Roll-Playing Versus Roleplaying

Started by InkMeister, August 26, 2010, 07:44:03 AM

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Ron Edwards


I apologize for taking so long. I didn't intend to shut the thread down. My goal here is to outline some points which were discussed here in detail, leading to the conclusion that "roll/role," as a commonly-mentioned contrast in role-playing, is a false dichotomy. I also think that we can stick specifically to the game being described and address a real issue without getting distracted by presumed higher principles.

A few years ago, I coined the term "Murk" to describe a phenomenon which I hadn't been too familiar with myself, but seemed to be widespread in the hobby. I focused strongly on when and how a role-playing, collectively, could not manage to know when to apply any particular rule, especially those concerned with resolution. Joel's thread Mother-May-I and 20 questions: Games GMs play helped clarify the issue a lot. Callan's thread Warhammer; Chaos! Order! Molasses! is a great introduction to it, including his term "Molasses," meaning what it was like actually to get anywhere or do anything during play - slow, sticky, attention-draining, and often pointless. Also, the embedded threads in that one provide a good background.

As a role-player, I didn't experience much Murk in the late 1970s and 1980s; play ran into trouble more often due to clashes in Creative Agenda, or in a certain mis-match between investment in character and investment in play. I can't speak for the wider range of role-playing beyond my experience, except that I was in contact with quite a few Champions groups across the U.S. for a long time, and they didn't seem to run into it much either. It seems to be more common now.

I have some ideas about how it became a major feature of the hobby. These are probably doomed to speculative status forever and best suited to face to face discussions. I do think it's fair to identify the three primary rules systems that settled into primary status during the early 1980s: AD&D in the form of the three late-1970s hardbacks, plus books like Unearthed Arcana and the Wilderness Survival Guide; BRP in the form of RuneQuest (1978, plus Cults of Prax, Cults of Terror, Trollpack, and the three Pavis boxed sets) and Call of Cthulhu (a mash-up of its first two editions across three versions); and Champions, across three editions each with useful supplements, prior to the generic form of the Hero System.

During this time, people grappled a bit with how to resolve interesting problems and conflicts when the characters were not fighting, because most of the resolution rules were concerned with, hell, drooling obsessed with, combat. But I think ... only think, mind you, that the default engagement with one another about what was being imagined tended to hold together pretty well.

I'm thinking as well that the trouble mainly arose when people were confronted by the combination of novels and games, as with Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms. I alluded to this in my recent thread on TFT: Wizard,

Quotewith books like Forgotten Realms and however many similar ever since, there's a purported connection between a DM's vision of the campaign's story and a novel (or series), in which references to system are more like product placement. So the message to the hopeful user of the game is, the story-of-play is the same as write-my-novel. I think this is exactly the origin of the "system doesn't matter" claim in the hobby, as well as the grotesque confounding of "story" with metaplot.

In other words, and putting aside the merits or lack of merits in something like the Forgotten Realms books or The Wheel of Time, "a good story" or "a real story" was perceived to emerge from a DM/GM with a story-vision, to be visited upon the players, exactly in the same way that a novelist's story is visited upon the readers - as opposed to play itself, with decision-making spread across the participants in distinctive ways, and with its mechanics inserting good and bad bounces for characters, to produce such a thing.

Not only is this potentially a broken creative model from the outset, but trying to do it with legacy systems is nearly unimaginable. Murk arose instantly - what the hell is rolling for? When the hell do you do it? The threads I linked to at the top of the post are all about this.

Two profiles evolved over time from group to group, and new games began to be written from the perspectives of those profiles. The first is perhaps best termed dice-phobic, composed of people who'd learned that the only way to avoid their characters looking stupid or dying was to get things done by maneuvering away from the dice, and devaluing the dice' input in the terrible event that they had to be rolled for some reason. The second is to attempt to use the skills and dice systems as constantly as possible, applying them whenever the characters perform any sort of tasks, perhaps in the assumption that the "game universe" is composed of such rolls. I don't mind saying that both of these, in practice, tended very fast to suck donkey dick. It's true that both represented more genuine system than the rather unconstructed, rather weird tacit system that this generation of gamers inherited ... but two dumb solutions to a problem aren't much of an improvement. Nor is reversion to the original problem, as exemplified by Exalted, as I see it.

