Friday, April 23, 2010

Responding to Things We Think About Games: "Pants Issues"

I remember, fairly clearly, my earliest experiences with roleplaying games. I was introduced to the Dungeons and Dragons game by my dear friend Sean McPhail. His older brothers had been chatting about this new kind of fantasy game and Sean was pretty excited about it. It didn't take long for me to become as excited about the prospect of putting myself in the place of the great heroes of the fantasy genre. What if I was able to make decisions for Conan or Elric as they encountered dangers on some perilous quest?

My parents, noting my interest, made an 11 year-old me very happy at Christmas time when Santa brought me a Moldvay/Cook Basic Set, a Fiend Folio, a Deities and Demigods, and a Player's Handbook -- as well as several LJN D&D themed toys. The fact that this particular combination of books didn't contain all the rules necessary to run a campaign of my own didn't matter, they contained enough information to light my imagination afire. I made scores of characters and put them through the wringer that is Keep on the Borderlands. To be fair, I played Keep as if it were a strategy wargame and the characters I made were squad members, but I had a great time.

Then came the day when Sean and I were invited to play in a session of D&D at Sean's house with some of the older "kids." It was an absolutely eye-opening experience, both positively and negatively. My imagination ran wild with the possibilities and my youthful mind painted the scenes as clearly as if I were watching them on a movie screen. It wasn't that he Game Master provided ample descriptions of the locations, he hadn't, it was that my mind was able to fill in the blanks. Sean and my inclusion in the adventure came unexpectedly, so I didn't have any of my own characters and had to borrow one of Sean's. He gave me the choice of Aragorn or Gandalf, I chose Gandalf. How could I not? I was to play the great wizard Gandalf, who I had read about with such admiration. The fact that Gandalf was a first level Magic User with only one spell didn't affect me at all.

What did affect me was how poorly the Game Master ran the session. You see, he did the opposite of so many good Game Mastering techniques that the session Sean and I participated in was an almost ideal lesson of what not to do.

First, the game master informed us that he "didn't need the rulebooks" as he had them memorized and that as DM he was "God" and we would have to accept any decision he made regardless of how it represented our understanding of the rules.

Second, the game master didn't need to have any materials to help him run the adventure. He had memorized that as well, or rather he felt that he was perfectly capable of "winging it." He wasn't. Most people aren't unless it is in a collaborative rpg effort like Octane! or The Committee for the Exploration of Mysteries. These games work very well when the players wing it because the world construction is shared and the mechanics work to minimize arbitrary decision making. Or, as is the case with Octane!, the rules specifically discuss the disadvantages of arbitrary decision making. "Winged" adventures are more susceptible to capricious/vindictive GM behavior, or the feeling by players of the GM being vindictive.

Third, he viewed the game as a competition between the dungeon master and players. For him, the dungeon master "wins" D&D by killing off the players. Combined with the two techniques above, this creates the potential for what is possibly the worst gaming experience imaginable. In this case, much to my inexperienced dismay, it led to a violation of Things We Think About Games maxim #023:

In a tabletop roleplaying game, the characters are all wearing pants.

This is true even though none of the players informed the gamemaster that their characters were putting their pants on.
Issues such as these -- things that any person would do without comment -- are collectively "pants issues," and players in any sane game may always assert that they have done such things if it ever becomes important.

So what was Gandalf's "pants down" moment? I'm glad you asked.

After some time adventuring a dark and forbidding dungeon, and dispatching some horde of nasties or another, Gandalf, Aragorn, and their friends discovered a chest filled with treasure. Each character fixated on the item most interesting to him/her. For me, I mean Gandalf, that item was a magical scroll containing some arcane mystery. I shouted out immediately, "I read the scroll to see what it is." Thus was my fatal error.

Never mind that Gandalf had used his one spell, yes he only knew one spell as a first level magic user as this was the days before bonus spells for a character's high intelligence, Magic Missile during the earlier combat. In those days, casting Read Magic was a necessary part of deciphering a spell or spellbook. Gandalf hadn't memorized the spell and shouldn't have been able to read the spell. Gandalf, being more cautious of the dangers of untested magic than an 11 year-old, would also not have jumped out of his chair and yelled "I read the scroll!" You see, Gandalf had a high Wisdom score (14 or higher, though I don't know the exact number) -- much higher than 11 year-old me.

Gandalf would have known to take precautions. Never mind the fact that he would also know that he couldn't make anything of the scroll until he rested a day, memorized Read Magic, and only then would he be able to begin the process of unraveling the scroll's mysteries. He would have done those things, but 11 year-old me didn't and was merely excited by the mysteries of magic.

Then I heard the phrase most 1st and 2nd edition players are loath to hear, "make a saving throw versus petrification/polymorph!"

Uh oh!

Sitting at the far side of the living room, in a shadowy corner far from the prying eyes of the sinister and vindictive dungeon master, I could have pretended to roll dice and replied "I succeed!" Instead, I rolled the die and looked down with horrified eyes as the die roll was far beneath the value necessary to make the saving throw.

