Jan 14, 2019

The Basis of the Game is Making Decisions

Some people are going to find what I'm talking about in this post so obvious they won't understand why I feel the need to mention it. To those people, I offer my apologies, but I have realised from discussion with a broad spectrum of roleplayers over the years that it is not so obvious as it seems.

The core activity of roleplaying games is making decisions. Every other activity feeds back into this core in one way or another. Rules are there to control and shape the field of possible decisions, determine the likelihood of particular outcomes of those decisions, and to structure who makes which decision. Characterisation, party dynamics and the world exist to shape the style of decision-making and the values and tools brought to it; to establish decision procedures; and to provide stakes and consequences for decisions.

I would contrast this understanding with the one that superficially claims that a roleplaying game is like a television show, novel or movie that is focused on telling a captivating narrative for an audience. This kind of understanding, taken to its extreme limit, leads to railroading, which I understand as the negation of player characters' ability to make meaningful decisions, combined with the players' knowledge that this is the case.

I think a decision-based understanding of gameplay is superior to this narrative understanding for two reasons. The first reason is paedogogical, and the second is schematic.

When explaining to a new player or potential player what the game is and how it is played, people often repeat some line like "You're like the star of a TV show going on an adventure" or "You're a character in a fictional world who lives out a story". This implies that the most important activity or skill is acting, and the structure of play will follow the scene-framing and development of other narratives. It is therefore, a rude shock when they start playing a game and they are not very good at acting out their character and the flow of a session does not follow the narrative progression of other media.

This shock is now sometimes called the "Matt Mercer effect" after players who got into D&D from watching Critical Role, but who are displeased to find out that they can't plunge immediately into a complicated and immersive narrative. I don't blame these people for this shock. They were led to believe one thing, and rudely surprised when it turns out that belief was just propaganda. On top of that, they don't necessarily know how to improve the situation they find themselves in and move to the sort of immersive game they were lured in with - witness the endless threads on Reddit and rpg.net and other forums on this very topic.

Paedogogically, I think focusing on decision-making instead is probably more useful for that new player. The new player begins by making and justifying decisions with the character as a pawn (on the character's behalf), then learns how to make decisions based on the character's subjectivity (as the character). Similarly, they learn to justify their decisions to the referee or other PCs on behalf of their character (or out of character), and then how to justify them as the character to the other character in world.

They're not rigidly locked into any one of these four options, of course, and further learning would be how and when to deploy each. This helps new players to feel like they're increasing their agency over time, rather than constantly failing. In my experience, this is both an easier course of development for new players to grasp, as well as being more likely to retain them as players than frustration and failure are.

Schematically, I've written about this before in my long post on "anti-narrativism" in constructing D&D stories. A distillation of the basic point is: Rather than structuring the progression of a campaign as a series of dramatic scenes with the PCs flowing from one to the other, I think games should be structured as a set of situations where PCs must make decisions. The occasional montage or descriptive flourish isn't awful, but thinking of the development of the story in terms of decisions actually provides a clearer and more effective plan than trying to think of the next "chapter".

As a bonus, the superficial sensual effect of a decision-based structure is that it actually seems more like a traditional narrative than trying to plot out a story as if it were a novel, television show, or movie, because making decisions and dealing with the consequences of them is what happens to characters in a well-written story.

I think many people will claim that they already accommodate the idea of decision-based adventure gaming in their planning, and I'm sure many do, but I am 100% certain that there are many more people who could improve their games by shifting their mindset over to this, or increasing its prominence and salience within the mix of ideas they have about planning. I especially encourage new players and new referees who are having trouble creating the kind of richly immersive world and story they admire in other people's games to try adopting this mindset.

Jan 3, 2019

Improving Descriptions Using the Gricean Maxims

I rarely make absolute statements rather than propositions or suggestions, but I can't think of a countervailing example to the statement that good descriptions improve roleplaying games. That is, the better the descriptive powers of the referee and players, the better the game. I don't necessarily mean complex, verbose descriptions (some people like them, some people don't), nor do I idolise the modern imitators of Hemingwayesque concision.

Rather, I want to talk at the level below that aesthetic level, at the level of the cooperative principle and its derivations, the Gricean maxims. For people who've never heard of them, here's a brief explanation in text, and one in video. The basic idea is that Gricean maxims are the principles that an audience uses to evaluate a speaker's utterances in a cooperative exchange. One can not only apply them, but also flout them (and opt-out of them under certain circumstances, and just straight up lie, of course).

The Gricean maxims are the root understanding behind the old roleplaying joke where a referee describes a throw-away NPC and the mere act of describing them causes the players to want to interact with them or suspect them of being involved in the plot somehow: the joke is just that they incorrectly apply the maxim of relation beyond a reasonable level.

Anyhow, weird as it may be to say about something this basic, I'm amazed at the number of games I've played in where the referee flouted or failed to wield the Gricean maxims fluidly when describing the world to the players.

Sometimes this is because they don't frame the utterances well. They fail to establish that this bit of scene-setting is just a bit of evocative description like an establishing shot in a movie, there to create a picture in the players' heads, instead of a sequence they're expected to execute decisions in relation to. (Secret bonus referee tip: I tend to gesture more dramatically than usual while doing these so that people understand I'm just describing things)

Sometimes this is just because they describe a ton of irrelevant crap in a manner that disguises instead of distinguishing what is relevant. Sometimes it's because they withhold essential information, often because they mistakenly think they're in a competitive exchange: Waiting for the PCs to ask about it or to figure out that they need to use a skill or power to discover it.

Sometimes this is because they're working from a module that was written by someone who didn't follow the Gricean maxims in its composition, or that was just otherwise written in an unclear way that buries the relevant, truthful information the players need in a place where it can't be easily reviewed.

All of those are bad situations to be in, both as a player and as a referee. They could all be improved by following the Gricean maxims. In fact, if you robotically follow the Gricean maxims for any situation the players are in, while merely speaking concisely and using prosaic terminology, you'd be surprised at how players will compliment your descriptive powers (I know this because I do it all the time). Add in the occasional evocative or captivating flourish, and they'll rave.

Individual referees have their own unique styles, and the members of any given group will be happier or not with a given referee's style. I don't think aesthetics are purely arbitrary and individual, but I also don't think it's worth trying to denounce or bolster a particular aesthetic style or taste outside of a concrete instance. But with the Gricean maxims, we are sub-taste, at the level of the pragmatics of speech and conversation, and mastering the pragmatics will only improve things for everyone involved.