I'm not talking about difference in style, or Agenda, or any kind of comparison among functional options. Here, when I say "suck" I don't merely mean something I personally happen not to like. I'm talking about observable lack of enjoyment and at times, outright social disaster including life-disrupting crisis. Perhaps that's why Zilchplay is also more common than I would have believed, based on my older-school experiences that were somewhat isolated from the hobby subculture through the 1990s. If trying to find real enjoyment is disastrous, then better to settle for bland, Agenda-less activity that only rarely accomplishes imaginative fun.

So that puts us when ... probably right around 1990, when the original communities of RPG design had aged into their 40s and the new crop of designers was old enough and spunky enough to define a new standard for RPG content. At this point, each of the defensive approaches then evolved further, representing relatively desperate attempts to fix their inherent flaws. The fixes usually relied on designating idealized social roles to establish creative authority, such that "The GM" took on a lofty degree of artistic and social power well beyond what healthy human interactions can sustain. Yet another secondary effect was to bolster one's own choices in this weird constellation of bad options by labeling others' versions of it inferior, compounding broken local social interactions with identity politics. That is what Roll vs. Role is all about.

What I'm saying, by contrast, is that successful play relies on being Not Murky. If you know when you roll (or use any formalized mechanics for resolution, including formalized dialogue alone!), and when you don't, then the rolling is good and the not-rolling is good. In fact, in Non-Murk play, they are complementary and necessary. In more recent games like Universalis and Polaris, for instance, there is no point in distinguishing between mechanics of resolution and the modes of dialogue among the players - they are the same thing. Apocalypse World does something similar by categorizing participants' significant input into formal "moves," and outlining the exact circumstances that require Move mechanics both fictionally and in reality. As I see it, all three of these games are putting names and terms into techniques of play which had proven themselves under fire for decades in preventing Murk, and organizing them better.

That was really long and maybe boring. Let me know whether we need to discuss it more. I'm particularly stressing the point that "rolling" is a terrible and inappropriate term for what is better understood as formal procedures for determining the course of and consequences of certain fictional situations. The procedures in question can be anything! This is key because the "Roll/Role" phraseology creates this picture:

i) Anything with dice
ii) Anything without dice

Whereas the real contrast should be

i) Anything Murky
ii) Anything not Murky

Hence Amber was called "Diceless" in the sense of (ii) in the first group, whereas in fact, its system is sufficiently formal to place it into (ii) of the second group. (OK, granted, Amber is not without its own brand of confusion here and there, but the use of dice or its lack is not the source of that.) Or any number of games claim to be "Diceless" despite using, for instance, cards exactly as one uses dice, or various quantitative techniques that introduce unknowns without rolls or draws. Or "dice pool" gets co-opted into meaning solely the White Wolf Storyteller system including its idiosyncrasies. In other words, blithering idiocy prevailed.

Let me know if any of this is interesting and/or makes sense. I have a whole new post drafted to talk about your game and points specifically, but let's check on things this far.

Best, Ron

Ron Edwards

Ah, why not, here's what I was working on. It was easier to finish it than I thought it would be.

When dice are a pretense, then fuck them. Clearly this goes for any kind of formal procedure for resolving something (or better, to establish consequence) ... and that includes dialogue.

It's not surprising that system-as-pretense shows up consistently in all the following circumstances, here all phrased as the GM might say it : "Do their characters notice this thing? And shit! If they don't, then my STORY loses all that important stuff like foreshadowing it's supposed to have, but if they do, then they might do something and screw up the STORY." "Do they alter my NPC's planned behavior? Shit! Can they do that? If they can, then what do I do?" "Are they in a position of advantage relative to physical danger, altering my planned use of combat mechanics? Shit! If they are, then I don't have as good a feel for how this is supposed to turn out. They need to respect my characters' danger to them so they can ally with them later with the proper amount of respect, or my STORY won't have the scene I'm playing in my head."

Here's my point to you: as far as I can tell without having been there myself, when play is Murky in this fashion, then not rolling is not going to be a solution either. The problem was not how to find out how the negotiations went - no! The point was to get you (the players) into putting the characters where they were supposed to go, while maintaining the desperate illusion that all such events were being internally and causally generated, instead of imposed. If I really had to guess, I think the GM called for a roll in hopes that it would turn out the way you were supposed to go. And now, not guessing but speaking from extensive experience, I know a skilled Illusionist GM uses non-formalized mechanics, "just talking," "role-playing," even more manipulatively.

