Posts Tagged ‘role playing’

So I’ve been scouting around the Internet for dice stats since LS posted his “race-weighted attributes” post because work blocks me from but lets me wander around all sorts of message forums (and with two sick daughters at home, work is the most likely time I can do this sort of research). I found a link to an old (circa ’93) newsgroup post that lists probabilities and expected values for 3d6-drop-zero to 9d6-drop-six (they’re arranged by “drop lowest” but you can reverse the tables to get “drop highest”). That’s useful information for a number-crunching nerd likle me.

But in a couple places in the thread I found a meme that seems all-too-common in certain parts of the hobby, and I wanted to address that.  Specifically, it’s the notion that 3d6-roll-in-order or other systems that approach it are better because you’ll get low scores, and low scores “provide much color to a good ROLE-playing experience.” I submit to the reader that this is crap.

I’m not saying that all characters should have 12+ in every stat to be “worth” playing. I’m not saying that playing a character with some (or many) low stats can’t be fun. I’m not saying that stretching your horizons and playing out of type isn’t a good thing. But I am saying that the notion that playing a statistically-average or mathematically-likely character, especially one that is wholly or substantially generated randomly, is a better roleplaying experience is disingenuous at best.

At it’s core, role-playing has nothing to do with statistics. Role-playing is about taking on a persona and acting through scenarios, making decisions as though you were your character. We make a game out of it and attach mechanics so that you can understand and predict the likely outcomes of your decisions in a consistant way, but those are structures we build up around the core of role-playing.

The statistics are simply a way of describing our persona in a common language so that players and GM all understand the character and how he interacts with the environment. To say that a mathematically-likely character is better than any less-mathematically-likely character, we are first asserting that one persona is better than another for role-playing, and are then further asserting that it is better because of the randomness of it’s generation. Or, perhapse, it is better because it “forces” the player to “deal with” a flawed character. But why is that better, for role-playing? Can you not have just as-satisfying an experience role-playing as Superman as you can role-playing as Jimmy Olson?

Even if your character is stronger, faster, smarter, and better-looking thabn everyone else, there can still be interesting motivations, internal struggles, and decisions to be made, and that is what makes for good role-playing. Statistics say that my character is weak or clumbsy or stupid, and that’s one class of flaws, but it doesn’t say if he’s an alcoholic, a misogynist, bound by his word, or an extreme pacifist.  That’s another class of flaws. You can have an interesting, flawed character who’s stats are all 15+.

And here’s the crux of it: you can have an interesting time with a character who’s statistically perfect, but that wouldn’t be a terribly interesting character to me. I wouldn’t choose to play that character, much the same I wouldn’t choose to play a character who was randomly handicapped. I might choose to play a character with low INT or WIS or DEX, but the love-affair that gamers have with random generation has rarely made much sense to me. I have a couple theories:

It’s a game, and since it’s a game the notion of “fairness” comes in to play.  People want to know that they’re on even footing with their opponents, that no one is starting out with undue favor. But the problem here is two-fold – firstly your fellow players are not your ‘opponents’ (nor is your DM, if you’re “doing it right”), and secondly, how is random generation “fair,” exactly? It’s like the card game “We Didn’t Playtest This At All” where the rules not that star cards are simply better than other cards, and for game balance every player has an equal chance of drawing a star card. Rolling 3d6 is only “fair” in the sense that everyone has an even chance of rolling a superstar (or a dead-weight).

I suspect that another factor is that “that’s the way it was done” in the old days, and that’s the way it continued to be done out of tradition (and probably the above notion of fairness), and so people who played back then (or have adopted that mentality) had to live with bad rolls.  And occationally, having to live with sub-optimal results causes some people to rationalize and justify and find some reason to believe trhat sub-optimal is better, or at least not so bad. And from what I can tell, in old school rules attributes meant a lot less than the do in more-modern games. In Swords and Wizardry (ostensibly based off the 1974 rules), most stats are either +1, +0, or -1, so the swing between a “good” score and a “bad” score was minor. In 3.X, though, the swing is from +6 to -6 which is +/- 30% (a swing of 60%) on a d20! That is significant. Modern stats try to cover a larger range of variation, from vegitative 3s and retarted 6s to genius 14s and Ozimandian 18s. I suspect that all of old D&D’s 3-18 range covers just 7-14 in modern stats, because old D&D had a narrower focus.

