Whose Ticket to Ride?

I don’t play any type of D&D anymore, and as it has been 23 years since I left that particular game behind in favour of others I can be fairly sure that there will be no returning. From time to time, the urge to run a fantasy game surfaces, of course, but those urges are easily addressed by Palladium Fantasy, or Desolation. It wasn’t the required play style that drove me away from the game, it was certain limiting aspects of character design and advancement that I lost interest in. The game has moved on, and so have I. I still, however, believe that playing requires skill, that actions come with consequences, that risks do not need to be in equal measure or even in equal supply as rewards, and that without the vagaries of chance, there really is little point in playing.

This week, due to a blog entry I read on The Seven-Sided Die, I had a bout of nostalgia for the old dreams of empire my original groups of gamers would share as we generated our Basic characters brought on by D7’s intriguing descriptions of putting Adventurer Conqueror King to the test. Knowing it would pass soon enough, particularly as I still play with the same spirit as I did in those early 80’s days and it is not the joy of using the system I miss, but the time and opportunity to run sweeping epics tracing the success and failures of a small band of heroes from squalor to the manor on the hill, I decided to sate the craving nostalgia brought with a scan of various OSR blogs and reviews of ACKS itself. I figured enough talk of classes and levels would soon overwhelm any desire I might have to add another game to my schedule. It was a quest of self preservation, you see~

In my travels through the tales and reports of many different blogs, I encountered an interesting site called Classic RPG Realms, and got caught up in reading the sad tale recently told there in three parts ( Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). I intended to comment there, but as it is a Blogger site the capricious comment gods decreed that such was not to be. Undaunted, I have allowed my short comment to bloom into a full-fledged post. Yeehaw.

I do hope you will go and read all three parts of the tale mentioned above as they are both poignant and excellent. Pay particular attention to the comments as that is where the real battle for the poster’s soul was waged. It’s great stuff, and it highlights interesting splits in the gaming community that I find to be bizarre. The first of these is the idea of “adversarial systems,” the second is the perception that newer games are a response to both Railroading and Killer DMs, while the third is that older games are more prone to produce an adversarial environment for play and more likely to lay down rails.

For me, there is a subtle hypocrisy in the idea of “story first” gaming. It purports to be about the art of telling a great and memorable story, and it often claims to empower the players to be cool and be a part of a thrilling tale, but what really does that mean?

In the second of the three posts to which I have linked from Classic RPG realms, Hail the Mighty Heroes Felled by Mushrooms,  a good discussion about a Total Party Kill develops in the comments due to the provocative comments by posters named “Aaron” and “Eric.” It strikes me that too much of the original post was missed or glossed over for there to be much doubt their intentions were to start an argument. This may stem from the belief that what the players described in the post were doing can fairly be called a ‘play style.’  From my point of view, acting on impulse, without regard for consequences, is not a learned and developed style of play, it is just play. Gamers can do better than that- even immature ones.

In the first post, Chris, the original poster and long-term gamer in his 40s, detailed how he had been trying to connect with a fractious bunch of younger gamers in his gaming club. The experience led him to experiment with a lot of techniques that narrativist gamers know very well – fudging die rolls, putting the continued ability of the players to continue through the story before all else (plot immunity), and lessening the effect of the consequences for action. These are not new techniques, nor are they exclusive to any one style of gaming, but these are techniques which Chris does not respect, does not enjoy, and only adopted as a means to entertain and serve his players. I will leave an examination of the motives for this decision to you and to his site. That this went south should surprise no one, but to read Chris’ honest and heartfelt mea culpa is a valuable thing for any GM to read in my opinion.

That the campaign described on Classic RPG Realms went so far as a TPK was not because of conscious decisions to force a style of play on anyone, get revenge, or in any other way oppose them as an adversary rather than impartial adjudicator. Rather, it went the way it did because the GM refused to apply the consequences of player action. He tells us this, it is not something we need to figure out. It is the classic, ‘for want of a nail’ situation. The players demonstrated no playing skill and appear to have been seeking a baser form of entertainment like ‘let’s pretend,’ not an RPG. So be it. They don’t need a GM for that…

In the old days, and today too I am willing to wager, there are still plenty of dicks running games. It is in the nature of some people to be aggressive, competitive, and adversarial. Given the disparity between the number of people with the ability and inclination to take on the duty of running a game, it is a fair bet that at least once in your gaming life you will get hosed by such a bottom-feeder. That games would be written in the hopes to mitigate or prevent this trait is both laudable and laughable, as it is not the rules or the environment which produce the problem, but the lack of impartiality on the part of the person running the story. More or different rules does not objectivity breed.

Having a scenario in a game end up as a TPK is not automatically bad GMing, or adversarial gaming. If nothing else, there is a good possibility that the players made a mistake or miscalculation of some kind and the result is simply the result. What produces an adversarial environment is when someone in the group, particularly the GM,  is actively trying to set the group up for failure. Nothing else. No game can prevent this, not even a board game. Being a dick trumps everything except the rest of the group showing said dick the door.