In fact, I realize you didn't tell us whether your negotiation check succeed. Did it? Either way, what happened? Did you stay on the rails? If so, did you know that was happening at the time? If so, did anyone overtly indicate his or her knowledge of that?

I'm beginning to think this thread should reach back even further into The Impossible Thing, Illusionism, Force, and the Black Curtain. But I'll do that another day.

Best, Ron


When I referenced Amber, that was exactly my point, that Amber doesn't use dice but it has some solid guidelines for determining what happens in the narrative, and despite the fact that you do compare numbers (in the game), it is very very free form. A conversation like the one that Nicks talking about would be handled in one of three ways: 1)The merchant is way better at talking than you, the GM tells you you lose, 2) Your way better than the Merchant, the GM lets you get what you want, 3) your close enough at being good/not good at talking: you and the gm describe exactly what happens, word for word, and see what results, the GM uses Good Stuff/Bad Stuff as a guideline when he doesn't have an idea of how thing would go. Its not a free form discussion, but its close.

Frank Tarcikowski

Wow, looks like a freight train hit this thread, there are so many points that have been raised, I've lost count. I'll say the thing that immediately came to my mind when reading the first post anyway, in the hope it's not too confusing.

Nick, I can totally relate to your disappointment. What I read from your first two paragraphs is this: There you were, picking up all the bits and pieces of fiction that had been created along the game's way, building on them, transforming them into an argument that was rooted in the fictional situation and simply made sense. You were making a good case, and you were probably also acting in character, putting up some performance. And the GM acknowledged you when he said, "good point". You were connecting, he was confirming your interpretation of the fictional situation, your understanding of the NPC and his motivation. The fiction was coming alive between the two of you, you were "getting into it", assessing it, judging it, and this meant something. And then the GM stepped back, taking away the acknowledgement, interrupting the connection by asking for a roll. So it didn't matter after all. You might as well just have said: "My guy tries to convince that guy that it's not our fault", and rolled.

Now that's not to say that the GM was wrong, it's simply what I read from your post as how you felt about it. Maybe I'm projecting, because it's sure how I would have felt. This is something I've been bringing up before, concerning involvement and dedication with the shared fiction, and concerning real judgement of quality contributions. A provocative take on your first two paragraphs would be that you and the GM lingered, for a small moment, at the threshold of entering a higher level of play (higher level of skill, higher level of engagment, higher level of shared understanding, higher level of satisfaction). But I'm afraid bringing all this into the discussion on top of everything that Ron and Adam have already raised would be way too much for this single thread. Let me know if anything I've written resonates with you, then we might spin it off (now or later).

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Callan S.

I think the overview is a useful historical document to gain perspective by. But in terms of this:
QuoteWhen dice are a pretense, then fuck them. Clearly this goes for any kind of formal procedure for resolving something (or better, to establish consequence) ... and that includes dialogue.
Is this advice for if your in such a game now? Or is it advice for designing new games (which includes taking an old game and bolting some house rules onto it)?

What is or isn't pretence seems something it takes a human to determine? If the game relies on this to work, then it's not the game/mechine making itself work? By a machine making itself work, I'd say a piano or guitar makes itself work. Yeah, I know 'they don't play themselves', but making themselves work is different from playing themselves.

Or are you refering to a third thing I haven't thought of?

Ron Edwards

Hi everyone,

Those are great posts, but I think we need to let Nick respond and act as the thread leader.

I'll post just a little based on what y'all have written.

Nolan, that technique you're describing is not "free form" at all. Or perhaps it's better to say, if we want to use the term "free form," we need a better definition of it than merely "not using dice." As far as I'm concerned, as soon as we reference the quantitative/comparative features of the two characters to frame how to resolve this situation, then we've entered mechanics-land, and are well out of anything called "free form," whatever that might be.

All of which is to say, yes, I think your earlier point and my big posts above are compatible. Let's not argue because we agree; that's silly.

Frank, your post addressed Nick specifically, and I mainly agree, so I'll only say I do want to try to avoid the pitfall of saying the "higher level" of play you mention is predicated on abandoning dice. But I think I hit that dead creature a few times already with my keyboard, so I'll leave it.