My point is this: yeah, random-rolling characters makes things quick and ‘fair’ and can give you the ‘opportunity’ to play a character you might not have chosen for yourself. That’s fine and good and if it’s what you like, have at! But it isn’t going to fit everyone’s tastes, and please don’t act like it’s objectively better in any way. The core of role-playing doesn’t care about stats, except in that it’s how we describe our personas to the game. Hand-picking stats is just as valid, so long as everyone in the game agrees on what an accepitble character looks like.

(Except When It Does)

So a little bit ago I listed a few topics I was planning on addressing when life gave me a break.  Instead of giving me a break I got a nasty head cold which has killed my productivity.  I’ve taken that as a sign from The Universe that “this ain’t going to get easy anytime soon,” so I’ll just have to press on.

At the end of that list (which wasn’t written in any particular order) was a statement about how more and more I’m of the opinion that, in role-playing, the system doesn’t matter.  I waffled on that a little bit — after all, if system doesn’t matter then why do we have D&D and GURPS and Savage Worlds and World of Darkness and RIFTS and ad nausiem — but I think I’ve come back around and decided that System Doesn’t Matter (Except When It Does).  Let me see if I can explain myself in a meaningful way. (more…)

On Cheating

Posted: 20 August 2012 in The Hobby
Tags: ,

There are a few people around who have recently made posts about cheating in RPGs — so I’m going to reference a post from three years ago on the same subject.  I think the old post addresses the topic better, and the same ideas can be applied to the newer posts.

Anyways, the post attempts to break down who cheats, how they cheat, and why they cheat.  To save you from reading a years-dead post and comment thread, here’s the gist of it:

  • GMs cheat because it saves players from failure, or makes things more cinematic, or lets the story continue as it ought. This is both right and just, and GMs should feel free to do just so. Players can’t do anything about it and just have to trust that the GM is making the game better.
  • Players sometimes ‘cheat’ because they make honest mistakes, or they’re bad at math.  These are harmless and probably don’t mean much in the long run.
  • Bad players sometimes intentionally cheat, lying about die rolls, re-using expended powers, and intentionally applying bad math. If caught, they probably won’t do it again.
  • Very bad players go so far as to doctor their dice or have variant ‘builds’ of their character available so they can address niche situations better. These guys cheat maliciously and will probably keep cheating until there’s an uncomfortable confrontation.
  • The best solution to cheating is to not directly punish the offender, but passively punish them by rewarding everyone else.

I have a number of problems with this post.

GMs Cheat and That’s OK

I’m going to go ahead and say that it is in fact not OK for the GM to cheat.

Think of it this way: you’re at a football game, and the visitor team is up by 6 points.  The home team gets the ball and carries it down the field, eventually getting a touchdown.  The refs throw a flag and call the ball dead at the 2 yard line, not because the ball was dead, but because it makes for a more exciting game if that happened.  Then the team plays again and gets a touchdown; they go for the kick but it hits the upright and bounces away.  Now the refs call it and say that hitting the upright was ‘good enough’ for the extra point and the home team wins by 1 point.  What an exciting victory!

Except that it’s not; it’s not exciting and it’s not a victory, because it didn’t really happen.  Sure it’s a cool story, but it’s just a story that the refs are telling and it has nothing to do with the team’s actual effort or performance.  And it’s not really a victory because the team didn’t really overcome any obstacles (the refs just declared that they’d done so) and it had nothing to do with their play anyways: the refs knew what they wanted the outcome to be and orchestrated things so that’s how it happened.  In a way, the teams were irrelevant.

This is what it’s like when a DM cheats.  He can do it easier than any other player in the game because his role is to portray the entire world, and he can justify it by saying “this makes a better story” or “this makes it more fun.”  But the cheating player can make the same justifications for why his cheats are OK, too, and now we’re back in 3rd grade yelling “bang, I shot you!” and “no, you missed!”  Lawlessness and chaos.

