Monday, 18 June 2012

[Blog Rant] My Issues With Traditional RPGs

So for the people that know me, I am a big fan of new aged indie RPG games. This isn’t because I am just out to support the smaller RPG industries or that I want to be difficult, it is because I believe they are better. That’s right, I said better! ‘How could I say such a thing?’ you might be wondering. Well I suppose that depends upon what you enjoy doing when you sit around the table and roll dice.

D&D is a wonderful RPG engine that allows a player to do a lot of things in the game but when you break it down what is it you can and cannot do? Some people would say that the rules cover everything. I disagree! In fact I think it misses a lot of key elements that games seem to dismiss as unimportant or something that can be resolved without the rules.

Say Yes or Roll the Dice

Believe it or not this is in D&D. When you take a 20 the GM has stated, this challenge wasn't important enough to waste time on now let's move along. Saying yes or roll is a great tool in any game to keep game flow and avoid anti-protagonistic blocks. Saying no to a player is like calling a player a moron. It isn't taken lightly in the players' minds and nor should it. If there is something blocking the players way on getting out, tell them why. The reason is explained in the Metagame section.

The only time players should roll the dice is when it matter for the players. When if they fail something they didn't want happen, will happen. The result of a failed lock pick is, "the lock doesn't open." Is not productive. It means two things, they need to find another way and the roll of the dice had no real consequences. This can be resolved by using a game element called Intent and Task.

Traditional games tend to make you roll the dice too many times which decreases the value of the roll. If you roll the dice 25 times in one game and only 5 in a different game, then those 5 seem to be worth a lot more. Mostly because those 5 probably had more Stakes involved which carried the story further than the 25.

Intent, Stakes, Task and Story

With the newer systems there is a motion toward intent and stakes. These are in the game to avoid confusion between what the GM wants and Players want. If you come to the door that is locked you think in your head, ‘ok, there are guards around the corner, I need to pick this lock before they get here.” Then say to the GM “I want to pick the lock.” You roll the dice and pass but the GM has those guards come around the corner and hear you. “But I wanted to do that before the guards came.” GM might think it is too late but in reality he just didn’t understand the player’s intent.

In this example the Task was clear. He wanted to unlock the door, but his intent wasn’t. With the added rule of “state your intent” The GM now has a clear idea of what to expect the end result to be and know what the players wants to happen. The players knows if he fails those guards WILL hear him, they WILL come around the corner and passing, they will not.

In most traditional games you roll task before stating any intent. This is because it is made so that the GM gets to use any encounter he had setup before the game. If the player’s intent is to sneak into the king’s bedroom and kill him and the GM needs that NPC to advance his plot, then you can be sure that the GM will stop you. Intent and stakes is very player friendly and allows the players to tell the GM, 'this is what I want to happen.' Is that a bad thing? What happens if he does kill the king? Will the world suddenly end? Of course not! It only adds a new plot. Set the difficulty, let the player try. If he wins let him have his intent, the real challenge is what happens after.

In short Intent and Stakes should always be in an RPG game no matter the system. Its makes the GM squirm in his chair and gives that ‘almighty’ figure something to think about, and makes for some interesting story twists. Players should demand power and the GM should compromise. If the intent is totally unreasonable in the eyes of game, then there should always be a player to GM/player to player compromise.

Antagonistic Game Master

Ever play a game where the GM is laughing all evil and say, “oh shit, he has something really evil planned.” Or “don’t tell me he crit me!” Of course you have. The GM is a big bastard and it will take all of the players to band together to fight off his minions and unlimited spawns of NPC’s. This is a very common issue. In traditional RPG this was also the norm. The GM set the encounters, the world and even the adventure hooks. Think about it for a moment, if the GM is truly the enemy, even with the power of 4 or 5 players, is this a true fight at all? The answer is, no.

A big issue with this mind set of game play is that the GM is always out to get you. Out to kill the characters and it forms a few different social issues. How does on get around this problem? First off remove the GM screen. If the players have to play with their rolls out in front of you then hiding the dice behind a screen only makes distrust about the GM.

This distrust will lead the players to get upset if something happens that completely unbalances the game or one might call out falsehoods of the rolls. “He hit me 5 times in a row and I have 21 AC! That’s not fair, those hobgoblins only have an attack of +4!” So when you hide you rolls, or roll without the players knowing why it leads to players doing the only thing, ONLY thing they can do, refer to the rules book. And why not, it is a game after all.

So where does this go from here? Two places, it bogs the game down or the other option is to say, “I am the GM, what I say goes.” Both of these things leave a rotten taste in player’s mouths. Either it would be for the players not involved in the argument to play angry birds on their cell phones to wait for it to be over or the inner turmoil of the feeling of GM ‘Metagaming’.

How does one resolve this? Easily, by not hiding dice, not keeping secrets, saying yes when the roll wouldn't really matter. This will build trust with your players. They will feel like what you are doing is justified because it works with the story. The intensity and inner gut drama doesn’t come from not knowing why the GM is randomly rolling behind the screen but knowing there is a blood hungry vampire tracking your trail. The time between the dice in hand to when it hits the board is always a moment of heightened intense emotion knowing the story might change right now.

