Sunday, December 5, 2010

Social Interaction Rules, Non-Theater Majors, and "Neoclassical" Gaming

Ugh. What even qualifies me to write about something like this? I don't know. Common interest? Having a blog? Being a pompous ass?

Maybe a little bit of all of that.

Let me first get some standard disclaimers out of the way. I DID major in theater; however I DM/GM a lot more often than I play as a player. I play old school B/X D&D (and will be speaking from that perspective), and for my money, the random Reaction table is perfect for what I want in a D&D game. On the other hand, I totally buy into a lot of more sophisticated game design theory, specifically of the "Forge-y" type, and my return to "old school" gaming was after a loooong hiatus...I like story-type games. where to begin...

To me, it really seems that there are two (or three) different discussions flying around the blogosphere, all touched off by Ryan Dancey's proposal to add some more serious social mechanics to the D&D game (or narrative/story mechanics in order to inject added meaning and story objectives into a D&D game). Trollsmyth's take on this (if I'm reading this correctly) is this:

D&D is a game about exploration, not social interaction. For players who want social interaction in their D&D, any "rules" tacked on should be those that facilitate D&D's premise of adventure/exploration, not elaborate mechanics required to determine the results of social interaction. Adding mechanics for social interaction to D&D to make it a more social/intrigue/political style game would turn it into something "not D&D," and certainly there are already "not D&D" games that one can play if they want. Changing an Old School game into a "new school" game kind of defeats the whole point of exploring the simplified glory of old school gaming.

Erin's point is that this approach (letting the sleeping dogs lie) unfairly hampers players who might want to play a "socially-minded version of D&D" (like Troll & Odd's solo adventures) but who don't know the way to go about it...'cause they don't get the idea of "forging alliances and relationships" (those things that might lead to exploration "bonuses" in Troll's game) and even if they did, they wouldn't feel comfortable with "role-playing" in the fashion of "acting in character" to somehow be suave and smooth enough to forge those alliances and get those bonuses.

Whew! Is that an adequate summary?

Okay, so here's how everyone's looking at this thing wrong.

I happened to recently read Moldvay's Basic set...again. Specifically the introduction and the DM section. And you know what? D&D, as originally conceived, is a lot damn simpler than any of us long-time gamers or "neo-classicists" might think. In fact, B/X D&D has a lot more in common with the combat-oriented "D&D Encounters" than it does with most any edition in between. At least, as written.

The difference of course is with the game's potential.

But if you don't know the game's potential, if all you have is the "rules as written," and if you don't read to deep into the game, it's pretty damn simplistic...make dungeon, make characters, explore dungeon, period. Trying to make it about anything else requires a bit of "drift" (to use the Forge term), at least thematically. Even without rules tweaks.

But if you're willing to do that thematic drift...which I suppose happens when there are other advantages to playing D&D that prevents people from seeking a different type/style of still have all the tools you need to play a game that is a social or political or intrigue or romance -oriented game. As opposed to the standard "make dungeon, make character, explore dungeon, period."

The character is your vehicle for this. Your character tells you everything you need to know about your characters raw abilities. Your character's raw abilities are equal to his or her ability scores...that's what abilities are. The character is the avatar for the player in the imaginary game world, and what your abilities are tell you what you are.

However, some might not get what these things measure.

A character may have a 17 Intelligence and thus have a lot of knowledge...they know a number of additional languages, have the ability to read and write, and can comprehend the workings of magic more quickly (i.e. wizards gain a bonus on earned XP to rise in level). Having a 17 intelligence does NOT mean your character doesn't do stupid things. Hell, your character might do stupid things A LOT. I know guys (and gals) that are plenty bright and have lots of education and they still do bone-head things...hell, some of 'em aren't even good at simple games like Scrabble, or Charades. I've known very bright players who were not great at riddles and solving in-game challenges...doesn't mean they weren't good attorneys or lawyers or software programmers. And I've known guys without much education that were pretty darn ingenious.

Having a low or high intelligence score just influences your literacy, languages, and spell comprehension...that's all it means.

A character with an 18 Charisma has a magnetic personality...they get bonuses to reactions (including negotiations...for example, with hirelings) and they inspire trust and loyalty. Characters with a low charisma are the exact opposite...that's the mechanics of the ability.