A GM, like a referee, should be impartial to either the success of or methods used by the payers to engage the situations he’s presented them with.  If he’s not, if he’s always there to pull their fat from the proverbial fire, eventually they’re going to recognize that what they actually do is irrelevant — the story will progress essentially the way the GM decides it will.  And depending on how egregious the GM is about cheating in the name of “fun,” the player’s whole character might well be irrelevant — he’ll catch the ledge or not, hit the target or not, persuade the duke or not based on what the GM has decided, and nothing more. In large doses this is absurd, but it’s frustrating even in small doses.

Players Cheat and Should Be Punished In-Game

Sometimes players cheat.  I would hope that it’s always accidental but sometimes it’s not and we need to know how to deal with that.  Here’s my solution: don’t play with cheaters.

You don’t always know up-front that they’re a cheater and you should probably give them the benefit of the doubt — take them aside after the game and confront them directly about their cheating and how it’s unacceptable.  If that fixes things, great; it never needs to be brought up again.  If it doesn’t fix things, politely ask them to leave; and by “politely ask them to leave” I mean “tell them in clear terms that they are no longer welcome to play in your game.”  Done.

What you shouldn’t do is punish them in-game for cheating.  That’s passive-aggressive and kind of a dick move, especially if you haven’t explained to them what you’re doing and why.  It might ‘fix’ the problem, but it’s childish and demonstrates that you aren’t an unbiased GM.  If you punish cheaters in-game, now they’re going to wonder if you punish them in-game for other out-of-game reasons, like favoring the wrong sports team, having excessive body odor, or eating the last piece of pizza.  Even if none of that’s true you’ve eroded their trust in you, and that’s not going to be good for the game in the long run.

Why Are We Cheating Anyways?

I have no idea why cheating is even a factor.  If you’re sitting around a table with your friends pretending to be dwarves and wizards, what exactly are you gaining by cheating?

Sarah Darkmagic has an interesting post up about why random rolling for gender is a good thing for the hobby.  She makes some interesting points which (I hope I don’t butcher this) basically boil down to: most gamers are men, most gamers aren’t into gender-bending, random-rolling for gender would produce more female characters and force us, as a community, to consider female-oriented stories as much as male-oriented stories.

She’s commenting on a tweet from @PelgranePress that said “RPG idea: define your character. Last thing – roll for character’s gender.”  For my part, I think Pelgrade’s idea is kind of great, but Sarah’s strikes me as more than a little abrasive.  Let me explain:

Pelgrade’s idea is essentially to build an entire character and then determine randomly whether your character is male or female.  I think that this is a pretty great idea because I regularly hear gamers saying, “I don’t know how to play a female character” (or, less commonly, the opposite).  And my thought is that, for the most part, if you’re trying to think of “what would a girl do in this situation” rather than “what would a person do in this situation,” you’re already coming at it from the wrong angle.  Yes, there are practical considerations to take in terms of the upbringing and personality that men and women might have in the setting of your game.  And it’s probably that women are going to feel threatened in situations where a man might not, and so on.  But in general, I think that once the personality and upbringing of your character is determined, whether they’re male of female has a rather small impact in playing them.  Pelgrade’s idea, from my perspective, ensures that you build your character as a full person rather than focusing on one (obvious) piece of the whole.

Sarah’s point though strikes me as abrasive for (I imagine) the exact reason that she thinks it’s a good idea: it would force people to play as women.  This bothers me for the same reason I don’t want a random roll to determine my character’s race, class, or attributes: maybe I don’t want to play a dunce wizard.  Maybe I don’t want to play a brawny dwarf.  And maybe I don’t want to play as a woman.  Not because there’s anything wrong with any of those, and it doesn’t mean I’ll never play one, but simply because I want to choose the I want to portray.  I don’t want to pick a role out of a hat.  One of Sarah’s basic premises is that most gamers are men and most aren’t comfortable with gender-bending — so the solution is to force them to gender-bend?  That sounds like a wonderful way to turn off a large segment of the community.

