Friday, 16 September 2011

The Grand Inquisitor's Roleplaying Game

Portrait by van Rainy Hecht-Neilsen
I've already made this analogy in a comment somewhere, but the broadening of the pallet-shifting quantum ogre debate (see link collection here) brings this to mind yet again.

As a game master, what happens when you take freedom from your players to give them pleasure and security?
As a game master, what happens when you give your players only the illusion of freedom, toward the same goal? Choose path A or path B, each leads to the same pre-prepared encounter.

I think in both cases, you stop having the fun that comes from interacting with the players: taking their choices, building on them with choices of your own, having a mutual conversation.

That kind of relationship tends toward the situation of authoritarianism described in Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor parable. The Inquisitor alone takes on the burdens of freedom, offering the trade of true liberty for security. Under this illusion ...
...they will be glad to believe our answer, for it will save them from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, shall be unhappy. There will be thousands of millions of happy babes, and a hundred thousand sufferers who have taken upon themselves the curse of the knowledge of good and evil.
I can't conceive of the railroading GM as inspiring anything other than misery or defiance in any mature player. Yet the answer of creating illusory freedom is by no means an answer, for it robs the GM of freedom so that the players may think they have it. It tempts the GM, saying "Look! You need only prepare one encounter! The players need never know!" But you know - and can you really maintain your enthusiasm in the face of that predetermined choice?

I know I couldn't. It's a false economy of effort that magnifies each saving tenfold in loss of enjoyment, the same as if players were to be told, "There's no need to think or try to solve problems in different ways here, just run at the monsters every time." The illusion ultimately enslaves both parties, and solves nothing.


  1. I guess it depends on what you mean--and like most posts of this type--I'm never quite sure how broadly your decrying things. Broad declarative statements of a philosophic stance get delivered, and I have a hard time determining where people stand in actual, concrete situations.

    If by "prepared encounter" you mean some sort of major set piece-thingy, then I agree that having its placement be indeterminate is player-freedom removing and gets stale.

    But if you also include in that broad prepared rubric "random encounters that just doesn't happen to be random" that get plugged (somewhere, anywhere)on the way to a player selected goal. Then I see no way that reduces anybody's fun nor reduces anybody's freedom. In fact, I'm quite certain that reduces my fun not one jot more than preparing a incidental encounter tied to a static location. The latter's rote and boring, the former is dynamic and responsive.

  2. There is a point being overlooked here - except, I'd say, by KORPG in comments after the rebuttal - that all DMs move stuff around, or describe scenes selectively, or design adventures or locations selectively, or decide to play D&D and not Clipboards & Paycheques (ie DM and players agree to a certain genre of action and agree that acting outside this genre is likely to be or result in false choice), and taking any kind of purist "we shall never" line on ad-hoc world design (or "fudging" if you like) probably means fooling yourself.

    -C's position looks to me like it's in danger of denying the value of having a live DM, not a machine, running your game and that value consists of the live DM being able to interact back at the players. The DM can respond to what they do, but also to what they want, what they react negatively to, what they did without thinking about it and so on. As you say, it's a conversation, and not strictly an arena for player action, and in that conversation the DM's going to need a whole bunch of social skills for which the dice cannot substitute.

    I've already said more about this than I intended to. In the end I think we all agree, railroading is bad - but also slavish adherence to the adventure as written can be bad. Trying to make definitive statements about what people should be doing at their table is probably also bad?

    ...and who is actually the enemy here? Are we all berating that bad railroading DM we vaguely remember from high school?

  3. "The illusion ultimately enslaves both parties, and solves nothing."

    Wow. That is awesome.

    I think the discussion is winding down, and what I've noticed, is that DM's that cheat - not those that make some design choices, but those that replace an encounter with a weaker one if the party reaches it near the end of the session (allowing their lack of skill in knowing when to retreat to atrophy), or change die rolls (when the players weren't skilled enough to avoid needing to roll the dice) are so desperate in their need to remove player agency and freedom of informed choice.

    And it's true - like pizza and sex, even bad role-playing is good. But why do they rail so hard against just rolling out in the open and letting the dice fall where they may? Pizza, Sex, and Role-playing can be _great_.

