Do we, in truth, need Truth?

I am a big fan of truth. I have all their albums. I have been a fan of truth for so long it has gone in and out of vogue more times than I can count. Of course, I was an English major so there is some veracity to the claims that I may not be able to count very high. Regardless – there is a special place in my heart for truth.

The truth is out there?

Have you noticed that for the most part, a significant portion of roleplaying games are not big fans of truth? I don’t mean that to be divisive, although I can see how it could be taken as such. I simply mean that the preferred method in many aspects of gaming is that the GM is free to help the story along to ensure a good time is had by all.

I have trouble with this concept not on its own merits, but as a guiding precept of how to run games in general. It has its place, and I have enjoyed running and playing in games where it has been in effect (within some specific guiding conditions) but I am baffled that it has risen to such widespread prominence in the GM’s toolbox.

I feel an example coming on…

Take, for example, a duel between a PC and an NPC. The PC is a beloved character and an important member in the party. The campaign is well-established and has a rich history the players enjoy being a part of. The NPC is little known to the group, having only recently crossed their path. As written, the NPC is of an equivalent level of skill as the PC and so has just as good a chance of winning the duel. The players have no idea what to expect as an outcome of the duel but are rooting for their comrade. The GM knows that it is essentially a 50/50 chance for either character to win.

  • One school of thought states that the encounter should progress according to the dictates of the dice and tactics of the players
  • One school of thought states that the PC should not be put at risk of dying regardless of how the duel progresses, and if defeated should have a chance to gain victory later
  • One school of thought states that the relative statistics of the characters notwithstanding, the outcome should be guided so that it serves the story
  • One school of thought states that the player should in some way determine the outcome of the duel (via whatever mechanical or narrative process a game might provide) in accordance with their interpretation of the events and characters involved.

Even in such a simple example as a one on one duel between two characters we can quickly envision at least these four possible ways to adjudicate the scene and only one of them is based on the idea of just going with what might actually happen as a result of play. Curious, isn’t it?

Who are you calling ‘edited’?!

In the example, a GM who is not following the first school of thought may end up having to alter or edit their initial conception of the NPC so that defeat becomes more or less likely depending on the needs of the group or the player in that scene. They may have to add or subtract from elements of the character in order to make that happen, or they may opt to revise the character whole cloth. I wonder what would happen if the GM were to suggest altering the player’s character instead? If the GM proposed altering attributes to ensure a particular outcome, or adding or removing a skill or proficiency, what would be the reaction from most gamers? These sorts of modifications are done to NPCs and other game elements all the time in many types of games – why not to PCs?

What’s good for the goop is good for the Xander

Similarly, what if the mechanics only work or are considered for the PCs? Some GMs lighten their own workload by opting to narrate everything that is not a PC action. In essence, the players have to play by the rules (health levels, encumbrance, fatigue, income restrictions, etc) but nothing else in the game world does. As long as no one notices, all is well. The illusion is complete. In such a world the duel mentioned above is never really a threat because the NPC isn’t fleshed out in any meaningful way statistically until it is necessary. It’s all determined by feel and implemented by fiat. If it feels good then the PC wins, if it doesn’t then the PC loses.

I have to ask, does this mean we will be moving closer and closer to stat-less games as they become more and more meaningless? While we are at it, I suppose we can jettison the rest of the rules too.

Sorry, that is my truth bias interjecting.

Bias is everywhere

So, with my bias toward ‘keeping things real’ all visible, raw, and exposed it is time to ask some questions.

  1. How important is truth to you and your group? Do you all share the same outlook on how much adherence to an objective reality in the game world is preferred versus how much free form adaptability?
  2. Does your preference shift depending on whether you are running or playing in a game?
  3. How important are earned outcomes in your gaming compared to experiences?
  4. It may be that the rules of a game mechanically produce an objectively true resolution but the tone, genre, and GM advice may push toward a more narratively determined resolution. How do you react to these differing messages in a game?
5 Responses to “Do we, in truth, need Truth?”
  1. BF Wolfe says:

    the truth? you can’t handle the truth!
    Sorry. couldn’t resist. 🙂 But its a valid point that a lot of players who insist on truth and realism are less than happy when they get it. Even players that insist on truth and realism when it comes to death and dismemberment can be less than overjoyed when the truth leads to frustration, obfuscation and uncertainty. What happens when the path to truth leads to missed plot lines or in general, is simply less entertaining? And yes, if I must admit it, I’m more on the fence when a small lie saves a good story than when it saves a good character. What situations (if any) stretch your love of the truth?

    • Runeslinger says:

      Shouldn’t you be guarding a wall somewhere?

      You raise a good point about what we say we like and what we actually like when it is our crap hitting our fan. The demon of lying to make a better game outcome is one that we may never see put to rest completely.

      For me, I completely lose enjoyment in a game when I conclude or learn that things have been shifted in my favor, and I get annoyed when I conclude or learn that they have been shifted to raise the difficulty in order to slow my progress for some arbitrary story reason. That covers a lot of territory. As a player, even if the result comes out being less artful than a comparable novel or film might have portrayed it, I am desirous of the straight truth. As a GM, if a player is making mistakes for “bad day reasons” that they normally would not make, I am tempted to cut them some slack. That will usually start with a look, and if it persists, might graduate to “Are you sure you want to do that?” If they are too far gone to get their head back in the game I feel the temptation to redirect the focus of the day’s session to something that won’t have them end up in the character graveyard.

      If a player is on their game, though I think having an objective truth to the events and outcomes of the game world is the one thing which makes success taste the sweetest.

  2. Rhetorical Gamer says:

    Sorry, I’m late to the party on this post… I’ve been away. This is a great post but I have to say, as a fellow humanities person (rhetoric…) I’m all for not counting very high… wait, that wasn’t my point…

    I am not a fan of “truth” when what you mean by that is, “the game has rules and we follow the rules.” I think of that as the gaming equivalent of being Lawful Neutral in D&D… and it’s a really scary alignment. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a rules as written kind of guy and I like rules to include very clear guides to help me adjudicate play but… No matter which side of the GM screen I’m on, I really want (and game for the purpose) of exploring and story. I like fiat, I like a little fudging here and there. I don’t want the game made “easy” and I don’t want it made “hard” in a completely arbitrary manner – but the fact is, that can be done in games that adhere tightly to tight sets of rules just as easily as in a rules-light game… the mechanics of doing so are just different. I tend to think more in terms of action and consequence as a player/GM and that is reflected in the rules I prefer to use (or not).

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