Monday, February 8, 2016

Twenty-Sided Heart

You're breakin' my heart, people.

(This is a long article, and it includes links to several other long articles which need to be read in order for this to make sense. It also contains pop culture references, gamer slang, and colourful language. Needless to say, you need to be somewhat with-it to understand this page. That said, I believe the most important parts of this message are spoken plainly enough that anyone should be able to get the point, even if they miss the humor. Still, if you prefer your language bland and colourless, you have been warned: I and others in the hobby have utterly filthy vocabulary. So, let's get on with it, shall we?)

You know what's wrong with the RPG hobby these days? Assholes. Assholes are the problem.

No, seriously. In the last 6 months I have been exposed to more ignorant, short-sighted, selfish, rude, hateful, manipulative bullshit from DMs than I have ever experienced in my preceding decade of role playing. What the hell is wrong with people these days? I thought we were growing out of this already! I thought the "boys club" mentality was over! I thought that, if nothing else, Ron Edwards' exposure of the DM's Iron Curtain and Oija Board gaming had turned us off of playing with people who suck! I'm shocked we've already forgotten the only worthwhile rule of the hobby:

If you're not having fun, stop playing. No play is better than bad play.

It really is that simple. Don't like your group? Get another one. Don't like your DM? Start your own campaign without that guy. Don't like the game? Go buy a different one- or  better yet, make one up as a group! These people are your friends dammit,  treat them like it! You're inviting them into your home to entertain them and be entertained by them! If that isn't your only reason for running an RPG, you are an asshole. And if they don't treat you like a friend, then they aren't your friends and you need to get away from those assholes.

If you're in it for money, you're a retarded asshole.

If you're in it to control people, you're a sociopathic asshole.

If you're in it to abuse people, you're a bully and an asshole.

If you're in it for an identity, you're a hipster asshole.

If you're in it to discriminate against people, you're a bigoted asshole.

If you're in it to write a novel from your session transcripts, you're a lazy asshole. (And probably a shitty writer, quite frankly.)

If you're in it to pick up chicks,  you're a pathetic asshole. (Also kinda dumb. The other assholes have made the hobby very unappealing to women)

If you're in it to indoctrinate people toward a given belief system through propagandistic writing and game design, you are the ultimate asshole.

If you're in it to escape from your miserable reality, you aren't necessarily an asshole, but you do need help.

So, I want to campaign for love in the RPG community. There's too much misery and hate in the world. People turn to games as entertainment, a break from the drudgery of life, a shot of joy and happiness that they can rely on! But for many people, this is not what RPGs have become. For many people, RPGs are a political hell of subterfuge, manipulation, and disrespect. That is not OK. I am a game designer because I love making people happy. That is my one desire in life. I know that's what other game designers are in the business for as well. We all want you folks to enjoy our creations, not use them to harass one another!

In RPG theory, there is a set of ideas called the "Social Contract". The original definition in theory is now mostly defunct, and only big model purists (are there even any of you royal assholes left?) still use it for its intended meaning. I think it's time we took that back and gave it a useful meaning. The Social Contract, as I imagine it for the RPG hobby, is not a theory of game design, but a philosophy of game play. It is derived from basic ethics, morals, manners, and sportsmanship, all wrapped up in a comfy blanket of genuine love for your fellow gamers. This is the philosophy I prescribe to when running and playing a game. RPGs are meant to create joy- that's what the "G" in the acronym implies. Let's take back our GAMES.

Now, I know what you're thinking. "What, are we back in kindergarten?" Yes we are, because apparently some of you 60-something D&D veterans still have the attitude of a spoiled 6-year-old with a toothache. Those three rules are pretty much fundamental to getting along with the entire rest of humanity. If you can't get that right, the US army has every right to land troops in your country and point guns at you for your insane mistreatment of your fellow man.

There's more to the gamer's Social Contract than just basic manners though. The RPG is an extremely unique social environment, with very complex and unwritten rituals and communication methods. We need to cover what is right, and what is wrong. In particular, we need to discuss the true role of the DM.

Let's get one thing straight: the DM is a player too. The DM is not a unique opponent who you are playing against. The DM is not your enemy. The DM is not the game. If you are a DM and think of yourself as these things, you are a misleading asshole. If you are a player who thinks of the DM as these things, you are a metagaming asshole.

