Monday, February 29, 2016

Excuse Me While I Gush About Roleplaying Games for a Moment


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Most of you know I'm a gamer in addition to a writer. Specifically, I'm a table-top gamer, preferring old-fashioned board games and pen-and-paper roleplaying games to video games. I don't usually talk about roleplaying games much on this blog since I write for another site that's devoted entirely to RPG's, but today I just wanted to share with you an awesome new game I've been playing lately. I think I would be better served discussing it here rather than for an audience who all know what I'm already talking about and are probably just thinking "yeah, so?"

Hopefully you know what role-playing game is. Dungeons & Dragons is of course the classic example, as it's the oldest version out there. It's a game where a group of players each create a character and "roleplay" them through adventures to (usually) accomplish a group goal, like defeating an evil monster, finding a lost treasure, saving a kingdom, etc. One of the players acts as the Game Master or Dungeon Master, sort of the defacto referee who plays all the enemies and secondary characters the player characters/heroes encounter, and generally guides the story by creating the world and the setting with which the characters interact.

There are rules to adjudicate how your characters interact with the world - each characters has numerical values to represent their strength, agility, intelligence and so on, which indicates how good they are at certain tasks. In most games you roll dice to determine if your character succeeds at a task or not (like casting a spell or attacking something with a sword) and your chances of success are modified by your skills and abilities.


Many writers enjoy being Game Masters because the two roles involve similar functions: creating worlds, characters and stories. I also enjoy game mastering, but in the last few years I've found myself enjoying it for very different reasons than why I enjoy writing.

In most games, the GM or DM sets out the scenario: Where the players are, what they're doing, what is their goal. The players then follow the clues, plotlines and story as set out by the GM to try and accomplish the ultimate goal of "finishing the adventure." A good Game Master can adapt and improvise if something changes or the characters do something unexpected, but ultimately they're still moving in a pre-defined direction. In the worst version of this, the characters and players end up like pawns moving through the GM's pre-written story.

Even at the best of times, when the players have some choices in the outcome of the story, this still feels false to me. Many times players go through the motions because that's just the way it works. We fight these monsters because the Game Master wrote it this way. But why? Unless the player characters have a very good reason for wanting to accomplish this goal, why are they doing it? Why are they trudging through a dungeon, hunting for this treasure, slaying this dragon? If these were characters in a novel, what is their motivation? That's the part that interests me: why do these heroes do what they do?

For some heroes, it's to get back at their exes.
This is where Dungeon World comes in. Dungeon World is a "stripped down" version of Dungeons & Dragons where game mechanics and rules crunch take a backseat to storytelling and character development. It uses brilliantly simple mechanics that leave a lot to interpretation and imagination, and encourages the players to fill in as much (or as little) as they want.

My favourite difference between Dungeon World and D&D is that it takes a lot of the agency away from the Dungeon Master and gives it to the players, which is a very good thing. In classic D&D, the DM builds the game world and the players wander through it uncovering its secrets. In DW, the players build it themselves as they go.  The Dungeon Master is there to nudge them along and get the story flowing, not to create the world himself, and the players get to decide exactly what kind of game they want to play. By having more of say in their game, the players ultimately feel more involved and invested, and their characters develop true motivations to do what they do.

A great example is the classic booby trap: the pit in the floor, the poison dart, the falling block from the ceiling. In D&D it's very common for the DM to place traps in a dungeon for the players to overcome. They have to make a roll to seek out these traps at the proper time and then find a way to disarm or avoid them. Much fun is had as the players try (and often fail, sometimes fatally) to figure out how the trap works and disarm it. That's the fun of the game. In DW, the Dungeon Master doesn't set a trap in advance. Instead, when a player decides to "look for traps," he makes his roll. On a success, he finds a trap and disarms it - what exactly that looks like is up the player to make as cool, devious or silly as he chooses. On a fail, he misses the trap or fails to disarm it and it blows up in his face. Again, he may choose to describe exactly what that looks like.

Traps should be fun. No, seriously.
At first it may seem counter-intuitive to "intentionally" hurt yourself in a game (remember, if the player didn't choose to look for it, the trap probably wouldn't have been there), but you have to remember the fun of the game is finding the trap and either setting it off or not. Having no traps is boring to everyone involved. Not to mention you actually gain experience points every time you fail a roll, so it's in your best interest to try everything you can.

The best mechanic is when your roll falls between a "success" or a "failure." A "partial success" means you have succeeded at your task but... some complication has arisen. You hit your opponent but he hits you back. You sneak silently into the queen's bedchamber but you find yourself in an awkward position, perhaps under the bed and the king just walked in. Or maybe your spell puts most of your enemies to sleep, but one of your companions is caught in the area of effect and accidentally gets knocked out as well. These are fun and interesting occurrences that keep the action moving, and that you can use to build on the story and move the plot along. The player and GM working together can turn these complications into compelling set pieces that make the characters and the world around them come to life.

Perhaps the character had only meant to sneak into the queen's bedchamber to steal a signet ring to forge a letter. They assumed they would either succeed or fail and get caught by the guards, and have to fight their way out. But now we have another option, with the character under the bed, eavesdropping on the king. Perhaps the GM had an idea that the king was plotting to attack a neighbouring kingdom, and now the player character hears part of that plan. Or perhaps the player throws out the suggestion that the king is having an illicit encounter with someone unexpected - the queen of that rival kingdom, or the royal sorceress, or the queen's sister, who knows. No one had planned that detail in advance, but adding that wrinkle now adds a lot of interesting possibilities to the story.
All of our Harry Potter games end in unexpected player actions.
Though honestly, this would have solved a lot of problems in Harry Potter.
And that's what I enjoy about roleplaying games. Telling a story, together, and letting it develop and turn in unexpected directions when the need arises. I shared with you awhile ago about the time we were playing a zombie apocalypse game and one of the players turned on another and killed him at the climax of the adventure because he had been bitten by a zombie. It was completely out of the blue and against the generally accepted "no player vs player violence" of most games, but it made perfect sense to the story and the character in the moment.

I've played other roleplaying games via email and through messaging, where the whole game interaction takes place in writing. We were basically writing a communal novel, going back and forth between the players and the game master. When it works, when everyone is throwing ideas out there and adding to the story with each message or post, it's an exciting and amazing experience. It's also usually hilarious. Dungeon World really plays into that same communal storytelling sweet-spot, and it's a game I hope to play a lot more in the future.

What kind of experience do you have with role-playing games? Have they mostly been just complicated board games? Or have you delved into them as shared storytelling experiences?
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