In this sad tale, after the white cloud of spores cleared, the party, the game, and apparently even the choice of game has died, but the GM has figured out why he has been so dissatisfied with his games of late and is now free to get on with the fun of gaming with like-minded people. This is a good thing. It wasn’t a TPK… one of the group survived and can live to find a healthy game again~

What all of this demonstrates to me, and compels me to post about is the idea that building a game setting that evolves and reacts to events both on its own and in reaction to player action is a form of railroading. That having a clear sense of the environment, and allowing for the PCs to encounter things before the characters are ready to do so can be perceived by some as an attack on player agency astonishes me. Granted, when we talk about our plans behind the screens we should marshall our tongues to avoid the conception of a sequence of preplanned action, but again… honestly, what is being discussed is the idea that if the players do everything right, their characters will succeed. What is NOT being discussed is the idea that the characters will succeed because the players showed up. If you think about it, in which of those two examples is the idea of predetermination and meaningless action enshrined? The one where the GM has a setting and the players create the action inside it for good or ill, or the one where the GM has a story, the players entertain themselves doing whatever the hell they like, yet magically at the end, a story is successfully resolved… happily?

When a game has gone so far as to remove the ability of the GM to rule on the specifics of a situation in favour of heavily codified and predetermined effects, protects the lives of characters by adding layers of game mechanics between them and consequences, instills the idea that the whole game is all about their fun as opposed to the shared enjoyment of the group, and is fundamentally constructed with the idea that character death prevents good stories the exercise ceases to be about an attempt to merit a good ending, but rather in attempting to determine how well one will succeed. With a foregone conclusion (and it’s still a train even if everyone has a hand on the tiller), I suppose that is really all that is left that can instill that thrilling sense of doubt and anticipation… for whatever this minor goal might be worth.

Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane Chris. I hope your next game group rocks~

10 Responses to “Whose Ticket to Ride?”
  1. Now that’s a very insightful look! I like you’re way of thinking.

  2. 1nsomniac says:

    I agree with you on this one. I read Chris’ experience and some of the repsonses to it and I found it baffling that anyone could see his repsonse to the group’s actions as unjustified. There’s lenient and then there’s bending over backwards so far you can see yourself coming around the bend…

    I’m all for player empowerment, don’t get me wrong. I don’t think I’ve ever had a TPK in my years, but I’m not over a character getting killed due to a poor decision (I try not to let people die on random chance, if it’s cinematically appropriate). The ignorance those players showed would have got the same response from me and I’m a forgiving GM.

    I love to improv in my games, to give the world a wide open feel and not pigeonhole my players into a fixed series of events. But common sense still applies.

    Good on him for recognizing that he’d had enough and called it quits. I have played with players whose expectations for a game didn’t gel with how I tend to run my stuff and we mutually decided to part company. There’s nothing wrong with that, in my opinion.

    Reading stuff like that makes me thankful for the players I have. 🙂


    • Runeslinger says:

      I distinctly remember discussing with my game group in juniour high how great it would be if we could find an experienced gamer on the school staff willing to run games for us. It is sad that that crop of kids did not recognize the value of their game club. Particularly when run by someone willing to go to such lengths to try to work with them.

      • 1nsomniac says:

        Indeed. I got into gaming late in the game (first year at university) and I had the fortune of playing with veteran GMs in my early days. It helped me get a firm grip on the basics of the genre and after a couple of characters were sacrificed to my inexperience and sense of entitlement, it sank in that, while the game was about the player characters, it didn’t mean that one could sacrifice common sense either.

        It’s a shame these players could draw something from the GM’s repeated attempts to accommodate them. That’s one of the reasons I love attending the local convention scene. Every GM does things differently and by experiencing different styles it helps me hone my craft, when I see something I like in a game.

        • Runeslinger says:

          I think that is what separates the real gamers from the rest. Are you attempting to add skills to your repertoire, and stretch your boundaries, or are you just using air and taking curtain calls on the ‘Extras’ stage at the Wish-Fullfilment Theatre?

  3. burnedfx says:

    A little late to the discussion, but I’m not sure what else to add. I was following that “story” as well and also wrote up several comments that just seemed too long, so I scrapped them.

    Thankfully you did all the work for me. ;]

    • Runeslinger says:

      I would have preferred to leave comments at the source as well, but Blogger had other plans, I guess.

      I am glad we can agree to agree, although I bet you have some insights on this situation that have yet to occur to me.

      • burnedfx says:

        To be blunt, I simply don’t believe I possess the patience to have gone that long with a group like that. Chris went beyond what I would have done in terms of trying to make it work.

        I would not have put myself in a position to play a style of game I knew I would not enjoy. Of course jumping into the unknown with a brand new group, I would have made every effort to convey what type of game we were going to play and how awesome it was going to be.

        No disrespect to Chris, but it seemed like he tried to cater to them and then pulled the rug out.

        Although, in his defense and as he addresses, his position is unique. I don’t know the details of how this game club works at the school. I am sure he’s perfectly capable of kicking out a player that is ruining everyone’s fun. However, as a teacher at that school, is he really in a position to kick out a group of kids just because he disagrees with their gaming philosophy?

        Probably not.

        • Runeslinger says:

          Probably not. There may have been many reasons that conspired to push him into being so conciliatory. Like you say, the result of straying from the method of gaming he trusts and enjoys was that when pushed too far, it got ugly for everyone.

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