Today’s guest article was written by Gnome Stew reader Adam Meyers, the Modern Bard. Adam is starting a third party Pathfinder supplement publishing company, but he took the time out to write this passionate piece on how RPGs can be more than just games. Thanks, Adam!
Warning: This article gets into the philosophy of RPGs and mentions the ’80s. You have been warned.
I’m not a first generation D&D player, but I’m a pretty close second. Back when I was a kid my dad taught all of us to play 1st and 2nd edition and I literally grew up on the game. My childhood is full of awesome RPG memories, but the best part was that it wasn’t just fun — my dad, sneaky guy that he is, would use the game as possibly the best and most entertaining teaching tool I ever saw. All sorts of life lessons, from look before you leap, to think outside the box, to never insult a priest, all found their way into our games. You’d be surprised how well a kid internalizes something when it’s presented through deadly traps and elaborate monster battles.
So when I sometimes see people talking about the problems with RPG social skill checks and say they want them to be more mechanical and less about player skill, I find myself wanting to speak up. I know every table’s different, and yes this gets a bit philosophical, but I’d like to propose a counter-argument to that. Something I call the “Tracy Hickman” approach to gaming.
See, back in the ’80s, when the world was convinced Dungeons and Dragons was some sort of gateway drug to the occult, it fell to D&D pioneers to not only explain how RPGs weren’t evil, but how they could actually be good for you. Gary Gygax compared D&D to a chair once on 60 Minutes, and Tracy Hickman wrote a three-fold essay on RPG Ethics.
Now what follows are my words, not his, but I’m a big Tracy Hickman fan, and if I had to sum up my own takeaway from the third section of his essay, his XDM book, and other places I’ve read his words, I’d say this: RPGs aren’t just about having fun, but about stepping into the shoes of heroes and experiencing their life in order to make your own better.
To contrast, think of a computer RPG. In a computer RPG all the choices have been made for you. You can only do what the programmers decide you can do, and the only choices available are the ones they’ve given you. In a table-top RPG, however, you don’t just watch the story, you in fact make the story. It’s that element of player ingenuity that lets you decide not just what to do, but how to do it, whether it’s fast-talking a guard, swinging from a chandelier, burning an inn down around you, or scaling a giant’s leg using a dagger and short sword (yes, that happened).
So when I see people trying to limit player ingenuity by making things more and more mechanical, especially social skills, I feel like it’s doing an injustice to the players. Firstly, because it’s impossible to separate player and character completely without taking away all of the players’ freedom, and secondly because, with the above philosophy in mind, letting the players live the characters and have that level of freedom is kind of the point.
Yes mechanics determine how well you succeed at a negotiation and making them roll is not a problem, but unless you were to literally script out the players’ speeches and give them only the choice of what option to use (in which case I’d just play Mass Effect), then player skill will always be important because it’s not just the SUCCESS of the venture that’s important, but the HOW. What do you barter with? What are your arguments? Who exactly will you befriend and who will become enemies? As long as those choices are in the hands of the players, then you can’t completely separate the player and the character.
And why should we try so hard to separate them? Yes we’re playing a character, but in the end it’s the player that’s really overcoming the challenges and solving the puzzles. We could make it purely mechanical and just watch the characters overcome the situation, or we can be the ones stepping into the shoes of the heroes and actually do those things ourselves. That’s not only the soul of RP, but that’s how we learn something through that imaginary world we can then take home with us. Does that mean a social player will do better at social situations? Yes it does, but it also means a non-social player rolling someone with amazing social skills gets to not only be effective, but actually get to stretch his own social muscles in a way that’s not only fun, but that he can then take home with him.
Now I’m not saying RP should take the place of mechanics. The point of rolling a character, after all, is using his stats and skills to determine success. What I am saying, though, is that letting the players stretch their own mental and social muscles to help solve the encounter can not only be fun but also make a better game. Sure my players aren’t coming to me primarily to improve their social skills, but if my games can not only rock my players socks, but also give them something to ponder and use in their own lives, than I consider that a pretty successful campaign.
True words, And excactly the reason i play and run RPG’s. if i wanted a predictable sotry, i would have written a book. I want to co-create a world of imagination, think out intresting puzzles and most of all, have fun. Skyrim’s good, but creating a sotry with a bunch of other people this way is just so much more rewarding
The soul of RPGs? I think you’ve touched upon one of the things I think rpgs can do exceptionally well — help a person overcome the fear of failure. Many players will be paralyzed, or will hesitate in uncomfortable in-game situations, because they fear their character will fail — and by extension — they will fail, too.
But rpgs offer a “safe place” for failure and a “fun, fantastic place” for success, provided the table has other people who are encouraging and understanding.