It doesn't mean your character isn't good looking or an eloquent speaker. You can be a gifted speaker or a great looking person and still have something that "turns people off." Likewise, you can be a homely simpleton, that is surrounded by friends who hang on his every word and who can easily find people to go to bat for 'em. I've known unattractive guys who had no problem dating attractive ladies...and it had nothing to do with money or physique or smooth talking. Just natural confidence and charisma.

Your character's charisma score measures something specific: in-game effectiveness. How you use it is up to you (and the rules are nice enough to point out a PC can get bonuses or penalties to Reaction rolls depending on how the character "sweetens the deal").

Need I say Wisdom is the same? I've known old codgers, wise in the ways of the world who were taken in by sham artists or who made unwise (one might say "undisciplined") personal decisions. In D&D, wisdom measures only one's resistance to magic (through an increased willpower I suppose) and one's ability to advance as a cleric. But I've known several willful guys, well versed in the Holy Writings of the Bible who've made very "unwise" a guy wo hasn't spoken with his brother in 30 years over some long forgotten argument, even though they live in the same town...and this is a guy who goes to Church and reads the Bible every day! He must have missed that part about forgiveness...

D&D characters provide a vehicle for players to explore the game world. Ability scores measure certain types of in-game effectiveness pertinent to that exploration. Can there be other types of "adventure" of a non-combat, non-treasure-seeking variety? Sure...though it may not cause you to advance in level ("experience points" and "levels" measure your character's accomplishments with regard to combat and treasure seeking and increase effectiveness in these arenas). The "role" you play is that of a heroic adventurer in a fantasy world. The game provides rules for your interaction with the imaginary environment and your ability scores tell you how well you do...any additional color or description you provide is up to you. And this will get easier for players to add with time and practice.

Anyway, I'll have more to say on the matter when I post about last Thursday's game and some of the stuff that went down...hopefully some examples will serve to illustrate that I'm not just talking out of my ass. Regarding the original posts on the matter? Well:

a) I think Ryan's a bit silly in his premise. But that's me. Not sure why he's playing D&D if he wants to play a different game, mechanics-wise.

b) I think Trollsmyth's a bit naive or deluded to think 1) folks can play in his style without rules/training/guidance, 2) that his type of game is un-Drifted itself (at least thematically), and 3) that a game should not have mechanics that address what the game is about. Again, though, this is just me.

c) I think Erin's not giving her players enough credit...or is giving theater majors too much. I believe D&D can be played just fine (even thematically drifted) as written...but that's just been my experience.

All right...that's about it folks.


  1. I've managed to keep my nose out of the whole sham of a debate myself, because at heart I love the games being discussed - all of them - and basically agree with your assessment.

    And D&D does have social rules, we make reaction checks almost as often as to hit rolls in our games. Making said rules a little more in depth is a personal choice, definitely not worthy of all this debacle.

  2. One of the things I like about D&D (any version) and RPGs generally is that the players and the DM can make the game what they want it to be. If they are soulless power gamers, they can kill and rob monsters full time and skip all the roleplaying. On the other hand, if they are budding thespians, they can ham it up and roleplay everything.

    I like a rules-light approach to roleplaying that rewards player creativity. In the classic versions of the game, using ability scores to help determine a character's success at what the player is trying to do makes eminent sense. In my view, it's the only way to put intelligence, wisdom and especially charisma on par with strength, dexterity and constitution as useful abilities.

    I enjoyed JB's reference to intelligent characters doing stupid things. No character's ability scores can protect him from player stupidity. Back in the '80s, our AD&D group had a wizard with a 20 intelligence operated by a player who steered the poor mage into a series of idiotic deaths with a flair reminiscent of Wyle E. Coyote.

  3. Thanks for the round up, and thanks for the cogent treatment. I tried to read through these blogs, and ultimately had to ask myself yesterday why anybody cares what Ryan Dancey says about D&D anyway. Most folks seem to figure this stuff out in their own games to suit themselves and their players, with or without formal mechanics (e.g., watch almost any episode of IHIWMA and you'll see players making a roll to influence an NPC where presumably Zak has just estimated what number is needed based on a variety of situational variables).

    It just seems like people got freaked out because *Dancey* said something. Is he going to come to their session and make them play differently? Is he that powerful? Is it the end of the OSR again? This fragile little flower that is the OSR, which must be protected from porn, gore, satanism, WotC, Hasbro, story lines, high production values, etc... Egads.

