Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I Want to Believe

If you're a fan of Dungeons & Dragons and you aren't following Zee Bashew's YouTube Channel, your are cheating yourself out of a very fun experience. 

Zee produces a variety of short, animated episodes that discuss various aspects of D&D, such as how to spice up monsters, thoughtful analysis of spells, and alternate rule mechanics that even I - someone who has little interest in or affection for Dungeons & Dragons - find creative and interesting. The art and animation add to my enjoyment of his videos considerably, as his style is at once humorous, raw, and charming. 

In a recent post for his Animated Spellbook series, while in a discussion with Jim Davis from the channel 'Web DM', Zee brought up and even played a recording of a statement by Jerry Holkins, the writer of the comic strip Penny Arcade - Whew. That's a lot of name dropping! - that has shaken me to my core and explains so much of why I don't always see eye to eye with many of my gaming peers. 

Please check out the video to hear the statements and discussion in full (it's only a small portion of the larger discussion about Tenser's Floating Disc) as I am only going to paraphrase here. 

Basically, Holkins proposes and Bashew elaborates upon the idea that for many gamers it is the rule mechanics and their predictable method of determining outcomes that allows players and gamemasters to accept the fantastical world(s) they find themselves exploring

If I am understanding this correctly, the statements mean that gamers are able to suspend their disbelief and accept dragons, floating castles, and Elven Wizards because the foundation of the game, the expected, measurable, reliable, rules are there to give them a solid place on which to stand. 

WOW. A zillion times WOW. 

This, if true (and I feel it is for a great many people), explains so much that I previously had difficulty wrapping my head around. RPG players, such as those that enjoy D&D, arguably the worlds most popular game of its kind, prioritize a knowledge and understanding of the rules because that is what enables them to connect to the fictional world and its narrative. 

If this is why we see so many gamers focus on the rules so deeply I can kind of understand it. OK, not in a 'that makes sense to me' kind of way, but in a 'so that's why you do that'.

My personal viewpoint is diametrically opposed to this. 

In my mind it is the internally consistent depiction of the campaign universe that allows me to believe in the depiction of the campaign universe. Rules, of any kind, take me out of the game.

What I mean by that is that each time we address the rule mechanics in any way, it lessens the immersion I have in the game I'm running or playing. This is why I try so hard to never directly address the rules (rule questions, rule discussions or arguments) in great detail during a session. I greatly prefer waiting until the end of a session or even checking in between sessions, as the best time to clarify rules. 

Also confusing to me is the idea that comfort is found in the predictable nature of die result percentages. I have one friend who regularly brings up, during play, the chance of getting a success on whatever allotment of dice someone happens to be rolling. Based on the dialogue in Bashew's video, this could be because it makes the player feel like he has a firm grasp of the reality he/his character is in. 

To me this has the effect of being more than a little annoying and off-putting. Largely because of what I mentioned above, it taking me out of the universe, but also because I only go to the rules and dice rolls to randomly generate outcomes where the results aren't guaranteed.

The die mechanics of most if not all games use the rules to generate random numbers. True, they are not completely random; we are able to determine the possible results based on probability. However, we don't know the exact result before it happens. 

To focus on the math, on what the numbers might be based on likely, logical percentages of each possible result, means to me that you are not invested in the actual event. In a scene where I am rolling to see if I can catch a falling comrade before they fall off a cliff, I am not thinking, 'Well, based on these dice, I am likely to roll at least one success but unlikely to roll more than two'. Inside I am thinking, 'Holy crap! Hang on buddy I'm coming! I hope I catch him in time!'.

For me, the buy-in, the immersion into the fictional world, is made by committing my mind to that setting. It is strengthened by the GM having places and characters appear and reappear in a logical manner, act and speak in whatever way they have been established to, and in the fact that my character can explore this world and interact with it in a familiar way.

None of that has anything to do with rules. 

As I've stated before, to me the mechanics of an RPG are akin to the floor and beams of a house or other building. They are there, they give it a structure, and I am happy the floor is there so I don't fall into a hole in the ground. However, I don't think about the floor when I enter the building. I don't want to have to think about it or the internal structure of it. If I do, if I have to be aware of it, then I probably wouldn't want to walk into the building in the first place. The only time you should be concerned about a house's floor and beams is if they are flawed and could collapse. 

So all of those who think of the rules in order to believe in the milieu make me nervous. What is wrong with the universe that I need to be meta-aware of the structure behind and beneath it? Why doesn't the universe just run on its own? 

I like studying the science of our world but I am not thinking about the mechanics of weather when it rains. I am thinking of carrying an umbrella.

Barking Alien

Happy Birthday to my good buddy Dave Cotton! Have a great one Dave!


  1. I think I share your perspective. When I run games, I try to limit my players' rule mastery as much as possible. I run a homebrew game usually and I generally haven't provided any rules for the players besides character generation. I'm also big on trying to evoke wonder and awe in my players; the goal is not for them to understand the world but to get a sense of what it is to be a PC, discovering that their world is much weirder than they'd ever imagined.

    1. I am of a similar mindset, though as you probably picked up from my blog, a lot of my 'worlds' are known IP/franchises.

      I like running games in established pop culture/fandom settings such as Star Trek, Star Wars, Aliens, or even Ghostbusters because the buy in is easy. It's not hard for most people to become immersed in a setting they've grown up with for years. I also don't have to explain what a lot of basic elements are or what they look like.

      What I hope is that the new components I add in, such as planets, lifeforms, droids, or other original bits of my own design, intrigue the players and their PCs enough to investigate them and get to know them better. Eventually they may became as familiar as similar parts of a known setting's popular canon.

      It is in fact this very thing that drives me as both a player and a GM. The idea that it is the rules that give some players are comfortable place from which to launch their exploration into the unknown is alien to me in the extreme, but very fascinating.

  2. For me, I have to internalize rules so that they DON'T interfere with the running of the game...it's why I favor "rules light" or "moderate" games and where I have problems with any game requiring me to look up and/or calculate target numbers. B/X is just about right; AD&D is fine, so long as you have a cheat sheet or screen with the proper info.

  3. I don't know if I agree with the core thesis. I do not think it is a question of being able to accept the fantastical as much as navigate it in a way to their liking.

    And part of that, I strongly suspect, is in the power fantasy component to some people's RPG hobby. I don't mean fantasy as genre, but the emotional payoff of pretending to be powerful. I have players who are viscerally exited when their PC's accomplish some "heroic" feat like dealing a great deal of damage or overcoming some major obstacle. And understanding the rules mechanic will allow the player to find the path of least resistance, so to speak, towards achieving that goal.

    Now that is not why all people play RPG's. But it is a reason why many do. And it is a reason why many will absorb massive amounts of rules data, regardless of how fantastical the genre of the game, in order to get an "optimal" outcome.