1) In most situations, the game is rigged to the players’ advantage, either the challenge is do-able or the character being played possesses the requisite ability to accomplish a given task; 2) A good GM will foster an environment where it is the ATTEMPT that is valued. Herioic characters always give it the “ol’ college try.”
I really think it’s cool you have a connection to the game through your father. I don’t know if you realize it, or not, but that is a special and rare thing.
Excellent article, Mr. Meyers. It is cool seeing you reference your dad using RPGs as a family activity/parenting tool. I do the very same thing with my kids and their friends. My favorite thing to teach through games is that although right is right and wrong is wrong, doing right doesn’t always mean everything is rosy afterward. Deliberately doing the right thing sometimes means also deliberately causing an uncomfortable reality for yourself or someone else. Often, my eldest (13 yr old girl) will refuse to make an important in-game decision and proclaim, “We should do this, but that ‘bad’ thing will happen!” I’ll respond dripping with sarcasm, “Aaaaaand? Welcome to life. You’ll be living it on your own soon.” Queue teenager nasty look. (Girls are particularly good at it.) ;-p
I also appreciate the reference to the RPG stigma of the 80s. Your “gateway drug to the occult” metaphor is perfect. I’m a very new gamer (only a few years old, 35 in real life). Being a practicing Christian who grew up one in the 80s, that stigma had stuck with me. Until, that is, a gamer buddy (also Christian) told me that I needed to get over it and check RPGs out; he knew my family would eat them up. An IM exchange after I looked stuff up during lunch went something like this: “So, RPGs are really just collaborative story-telling with a game dynamic?” “Exactly!” “Where have I been my whole life!?” We got into them quickly and heavily. Funny epilogue: I’m a youth (read, “teenager”) minister at church. My kids’ and my enthusiasm has been infectious. After having a bunch of kids that I teach begging â€“ and after quelling parental worries (stupid 80s) â€“Â I am running ~4 active games currently. I even have one of the pastor’s kids in one! Good times.
If you leave social skill success completely in the hands of the player’s ability, not the character’s ability, then why even have the social skills? I agree that it shouldn’t be completely mechanical; however, I don’t think the player’s ability should be as important as the character’s skill, either.
I once built a social character for a Burning Wheel campaign (a system that has a “social combat” mechanic, the Battle of Wits). The GM never called for a roll of my social skills, instead just listening to what I as the player said and reacting to that, which meant I had wasted roughly 2/3 of my build on things that never mattered.
I’d rather see the player give a short snippet of the basics of their argument and then get modifiers to the roll based on that. That way, the player still feels in control of the character, but the character skill still matters.
@derobim – Doing that in BW would piss me right off, because the implicit agreement is that the rules of the game are going to be the rules at the table.
But on the flipside, there are no skills in B/X D&D. None. So your GM might be carrying over preferences from that era or that play style — which is valid, but I’d argue totally invalid at a BW table.
I agree that roleplaying games are an excellent way to learn things. My own kids have learned more that a little about tactics, group dynamics, history, and even arithmetic from playing with me. Maybe my friends have too. I know I have.
I disagree with the author and agree with derobim when it comes to social skills. In my opinion, roleplaying and dynamic description should definitely provide bonuses to the mechanics, but should not generally trump them.
Just as when you get a bonus to a combat roll for positioning yourself well, or using the best weapon for a given opponent, making a clever speech or coming up with the right argument to convince the baron should give you a bonus. Occasionally, when a moment of brilliant in-character oratory awes the table – makes other players stop and applaud – the roll can be dispensed with, but this should be the exception, not the norm.
I believe this approach encourages roleplay and ingenuity, whatever the social abilities of the players. Latent actors and wallflowers alike are rewarded for stepping up and engaging the social mechanics, but the “face” character will generally outperform the “brick” no matter who is playing him, which is what you would expect after looking at their character sheets.
Maybe this is what the author meant. If so, I think he overstated his case, and came off sounding a bit like “those guys” who seem to enjoy arguing with the GM without regard to their character’s abilities.
@Vantage – You captured the point I wanted to make well. Both ends of the spectrum (Only talk, no rules or dice versus Only dice, only summaries of speech) are fine, if that’s what your group enjoys. But as a default ground something in the middle seems healthiest. If you over emphasize actual player eloquence, you are essentially telling the tongue tied player that he can’t play a charismatic character.
I started playing D&D 1st Edition when I was 12. We didn’t do it well but we had a lot of fun and we kept doing it and we learned. As I got older gaming was and is such an integral part of my life that I can’t imagine not playing. My (now ex) wife and I raised our five children playing games, mostly D&D 3rd edition though more recently Pathfinder and Savage Worlds. Most of the kids still play, one with her shipmates in the U.S. Navy, the other two with their friends. In that time like your father I used those opportunities to teach them lessons about things like teamwork and fair play.
An excellent article and one that I think more people should read.