Dice and the Gingerbread Person

Not long ago, an excellent new channel on YouTube called EmergentPlay began posting short, punchy clips pertaining to   RPG theory and practice. If you have not taken a look at this channel yet, I cannot recommend it highly enough. The poster is very well-spoken, well-prepared, and game-literate; and the clips are 2-5 minutes of thought-provocation.

Last week, the topic addressed was Engaging the Mechanics and when to call for task resolution during a game. This post is not a direct response to that video, but instead goes off on a tangent to address one of the examples used in it. In short,   EmergentPlay raised the idea that rolling dice and employing other resolution mechanics outside of expressly important situations may lead to character concepts becoming damaged. To frame this position, the idea of ‘always say yes’ was cited and its core concept of not getting in the way of the characters being awesome and getting things done. This position seems to be quite common in games which place story as the primary concern in play. As a core principle, I find it lies in relative opposition to how I run and frame games, so it goaded me to want to comment.  I am commenting separately from the video as this response is not directly related to its primary objective, and my objective is not to say, “Lo! You are wrong!” but rather, “Take a walk on the wild side~”

On Rolls Negatively Affecting a Character Concept

As readers of this blog may know, I have blogged about the clash between the reality of a character and the initial concept of a character before. That post, entitled Character Poisoning, dealt with the problem of forcing a concept onto the game system. While this post will cover some of that ground again, it will also break new ground, and offer different observations and resources for readers to continue this exploration for themselves.

To be completely honest, from my point of view as a GM and a player, when another player walks into a game with a notion of their character’s back story and level of competence that lies in contradiction to what the resolution mechanics, the setting, or the genre actually allows, they are committing an error. If this error is being made in ignorance, it is not a major issue. It is easily remedied by coming to grasp the basics of the system, setting, and genre. No harm, no foul. Refusing to do so is not only a direct route to pure frustration for everyone at the table, but a sign that that player has no desire to work with a group in a cooperative venture like roleplay. When a group is first learning a system, this sort of error is going to happen by accident and will need to be addressed through experimentation. This is a very enjoyable way to get a handle on a new game. Part of starting any new game is figuring out its boundaries, possibilities, and atmosphere. Mistakes and misjudgments will be made, but we do not have to encourage them or coddle them. We can fix them.

Character growth can come from the conflict between the original self-conception of the character, and what they learn about themselves in play. This is a reflection of the player’s initial conception of the character, and what they discover about it as events unfold. This period of adjustment defines, refines, and establishes the character for who they are, not who we, or by extension they, would wish that they were. Exploring character, in the same way that one can explore an evolving story, is one of the great rewards of roleplay, and it tends to be one of the things which other play styles can overlook. It is not an exploration or a discovery if you plan the beats, the twists, and the result.

When we build a story, script an arc, and set carefully designed, plotted, and protected character concepts loose in it, we are building an example of inevitability. For all the talk of player agency, and proactivity, there is not a lot of freedom in surviving misadventure by fiat, experiencing growth designed by committee, and achieving an end written well in advance. Meaningful choices require the chance for meaningful losses… including one’s sense of self. We can plot out the rise and fall of a character without invoking the mechanics or structures of a game. Discovering these things is just one of the routes to adventure when you open yourself to taking on a role and seeing where it and the dice go.

Just say yes

This sage piece of GM advice can be used to protect fragile or mismatched character concepts in games leaning heavily toward a pre-planned narrative. The litany contains “Just say yes,” or “yes, but…,”or “no, but…,” or “yes, and…” and “no, and…” These ideas are useful in any sort of game environment in my opinion, but I find they get applied very differently depending on that environment. Of the set, in my style of gaming, the first one is dangerous. “Always say yes” dwells too firmly in the camp of wish-fulfillment theater and worse, I find that it actively works against the challenge and simulation I strive for when I play and run games. I also find it tends to lead to an engagement of the player, not the player as their character and that runs counter to the level of immersion I am looking for in a game. To be clear, I find that “always say yes” is designed to entertain and reward the player, not engage the character in what is happening. In order to make it work, the determination of what a character can and cannot do in play is determined by factors other than the internal consistency of that character. The decision might be made based on what is fun, cool, or most useful for the continuation of the planned story sequence. This undermines character, and puts the concept of portraying that character very firmly in the back seat. If this idea is being engaged as a method of protecting the character concepts from interaction with the resolution mechanics of the system we can see even more clearly how this is serving to isolate the player from discovering the story or the character in play. Determinations are being made for reasons outside of what would actually happen if the characters and internally consistent actions in the game world had real relevance to the outcome.