    Is it because they can't let go of needing to control the outcome like an author? Is it because they don't have the skill or courage to hold a person accountable for their actions?

    This agency is about an expected standard of play - one of fairness and equity. There's been a lot of mobilization about the idea of freedom being fun.

    The next step is for people who are against agency to look at their reasons why the very idea of fairness, equity, and freedom of information for players to make informed decisions that effect the outcomes they wish makes them so uncomfortable.

    Thanks Roger.

  4. @Richard
    Good question.
    Am I the only one who notices modules with 'encounters that have to happen so that we can level "when we're supposed to"'?
    'magic item wishlists'?
    'modules that are basically one long line with no options for actual choice'?

    You act like we're all berating the long forgotten DM, but what we're really berating is the design aesthetic of the entire for-profit industry!

  5. @-C - sorry, I guess I've been too wrapped up in this OSR echo-chamber: the last time I bought a module was close to 30 years ago, and the only reason I have any idea what you're talking about re leveling "when we're supposed to" and 'magic item wishlists' is because I read a recent post by Zak about a 4e module that sounded miserable. Sure, if that's part of the baseline you're addressing then I'm fundamentally with both you and Roger. My position all through this discussion has been more "steady on" than "no I disagree."

  6. Richard: I think we're all being aspirational, rather than authoritarian, but maybe it's coming across the wrong way.

    If the OSR is about anything (and I don't consider myself part of it, particularly) it is about reinterpreting the original D&D rules and thinking in a more deep and adult way about what was intended and what the best way of playing the game is. What this leads to is challenging nearly 40 years of accumulated tradition leading away from player agency, because it turns out that the original D&D rules are perfect for the type of game we're talking about (neutral DM, sandbox, players as agents) and game design has gone in a different direction.

    (It's understandable why this happened, by the way. I put it down to three things: the original authors of D&D were terrible at explaining what they meant; D&D for good or ill became a kids game and kids can't be counted on to even try to be impartial; and geeks are quite often frustrated novelists/film-makers/comic book writers who are in love with the idea of 'story'.)

    So really, I think what we're saying is this: peel a layer off the OD&D onion and you discover that it works really well if you base it on a set of assumptions that *nobody made explicit*. And these assumptions are that the DM will be impartial, won't be an illusionist, and story will emerge through play and the players' interactions with the sandbox world. If you aim towards making those assumptions real, the chances are you'll make D&D a great experience.

  7. I don't see a problem with lying to players about dice rolls. I've been working on a fantasy-adventure RPG that focuses on exploration and survival. This is the kind of system that involves taking into account how long it takes player's to get from point A to B, and keeping track of how many hours of light they have left before the oil in their lantern is used up. What's so bad about lying to your players for the sake of dramatic tension? So what if you don't give them exactly three hours of light down to the second? If they are about to fight a cave spider the size of a horse, and their light goes out that adds to the challenge and makes thing more interesting. It adds fear and tension in a way that simply throwing a cave spider at them wouldn't. A DM should be fair and impartial, but to a point. If the DM can find away to make things more interesting even if it's not in the dice why not do it?

  8. Nate, you can bet as a player that I would keep careful track of my supply of oil, and if it was running very low I would not be getting my character into a situation in which he was likely to be having a fight with a cave spider the size of a horse. That's called being a good and sensible player.

    If the DM then arbitrarily ruled that my light went out "to add to the challenge and make things more interesting" I would be pissed off - not because things might become more dangerous to my character, but because all my planning and careful play would have been for naught. The DM would have just entirely removed my agency from the game, essentially saying: "I don't care what you, the player, have done - I just care about my own idea of what you would enjoy, and I'm going to impose it on you for your own good."

    Why would I ever bother buying oil again? Why would I bother keeping track of it? Why would I care about making sure my character was properly equipped in future? Basically, why would I engage with the game ever again? Whatever I do, the DM is going to arbitrarily make decisions on my behalf about what I would find challenging and interesting. Fuck that.

  9. @-C: "The next step is for people who are against agency..."

    See, the problem is, I don't think anybody is against agency--at least not in any of the comments I've seen. People do have different ideas about the amount of agency, or what the parameters are of the situations being discussed, but discussion isn't facilitated by assuming motives.

