the core books and the rapidly-appearing GM-advice guides, coloured the early experiences of each successive wave of gamers, and pre-loaded them with biases about what was and what was not ‘good role-playing.’ I think in some ways, this saved people a lot of time and wasted effort, but it also blocked people in some ways from the benefit of personal experience and personal decision-making.

Somehow, through all of this nonsense, we may have forgotten that the root of our problems could perhaps be those we game with, or their lack of skill development, and perhaps ought not be laid unthinkingly at the door of the games themselves. Games that try to address via their rules or design philosophy, what are fundamentally human problems, have little to no chance of succeeding. The adversarial GM is an adversarial GM because of personality, and a lack of development in the appropriate skills as a GM, such as pacing, threat and enticement management, flexible plotting, and effective planning. Alternately, they might be so because of unrelated things like jealousy over time spent as a player, cosmic rays, constipation, or too many readings of the Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Likewise, the lazy player is lazy regardless of how simple or engaging the system is. It is laziness that made them a lazy player, not the turning of pages in character creation, or having to lift too many heavy dice.

Before you get the wrong idea, I do not think the old days were better. One does not have a revolution because everyone is too happy and life is perfect. The revolution in gaming came along because some were discovering for themselves that things did not work, did not work consistently, caused more trouble than they were worth, or balanced/unbalanced things too much, etc, etc. In an effort to fix the holes in systems and simulations, and in an effort to address the disparity between role and roll playing, everything changed. Hell, Amber even got rid of dice altogether.

No, the old days were not better. The games were not perfect, and the gamers had a lot to learn. However, that in and of itself, makes the difference I have been feeling. Lacking other resources, groups either improved or gave-up under their own aegis. How they defined improvement would differ (home-brewing rules, creating new systems whole-cloth, seeking to grasp the underlying system before deciding to discard it for something else, etc) but that was the simple case of it: game groups got better, or they stopped. The result was a form of creativity that I, and others of my generation of gamers, are noticing has been steadily decreasing in the hobby.

Using an old game as an example (Palladium), I will cite the problem of Perception. In most rules sets for the various settings in the Palladium Multiverse, there is no express method of dealing with Perception. For a certain generation of gamer, this is a problem. For a different generation of gamer, it isn’t. Why? Put simply, one grew up with perception being a key trait of just about every system, and the other did not. Regardless, for the one who had a system sans Perception traits or rules, things got perceived anyway.

How did we deal with perception before it was ‘invented’? Isn’t it necessary? Good question – and one that should be asked more often about similar things when groups run into trouble with rules, and their application and arbitration, such as over things like opposed roles. Neat idea, but is it necessary? I leave it to you to decide.

So, here we are in the last year of the first decade of the second millennium since we started counting out new millennia. We have such a wide range of games to play, experiment with, and develop, that the mind boggles. There is literally, something for everybody… but therein lies the rub. We are all still the same old people living in the same old places, with the same old problems and interests. Having more choices, and more styles of gaming complicates the pre-existing problem, not solves it.

The only things that will work to resolve the issue are what have always worked, but have sadly been somewhat overlooked in all this self-congratulatory focus on new, better, cleaner, more streamlined, more realistic, more complete, more this that or the other rules. In the spirit of denigrating the nostalgic ramblings of the older generations, let’s make this summation as hackneyed as possible:

  • The first thing that needs to be done is to learn to play well with others. Let’s call this Respect.
  • The second thing that needs to be done is to learn to play with skill. Let’s call this Prowess.
  • The third thing that needs to be done is to learn to play with the enjoyment of the group in mind. Let’s call this Generosity.

There you have it: the R.P.G.s of RPGs.

Make of them what you will~

For more on this theme, you might enjoy this older entry: Tilting at Windmills – Good Gamers.

One Response to “The Goals of an RPG, or the R.P.G’s of gaming”
  1. morrisonmp says:

    I agree with this completely. You can’t mechanically legislate human behavior or play in game rules. If you want to make better players, teach them to have fun and ham it up at the table and be invested in what they are doing…

    For me, what seems to be missing most at the tables I sit at in recent games is investment. Players are interested in “playing the game” but not in thinking about the game, feeling anything from the game — or frankly, putting anything of themselves into the game.

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate it.

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