Does this promote antagonistic game mastering? Maybe a little, he is still making the badies but in the same sense he is also your friends, your family and people you hold dear. Sure their lives might be at stake in the end but you will respect the game and the game master much more when the vale is removed and the secrets are let out.

Metagaming, Then and Now

“You are so metagaming, Your character wouldn’t know about that or do that.”

This is another common thing at the table, but what is the real issue here? Is it because someone was told something and now are using it out of character and are now using it in the game and that is bad? Perhaps the player is just being a plain douche bag.

In D&D, the GM has a set plot and even a map about where things are and how the players get from point A to point B. In this RPG setting, of course metagaming could be bad. They know where the magic items are they know where to go to escape the monsters. That can be a bad thing. But a game that is designed around the players, the story that is driven by them and their actions Metagaming has to be there to push the game along. This opens the players to a new roles in the game, a type of assistant GM'ing.

In all Honesty, RPG games cannot exist without metagaming. When you plan things, when you say things back and forth to each other without doing it in character it is a type of metagaming. Using out of character summaries to save time and move on. This is normally acceptable. Mostly because, who wants to repeat a 10 minute conversation everyone already heard. the only time someone gets upset with metagaming is when they use it to gain advantage over someone else. When you call that person a douche bag to which he replies, "I am only playing my character." bull-crap.

Metagaming was an issue during RPGA, the convention centers where people played competitively against each other to win prizes. When people knew the adventure and go search areas where the secret doors were to get the best items. Yeah, that is pretty bad but it is stopped most of the time by GM’s responses.  “You find nothing” or “You cannot do that.”

How can you resolve that? Well change the dungeon, change the enemies, change the setting, the environment.. etc.. Might sound like a lot of work but it really isn’t. When you player driven game you do not run into these issues mainly because Metagaming is built into the system and is encourages to be used. You players get to narrate their actions, tell the GM what happens when they win their roll. Of course some extreme cases one might need to compromise, but it is all for the story!

An example of metagaming build into the game is the belief system from Burning Wheel. You tell the players and GM what your characters goals are but they have to be of interest for the player. The book reads out ‘Pick a belief that you want your character would be driven to do and how he feels about it. This should be something the players want to achieve in the game.’ So basically, this is saying to the GM this is what I want as a player. If the player’s belief is ‘I am the rightful ruler and must prove that I am the king’ then the GM cannot deny him that option, ever. If he does he would be going against the role. If the players wants something to be strange about his parents or they are missing, then that is part of the story as well even though the character probably wouldn't want that.

In the new style games you are suppose to plan out what you want to do with your characters. You openly as a player, act upon knowledge you character wouldn't know to find a way around that to make it work and it's ok. This is because we are all telling the story instead of side tracking the GM's master plan, which is bad in D&D but not in games where the story is actually matters the most. 

When GM’s make a dungeon he has to shoehorn the players into it with player hooks. Most of the time there is one player who really doesn’t fit the story but has to go along with it else he cannot play. The newer systems, with the help of all the other players, creates a entwining stories that the players want and those this can make for some conflicting goals. It makes an ever better passionate story with characters you get attached too.

Social Conflict

Have you sat at the table and have two people who just will not agree any anything? How about a loud mouth player who’s the leader of the party even though his charisma is only 6. How is it fair that the character will a high social skill cannot get what he wants because he is shy as a player. It happens so often that one player leads the way and the others follow. Do they all have the same agenda? or is it just issues with the system?

I think if there is a problem between players or players and GM as a social element there should be dice involved.

One of the biggest returns I get when I say this is, 'Social should always be roleplayed out between players, the dice do not need to be involved." I have two issues with that statement.

First off, there is only one way a player will back down in a social disagreement without dice and that is player manipulation. If the bard with 20 charisma who has a shy player verses a barbarian with 6 charisma and a more aggressive player, normally the barbarian will always get his way. This is a major flaw when there is no dice involved. How can a bard defend himself for a social attack when the rules are not there to support it? This can be made easy by having a verses system that uses a narrative style of conversation to come to a conclusion or compromise. Without it you have one option, engage combat and fight the guy for it.

Much like the very well defined combat system, in D&D there should be one as equal to conversations otherwise it is unfair to the player just because he cannot be as flamboyant as his character. This is roleplaying after all, pretending to be someone you are not. If I was a master swordsman in real life does that mean I should always win in a combat against something who has no idea about how to properly swing a sword in real life? That sounds silly, right ? So why does this have to be the case with the spoken word.

People are scared of having their character undergo 'mind control' because of dice. "You cannot tell me  what my character thinks." And he is right. You cannot tell him he thinks a curtain way but you can say what everyone else around you thinks. The player who won can narrate his intent and say "The crowd now thinks you are an idiot and that I am right!"

