Intermezzo: RPGs in 2011

This review of my role-playing experiences in 2011 will necessarily be of a different character than my boardgame wrapup, since my time for RPGs is so much smaller and I make no attempt, generally, to be on the cutting edge.

I got back into role-playing about 10 years ago with D&D 3.0, which quickly became 3.5, which became 4.0. The arc of my story is one of mounting frustration with D&D specifically and d20 more generally. The question I always had was, what exactly is this game doing for me?

D&D, as a game, emphasizes resource management, which boardgames do much better. And tactical combat, which again, boardgames do much better. And power-combo-seeking, ditto. What’s left? Narrative? Boardgames like Beowulf, Tigris & Euphrates and Lord of the Rings do this rather well too, in most cases far better than a run-of-the-mill D&D adventure does. We’re left not with anything concrete, only with this elusive idea of roleplaying, of immersing oneself in an alternate world and trying to vicariously experience it.

So I spent many years trying to figure this whole roleplaying thing out, what it was and how it was different, how it was supposed to be fun, and how you actually did it. The various treatises on the subject are surprisingly unhelpful, as are all the boilerplate “what is roleplaying” bits you routinely find at the beginning of sourcebooks. It seems that your GM (or Keeper, or DM, or whatever) has come up with a story, and you need to find some way to play your character in the story in a way that meshes with the GMs vision, without actually knowing what that vision is or where the story is going. You need to come up with motivations for your character that will feed the directions your GM expects you to take, without knowing what those are.

If you take the whole roleplaying thing seriously, it can be a bit frustrating.

This year, I finally got it. From where I stand, this entire genre is misleadingly named. It should not be called “roleplaying”. It should be called “collaborative storytelling”. Obviously we can’t change it now, after 30 years, that would be confusing, but I found that when I just flipped that switch in my brain and viewed the whole exercise from a slightly different perspective, everything about why this genre is different, fun, and worthwhile clicked. Roleplaying can obviously be a large and fun part of collaborative storytelling, but it’s not primarily why we’re here and – interestingly – you don’t actually have to do any roleplaying at all for the whole genre of “roleplaying games” to work and be fun. You do need to do collaborative storytelling, however.

As always, the light came on only by running and playing in actual games. In this case the system was Kenneth Hite’s Trail of Cthulhu, built on Robin Laws’ GUMSHOE engine, and the adventures were from the excellent collections Out of Time and Stunning Eldritch Tales. The transition was rocky and I’m not sure if I’ve brought most of my fellow-players along, but for the first time in my many years of playing these games I feel like I’ve found a good spot and understand what’s going on and why the experience is interesting and different and worth playing in addition to my primary interest in boardgames.

GUMSHOE is confusing for many people I think because it is simultaneously very different from and very close to traditional RPGs. On the one hand, you can argue that systematically, the only difference between GUMSHOE and traditional RPGs like d20 or GURPS is a single die roll. In scenes where characters are pursuing the core activity of the system – solving mysteries – skill checks are automatically successful. That’s it. It’s a complete game-changer in practice though, because it makes the default expectation for core activities success rather than failure. Instead of thinking “I wonder what the difficulty level of that task should be”, the GM instead has to think “what information can I give them as a result of this course of action, and what are the consequences”. Instead of our first thought being about how the players’ ideas might be negated, we’re instead forced to think about how to move the narrative forward in a collaborative way. This is huge.

This of course opens up a whole set of ancillary questions for gamemasters: how to we encourage good, story-building ideas in our players? How do we set expectations, set tone, set parameters? These questions are not always easy to answer, but they are much more interesting, tractable, and amenable to reason than the frustratingly open-ended “how do I tell a good story in an RPG?”.

This brings me to my second discovery of the year, which is Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe, the best and most useful practical guide to good roleplaying (for both players and GMs) that I’ve come across. It’s a fast read – I finished the whole thing in a couple hours – and provides concrete and useful tips that anyone can pick up and put to use right away. The key insight here is that the techniques we should be drawing on for inspiration in our roleplaying are not from acting or narrative writing but are the skills and ideas of improv theatre. Once it’s properly explained it’s so obvious that one wonders how the hobby got this far without figuring this out and using it as the foundation for everything we do. The old and often-repeated conceit that the characters play in a world created and described by the GM is seductive but, I’ve come to understand, fundamentally misleading. In actual practice, the GM brings his or her idea of the story to the table, and perhaps it is the dominant one, but unless your GM is master-level everyone present is going to have in their minds a different idea of what the world is like, different ideas of the flavor of the story and how it will proceed. A good roleplaying experience will take these different ideas, weave together the good bits, and tell an interesting story. The best, perhaps only, way to do this is via the techniques of improv.

Bring these ideas together, and you’ve got an understandable, practical, working structure for how to really make RPGs fly. Two more pieces would help fill in the details and round out 2011 for me.

The first was Robin Laws’ book Hamlet’s Hit Points, which I wrote about at some length in August. I won’t say much more about it here – you can go back and read the piece, if you want – except to mention how clearly things clicked into place as I read it. Because of my background in music and music theory, I recognized immediately and correlated the technique of cycles of hope and fear, or tension and resolution. It was also clear how these same techniques were used in boardgames. Again, the default literary tendencies of my RPG creations were running up against the collaborative reality of how RPGs actually work, producing bad results. I needed to be much more adaptable and sensitive to story beats. Actually integrating the lessons of Hamlet’s Hit Points into my RPGs is what I’ll generously call a work-in-progress, but it was clear this was something to aspire to as part of a good roleplaying experience. It was also clear that the ethos of collaborative creation was the only practical way to accommodate it, and so GUMSHOE provided the structure in a way that traditional techniques did not.

The last thing I’ll mention from 2011 was Ashen Stars, the big new addition to the GUMSHOE family. The reason I am so excited about Ashen Stars is how it brings all this collective thought together and trains it on a game. We have the core GUMSHOE system, which is systematically based on this idea of collaboration which I have come to believe is absolutely core to fun roleplaying. The many useful, practical tips the book provides for players and GMs emphasize this. We have a backstory of a Star Trek-like universe fallen on hard times which is not only broadly accessible and incredibly creative, featuring fascinating species and a great mix of the familiar and unusual, but is also highly sensitive to the very specific needs of gaming. This is not just a cool or imaginative setting; this is a setting that is designed from the ground up to actually be gamed in. I love how the game prioritizes the practical details of interesting collaborative storytelling. The core activities are well-specified, with the tenor and tone of the game set within reasonable constraints the GM and players can work with. The character creation process has at its core a feedback loop which allows players and GM to negotiate the flavor of the game and how they will explore the world; this is key not just because it kicks off the process in a productive way, it also gives the players the important message that “hey, your ideas are important and you have a stake in the creation of this story”. I love the section on GM advice which gives specific, practical, actionable ideas that will easily have you up and writing good stories (and as an aside, these tips are extremely helpful for writing adventures of any kind – Kim and I have been using them for an Arcana Evolved adventure she’s working on and found them very useful). This whole thing is a terrific package which begs to be gamed, which hopefully I’ll have a chance to do in 2012.

So that’s the story of my total conversion to GUMSHOE as the most sensible solution to the practical problems of roleplaying, one that keeps the flavor of the stories we’ve come to love but allows you to actually game them. If, like me, you come from a long background of D&D, GURPS, Traveller, or even Call of Cthulhu, the conversion process may involve pain. Trust me, it’s worth it.


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