The DM is there to have fun just as much as everyone else is. Why the hell else would they invite your ass over unless they wanted you to be there? They wanted to share an experience with you and the others at your table so much, that they went to the trouble of trying to learn ALL the rules AND build an entire world, story, and adventure to explore. This is no easy task. If you think it is, try your hand at it some time, I'm sure your DM would love a break and a chance to watch you squirm for a change. There is a reason whole books have been written about how to be a successful DM.

Now let's debunk some myths of Dungeon Mastering that were propagated in the early days by people who sucked at expressing their ideas clearly.

1. The DM is not like a god in the game. Although the DM is the grand arbiter of the rules and game content for the session, the only purpose behind that is for the DM to facilitate an entertaining game. The only way to ensure that the impartiality of the dice doesn't produce anticlimactic garbage, is to have someone with the authority to fudge the rolls and make stuff up on the fly.

2. The DM is not like a director. The players at the table are not your "cast". You can't give them a script. You have no true control over the direction of the plot. The DM is more like a camera man, framing the scenes and giving context more than directing the action. If you try to control your players, even through coercion or manipulation, you are defeating the purpose of the game. For the game to work, the players need to be able to genuinely make their own decisions, not be manhandled into making YOUR decision for them.

3. The DM is more than just a referee. Although being impartial and being the interpreter of rules is part of the job, that is not the only reason the DM exists, it's merely the clerical work of it all. If that weren't the case, whole campaigns could be made by dice using random tables, entirely supplanting the DM in function. RPGs operate entirely on imagination, and as a consequence, anything can happen. It is impossible to write a set of rules for every possible imagined situation. Even when we write very flexible, open-ended, versatile rules, we wind up with multiple valid methods of achieving the same results. Someone has to take charge and be the final word. Someone has to decide, not what is most correct, but what is the most fun way to resolve a given situation.

So what is the true role of the Dungeon Master?

Artist. The DM is the creator of a fictional environment. A whole imaginary world. The fantasy setting is, itself, a creative work of art. The DM is the author, not of adventures, but of alternate realities which we may explore, and the events which occur around us as we do so. Old professionals, like Ed Greenwood and the late Gary Gygax are unsung master artists of the modern age, the forerunners of an art form yet barely recognized by the public consciousness of this time, and the creators of the first art movement in the medium! Every DM is a fledgling artist walking in their giant footsteps.

Impartial Mediator. Do you remember playing pretend or make-believe as a kid? Ever get into an argument about whether one of you could successfully do one of your imagined actions, only for the game to come to an end? The purpose of the rules is to put an impartial mediator between the players to decide, empirically, who succeeds at what, and when. That's what the dice and rules are for. The DM's job is simply to moderate the randomness and interpret the rules as they apply to the circumstances of gameplay. Without this role in place, every session of every RPG would just be the tabletop equivalent of Calvinball.

Performer. The DM is an actor. They play the role of every single character and creature the players encounter over the course of the game. Every worried king, every damsel in distress, every irate shopkeeper, every well-spoken goblin is the DM putting on an act and playing improv to the players' reactions.

Facilitator of Fun. At the end of the day, there is really only one  function the DM plays, and everything else is simply part of that function. The Dungeon Master's job is to create an exciting, entertaining adventure for the people at the table. When successful, this can be deeply rewarding, but to do it right requires maturity in the forms of patience, restraint, modesty, and kindness.

As for my advice on how to be successful as a DM? Two rules, both part of my Gamer's Social Contract.

Rule 0. This is an old one. A classic rule from the good old days of save-or-die competitive dungeon crawls. Rule 0 is simply the word "no". To clarify for non-gamers and the newer generation, Rule 0 actually refers to the absolute authority of the DM over the interpretation and application of game rules. Basically, the current DM's interpretations of the rules ARE the rules. Unfortunately, because game content counts as rules, this means they effectively have absolute control over everything in the game but the players' decisions. That's pretty heavy authority. As we all know, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and it is this disproportionate allocation of power which has produced nearly all of the sourness I see in the hobby today. Good DMs gone bad through abuse of authority. Good gaming groups split up by inappropriate rules interpretation. People who dropped the hobby completely because they got stuck playing with an asshole DM.