I have no problem with women gamers, and I have no problem with female characters.  I regularly gender-bend, and some of my favorite characters etc., etc.  But it’s because I chose to play a female character because there was something compelling that I latched on to.  It may be one thing to encourage game designers and module authors to consider female-oriented stories when they put pen to paper, but forcing players into roles they don’t want or aren’t comfortable with sounds like a bad idea.  Sarah’s comments are a great thing for The Industry to take note of and improve the overall availability of and support for female-oriented play, but it shouldn’t be forced on any given gaming group.

There are a bunch of reasons to play RPGs, and these reasons will color both how we approach the game and what we find satisfying.  I think it’s important to put down my own preferences, since that will color the problems I encounter and the solutions I choose to fix those problems.

I grew up on RPGs being all about story; I had a plot I wanted to run my players through, even if that plot was just “the players are heroes and the fight the bad guys and right wrongs.” I got burned out of that pretty quickly because it was a constant struggle for me to get the player’s do to “the right thing” and move the plot along. I recently discovered the OCR and read the Quick Primer to Old School Gaming, and though I agree with a number of the main points (Game Balance, Ming Vase, Moose Head) I eventually decided that I’m not “old school.”  This is mostly because I don’t agree with the idea that the focus should be on Player Skill rather than Character Ability; that’s a perfectly valid way to play, but it’s not what interests me.  It strikes me that the emphasis there is on Role-Playing Game, and I’m more interested is a Role-Playing Game.  For me, the character (and, by extension, the world he inhabits) is more important.

Saying that I want the emphasis to be on role-playing, though, brings a lot of baggage with it.  I don’t mean that I want to avoid rolling dice, that Combat is my enemy, that acting ability is key, or any thing else that’s attached to “role-players.” What’s important to me is that they player assumes an identity, is presented a situation, makes a decision based on who his character is, and experiences the consequences of his actions (leading to a new situation and further decisions).  This is the heart of role-playing, and all the other bits (rules, dice, acting, etc) facilitate that activity.

With that basic core established, there are lots of ways to do it.  You can have quality role-playing with pretty much any system, or no system at all.  You can use dice, cards, numerical stats, descriptive words — most of us have engaged in this sort of activity since we were kids laying Cops and Robbers (or whatever variation was popular with your group; my childhood was spent playing TMNT on the monkey bars).

Personally, I’m a crunchy sort of guy; I want a system that is consistent and “realistic enough” that I feel like it can model situations close to what I would expect in the real world.  My reasons for this are because I believe the rules should facilitate role-playing (making a decision based on your character), and so I want rules that help express the situation (and actions and consequences) in an understandable way. When the rules model the world, and that model resembles the reality we actually live in, it becomes easier to place ourselves in our character’s shoes.  When the rules are ‘realistic enough’ we can reason about our character’s actions the way we reason about our own actions, and when they’re consistent we can base our decisions on past experiences.

I do think there’s a place for DM Fiat and Rulings (rather than Rules), but I think they should be used sparingly, and only to fill in the gaps where the rules don’t accurately model reality.  If your target is a mortal, a dagger to the throat should kill him, regardless of what damage rolls and hit points say.  That’s a gap in the rules and should be handled appropriately.  The same can and should be said in other places where the rules present non-intuitive results.  But if Rules are the result of consistent Rulings (which I believe they are), there is value in developing new rules to address these gaps when we can (to the extent that it makes sense).

Those “rules to address gaps” is what this blog is directed toward.  Since I know 3.X and Pathfinder that’s where most of my effort is focused currently, but I’m interested in discussing other systems as well (especially as I broaden my horizons).

This started as a reply to Brian’s comment on my last post, but quickly ballooned into something too big for a comment thread.  Brian said he likes my notions on the 3×3 Alignment (thanks, so do I) but he feels like there really needs to be consequences for breaking alignment — “If you’re a lawful good paladin and you strike down an enemy out of anger instead of in the name of your deity, there should be repercussions.”

Generally I agree, but I need to do a lot of unpacking to get at what I mean. There are a lot of things going on with that deceptively simple question.  First, yes, there should be repercussions for acting out of alignment; but there should be repercussions for any meaningful action, so this doesn’t really tell us much.  What I think Brian means, though, is that D&D has traditionally had mechanical and class-based penalties for breaking out of alignment, and this has traditionally meant that a Paladin can not lie for fear of losing their powers and being reduced to less-than-a-Fighter — how would I deal with that actuality?