Callan, my "fuck them" can apply both to play and to design. As it happens, I try to play games without doing that, by instead acknowledging and tolerating the parameters of the pretense in order to discover what might be excellent in some other part of the game. But that's just me in research + fun mode, and it seems unreasonable to ask others to do it, when they're in fun mode alone. So for anyone who's not inclined toward analysis of the game, then yeah, my advice is in fact, fuck the dice or fuck the talking or fuck some specific combination of them, if any of those things is generating Murk. Life's too short to play in that stuff, ever.

So, over to Nick.

Best, Ron


Thanks for all the replies!

Frank absolutely hit the nail on the head with his post.  That is EXACTLY what I'm talking about.  Why did the GM bother to act in character to accuse we, the players, of attracting trouble to the caravan, if my own in-character response was not sufficient, but would instead depend on a die-roll (which did, in fact, succeed, Ron)?   Just as you say, Frank, we could just as easily skipped the roleplay and settled the whole situation with dice, or, as I would have prefered, simply acted the situation out in character.  Even though I succeeded with my die roll, I would have preferred merely acting the thing out, and failing. 

Ron, your posts are both interesting.  I'm not sure I've adequately processed everything, but I do very much appreciate your idea of murky versus not murky.   So, from my perspective, the murk is in the fact that I'm not sure what a negotiation skill means in a game, and a lot of my post is really about trying to figure this out.  So returning to my actual play example involving the caravan leader, am I to 1) roll my negotiation skill and then roleplay with the guard based on what result I get?  In other words, if I succeed, is the fun of the roll the fact that I get to act out a successful negotiation?  Or 2) do we not act out the negotiation at all, but instead let the roll determine what happens, possibly by deciding BEFORE the roll what the stakes are?  (in which case, maybe it was simply bad play for me to invest myself in trying to act out the encounter in the first place) Or 3) do we roll only if we don't feel like acting the situation out in character?   

I mean, when I made the post, I had in mind which option I prefered.  But it's not clear to me how these mechanics are supposed to work.  When do we use them?  When don't we?   What place does in-character roleplaying have in a system where there are skills and mechanics for everything?   THIS is where the murk comes in for me.  I'm genuinely not sure when one should roll and when one should not.  If a game has a negotiation skill and some mechanic to utilize it, then am I wrong for wanting to act out my negotiations without dice?   Does it mean I should be using a different system?  So far, my preference is to not roll for a lot of this stuff, since it feels like rolling overrides whatever effort I put into acting the part of my character.  And I say this as a person who genuinely is not interested in using roleplaying as a way to gain some advantage;  I have no interest in making a character that is a total combat machine, and then using free-form roleplaying (as opposed to formal mechanical procedures) to circumvent that same character's weaknesses.   I'm interested in the free-form because it feels more fun to me, thus far.   But I'm interested in how rolling the dice CAN be fun, which is a big part of why I made this thread. 

AS to rails and whatnot...  I will gladly defer to Ron's far more extensive experience and concede that free-form is potentially more easily turned towards GM manipulation and so on. 

I don't intend for this thread to be entirely about me.  I started the thread with the hopes that I could get some insight into why one would prefer rolling dice to settle negotiatiosn versus acting out a negotiation free-form.   As far as all that goes, I appreciate the notion of niche protection and game balance.  I also happily concede that I don't really want to free-form my combats, and I'm not sure why I feel that way.  Also, I am uneasy about free-form magic.  Am I hopelessly oldschool?  I am very familiar with the rhetoric of old-school D&Ders, but I'm not an evangelist for that style of play, though I find it attractive in some ways.  I am genuinely drawn to what I know of games beyond the D&D world.  I'm wanting to expand my horizons.  But I'm not sure I'm at all sold on the benefits of having negotiation rolls in a game.  My experiences of these sorts of mechanics seem to cheapen my own experience of a roleplaying game.   As my actual play example points out...  having to roll the dice was kind of a jarring, unpleasant thing.  Why invest oneself if you can roll instead?  And is rolling really that fun?  For me, in situations like my actual play example, it's not.   If the main benefit of having negotiation skills and the like is to prevent some kind of munchkinism or the overwhelming power of DM fiat, I'm not sure that's enough for me to be sold on them. 

I feel some of the comments are pretty strongly stated... so let me be super clear here; my intention is to better understand this stuff, not to step on anyone's toes.   Sorry if I stepped on anyone's toes.   I'm not trying to tell anyone else how they should enjoy their games. 



Weeellll....  I can suggest some reasons why the role might have been made.  They may or may not have any relevanece to the actual event in your game, though, but let me throw some ideas out there.

