What are we doing here?

This is a new post in the "behind the curtain" series. I know I promised I would talk about our Pathfinder game next (ai ai ai), but I'm going to delay that a bit while I take a slight detour. In here, I'll talk a bit about different approaches to the same setting and how they dovetail with the "ends" of roleplaying that I talked about before, as well as what this means for design.

This post was inspired by a thread on RPGnet about the upcoming The One Ring RPG and the inevitable arguments about what a "Tolkien game" should be like. This post is about what it would mean to design a Tolkien game.

But first!
A LOTR RPG: a short play in three Acts, by me

ACT I: a gaming group at the gaming table
GM: "So the wraith moves in and stabs you like-"
Frodo's player: "Whoa whoa whoa, wait, does it get a roll?"
GM: "No. So, it stabs you an-"
Frodo's player: "Do I get a roll?"
GM: "No. You're dying."
Aragorn's player: "Shit, I try to heal him. What do I roll?"
GM: "It's not helping."
Aragorn's player: "But I have +12 in Heal and I have these magic herbs..."
GM: "Your efforts are in vain."
The GM starts to gleefully thumb through his NPC folder. He can't wait to introduce the players to his awesome elf healer, Elrond, they will surely be impressed.

ACT II: Scene I: a different gaming group in a different time and place.
GM: "Finally, you reach the mountains, the goal of your quest still far ahead."
Gandalf's player: "Hmm, we'll try to go over the mountains. Guys? Yeah? Cool."
Players roll some dice: "Yeah, we're doing pretty well."
GM rolls some dice: "The snow gets deeper and deeper, it's starting to get difficult to progress."
Legolas' player: "I use my special elf ability, I can walk on snow, right? I scout ahead of the party, helping to find the easiest way." He rolls some dice.
Gimli's player: "With my burly dwarf physique, I push through the snows!" She rolls some dice. "Crap, that was a lousy roll."
GM rolls some dice: "Hey, Pipin you're starting to get really cold."
Scene II: sometime later in the evening.
GM: "The balrog advances, roaring! Oh man, good roll, 47!"
Legolas' player: "Shit, we can't beat that, no way."
Gandalf's player: "You guys run, I'll delay him."
Aragorn's player: "Dude, you can't win against that."
Gandalf's player: "I know, I'll roll up a new character later, but we need to finish this mission. Go!"
Gandalf & Balrog plummet into the darkness.
GM: "That was a cool use of your magic staff power, man, good game."
Gimli's player: "Yeah, good game. That was a hardcore dungeon, we were this close to not making it."

ACT III: yet another group, somewhere else
GM: "A troll crashes through the entrance, trampling all in front of him as he advances into the tomb."
Frodo's player: "Oh shit, I try to hide."
GM: "OK, roll."
Frodo's player: "Hrm, not enough."
GM: "Well you try to hide but there's nowhere to go, the troll sees you and he's like RRRAARGH!"
Frodo's player: "I run away!"
GM: "Roll."
Frodo's player: "Crap. Fumble."
GM: "Hm, ok, you fall down, the troll is there, brandishing his spear. Uh, he stabs you." The GM rolls some dice...25 damage. "What's your Health?"
Frodo's player: "17..."
A few moments of silence. The GM pokes his dice. "Oook, he stabs you, like, really hard, bamf against the wall, it's a devastating attack."
Everyone: "Oh fuck."
GM: "Yeah, but, um...your mithril shirt kinda blocks the spear's point, so you're not actually wounded, just knocked out for a moment there."


The above are, clearly, imaginary examples, but they're there to illustrate certain points. Even so, I'd say anyone who has played RPGs for any amount of time is familiar one way or another with the dynamics of what's going on in these fictional games. What I'm trying to say is, they're not without substance nor grounding in reality.

Below, I'll explain what I'm getting at with those examples. First, try to imagine there is no such book as J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, or at least that the gamers in these fictional examples aren't aware of it. We, as observers, are only using LOTR as a measuring stick, a reference point for the "such-as" narrative of these imaginary groups of roleplayers.

Furthermore, let's assume these groups are trying to "do LOTR" (re-enact the books through the roleplaying medium, if you will), without these books existing in their possible universe. The books are merely a fictional example: an ideal which is being striven for.