If a group and their GM knows the characters’ capabilities well, and if as a group they know the system and setting well, then ‘just say yes’ works by itself without needing to be thrown up as a buffer between the player and a thinly defined set of character abilities, or a concept and the realities of failure.  Instead it functions as a reward – an earned reward. In the developing story, when conflicts arise which a character is known from past experience to handle with ease, the GM can reinforce that concept and celebrate the achievement of the player by waiving a dice roll. Dice would only be rolled when, the challenge exceeds the known comfort zone of the character. Game systems like Ubiquity take all the guesswork out of this, even for newer players, through its mechanic of ‘taking the average,’ but lots of other games have benchmarks for it as well, from Call of Cthulhu through the World of Darkness.

As regular visitors to the blog already know, I wholeheartedly support the need for risk, consequence, and reward, and I find the concept of a game where the players’ choices have no meaning to be bizarre. In my experience, the use of the concept of “just say yes” to protect a fragile character concept or ensure a specific outcome in a scene tends to lead to peculiar rises and drops in tension which start forcing the players into a search for confrontation if they want a more visceral reward for their actions, or into passivity as they sit back to be entertained by the unfolding of the story.

“The GM wants me to roll, so this must be important”

This is a form of control and containment by the GM which I find short-circuits the meaningfulness of choice and the real freedom of the players. We all love a good story, and the opportunity to participate in one is one of the many gifts we get as roleplayers. My experience tells me that we are selling ourselves short if we only tap into the shallow waters of the pre-planned narrative. If we are creating mechanics for, or devising GM strategies for mitigating failure, transforming failure into partial success, or outright fudging failure into the sort of success the ‘characters deserve’ then I question the sanity of engaging a resolution mechanic at all. If the negative results must be discarded for fear of being negative, then what but the positive results does that leave?

Simulationist-Immersive Gameplay and you

While I am loath to use jargon like play-style labels in conversation, an excellent series on RPG.net in the column ‘Tales from the Rocket House’ gave us an amazing description of the type of play I grew up with and grew into. While it is not my only style of play, and I do not consider it the one true way to play, I do find it is in short supply in these dark modern times, very misunderstood (to the point of seeming evil) and derided solely on the basis of that misunderstanding. It is worth truly exploring. The rewards it offers go far deeper in my experience than those in competing philosophies although its challenges and consequences can likewise cause deeper wounds. Starting with the Simulationist Manifesto, please do take the time to read about this style of play through the words of an author far more capable of explaining it than me. With this post of mine, and the excellent series outlining the simulationist play style, I think it should be quite clear how player, dice, character, and the ongoing story can work in concert to create vistas of imagination wherein the player never needs protection from the system to portray their character.

5 Responses to “Dice and the Gingerbread Person”
  1. A Skinner says:

    I think that we have to be careful about always saying “yes” – I agree that it can lead away from the “game” side of RPGs and tends to head into “improv theatre” territory if we go too far that way. But I think that we often make people roll the dice too often, even in traditional RPGs. Luke Crane has an interesting take on this, which is essentially that both failure and success should lead to interesting outcomes.

    Rolling the dice for the hope of creating a little short-term tension doesn’t bring much to the game. If a character is trying to force a door open, and failing to do it just means that the players will keep trying until they succeed, then there’s not much point rolling for it. It makes more sense simply to say “yes”. If, on the other hand, a failed attempt to force the door will give the monsters on the other side time to prepare an ambush, then it makes sense to roll the dice. Both failure and success lead to interesting consequences.

    The decision whether to say “yes” or to force a dice roll should not be based on whether the character could easily succeed, or to reward the players. It should be based on whether the outcome will be interesting and important if the character fails. If failure is uninteresting or meaningless, there is no point in rolling dice – just let the action succeed. If success is uninteresting, though, but failure is interssting, the GM ought to let the player roll simply to give him/her a sense of fairness and control.

    • Runeslinger says:

      Thanks for commenting. You have clearly stated some of the points raised in EmergentPlay’s video about calling for rolls, and brought in some additional examples. The video on EmergentPlay’s channel was about when to use Resolution mechanics. This post was about the curious concept of needing to “protect a character concept from resolution mechanics.” Your comments seem to be mainly about the video and my statements about “always say yes…” so I am going to respond to those parts of your reply.