In an example 2 players have important roles, Player 1 is a high priest and player 2 is a military adviser to the king. The military adviser tells the King he must go to war, it is the only way to save the kingdom. The priest says, no you cannot too many people will die and we will find another way. In D&D there is no way to say who the King believes without the two brawling it out or becoming manipulated by the one though sweet talking the GM or next to bulling the other player with no reflection upon stats.

The newer systems all have a way to make it work. A real social element system that will convince the King who is right. If you have no idea what I am talking about then check out this link:

The duel of wits clearly states that though the King is convinced your character might not be. So feel free to plot, retain the feelings and even bring the debate up again when new evidence is brought forth. This just means you can move on with the story. There has been too many stalemates where players refuse to agree or even compromise. I think of this as a deadlock. It doesn't help anyone. Nor the players or the story. It needs to resolve in a way that makes sense in the game and move on. The players should always feel like winning a debate holds some meaning to them. If they lose a duel of wits, they will lose something or be forced to compromise.

If you have a problem with rolling a dice to resolve a social conflict and play D&D, then you should never need to roll diplomacy. If there is a mechanic for player verse GM there should be one for the player verses player as well.


In the end I think the new style of roleplaying has helped drive the players into more compelling storylines, rememberable characters due to emotional attachments and resolve. It isn't a just another 9th level fighter you rolled up, those hours you put into your background wasn't all a waste.. etc.. In player driven games, the players have the reigns and the GM responds to their discussions. How can this not be fun? To play a way that you helped create with goals you actually care about? The GM doesn't have to stress over character adventure hooks because the players did that for themselves. The world just flows more easier.

I don't hate rules, I just think D&D just have too many rules on combat and not enough on social resolve or story making. Games like Mouse Guard, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard are all games that will only work if the players involve themselves in their character's story. Sure this might add restrictions upon the players but this also places them near par with the GM's level. Now that both sides have rules to follow perhaps the two entities can finally get along.


  1. Great read, and I have to agree with everything that you've said. However, traditional RPG's can and do work well if you have a good GM who makes campaigns player driven. A good GM needs to incorporate character backgrounds and use those as the foundation for the campaign. That is all

  2. True enough. I believe that the D&D lacks the element to be player driven. A good GM would have to make maps on the fly during game play if that is his intent to make. Saying that there is a homebrew D&D variant for GM's called "Dungeon Flowchart". This is where you make a flowchart of what you want in the dungeon and draw it as you go. Much like que cards for a speech.

    I still think with all of this there are missing elements in the game. The award for XP in D&D is solely at the discretion of the GM. There is no meter or questions to ask if there should be more or less awarded. A character has no incentive to Roleplay out side of character survival and even then it doesn't take long to "roll up a new one" and just fit it in.

    A good GM will also see a whole bunch of rules that he doesn't like or have to change them so that it fits. This just takes up time for the GM which is better spent with not having to chop up a system because it doesn't fit or force in some homebrew just to all more RPGness.

    An example is when i printed off the traits list and introduced a reputation stat. The reputation stat was from modern D20, so i suppose if we say all d20's are the same system then that was already there but the traits was not. Not talking about the trait system that have in the advance books because honestly that list is just another way to get power gamers a chance to tweak numbers. The traits i brought in were homebrew that had carried RP elements to the character.

    To tell you the truth, even after I added all of these things in and attempted to treak the D&D system to a story oriented one I came across another problem and that was player involvement. Such their character's we involved and they did what they had too even as i fudge a rule for saving throw to reflect the horror of the blood splattered room but the effect wasn't the same.

    It felt like the players felt like the big issue was the -1 to attack roll then the oh my god so many dead bodies. I did the type same thing in Mouse Guard and the result was different. Instead of them just looking about seeing all the mice brothers gutted out about the weasel mine the players felt angry. This anger turned into the player character's forward assault against the group. You could feel the difference at the table. The tension of the situation was there in one game but wasn't in the other.

  3. The DM was also running a game he liked and in the other case a game he didn't like. It's like having to do a presentation on something you loathe versus something you love.

  4. You have a point. If you like combat heavy strategy games then I suppose one wouldn't need to change the rules. I will say when I dived into a Pathfinder campaign a little while ago I didn't go in with my arms dragged. I might have said that i rather another system but it didn't stop me from doing what I would normally do. However, I was trying to play the game the way the D&D engine was never tended which is why there was all the homebrew tossed into it.

    I am not saying D&D cannot be fun. Of course it is entertaining. This is why 80% of RPG gamers play it. 60% or more of those players go to sessions and think D&D is definition of what roleplaying is. That I have to disagree with. Most of those people will not venture outside of the box or only into other main stream games that are very similar to it.

    There has to be people that go to the D&D games who just don't feel fulfilled with their RPG experience. When it comes down to it, D&D is a hack and slash game. If you are not killing monsters what else can you do ? Sure you can talk with the party, try and come up with some type of narrative but the rules lack that in game social aspect.

    Then again some people will hate the RP's I love. So i understand what I think is better might not be better for others. What I am trying to say is for those that will not break from the core systems need to know there are other options. If the table seems to be stale or even if there are unsatisfied players, there are other systems out there. System Does Matter.