    @noisms: "I think we're all being aspirational, rather than authoritarian, but maybe it's coming across the wrong way."

    I think that's the part of the problem--that and the tendency of (at best) only peripherally related issues, like where dice are rolled, to get lumped in to the discussion.

  10. I guess I have such a strong reaction because I can't conceive of myself having fun in a palette-switched game, but people do write about it as a legitimate way to save effort. I'm just wondering if anyone who has actually done it in a game has had fun doing it. Of course, that is your experience, but it's not the same as mine.

  11. @noisms: I suppose I haven't played with very many "sensible" players. If they want to diligently keep track of their own oil then they can have three hours worth.

    It seems to me that sticking to the charts and the dice leaves little room for inspiration. What do you if you get an idea for an encounter or environment that isn't in the dice that makes sense, of course, for whatever or where ever the characters are? Would it be rob the players of agency if you introduced something at the spur of the moment?

  12. Nate: I think this brings us on to point b), which I wanted to make but ran out of space. ;)

    If your players are not into keeping track of things like how much oil they have, and they don't want to be sensible, I am totally fine with that - but I'd argue they should be playing a more narrative, story-driven type of game than D&D if that's the case. There are a hundred great narrativist indie RPGs out there where you can build really great, fun stories as a group, and the rules are explicitly designed to achieve those ends... unlike D&D, in which the rules as written are absolutely *not* designed for creating really good stories and narratives, and probably get in the way of that goal.

    As for the second part of your post... inspiration comes in a different form in a sandbox game, but basically it amounts to the same thing: as the DM you put your inspiration into creating challenging and interesting environments and NPCs, and creating charts, tables and dice that generate fun results.

  13. @Noisms: I've never really thought of D&D as a non-narrativist game. I've been playing for awhile, but I came in right at the switch to 3rd Edition, so I've never had an old school experience. I'm beginning to understand though. :)

    Allow me to present you with a conundrum, I'd really like to know how you'd solve it:

    You're players get to a random encounter. You roll the dice and the players must fight a monster that they've fought before. They've wiped floor with the monster earlier in the session. Everyone around the table groans, and you know the encounter would be a waste of time. Do you play out the encounter, do you narrate encounter simply telling the players that they slay the monster, or do you use "DM fiat" to introduce a new aspect to make the encounter more interesting? Or is there a fourth way that I'm missing?

  14. Depends. Usually I cross a monster off a random encounter list once its been used, especially if it's the kind of monster you wouldn't expect to find a lot of in one area.

    But I'm interested in two assumptions underlying your post: a) that players "must fight" a monster they've fought before, and b) that I know the encounter would be a waste of time.

    If my players encounter a monster they can easily defeat and they think all they can do is fight it and kill it, I'd be pretty disappointed in them.

    And if I as the DM can't find a way to make an "easy" encounter interesting that isn't about fiat but perfectly rational (e.g., the monster surrenders or tries to parley) I'd be disappointed in myself as a DM.

    There is a fourth way, too. You can use random encounters and player action as inspiration. Players assume things about random encounters, if they've got a head on their shoulders. Let's say they meet a manticore one day, and easily kill it. The next day, they encounter another manticore. Probably, they'll begin to assume things: this is the first manticore's mate, for example. Or you, as the DM, can pick the idea up and run with it: why are there two manticores in this region? Where did they come from?

  15. Yes, disappointed, that's a good description. When I DM the players usual first assumption in an encounter with a monster is run it through with a sword. My DMs have also expected us to do the same.

    I guess fiat was the wrong word. I meant it as the introduction of something perfectly rational, but not on the any of the tables.

    Thank you for answering my question. I really appreciate the chance to pick your brain.

  16. For what it's worth, I exercise my scheming mind through the NPCs with scheming minds, but I try not to play the part of an intentional God, either setting things up beforehand or randomizing them. I also roll a die when I think "This would be a good time for a really amazing coincidence to happen!" and it happens on a 6.

  17. @Roger: Do you tell yourself it'll happen on a 6 before or after you see the result?

  18. @Nate: Before. If awesome stuff always happens it's not as awesome.