Thursday, February 18, 2021

Musings on Gaming #1 - Reality

This is hopefully the first of a series of posts where I pen down my thoughts about RPG and GMing.

I've been playing RPGs for something like 35 years now, being a GM almost exclusively during this whole time, but it is only really in the past ten years or so that I started thinking about GMing as a craft. I started GMing in school as a teenager with Dragon Warriors, and back then with no frame of reference, we just played the way we thought the game ought to be played. There was no session zero (beyond "we already have enough fighters but we need a healer"), no discussion of character motivation (beyond gaining XPs and leveling up), but the strange thing was, as we played on and the characters explored and interacted with more of the world around them, we started developing motivations for them, and my players started to ask for their characters to do this or that: they started to develop goals.

The reason for that, even though we did not consciously know at that time, was because we all believed that the game world was "real" in some way. That is to say, we believed that the game world operated within certain rules and moved due to certain forces, just like the real world does, and that our characters, much like our young selves, could interact with this world in a meaningful way if we understood how it worked. This was also the time when we were learning History and Geography (in particular Human Geography) in school, and the subjects reinforced the ideas that the physical world and people did not behave randomly, but were the way they were for specific reasons.

In that respect the rules that we were using - Dragon Warriors - played a big role. The world of Dragon Warriors, called Legend, is an unashamed Earth-analogue, and lovingly described in Book 6 of the book series. There was even a table showing the evolution of the languages on the world, which had a bearing on how easy it was for the speaker of one language to learn another. This was the kind of detail that the teenage mind craved and thrived on, and even though I didn't know it then, the game had a formative effect on how I look at RPG worlds even today. In a future post I hope to discuss why I think such details are important to a medieval fantasy setting.

To me, an RPG is about immersing yourself in the role of a character in a make-believe world, which you imbue with a personality, traits, and motivations. For a player to do so, the GM must provide a game world that is "real" and operate by known cause-and-effects. That is to say, we expect that the PCs need to breathe, and that the game world has an atmosphere that the PCs can breathe in; that gravity exists, and if you fall from height you will take damage; that people respond pretty much like people in our world, and if you are rude to someone he is likely to respond negatively to you; and that laws exist and breaking them will bring consequences. That is not to say that the game world has to be an exact replica of our world, or that only the mundane exist, but however the game world is different from ours, those differences must have consequences, and should be taken into consideration in the way the world works in such a way that they do not result in plot holes.

It is such a belief that makes me exclude powers like resurrection and long-distance teleport (or at least make them extremely rare), because I am not able to decide how a world where such powers exist will operate. Of course, your average low-level magic user can still become an effective burglar with spells like Mage Hand and Misty Step, but the effect of these spells have non-magical equivalents such as stealth and sleight-of-hand and lockpicking, so they are easier for our minds to accept that the world would not be significantly different from ours just because those spells existed. The further a power or an ability is from our real-world possibilities, the harder it is for our muggle minds to imagine how the world must change to account for them. This is also an argument for limiting the frequency and power of magic in a game world, or making magic dangerous to the caster, but that is probably the topic of another post.

Another effect of this belief is that I have an aversion to "narrative" RPGs where the players get to decide what happens as a result of their actions. This does not mean that I do not believe in player agency, but that I believe that player agency means they can decide their characters' actions, but not the result of those actions. In the real world we get to choose what we say or do, but we cannot control the outcome of our words or actions - so it should be in our game world.

That said, I have played in games where the players get to choose what happens (or rather 'happened') in the form of flashbacks, but that took place in the context of games where such flashbacks are an explicit and important part of gameplay; as enjoyable as those games were, I feel that the mechanic will not be sustainable in a long-term campaign.

In the instances where I played in "collaborative" games where the players get to decide what happens as a result of their die-rolls, the gameplay was typically stilted as the players pause to think about how to narrate an interesting and reasonable outcome to their actions.

Is my way of gaming the only correct way then? Certainly not; the fact that many games where flashbacks and "collaboration" are main features are very successful proves that many people enjoy that way of gaming. But for me, a campaign with longevity needs to be one that is grounded in a kind of reality that parallels that of our world.

1 comment:

SteveHolmes11 said...

There's room for a really interesting discussion here.

We tend toward a "realism" rooted in our own laws of physics, and a social/historic setting that we understand: either through study, or through television and film settings.
In most cases this will have a lot in common with our own world: Walking speeds are similar, stone or wood buildings have similar properties. Fire is hot, ice is cold, water quenches fire and presents a drowning risk. Day is light, night is dark, most activities are easier by day.

I suspect that major changes to society of physics would create gaming problems.
This would particularly tax the DM, who hopes that all players have a similar interpretation of his words.

However, standard is usually dull, so we add features to create interest.
Two common ones are magic, and the frontier society.

Magic shifts adventures beyond the mundane, but can result in serious unbalance.
Applied with care, it lets the adventurers find fun in all those small towns that historic travellers might pass through without a single noteworthy event.
Overdone, it can easily break the story and the player's immersion.

The frontier society enables adventure.
In a modern city with a policeman, security guard or surveillance camera on every street corner, the opportunities to step outside the mundane are limited.
Where every shopping transaction is paid by card, it's difficult to accumulate a pile of gold.
Setting our adventure in a place near the edge of the law provides a lot more scope for heroes and villains to show their true colours.

You can cut down the corrupt town bully in a duel, with some confidence that every deputy in the county won't immediately be on your tail.
That's no guarantee of safety through: Vengeful family, bounty hunters, and eventually the law form the far-away city may well show an interest.
Congratulations, you earned yourself some new enemies - and increased your scope for adventure.

I shall return to magic, briefly, if I may.
The comparison between magic and advanced technology is a well known trope.
By setting our adventures in a less technological past, we can harness magic to implement some of the conveniences of today.
Petty magic that does the job of a mobile telephone, a microwave oven or a washing machine bypass a bit of drudge.
Medium magic that throws missiles, fire and explosions at enemies stand in for modern weapons.

We manage all of this without breaking the "physics and society" rules of familiar settings.
But sometimes we level up to a point where the magic gets serious: world changing artifacts, and planar travel.
These really are "climax of the adventure" events.
It is debatable whether the characters or worlds where these are used will even be the same.
Some might say that the great victory has ruined them for further adventure.

Is that so bad.
Everybody should know when to retire and settle down to rule a kingdom.