The GM isn't playing one character like you are; the GM is playing every other character.  So while your thoughts can intuitively align with your characters thoughts, this isn't true for the GM's characters; otherwise they will all be the same.  In this context it's quite dangerous for the GM to simply rely on what they personally think is reasonable when it comes to portraying NPC's; after all, there are multitudes of people who fervently believe things I think are quite ridiculous, and vice versa.  In this sense, some kind of randomisation serves as a check on the GM falling into the habit of making all their NPC's think along similar lines.

The second thing is that the result of the roll might not have mattered that much in terms of content, but rather only in subjectivity.  Let's say for example that the GM recognised your point was good, and yet you failed the roll; now whatever happens happens, and you can go away with the feeling that the caravan master was unjust.  Does that make a big difference?  It provides you with a motivation of sorts.  And the same may apply the other way; the GM may interpret the result as meaning that the caravan master was unconvinced there and then - blinded by anger, say - but later comes around to see your point and regrets whatever decision they made.  Or the GM could decide that while the caravan master was not convinced, other people in earshot were and intervene or talk him down.

In this way, the roll can add to play, and produce events that were otherwise unexpected or unlikely if it were just an argument made player to player, and therefore be fun.

"He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast."
- Leonardo da Vinci

Ron Edwards

Hi Nick,

I'm going to do something I rarely do and choose part of your post for bit-by-bit dissection. Please double-check me on whether I've disrespected the bigger picture of your post.

QuoteI'm not sure what a negotiation skill means in a game, and a lot of my post is really about trying to figure this out.

I think I understand you. I want to stress that the problematic issue on your end is what I've bolded: "in a game." Because there is no answer to this question if it's applied at this very general level that's strongly implied by that phrasing. The posts so far have been good, but limited to the necessity of saying "If this, but not [/i]this, then rolling is good," or "not good." All the ifs seems to me to be unproductive.

So what must you do, conceptually, to frame the (excellent) question in a way that can be answered? I think there are two basic approaches, both of which are good but have little traps in them too.

1. Talk about this particular application, i.e., this very exact group and set of characters and moment in the session and overall series of sessions. I often recommend this because then we can say whether the use of that rule/roll had any utility for the aims of play, and how that particular game was being used toward those aims. The pitfall here is armchair psychology, guessing and possibly accusing regarding the GM's motives, which I think lends itself to projection and self-justification. Although Gareth (contracycle) is providing a good example of how to avoid that trap, thankfully.

2. Talk about the textual game as a system and how social skill use relates to the rest of its parts, and see whether the game design itself favors the use of its own rules about this issue I often favor this approach, although in this case, huge traps await us. D&D is the Torah of role-playing discussions, with people feverishly and defensively referring to its contents but not willing actually to look at them and read them. My own threads about skill use in D&D 3.0/3.5 were quite instructive in this regard.*

My questions about the success of that roll were aimed at these issues. Telling me only whether it succeeded isn't helping much, though. I asked a number of questions about its result, including whether it was plot-consequential or not, and how people responded socially.

QuoteSo returning to my actual play example involving the caravan leader, am I to 1) roll my negotiation skill and then roleplay with the guard based on what result I get? In other words, if I succeed, is the fun of the roll the fact that I get to act out a successful negotiation? Or 2) do we not act out the negotiation at all, but instead let the roll determine what happens, possibly by deciding BEFORE the roll what the stakes are? (in which case, maybe it was simply bad play for me to invest myself in trying to act out the encounter in the first place) Or 3) do we roll only if we don't feel like acting the situation out in character?

All right, let's see. I'll go by my 1 and 2 above. The part 1 has two bits to it.

1 i) You're focusing on the integration of "acting" with "rolling." Bluntly, this is not a very interesting issue. How that's done is clearly a matter of what kind of acting you want to do, and when, and how much the other members of the group feel like paying attention to it. If it really matters to you, then ask them, and I mean collectively and in person, not just the GM and for God's sake not by email. There's not much for us to say.

1 ii) I recommend going back to my questions about the roll. OK, you succeeded. What I don't know is, in terms of both the fictional events and the real-world experience of play, what happened?. Did or did not the characters leave the caravan? If they didn't, then did they get bumped off it later in order to get into the pre-planned material? What I'm driving at through these questions is, was calling for the roll a desperate move on the GM's part in order to keep you on the rails, or not? And if it was, then there's no point in talking about how it could have been done "right" or "fun."