Act I.
In this example, the GM is attempting to create a grand narrative such as LOTR, by thoroughly planning for it. The problem is, he is not creating it, he is telling it. He already has created what he has, and the conclusions are foregone. Players have (the illusion of) freedom only inasmuch as their actions don't contradict the already-existing tapestry. They are no more active than a spectator in a cinema, with the pictures being rolled out in front of him in a pre-determined sequence (theories about the death of the author notwithstanding). The obvious advantage of this is that it will undoubtedly produce the correct experience, the correct fiction. The obvious drawback is that the players are reduced to little more than mere observers, whose only freedom is in the acceptance of outcomes. In short, pretty hardcore determinism on the scale of spinosism.

I paint a pretty negative picture here but I'd say this is certainly doable if everyone is in on it - meaning that it's not just in the GM's interest to display his story to the others, but that it's in everyone's interest to go through this story together. But in this case the whole game would actually be almost indiscernible from a theatrical play or script read-through, a playing-out, a literal re-enactment of the books. While this clearly satisfies the criteria for "doing LOTR" it in no way satisfies the criteria for a RPG.

Act II.
Contrary to the above, in this example, concern for the fiction is non-existent: it is merely an afterthought. There is, of course, freedom, expressed in the pursuit of (relatively) self-defined goals one might care about. This freedom is exercised through deliberate application of skill, resources, time, emotions etc. in the pursuit of one rather than another outcome. To put it differently: we want something to happen in the game and we invest towards it.

For this activity to be in any sense meaningful, there has to be some objective quality to our virtual world, independent from my investment. If my own fantasy/imagination were the sole arbiter of what happens in the virtual reality of the game, then this exercise would be no different than idle daydreaming and empty wish-fulfillment. This objective quality is here of course represented by the GM (here taking on the role of an impartial referee i.e. an advocate of objectivity) and the whimsy of the dice.

I consider the above to be inherently satisfying in many ways. The problem here is that if we are talking about "doing LOTR" (as in achieving an ideal match) this approach will undoubtedly fail. The matching of the two narratives is (and must be) pure coincidence. The dice fall a different way, a player makes a different choice and the narrative changes. In most occasions we can only talk about any kind of narrative only in retrospect, because during the game the fictional goings-on don't constitute a "dramatic" chain of events anyway. [the difference between the former and the later would roughly correspond to two different agendas]

The fact that I could easily "quote" a different session of that same fictional game where things would go absolutely off-track in respect to the "ideal narrative" shows that this is largely an exercise in luck, chaos and free will, as opposed to the rigid determinism of Act I. Hence, while this is certainly fun play, it cannot (yet) satisfy our needs for "doing Tolkien".

In this case we have a game that's being superficially played the same as the one in Act II, but there's something else going on below the surface. When an outcome contradicts the group's (often unspoken) expectations and preferences, it is negated (constructive denial), dice are fudged etc. If you'll allow me an unfounded claim, I believe that historically most games were played this way.

In the example I put the decision of constructive denial in the hands of the GM, but it should be stressed that he's supposed to be acting on behalf of the group. If the GM is fudging the dice purely to make the outcomes preferable to him, then we're back in Act I, with the GM using his absolute authority over the rules to negate anything that doesn't fit his vision. Except this time around he's likely tricking the players into believing the dice rolls matter (but they don't because they're at his mercy) - if this is done consistently, it's called illusionism (creating an illusion that the contributions of the players and the dice matter, while they don't because the GM is steering the game behind the screen). I think that's bad for many reasons, including the fact that it puts a lot of strain on the GM (but that's really not the worst of it).

What needs to be done? A thing we should probably do would be to make the aforementioned group's expectation and preferences spoken instead of unspoken. Second, we should make the GM the vehicle of those expectations instead of an "auteur" to whom the players and dice are more nuisances than collaborators. Resolving this social element is fundamentally easy: set the group's expectations and desires and the group then works to sustain and accomplish them. Bingo.

We are left with the dice. I use "dice" here in the broadest of senses in the context of roleplaying: the mechanics, the crunchy bits, the rules. The players are basically agreeing about what they want to do: they want to "do LOTR". Expectations have been set and will be observed. But then the dice roll funny and they don't agree with us: problem.

I'll talk about what we do then in the next post.