So, my rule 0 is actually a quote from a comic book:

Specifically, in the case of Rule 0, the responsibility to use that power as little as possible. Do not dismiss anything out of hand simply because it wasn't part of your plan, that is a blatant attack on the autonomy of your player group. Rule 0 is a weapon to be used against metagaming and rules lawyering, not against your fellow players on a whim. Remember: He who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.

But what do you do instead of saying no? What if they have an idea that you're unsure how to resolve? What if the players' ideas are insane? What if the rules don't cover this situation?

Enter: The Rule of Yes.

This one comes from a couple of different sources, but neither of them state it quite as a rule the way I do. Simply put, whenever a player comes up with a new idea; interprets a rule differently; tries to do something outside the scope of the core material; or otherwise blindsides you, before you just Rule 0 it away, consider saying yes first.

To some people, this may seem counterintuitive- after all, isn't the purpose of a rule to tell you what you can't do? No. It isn't. The rules in D&D are an abstract framework which the DM uses to impartially determine success or failure and action order. In reality, the only rules the players need to follow is the interpretation by the DM. As for how the DM should interpret those rules, well...

So, what is the rule of yes all about, and what does it have to do with all of this? I don't have to tell you, because other people have said it better than I can. I'm just formilizing the truth.

From Dungeon'/s Master:

"[...] Nothing grinds a game to a halt faster than a no ruling. Nothing frustrates a player more than being told their brilliant idea is no good. Nothing creates animosity towards the DM greater than a closed door policy on new ideas or rule interpretations. A no ruling at my normal game usually results in at least one player pulling out the PHB looking for clarification on the rule. It slows things down, it’s a distraction, it’s no fun. [...] There are instances when no is the correct call, but I urge to always consider the possibilities of yes before shutting an idea down. Unless the idea is clearly absurd, learn how to say yes. It will change your gaming life."

"[...] Saying no is lazy. Learn to say yes, challenge yourself and your players to be more creative. You’ll become a better DM, your adventures will appear more compelling and your players will come back each week craving more."

"[...] If you don’t know, say yes. If you don’t care, say yes. If it makes sense, say yes. Nothing is worse than a DM who can’t make a decision on a ruling. If you find yourself in this position say yes. Your players will love you for it."

My other source for the rule of yes is an article written on the gaming blog, beneath the screen. Follow that link, read that page, and come back. We're not done here yet.

Ya' done? Good. Moving on. Next are the two final rules in the Gamer's Social Contract. These rules have existed in undefined and unwritten form for a very long time. This is my attempt to clarify and standardize them.

The limits of the “willing suspension of disbelief” for a given idea are directly proportional to its coolness. Remember Bellisario's Maxim: "Don't look at this too closely..." also remember the gamer's version of the MST3K Mantra: "It's just a game; I should really just relax." Whenever a DM botches things in a weird or quirky way, assume "A Wizard Did It". The best way to use the RoC, is to watch player reactions. If a sudden shift happens where everyone's mood changes for the worse, or if people are suddenly disinterested or distracted, then something very uncool has happened, or something very cool has failed to happen. Simply claim Rule of Cool, and then correct the situation using Rule 0. This is your permission, as a group, to retcon events on the fly as necessary.

The Rule of Uncool.
Games are never worth anger. If it sucks, then FUCKING stop. And I cannot stress the cursing enough. Seriously, bad play is worse than no play at all. If people are mad, sad, bored, confused, frustrated, upset, arguing, leaving, distracted, or otherwise just not into the game and having fun, then for the love of yourself and your friends, stop the stupid game, and TALK IT OUT. Calling RoU means Time Out.

And now it's time I reintroduced a piece of text from the glory days of gaming, the mid-1980's: The RPG Manifesto.