I think that there are a few things going on here.  There’s how how Alignment affects a class, Alignment affects a character, and how Alignment affects the world.  I’ll address them in reverse order.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter here: it gets long.


I like alignment systems.

I think the D&D Nine get a short shrift by most people, who’ve decided they don’t like a game that tells them what they can and can’t do.  (I think that’s a misunderstanding of the system.)  But there’s also the various Morality scales in White Wolf’s World of Darkness (Morality, Humanity, Clarity, etc); the Palladium Seven (two Good, two Selfish, and three Evil), though they strike me as much more prescriptive than D&D; and a variety of similar “this is how my character thinks and perceives the world” systems in other games.  I think they’re very useful tools for Role Playing and give a quick handle for internal and external conflicts.

One gripe I have with the D&D Nine is the choice of Good vs Evil as an axis.  It’s a reasonable choice to make, and like many things in D&D I’m pretty sure it developed organically over decades, but it seems to me that there’s a lot of baggage that comes with those terms.  After all, no one gets up in the morning and thinks “I’m going to be evil today” (with the possible exception of cosmic forces, I guess).  No one thinks of themselves as a bad person (even if they do bad things, it’s always justifiable, at least in their minds).  The catch, of course, is that the definition D&D gives these terms doesn’t line up with the baggage they come with — Good talks about putting the needs of others above your own needs, even to the point of risk to yourself; Evil talks about a willingness to hurt and enslave others if it is convenient or expedient, essentially putting your needs above anyone else’s.  It could be properly recast as “Altruistic vs Egoistic,” but that’s hardly as approachable as “Good vs Evil.” It’s also a lot less vague.

Yesterday, the Gassy Gnoll proposed that “Holy vs Unholy” should replace “Good vs Evil” and that it should be relative to the character, so what’s Holy for a follower of Pelor is very different from what’s Holy for a follower of Nerull.  Brendan commented that he liked the idea of Holy vs Unholy, but that it shouldn’t be relative, so Holy meant the same thing whether you followed Pelor or Nerull, it’s just Nerull’s followers oppose the Holy.  I don’t think that fixes the problems I have with Good vs Evil, and in fact it probably makes them worse, but it struck me that it could be an interesting addition to alignment, a Cubed Alignment instead of 3×3.

But what would that look like? What’s the difference between Lawful Good Holy and Lawful Good Unholy? Wait, scratch that.  Saying someone is Good Unholy or Evil Holy is going to quickly turn in to nonsense, so let’s start by replacing the current Good and Evil with Altruistic and Egoistic.  So what’s the difference between Lawful Altruistic Holy and Lawful Altruistic Unholy?  Can we even make sense of what this third axis could be?

Let’s look at the Axises we currently have, first.  In Law vs Chaos, Law represents order, honor, tradition, and authority; Chaos represents individualism, freedom, and impulse.  Neutral characters are neither particularly bound to honor or tradition, but also don’t chafe under it or feel a need to resist or rebel.  In Altruism vs Egoism, Altruism is about putting the needs of others before your own, even to the point of sacrifice; Egoism is about putting your needs above the needs of others, to the point of being callous or cruel.  Neutral characters try to be good neighbors, but generally are neither willing to sacrifice themselves nor victimize others.

So what about Holy vs Unholy? I’m honestly not really sure how we should cast the terms.  In some cases, Holy refers to association with or supporting the gods, and unholy would be anything aimed against them.  I don’t think that’s what we’re aiming for.  In other cases, Unholy is the same as wickedness, and Holy is some combination of Lawfulness and Altruism.  I don’t think that’s what we want either.  We could put it in terms of suffering, where Holy creatures strive to decrease suffering and Unholy creatures strive to increase it; or we could put it in vague terms like Good and Evil, or Light and Dark, where Unholy creatures strive for negative ends and Holy creatures strive for positive ends.  But the more I think of it, the less I feel it really adds anything.

Maybe I just need to give it more thought.  Anyone out there have ideas I might be missing?