Tobold's Blog
Monday, November 03, 2014
Do the players know best?

I have a mail in my inbox from Stubborn for a month to which I have trouble finding an adequate reply. I was discussing my next D&D campaign with him, and he replied among other things that "the prescriptive elements of it are definitely more your thing than mine". One the one side I know that he is right, the new campaign definitively *is* pushing my players into a style of gameplay they don't usually do. On the other side I believe that this *could* be a good thing. I'm just not 100% sure about it.

I believe that pen & paper roleplaying games are about interactive story-telling. Yes, there is also a large part of interesting turn-based tactical combat; but I can do turn-based tactical combat in a computer game, while human players are necessary for interactive story-telling. It is the "unique selling proposition" of tabletop role-playing games. Having said that, interactive story-telling isn't actually all that obvious. I have a whole book shelf full of D&D manuals, and there is very little written in those books about interactive story-telling. It is very easy to confuse role-playing with roll playing, and concentrating on the aspects of the game which are written on your character sheet and resolves with dice rolls.

I have in the past played occasionally with great role-players. I once was in a group that sneaked into a warehouse and was caught by a guard, and another player turned that into a brilliant scene where he convinced the guard that the group was there to conduct a secret safety inspection and commended him for having "caught" the group. If you have several such players, great interactive role-playing will happen in your campaign regardless of how you run it. My problem is that in my current group I'm not really getting the degree of role-playing I would like, and the players are very much concentrated on the more mechanic parts of the game.

So the question is whether as the DM I should conform to the predispositions of my players and run a campaign which is light on role-playing and strong on rolling dice. Or should I use "prescriptive elements" in my campaign that nudge players towards more interactive story-telling?

What I have observed in years of MMORPG playing is that what players do is not necessarily a good indication of what players actually want. And what players say they want is then yet another thing. For example I can honestly not tell you with certainty whether a majority of MMORPG players enjoys playing solo more than playing in a group, or whether it is just the grouping system and the incentives in modern games which turned the majority into solo players. Back in the days of the original Everquest the idea of a solo MMORPG appeared to be somewhat ridiculous. But in EQ playing solo was harder than playing in a group, and now it is the other way around. Are players simply following the path of least resistance to maximum rewards, or are there true preferences hidden underneath all that somewhere?

If in the case of my campaign players don't really have a strong preference, and just play the game as it is presented to them, it appears perfectly possible that by starting a new campaign in which the incentives and the framework are presented differently we can arrive at a different style of gaming and actually all enjoy it more. But if the way they play is because that is what they truly want, trying to push them out of their comfort zone might go down really badly.

What do you think? Do the players know best, or are they flexible and follow the incentives?

If players knew best what they wanted, we probably wouldn't have gotten Cataclysm.

Among the OSR crowd, the same is said of D&D 4e (and, I imagine, what some of the 4e crowd says of 5e).

My opinion is that if it is something new, the group will never know if it works unless they try it. It's only after the experimentation that you'll know if something new actually works out, so why not try in the first place?

This is the fundamental problem I see with the current fad among games developers for getting players involved at the design process from a very early stage. Henry Ford may never actually have said "If I'd asked what my customers wanted they'd have said a faster horse" but the sentiment is valid all the same.

The other meme of relevance is "give people what they need, not what they want". The difficulty is discovering what that is. I think you're right to try out a new approach on your group without consulting them on it in advance. You're in the position to tweak and adjust your approach in real-time, at no financial cost, according to what you see and hear your players do and say. Unlike MMO developers, who often find themselves faced with a decision on whether to scrap tens, hundreds of millions of dollars in development costs and plow yet more money in to make a course correction that might not be completed before most of their players have left.

Which is, I guess, why developers are so keen to get players to tell them how to make the game in the first place. Which doesn't seem to work either.
are there true preferences hidden underneath all that somewhere

MMOs with billions of player-days are in a different spot than you. Presumably, they looked at metrics and the games evolved based upon that. So by now and several generations, I think we can say some things.

E.g., in the short term, there are far more blue than lime green cars because that is the mix the auto makers manufactured. But there is a reason why they got that way.

You could make a change and it not work well but that just be because one or two people have a tough patch with job/marriage/health. Statistics give Blizzard an advantage over you.
Great post; I'm both happy that my off-hand comment led to an interesting post as well as a little apologetic if it came of as a negative comment. It wasn't meant as such.

There's a lot of axes in role playing (that's the plural of axis there, not axe, though there are often a lot of those, too, in D&D at least). Lawful v. chaotic, Good v. Evil, player-centered v. party-centered, tactical v. story-driven, etc.