"The Role-Playing Game Manifesto is a short ideology that identifies the end-goal of tabletop role-playing gaming. The manifesto has been printed towards the beginning of numerous game publishers books, most notably smaller presses such Milan Games and Guardians of Order (the original writers of the Manifesto). The powerhouse publishers, Wizards of the Coast and World of Darkness have both used the manifesto with just one publication. Its short and poignant message rings true for many gamers, and as such it is well-beloved in the gaming community." -D&D Wiki

I have revised the wording slightly, to make the manifesto a little clearer to read, and so it stands up to time a little better. (The original made use of outmoded gamer slang, and was very narrow in its focus on D20 based tabletop RPGs.)

v  These rules are written on paper, not etched in stone tablets.

v  Rules are suggested guidelines, not required edicts.

v  If the rules don't say no, the answer is yes.

v  There are no official answers, only official opinions.

v  When dice conflict with the story, the story always wins.

v  Poor sportsmanship isn't a problem with the game; it’s a problem with the player.

v  The Game Master has full discretionary power over the game only.

v  The Game Master always works with, not against, the players.

v  A game that is not fun is no longer a game.

v  The source material contains the answers to all things.

v  If you don’t know, make it up.

I don't know why we stopped prefacing our core books with that text, but it's a damned shame. That, right there, is the spirit of what it means to be a decent role player. There is love in those words, love for you and your fellow gamers. That needs to be appreciated, taken to heart, perpetuated, and spread as far as it can go.

There was another RPG manifesto written, a little more recently, and far less known. It doesn't come across as much of a manifesto, but more of a series of "Table Rules" framing how one should behave at the gaming table. Go check them out and come back.

That was a bit of a read wasn't it? 24 points, some multiple paragraphs long. Yeah, but every letter was worth soaking in, I promise you. That page should be the doctrine of proper socialization with your fellow gamers.

And now it's story time, ladies and gentlemen. This one is a modern tragedy of sorts. It chronicles the foibles of humanity in every regard, and D&D features as its theme. This story is the root if why I am lying awake tonight writing as my aching muscles force my sleep-deprived mind to wander. Take a read.

What happened to that boy is a human nightmare. The way people reacted to it, caring more about their own agendas for some stupid game is what makes the whole thing truly miserable. To this day, even though almost every gamer knows some kid died because of D&D, almost none of us know that it had nothing to do with the hobby. That is a shameful disrespect, and the darkest mark against our community- that we are too immature to even know the truth, let alone defend ourselves or that boy's memory. It is an ongoing cruelty that we perpetuate to this day.

In recent months, I have heard stories of...

A girl who was invited to her boyfriend's D&D sessions, only to be told to sit and be quiet, to run the elf NPC, and was repeatedly mocked by the guy's friends for not understanding the game.

A guy who wanted advice on how to stop his players from killing each other all the time. Out of hundreds of conniving, twisted, manipulative, disrespectful suggestions on how to strong-arm the players into obedience, only one person said, "If the players like PvP so much, you should make a campaign based on PvP."

A kid who was kicked out of his home because he invited his gaming group to his house for one night.

A guy who ruined his gaming group by violating impartiality in favor of a girl who joined the game. She didn't ever date him, BTW.

A player who was faced with over 10 save-or-die rolls in a row for minor unjustified inconveniences, like tripping over rocks. He left the game angry. Something tells me he wasn't wanted there in the first place.

The entire Adventurer's League management team banning a core race that was explicitly built for them simply because it could fly. Upon playtesting the first 10 adventures that were made after this decision, it was found that having a flying character on your team gave no apparent advantage in any combat encounter, nor did it provide an easy resolution to any problem presented.

A table where what you say is what happens, no take-backs, not even if the dice haven't hit the board yet. No talking allowed unless it's in-character.

A DM asking advice on what to do with a group that just runs around being silly all the time. After pages of crappy advice, only one person gave an out-of-game suggestion: Just let the silly stuff slide, and only have it actually happen in-game if the players genuinely want it to happen. You don't have to take their words at face-value.

Do you know what the Gamer's Social Contract is, really? It is a very long-winded and detailed elaboration upon a single phrase:

Don't be an asshole.

I hope that picture got you a laugh. I also sincerely hope that those of you in the hobby have gained a new appreciation for your fellow gamers, and a deeper understanding of why we do this and why we love it. For those of you who don't play RPGs, I thank you for making it this far. I can only hope that these words have she'd some light on a world that is far too often shrouded in subculture-imposed mystery and secrecy. Good night everybody.