2) The various forms of D&D prior to the mid-1980s had no skill system to speak of. Certain highly specific abilities came with certain classes, but that was it. The notion that each character's complete range of competency across a complete in-world menu of skills was absent. It didn't show up in the rulebooks until 1989. Historically, it's worth pointing out that neither the Champions-based trajectory of game design nor the D&D-based trajectory were skill-oriented for their most productive design phases, and that when the BRP model became very popular in the early 1980s, both of the other "schools" of design incorporated skills - and not, in my view, particularly well. Social skill rolls in particular were totally opaque. The AD&D2 attempt to do so was particularly badly shoe-horned into the already-existing design parameters. What did you do with them, relative to the other activities of play? To put it very bluntly, no one knows when to call for skill rolls in this game or those influenced by it. Nor does anyone know what to do with a success or failure in those rolls. The 3.0 and 3.5 material is especially contradictory and confused about this, simultaneously calling for and moderating against DM override of results.

Let me know if any of this helps or makes sense.

Best, Ron

John S

I've been watching this thread and it is churning up flashbacks of similar problems I've had as a GM.

When I was a teenager, I had a long-running GURPS campaign with a couple friends, and we all thought very highly of "good role-playing". The "social skills" in GURPS didn't make a lot of sense to me apart from adding color, and I never used reaction rolls or the reaction table. As the GM, I just went into the shared imagined space, and when social conflicts came up, we always handled it "in character" through dialogue and narrated actions, unless someone was using a mind power or similar. I just couldn't see how social skills and reactions could be quantified without stripping out a fun and meaningful dimension of the game; it seemed like using the social skills and reaction rolls reduced rich narrative interaction and dialogue to a pass-fail die roll, and I knew nothing of Fortune In The Middle or other methods of tying the narrative interaction to the dice.

My friends were gifted thespians, which made the game come alive. For the most part, not only did they get away with role-playing social skills that weren't listed on their sheets, I probably awarded them Character Points (GURPS's XP) for it. But not having a formal system to deal with social conflicts created a lot of trouble too, for reasons already mentioned in this thread. Because we had no rules, the only methods I had to push back were acting and GM fiat. Clever manipulators (which was probably part of our social contract), the players could usually get me to say "good point" and twist my NPCs' wills around their plans. As a reaction, I basically kept most of the main NPCs out of their reach, except for a few encounters in carefully-controlled environments; sometimes these scenes were driven toward preconceived outcomes (so that the NPC could escape alive), which was both alien to the rest of our game and uncomfortable.

The other problem this created was that it eroded meaningful scene-framing. I had no concept of GM authority over the beginning and end of scenes. GURPS had an interesting system for tracking character time between adventures, which could be used for training, employment, travel, or other things. But we almost never used that system, since the players knew they could get more Character Points and social resources in the game by role-playing every single interaction. This led to some dramatic, vivid, and life-transforming events in the fiction, but it also created hours of banal, mundane, aimless scenes and pointless conflicts. While it kept the players in the driver's seat as far as exploring the fiction, it often degraded and deprotagonized their characters. To put it another way, we often played scenes where nothing interesting was at stake, just in case something interesting might come up. Is that what people mean when they talk about "sandbox"-style roleplaying?

I recognize that last part as bad prep: there probably should have been more overt stakes in the fiction generally, so that character choices in any scene will bang. On the whole, we had fun in spite of our lack of meaningful scene-framing, but so much simulation burned me out. After that, I didn't role-play again for years, not until my daughter was born. It was then that I discovered games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe that really illuminated me on the role of systems in role-playing social conflict, particularly how dice rolls can be combined with narration to creatively enrich the role-playing experience rather than emasculate it.

Nick, you mentioned a few different ways to deal with social conflict in the fiction: A) Make a skill roll and role-play the result. B) Determine what may happen and roll for a result. C) Just roll, and note whether you succeed or fail. D) Just role-play, narrating the actions and dialog without using dice. My sense is that A, B, and C would feel artificial and knock you out of character immersion, and out of the fiction, and I can see why; hence my strong preference for D in the GURPS campaign I described. Reading Sorcerer helped to knock my brain open about the use of fortune mechanics in social conflict:

"Rolls force the situation to CHANGE and victories describe the DIRECTION OF CHANGE."

