Tuesday, August 28, 2012

No "No And," No "No But," Just "No?"

Roleplaying games are a deeper subject than many want to contemplate. They don't want anything to get in the way of their play, even if it's a cogent analysis of the game they're playing. I refer to this as the "I don't need no instructions to know how to rock!" school of Anti-Intellectualism.

And this is why you don't hear more about what should rightfully be the greatest, most bitterly contested philosophical disagreement in the realm: "Who controls the story?"

There's a wide gaping chasm, if you look close enough

There's scads of theory about games in general, and a goodly bit on roleplaying, whether paper-and-pencil or live action. I probably won't cover that here at all; I'd need to write a fershlugginer book to canvas that topic properly.

But within that large topic, there are two camps which I see as more or less diametrically opposed, and amazingly they aren't at each others' throats more often. The question, as I pointed out above, is "who controls the story?"

Let me be more specific by example: A group sits down to play. There's one person ostensibly running the scenario, while the rest are players who have characters to play within it. The GM sets up the situation. The players say what their characters are doing. Does the GM allow it?

There are a bunch of possible answers. "Yes" means the GM agrees with the player's assessment action and carries it through. "Yes, but..." means the GM more or less agrees with the player's assessment, but a complication arises. "Yes, and..." means the GM not only agrees, but sweetens the payoff for whatever reason. "No, but..." means the GM disagrees but softens the blow. "No, and..." means the GM not only disagrees but the action or statement has additional awful repercussions. And finally, "no" means the GM simply disagrees.

Sometimes the yes-or-no answer comes from the system itself; a skill test may return a simple "yes" or "no," or extraordinary success or failure mechanisms may make for success or failure beyond expectations—the "yes, and..." and "no, and..." results. (Example: In Nomine uses a dice mechanic called "d666" to determine results, Three 1s results in divine intervention. Three 6s... well, you can guess.)

Some systems allow for partial successes and failures, which cover the in-between "no, but..." and "yes, but..." results. (Example: The Edge of Midnight uses a dual test involving two separate dice; if only one die succeeds, the test is only a partial success.)

But given that the GM is often entitled to fudge results in his duty as story moderator, well, anything goes, really.

The expanding ripple from the pebble not dropped into the water

Again, the question, "Who controls the story?"

I've said many times that the GM cannot play as adversary to the players; the GM can bring too many resources to the fight, so a "fair" fight in that case would not just be an exception to the rule, it would be a frigging miracle.

That said, there are games written by people who believe the GM should never say "no" without somehow softening the blow, that any contribution to the story by the player should be valid. One common trope of this sort is "say yes or roll the dice."

And there are games written by people who believe that the GM should set up the situation and be rather strident in both its presentation and the players' interpretation of it, because if the players miss details, the adventure will run off the rails.

The "anti-no" crowd should argue that the adventure wouldn't fall off the rails if the rails weren't there in the first place, whereupon the "pro-no" crowd should sarcastically proclaim that that's why off-road vehicles never run into trees.

See where I'm going with this? There are two forces which ought to be in direct disagreement, but strangely they're not fighting tooth-and-nail. Why is that? It's frustratingly lame.

Admittedly, it could be because there's a time and a place for each, and no shortage of systems which satisfy each type, but that's just a guess.

Never Say "Never Say No" Again? Absolutely!

And before I go on, let me clarify: This whole bit about saying or not saying "no" to the players is not about the system itself—games are by nature collections of rules which need to be either adhered to or at least broken by consensus. If players can simply disregard any inconvenient rules, then the game devolves into either make-believe or "got you last."

This is about narrative control of the game, and who gets to decide where it's going. And if it's decided that someone has more than nominal control (and if any one person does, it had better be an impartial GM), that person had better be able to say "no."

Put me down for one order of "No."

Seriously. It may be a bit ...distasteful in its application, but its utility is beyond dispute.

The problem is that some story gamers (and their authors) focus entirely on the distaste of the word and ignore how useful it is to keep the story under control. There's that question again: Who controls the story?

If you think it's important that nobody control the story, try running GUMSHOE some time. That game is all about evidence, interpretation of clues, the control and release of information, and making sure that the players have everything they need to draw the right conclusions.

Imagine a game like that run as many story games seem to prefer. Voluntarily not creating a central explanation for all subsequent phenomena? Everyone tossing out clues? Accusations made willy-nilly? Madness! Chaos! A possible experiment in stochastic storytelling for a later date, but I still expect it to become a hot, sodden mess, with facts littering a crooked, meandering, nonsensical trail damp with the clammy, congealed sweat of anyone who tries to make sense of it all. And unless you're running Trail of Cthulhu, driving your players literally mad is generally not a good idea.

Absolutely, I can understand the appeal of the game with no central authority, for its ability to go to unexpected places. But there are other times where, if you end up in an unexpected place, it's because the train derailed.

If you're the one in charge, if you're the one with the vision, if you're the one tasked with introducing that vision to your players gradually and in a way that's at all satisfying, you have an obligation to bust out the N-word when people threaten to break the story you're trying to tell.

There are times when it's appropriate to say that certain things are a certain way.

Before you get the wrong impression of me, there are also times when it's not.

But then again, "maybe..."

"No" is powerful. It closes off possibilities and lets people know in no uncertain terms that things are a particular way. Within a given story, there will be things that must be set in stone for the story to make sense; the GM must have his way on those.

But there are other things too.

Before the game even began, the players introduced some major elements into the story, in the form of characters. They're the interface through which the players experience the story, after all. Those characters have their own stories, rife with drives, desires, triumphs, tragedies, and motivators. The characters' stories are still being told, and can—and should be able to—go to unexpected places. Even in a GUMSHOE game, which requires some deliberate adherence to plot and chain of evidence, the PCs' stories..

…could still derail things, come to think of it. Never mind the sort of "personal stake" story where something from a character's background comes back in an investigation scenario to haunt everybody—in any scenario, they could pursue their own stories to the exclusion of the major beats going on around them.

But you see where we're getting back to the "no" part again, don't you?

Aaaaaaand we're back to "No" again. With a big red pencil.

A lot of times I stress the GM as storyteller. He's the guy that describes the various bits of the game-world to the players as their characters perceive them, so they can interact with them.

If everyone at the table is telling snippets of their own story, the GM has to take on an additional role: Editor. It's his job to pick and choose which bits of story get advanced in an adventure or campaign, to make sure that everyone gets a turn in the spotlight, and to ensure that the main story continues to its completion. It's his job not to write story, but to tighten up the story by removing bits of it, culling them out, saving them for later, or leaving them on the floor if they really just don't fit.

It's the editor's job to say "No." And if he does his job right, the overall story, the adventure, the campaign… they're all stronger for the restriction.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Kinda relates to a decision I had to make in my last game session, regarding using Guns to incapacitate a named character who was nowhere near making death checks. On the fly, I decided to use the Knockout rules, but I may have been too lenient. I'll have to think about this.