      Like you, I latched onto the example of “opening the door and failing,” but as I said in my video reply to EmergentPlay, I do not see this as an error in applying resolution mechanics, this is a failure of the GM. Either as a simulation of what would happen, or as a narrative of a great story, this is a failure, and dice didn’t cause it. Not having the ability to run a game which includes both sides of the door is the cause. If the game requires that the players go through the door in order for the “story to happen” there is no reason to be asking for choice in the matter, let alone resolving whether or not that so-called choice was successful. From the perspective of running a simulation style game, the story is what the players make happen as the world moves on around them. There is no problem with not opening the door other than that the door did not open. The story is where the characters are… on whatever side of the door they are on.

      When you are choosing to create a story around the players rather than letting them discover what the story will be, then as I mentioned the guidance to “say yes, etc” takes on a lot more importance to successfully running the game. I find it interesting that Luke Crane keeps being credited with “failure should be interesting” when that is pretty much fiction 101. In gaming this piece of GM advice appears to me to reside fairly solidly in the ‘story first’ camp of gaming that got its impetus from adversarial relationships with the GM. If a game consists of trying to outwit the plans of the GM and on top of that the story is scripted in advance from set piece to set piece, I can fully get behind the idea of reminding everyone that all events in the game should further the story, not stroke the GM’s ego. I get it. Games do not have to be that way, though. I am not knocking that camp, but I feel that it is just one solution of many and it is not a solution that works all that well for me.

      I do not feel that roleplaying needs to emulate the structures of fiction. It can, and it can be great. To do so, however, does mean further limiting player choice. The players, when they actually have freedom, decide what is and is not interesting, and a well-simulated world will have lots going on for them to explore and latch onto. When done right, it never, ever comes to the point of “if we don’t get through this door we have nothing to do for tonight’s game.” To be clear, I am in no way disagreeing with the idea that things should keep moving, that people should have a good time, that the group should cooperate, and that dice rolls should matter. I do not think that all tasks require the application of the resolution mechanic. What I am saying, however, is that the decision for when dice should and should not be rolled can come more consistently and coherently from the character itself. I am saying that the character concept does not need protection from the mechanics, the character concept springs from the actual accomplishments in the game, as supported by the mechanics. Over time, as characters develop a deserved reputation for success in a certain field, the diminished need to roll for resolution is one of the rewards they have earned through good play.

      Dice are rolled:
      -When the challenge is beyond the character’s comfort zone
      -When environmental factors such as time, stress, concentration, or urgency affect performance
      -When characters are in direct opposition with another being, barring a comparative mechanic which allows a form of auto-victory

      -Dice are (and I think should be) used often by beginners in a system until they really have a sense of what the characters should be able to do normally

      Using a mixture of appropriate dice rolls and waived dice rolls for earned or established skill levels allows you the same latitude when playing the game that emerges as you get when playing one the GM has planned. It allows the dice to serve as a resolution mechanic first, not simply something to do while the GM flips to the next room description. Tension is created by the scene and the internally consistent reaction of the characters to that scene, and that tension is made more real to the players through the application of the uncertainty of dice. In some games, such as Call of Cthulhu, the decision of how frequently to call for rolls can be used by a skillful Keeper to really add to the atmosphere. In other games, this tool may be less important. In simulation, however, the problem of the dice roll doing damage to a character concept or derailing a story is essentially a non-issue, and that was perhaps the crux of the point I was trying to raise.

  2. Daniel says:

    The more I read your blog (and watch the vids), the more I realize we are very much kindred gaming spirits. You, however, are seemingly better able to express your thoughts and philosophy on gaming more coherently than me. Since I agree with 99% of what you say, it doesn’t really change anything about how I game. What you _have_ helped me with is making more cogent arguments when discussing gaming styles with others. So, thanks!

    • Runeslinger says:

      That is very kind of you to say!
      I hadn’t noticed a lack on your part of being able to write with clarity and experience on the Ubiquity forums and MythicEras, so I think you might be being more than a little hard on yourself.

      • Daniel says:

        Well thanks. I’m always hard on myself, but beyond that, while I may have decent system mastery with Ubiquity (and some other games), and general ideas on how I think games should be run (from both sides), you’re definitely better at describing the interaction of a particular approach with resolution mechanics.

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