Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Game vs. improvised theater

Sly Flourish has an interesting analysis of a PAX Acquisitions Incorporated D&D game. One player of that game clearly thinks inside the box, thinks in "game" terms, and during his turn performs the standard actions the rules allow his character to do. A second player thinks outside the box, thinks in terms of improvised theater performance, and uses his turn for a long series of spectacular actions. Unsurprisingly the first player is angry about that. Seen from the "game" side the actions of the second player are cheating, and the DM is perceived as playing favorites by allowing them. When in fact the DM would probably have allowed the first player to also do spectacular stuff, if he had only suggested it.

Both parts of a tabletop role-playing game can be a lot of fun: The game and the improvised theater. But any game is a social contract between the players, and tends to fail if during play it turns out that there was in fact no consent as to what exactly that contract contains. Unless you carefully select your players to make sure they all want exactly the same thing, the more common case is that you will have to compromise between the wishes of the different players. As pen & paper RPGs aren't symmetrical, one player (the DM) has far more power over the rules than the other players, it is up to the DM to look for what the players want and arrange that compromise.

In game terms a rules system which describes in much detail what players can do, and uses visual aids like maps and figurines to create consent about the current situation is inherently more fair than a theater of the mind system. The map and figurines tell the players exactly where they are and where the monsters are, and various rules and stats like the speed noted on their character sheet give a very clear and indisputable answer to the question of whether they can run this far or how hard they can hit this monster. The rules empower players, especially the less creative ones, but leave less room for decisions to the DM, and less room for creativity in combat for the players. In addition the DM needs to prepare more, create all those battle maps, provide all those figurines or tokens, know more rules, and generally "work" more.

RPG systems with less rules and more improvisation are often more fun for the DM and certain highly creative players. That is perfect if you have a group where everybody is very creative. But as soon as you have some "gamers" among your "role-players", the situation changes. Gamers tend to have a very strong sense of fairness, and nothing turns them off more quickly than any perceived unfairness of the game. A good DM can't allow one or few players to hog all the limelight. Between those who dislike the "mother may I?" gameplay where they can never be sure what their character is able to do, and those who dislike another player being far more effective because the DM allowed him to do some crazy stuff, the theater of the mind style of play has lots of pitfalls and dangers. A possible compromise is keeping the game part of combat under stricter rules, and allowing more creative freedom in the roleplaying outside combat.

In the PAX game an added problem is that part of the group started the game with that DM under 4th edition rules. Social contracts are unwritten and are established by custom and experience. I asked my group whether they wanted to switch from 4th edition to 5th edition and explained the difference, and they flat out refused to change, because they are more gamers than roleplayers. The PAX game is in part a Wizards of the Coast marketing action, and as such didn't have the choice of keeping the old system. But it is very clear that some players still play under the old social contract of the 4E rules, doing what the rules allow them to do, which then leads to conflicts with the new players who fully embrace the freer spirit of the 5th edition rules. Different systems suit different players, and I'm not sure if the PAX game ends up being such a good marketing for 5th edition as it was for 4th edition.

It's an odd element of 4e that the designers really tried to get an element of "say yes" in there (p. 42 in the DMG). I've seen reports online where players have done crazy stuff with it, and it also occasionally pops up in my own game.

But mostly players just focus on the options they do have, mostly their powers - they usually even forget the generic options like Bull Rush or Grab. My theory is that every 4e character has just enough options just through powers that a player won't consider anything else, while a 3e/5e character can have so little to do by the rules ("I hit the monster") that it's a much smaller leap to do something outside that tiny box.
Exactly what Ulrik siad. This also becomes much more apparent when you've dabbled with much more 'vague' systems like World of Darkness. In the old Mage systems you were given a somewhat general description of what your power levels did (i.e. Matter2 = you can manipulate small masses of matter) and it was up to the players and the GM to figure out how to use the thing and how, say, Matter2 interacted with Life2. 4e provides a really solid systems framework for players and GMs to work with, which can create a safe zone you never really step out of.

Myself, if i was a player I would be delighted to have Patrick Rothfuss play his character in my group. He creates 'fuck yeah' moments in the narrative, things you talk about years later when you reminisce about X campaign. I would also take a clue and follow in his steps and do stunts myself because nothing beats a spectacullar success/failure.

Obviously the tone of the campaign is a key factor here. In the PAX game the setting was very much high fantasy where the heroes supposed to be bad-ass. If the game had instead been stated as a low-fantasy game early on and changed halfway through, I can see how some people would be offput by this shift.
Any DM should be up front about his methodology. I let new players know in session #1 that I encourage creativity within the rules (so do what you want, as long as it is within the guidelines of the move+action economy) and that they can say "to hell with the story" and pick a random direction of travel or action if they like, and I will take it as a challenge accepted (or put another way: if they don't like my linear module, there's a giant sandbox world also sitting there waiting for them).

The codified mechanics of 4E make me shudder with the memory of just how low my game sank in that time period....the rules themselves were fun, I admit, but the creativity on the player's sides sank to lows I didn't think possible. I had to force people to even tell me what their actions were without technical jargon half the time, the "mental map" of what was happening was sometimes impossible to "see." When the wizard and the fighter both described their 4E abilities mechanically and I'd be like..."so you did what? Hit them with a sword or something? Fireball? Please tell me what you did to cause all that damage, damnit!" was very frustrating for someone like me who does not play RPGs for the G part first.
I think you can't talk about social contract but also of how improvisational a game is/ie, as if you can hand power over to one player without asking another player if that is okay.

Figuring out how much of a bonus of power can be handed out based simply on descritive moves, sure - figure out a contract on that and the extent of the bonus that can be gained.

But just trying to say 'its improvisational!' - it's literally trying to say 'some parts of the game are beyond social contract'. At a guess I'd say that's poisoning the hobby in general.
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