I recommend you read Jesse's article on social conflict in Sorcerer, and if that speaks to your condition, share it with your GM. The fact is, most role-playing texts are not clear on the role of narration in any kind of conflict. D&D 4E allows the GM to assign a +2 or -2 modifier to a roll based on favorable or unfavorable circumstances, but that's about it. GURPS goes into much more arcane detail, but it doesn't deal with these issues as squarely as Sorcerer.

John S

Quote from: Ron Edwards on September 01, 2010, 06:27:10 PMIf it really matters to you, then ask them, and I mean collectively and in person, not just the GM and for God's sake not by email.

I just saw Ron's post, and this part applies to what I said too. If you're not on the same page as the rest of your group in terms of the creative agenda of play, showing your GM an article won't get you there.

Callan S.

Just as a side note, to me it looks quite the opposite of Franks estimate (which you agreed with), where the GM acknowledged the point, then somehow took it away by asking for a roll. Quoting Frank
QuoteAnd the GM acknowledged you when he said, "good point". You were connecting, he was confirming your interpretation of the fictional situation, your understanding of the NPC and his motivation. The fiction was coming alive between the two of you, you were "getting into it", assessing it, judging it, and this meant something. And then the GM stepped back, taking away the acknowledgement, interrupting the connection by asking for a roll.
Indeed, why would he take it away if he was confirming your point so very much?

Perhaps because he wasn't confirming your point at this time, you and Frank just thought he was?

Instead perhaps your lines were enough to earn a roll that let's you change the mind of the NPC on the matter. You earned a chance by talking, you didn't just earn an automatic change of his mind. I'm thinking of what Gareth/Contra cycle said, but with the GM thinking "Hey, now he's made me/my NPC uncertain...I really don't know which way to go. I'll let the dice decide!". If that were the case, it's functional for me, atleast.

Indeed from your agreement with Franks comment, it seems to show your own priorities - you wanted it to all work at this talking level and some sort of connection and confirmation. It's like you want pizza - is ice cream gunna cut it as pizza? No. Here, you want it all at the verbal connection and confirmation level - are dice or some other mechanic gunna cut it for you? No. You have to want to use the mechanics instead of keeping it all loftily above all that at a verbal confirmation level. Your own priorities are against using dice. You can't have a priority against using dice, but then just somehow using the dice make sense and are fun to use.

Indeed I'd say you have to want to use mechanics first and foremost, always, for the mechanics to be anything more than decorative. But that's another thread.

In terms of the idea of railroading *long sigh* the thing is, the rules designate someone as a GM, and grant them a ton of resources. To call someone who uses their massive resources in game to do what they want a railroader, is essentially a sirlin scrub. Taking the word 'railroader' to mean something that's against 'how to play the game'. Because to use massive resources to do what you want when the games rules fully grant you that capacity, is obviously not against the game. It's the sirlin scrub who cries 'Throwing is cheap!' in street fighter, even though it's well within the games rules. In roleplay, the scrub cries that 'Railroading is cheap!', even though it's well within rules which grant the GM a metric shit ton of resources. Note: I've called the GM a railroader in various games. I'm not somehow above emotionally saying what I'm describing (though I am above seeing it as a functional. These days, atleast)

So I don't think this is about railroading, specifically. It's a mechanics design issue (how and how much of those resources are assigned to whom) - and it's an issue of whether you want to put mechanics first. If you don't, there's no way out of this for you, except to find people who exactly match up with you (or that you can tolerate the missmatch) and also that those peoples way of playing doesn't evolve or change in future (nor yours). Only putting mechanics first can shift you to a new way of playing. Without putting mechanics first, you will only play the way you've always played, and can only play well with people who exactly match up with you (or missmatch within your tolerance), and you hope that nobodies play style evolves, since that causes a missmatch, and instead hope their play style stays relatively static.

Callan S.

That last post was for Nick, just in case I left it confusing...

Frank Tarcikowski

Hi everyone,

Nick, I'm glad I interpreted your post correctly, I thought it was an excellent example and well presented.

I really see two linked follow-up questions. One of them is how to make mechanical skill checks, in particular concerning so-called "social skills", meaningful and consequential. And the other is how to make in-character acting and moment-by-moment verbal negotiation between the real people at the table meaningful and consequential.