"I fail," I murmured meekly to the visiting DM.

"Your character has been turned into an Axe Beak," laughed my nemesis.

"An Axe Beak?!"

"An Axe Beak! Ha, ha! Someone get some rope to make a leash so you don't lose Gandalf."

And so I was punished and mocked for my excitement and wonder. I was too inexperienced a gamer, and too caught up in wanting to "play a story," to think that there were game masters who viewed the game play as a competition and who took pleasure from making players look foolish. I didn't know better than to read the scroll.

But Gandalf would have. He wouldn't, even at first level, have been caught with his "pants down." The DM used a pants issue to hose me and I have resented it ever since.

I wonder how many potential players we have lost through the decades because the person running the game used pants issues to hose the players for their own pleasure.


Swordgleam said...

My first D&D experience was also filled with a lot of "what not to do," but I didn't realize it until much later. Which is why I think such experiences don't turn off many gamers: the overall experience is still positive, so they keep coming back and don't realize until they're well into the hobby all the things that went wrong.

I think improv'ed adventures are only more prone to vindictive DMing decisions if your DM is the vindictive type. I wing nearly every session (I defy anyone else to plan adequately for this particular group) and my players have never expressed any such feelings. It's about being just as willing to say, "Awesome idea; you succeed wildly" as to say, "The dice tell me that an ancient black dragon is now following you." (Both of which happened a couple sessions ago.)

Anonymous said...

Yes, that was a terrible weakness in the early days of the hobby. The games were still fun, even with pants moments, because you were doing crazy stuff with your friends. I think, I hope, we introduce both players and GMs to the social ground rules better these days.

UltharCat said...

That's a common story, and I'm sure the hobby has lost a lot of potential players because of similar situations. I've seen it more than a few times as an adult.
I taught myself to play the game at 8 years old (wrong, of course) and got my friends hooked. To this day there are 3 of them, other than myself, still actively playing. I feel I've done my part. :)

Jeff Tidball said...

Always love to read these TWT responses. Thanks again!

Justin Alexander said...

There's a lot wrong with the example you give, but it's not exactly a "pants issue". A pants issue, as described in your quote, is something that "any person would do without comment".

What you're primarily dealing with (besides the capricious "the rules favor me always" style of GMing) is the opposite end of the spectrum: How do you deal with character expertise when the players don't have the same expertise? The implied solution in your post seems to be some form of the GM declaring "your character wouldn't do that" (with some degree of variation in the strength and approach of that statement). But in doing so you are effectively infringing on the player's freedom of agency regarding their character. And, in any case, you are essentially providing them with training wheels which may actually impede their own personal learning process in mastering the game.

It's not a clear-cut issue. Particularly once you factor in the fact that many players will abuse the "well, I wouldn't have done that" catch-phrase to avoid taking responsibility for their choices (which similarly degrades the free agency of the characters by degrading the meaningful quality of the choices made by the players).

Of course, even pants issues aren't clear-cut: For example, in a modern police procedural it's probably easy enough to assume that everyone manages to feed themselves without wasting "screen time" on it. OTOH, managing rations on exploratory missions is an important part of many games.

Christian Lindke said...

First, let me disagree with you from your first sentence. I believe it is a pants issue and you and I clearly have a different understanding of two things.

The first disagreement is with regards to what constitutes a pants issue in the first place. Mine includes GMs assuming that PCs are competent in the things in which they should be competent. This is an underlying reason why PCs would always be assumed to have their pants on in the first place, they aren't so incompetent as to be caught with their pants down -- literally.

Our second area of disagreement seems to be with the what roleplaying game is at its core qua roleplaying game. I come from a school of roleplaying where sessions are collaborative storytelling efforts and not games where there are any competitive elements between player and GM. Having puzzles that players, not PCs, must solve is a competitive element that was frequently used in 1st edition products. They had an underlying assumption of "player mastery" such as you mention in your post, and as Gygax wrote in his book Roleplaying Mastery. In these games player solve riddles and puzzles unless given "training wheels."

I find this to be a fundamentally flawed approach to rpgs, not to competitive games such as Descent or Warhammer Quest. These games are about player choices more than "playing roles." For me the DM is a combination narrator and director, in the movie/tv sense. He or she provides not only the sensory descriptions, but must also provide information that can aid in the performance of character roles.

There are those who believe more competitive, player choices matter whether the character would ever actually make such a choice, to be superior. I am not one of those. Your use of the economic concept of "freedom of agency" falls flat in my opinion, as it is too Randian in its "allowing players" to fail is rooted in a laissez faire approach that I think appropriate in competitive environments, but not in collaborative ones.

This doesn't mean you are wrong in a transcendent sense, just that you and I come from very different approaches of gaming. Whether my players achieve mastery is unimportant to me, though not to my close friend B.N. Nemecz, and I am more concerned with the stories we tell during play rather than stories of TPKs due to player error.