Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Does Story trump rules? Only in cartoons and comedy

Over at Raging Owlbear, There is a thread about how Story trumps Rules. He makes some good points, yet at the same time misses some (IMHO) critical issues. This is not just Owlbear, This has been seen across the board with so many threads on so many forums, and its really scary that anyone should/would box RPGs up, to exclude anyone that doesn't agree with this.

If you haven't or are not going to read it, or just to clarify what I think he's saying:

Story Trumps Rules:

Owlbear talks first about how rules provide a framework for us to tell a story so we can have fun. He then goes into why you should not break the rules, I agree . Then how you should learn the rules, so you can know when to break them.. and lastly, When to break the rules, mostly this was "is it fun? then break the rules"

Whose fun?

The bulk of the posts these days seems to be "oh, the situation is too hard, just let them have their fun, scale down the difficulty, pull out the problems, let the players have fun"

At whose expense?

Owlbear doesn't go down this path, he uses example that seem fair, realistic, but read between the lines, and you can see that none of these 'rules' needed to be broken.

How do I portray this to you, the reader, clearly.. How about this: for the older crowd: We all knew it was illegal to record shows from TV onto a VCR and watch it later, the law was to stop people from setting up micro-cinemas, and showing lots of people, denying the production company the money to pay for the movie/show. For the younger crowd, Its Illegal to record Youtube Videos, and watch them later, same reasons. Yet people do it, why? because the rule is broken, its a blanket rule to cover all situations. Laws can't cover all instances fairly, neither can roleplay game rules. and that's why the Gamesmaster exists, She/He can gauge the situation and determine, does that rule apply to this situation or not.

Scafford of Consistency

When Owlbear talks of not breaking the rules, he talks of Consistency: A scaffold of consistency allow players agency to use their own world knowledge to play the game without needing to know the rules off by heart. If in real life, they think they can jump from a pillar to a window frame, they should be able to, If in real life, they can 'target' the head, with their sword swing, they should be able to. The Rules, are supposed to be an abstraction of physics to game mechanics, to allow players to do what they want to do.. or at least try.

Newer GMs

Newer GMs don't know when to use rules and when they don't, Often they'll break immersion to look up a rule, players go off, get a drink, return and have lost some of the flow of the game. so GMs learn quickly or look up on the internet how to do it better and what do they hit first?, 'break the rules to make sure the fun doesn't stop' and like the VCR/Youtube example above, they'll do what everyone does. to get done what needs to be done, so the game doesn't come to a crashing halt.

One of the reasons I advocate that new GMs should first be DMs, is to get familiar with a stricter set of rules. Dungeonworlds: Dungeon Delvers Twelve, puts the DM in charge of a dungeon, players have a more structured environment, a Dungeon, to get familiar with the rules, but so does the DM. Over time, after learning how to run a dungeon a few hundred times, they might advance to GM to deal with the outside world, the travel between locations, the open world, the sandbox and all the aspects of roleplay that both players and GMs need to get used to.
As they go though, they'll get used to what rules work in certain situations, but not others. If a rule doesn't exist, (like 99% of the time) the GM has likely learnt enough on how to gauge the situation, use a rule that matches best, and if no rule exists, make a ruling on what to do. No rule has been broken, players can maintain consistency, keep their agency and get on with the game, without thinking "Oh, the GM just fudged that, ok, so I don't need to think about what I can do, I should instead think about what is cool, fun, exciting and the GM will allow it, because 'fun!'.

Maybe they do that subconsciously, maybe the make a decision to do so, I know I fell into the trap, when my GM wanted my character to succeed, I felt no push-back to my antics, so I just kept pushing, not on purpose, just to know the limits. I quit the game when I should have died for the 3rd time and he just hand waved me through.. for plot.. sorry, I want to enjoy the challenge, and to understand the challenge, I need to know the bounds of the game.

What kind of fun? What kind of story?

Everyone has an opinion of what fun is, as they do what a story is. Romeo and Juliet is a classic tragedy, its an awesome story, its known around the world, yet I can't see a shred of fun in it. So why does fun trump story again? I think restricting all forms of roleplay to only 'fun' stories, is like limited TV to only cartoons and comedy. when so many other genres exist...

This is really another topic, but at the core of what we're talking about:

Limiting Roleplay to Plot and Story is, to my mind, akin to Railroading. Any kind of decision by the forces of nature (the GM) that pushes the plot in any direction, especially for Plot (story) will be viewed by the players as taking away their agency. So if Fun trumps Story.. doesn't that mean that guiding the game, to be more fun, is another form or railroading? What if the natural progression of the 'story' is to become a classic tragedy? If the GM obeys the fun rule, it forces a comedy, from what could have been an awesome tragedy, to something in the middle, and no-body wins.

Yes, Personally, I'm a Sandbox GM, I think we create stories in real life from moments of the mundane, I went to the shops, met a man, who sold me some beans for my cow and when I got home my mother scolded me.. Each of these events are fleshed out in roleplay, and more so in life, but when we tell them later, we only state the sentence that sums up all those events "met a man", did a GM somewhere make an encounter roll? sure, and he did so for the 20 people that met that man before me, but each one failed to swap the beans, and they went to different stories, not one of them is going to include the "met a man with some beans" in their story, unless its somehow relevant. Not everyone has the beanstalk 'fun' but for some reason, this topic keeps popping up, telling new GMs, misguiding them from the path for this 'fun' version of roleplay.