This thread is already deep into addressing the first question, which is good and well. My initial reaction was to tackle the second question because I personally have found that to be the crucial point of my enjoyment of play. It appears that not everyone places equal emphasis in this regard.

I'll leave the "higher level" aside for now, and I'm with Ron that it isn't predicated on abandoning dice. Me personally, I enjoy in-character acting and moment-by-moment verbal negotiation of the in-game events because I feel they provide context and substance to what happens to the characters.  This is something I have found to be absolutely vital to my enjoyment of play. It challenges my imagination, wit and acting skill, and I enjoy it in particular when playing with imaginative, witty players who are good actors.

A key point in this type of negotiation is the point where the players at the table assess the fictional situation, using their real, human judgment, making a decision based on their idea of likelihood, or genre conventions, or tone which they imagine for the game. That decision may have mechanical consequences that lead to fictional consequences, or it may only have fictional consequences. And even if it's the latter, it may still incorporate some mechanical scores into the process of decision making. Vincent Baker has termed this key point "Moment of Judgment" and you should absolutely read his excellent blog post if you haven't already. It also quotes some great people. ;-)

Nick, I think you were disappointed by the GM because you felt he denied that Moment of Judgment. Your own interpretation of the fictional situation was that your argument could not fail to convince the caravan leader. There was no point of arguing about it, the argument made sense and he had no reason not to follow it. It had been established that your character had said what he said, so the GM would have had to assess this and act accordingly. There was no space for a skill check to determine how convincing your character had been—the argument stood for itself.

Now we don't know if your GM really denied his judgment, or if he just has a different idea of what a skill check means. Here is where the Moment of Judgment and the Murk connect.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English

Frank Tarcikowski

Hm, this thread seems to have faded out which is a pity because there were some points I still wanted to make. I'll just go ahead with some musings on the intersection of a Moment of Judgment and a skill check in a traditional RPG. I used to think it was rather clear. As I saw it and always applied it in my games (for all task resolution based systems), a skill check was meant as a tie-breaker in a situation of doubt. Can I swing across the chasm on that rope? It's not impossible, but neither is it trivial, so the dice will tell.

Some rulebooks of traditional RPGs explicitly stated, and I used to think that those who didn't took for granted two things:

1) If something was trivial, you'd succeed without a roll. "You don't need to roll to walk down the street." The German RPG, Das Schwarze Auge, has often been laughed at for a practice of not following this rule which somehow evolved among the players. With some GMs, a person who could swim reasonably well faced a statistical chance of ~50% of drowning when swimming in a lake on a sunny day. I used to think that common sense should suffice to see this couldn't be right.

2) If something was impossible, you'd fail without a roll, or much rather, you just wouldn't try because that would be silly. A normal human cannot jump straight up to the fourth floor of a building. Not even Jacky Chan.

And this would be the Moment of Judgment, the point where a player (usually the GM in a trad game) decided whether something was trivial, impossible, or somewhere in between, the last meaning a dice roll would determine the outcome. Sometimes a little bit of a debate would ensue and the GM might even change his mind. Sometimes a player would accept the GM's final judgment only under protest, but by and large, in the groups I played in, there was a common understanding and usually the group would find the GM's judgment mostly appropriate.

In the so-called "social conflicts" it was just the same, only the required judgment tended to be more complex and sometimes not as transparent. Let's say your character is holding a knife to a little boy's throat and telling the boy's mother to hand over the ruby or else... Now if the mother is a normal person, I'd probably say this is trivial, she will hand over the ruby without you needing to make an intimidation check. But what if the mother isn't a terrified normal person, but a ruthless scheming noblewoman in a Swords 'n Sorcery setting who knows your character to be much too honorable for his own good? Suddenly I'm thinking the GM wouldn't be out of bounds to simply have her laugh at you: "Or else what, you pathetic fool?" And I can imagine games in which I, as a player, would be totally thrilled by such a move. I find this kind of interaction to be the most challenging and fun part of role-playing, this is where strong contributions really shine and lame contributions really... don't.

And that last bit, to my mind, is the core of the "roll-playing vs. role-playing" debate concerning "social conflicts". Some role-players prefer to leave the outcome of social interaction entirely to the dice because they don't want to submit themselves to their fellow players' judgment in this field. And there may be valid reasons for them doing so. But me personally, I find play to be the poorer for it.

- Frank
BARBAREN! - The Ultimate Macho Role Playing Game - finally available in English