One such axis is certainly prescriptive v. descriptive DMing. Neither is right, nor wrong, and most everyone does both from time to time. It's very hard to have a session that has no planning at all go well. I've found it equally hard to have a super-rigid plan, as well.

As a result, for long-term campaigns with a stable group of players, I often have an overarching story that's prescriptive but use more descriptive (or, usually, consequence-based) adventuring until a particular adventure is at its logical close.

As an example, I had a group that was searching for a magical basket (does it matter why?) that was having a lot of in-fighting, which was constantly derailing situations. One good remedy was to put them in a very dangerous situation in which they had to rely on one another, so I did. I went back to a much earlier session where I'd seeded an overarching villain that they'd let get away, brought him back, had them capture them, then put them in a situation where they were going to be executed at sun-up and let them figure out how to get out of it. That was a session that I prescribe for them, but it was a result of their previous in-game actions and my out-of-game desires, in this case, better cohesion. It worked pretty well.

So I would tend to agree that players may not know what they want, but I think that a good DM identifies what they need and provides it for them. Sometimes that includes what they want, but sometimes it doesn't; after all, if they always got what they wanted, it wouldn't be a very exciting game.

That sounds pretty much like what you do, too; you just go about it in a different way, which is fine! That's the best thing about collaboration, after all; you don't want the exact same perspectives just mimicking what you think. You want the challenge of addressing other ways of thinking and finding the middle ground that may produce an even better outcome.

Great post!
I would say that what a player wants and what a player needs are two distinctly different things. Unfortunately what a game designer thinks a player needs is not necessarily what a player needs either.
From my point of view as a player and more importantly as a gamemaster, I think that most of the time players are happy with the game the way gamemaster has planned it.

Big question for me has been that what you do yourself as a gamemaster if the game is not advancing as you have planned. I have gamemastered several campaigns that have been abandoned because I have not been happy with the game although players were content. My problem was that I had grand plans about the story of the game and did not communicate clearly enough about my motives and plans for the game. And when the sessions were more 'having fun with friends and play' than 'telling epic story together', I realized that I had to tone down my expectations.

In my new campaign I have approached the game from 'having fun' point of view and the result has been so far that I have stressed about games a lot less than previously. I still build grand stories around the game sessions but now I just show glimpses of them to players and let them decide if they really want to get interested in them. If not, then I am happy building the world with more details for me and at the same time making it more realistic for players. But I don't try to 'force' content down to the players as that might lead to my own discontent.

So in conclusion I think most important thing is that as a gamemaster you should try to play the same game as your players. Most of the time players are happy about the game anyway but if you want to change the direction of the game and especially gamestyles, then talk to them about it. Otherwise you might end up with situations where you have different goals than players.
Your Everquest example shines a light on how the genre evolved to provide an experience for a larger audience than was possible in its nascent state. If all MMOs had stuck with the old EQ philosophy of grouping as default and punishing solo play, I know I would never have gotten in to MMOs (and in fact had tried EQ and turned away back then, didn't try again until WoW arrived). I think I'm part of a significant chunk of today's MMO population....and that if MMOs hadn't evolved this way the field would still consider 200,000 to be a lot of subscribers and healthy. Instead, we have a market teeming with choice, and thanks to these solo-friendly MMOs people like me have even tried and occasionally gotten into grouping despite generally not having the sort of time and patience necessary to enjoy the games that way on a consistent basis.

So...take it for what you will, but if WoW hadn't cracked that nut the MMO landscape would be a lot smaller and less interesting, I suspect.

D&D 4E is an example of this sort of experimentation working to a reverse effect: it pushed a boundary and found out its audience not only didn't like what it offered, but it didn't attract enough new players to make up for the exodus. Net effect is an edition that helped to better define what the game should be, by offering up an example of what it shouldn't (and to avoid sounding like I'm dissing on 4E, I think it's a good game, but maybe not the ideal system for a game carrying the D&D name).
These always end up a bit of a dishonest evaluation.

What happens is that players, to serve the GM's 'perscriptive' content, start making characters with absolutely no goals in life. Because every time they have a goal in life, it gets in the way of the GM's 'perscriptive' content or the GM ignores that goal.

Then the GM turns to the players and tries out 'Hey, do what you want'!

The players, with their goaless characters (because by now they make goaless characters out of habit) simply mill around and get bored.

The GM then concludes he needs to get them hooked into his stories that he's written up because otherwise they mill around.

It's a vicious cycle.

TL;DR: If you are going to try play where the PC's do what they want, insist to the players they make life goals for their PC's and that play will be about their PC pursuing their life goal. So as to give the whole thing a real, genuine try.
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