  4. Thanks for a high INT, high WIS response to this debate JB. The ability scores are, as you say, the raw abilities of the characters. In play, I don't think many DMs struggle with the abstract nature of charisma and how it might influence social interaction. So the player isn't that smooth, or a bit too inhibited to role play flirting with the DM controlled NPC. The DM will make a judgement on the player's stated actions and role play AND ALSO take into account the character's charisma score. Usually this is, in my experience, pretty easy and if the DM is in doubt the reaction roll is the game mechanic designed to assist the DM.
    I do think that the game mechanic of intelligence is very weak, and wisdom somewhat weak (save vs magic in B/X) compared to the other ability scores. Whilst easy to role play a character with a higher strength than oneself, thanks to the game mechanics, it is very hard to role play a higher intelligence or higher wisdom character and the game mechanics and the poorly defined abstract nature of these ability scores throughout the D&D rule editions, offer the DM or player little help.
    Finding a use for intelligence score is something I have been investigating.

  5. @ Dyson: As the prime seeder of old school geomorphs in the blog-o-sphere, I'd hesitate to call you an OSR "traitor."
    ; )

    @ Brian: I've known a LOT of dumb, magic-users...AND dumb engineers, and dumb software engineers, etc. Sometimes "being smart" leads folks to act from arrogance...and hubris has a way of getting slapped down by the universe.

    @ Spawn: *I* don't even know who Dancey is. Um...should I be more respectful? Ugh...

    @ Jovial: I've been following your posts on Intelligence, etc. Personally, I think the scores are fine for D&D, but I am doing some additional adjustments for my "B/X" space opera game.
    : )

  6. I believe Dancey is attributed with coming up with the OGL when he was at WotC:

    I don't have any opinion about whether you ought to be respectful ... other than 'Ugh', as you say. Not knowing who he is probably one of the Oldest-School of Old School creds. Rock on!

  7. Actually, what I think Trollsmyth is saying is that Diplomacy is a game about diplomacy - look at the title! - but its rules are about combat. It leaves the diplomatic activity to the players, largely unconstrained by rules. However, its combat rules and turn structure are designed to facilitate diplomatic activity. By comparison, a game about social activity should not have strong rules governing social activity, instead using the rest of the systems to encourage social interaction - something that RPGs already do. If the game is to have social interaction in the game world as a primary focus, then it would be better to include combat rules and so forth that allow social interaction to affect them positively (for example), but not rules to govern social interaction.

    As Trollsmyth notes, since the actual play of a game is the choices made by the players, a dice roll is not playing the game. The play may be in setting up the circumstances of the dice roll, which is fair, but the dice roll itself is not the game.

  8. @ Faol: Have to say I disagree on most counts. Diplomacy absolutely DOES have rules about how diplomacy gets done, and those diplomatic interactions have a direct effect on how the game is played. Not having a dice roll involved simply means the game is using a form of resolution mechanic different from "Fortune" (i.e. random chance); in this instance player skill is the determining factor (I suppose a form of "Karma" mechanic).

    If a game is to have social interaction in the game world as its primary focus, then it should have rules governing it. Why? Because the rules of a game are designed to allow the game to be played and if the game is about something it should have rules that set parameters for that something. This doesn't have to mean it needs a random roll! But if it doesn't have rules than you're not really playing a game...or (in this instance) you're playing a game that's heavily drifted from its original purpose and may lend itself to incoherence.

    For example, in Troll & Odd's solo game, there's been some discussion about the lack of "level advancement" due to lack of exploration and treasure hunting. Doesn't mean stuff isn't happening in game; doesn't mean they're not having fun. But the prime focus of the game has been circumvented and this prevents the game from being played (advancement = increased effectiveness = greater exploration) in the way it was designed, with obvious repercussions.

  9. Nice post. I will only add that when playing AD&D or Mentzer D&D, I make copious use of reaction checks. This ensures Charisma is not a dump stat.

  10. Whew! Is that an adequate summary?

    Almost. One thing that I fear wasn't made clear is that I really don't give a flying fig about this Dancy fellow or whatever he said (I haven't read it.) My position isn't that D&D needs a more complex social interaction system, it's that I take issue with Trollsmyth's insistence upn never ever using Charisma checks or reaction rolls or anything else using dice, and instead having everything social handled purely through player RP.

    I prefer a balance of RP and dice rolling. That way a socially-strong character with a socially-poor character can still have a chance to contribute, and a socially-poor character is going to be penalized even if the player is awesomely persuasive.

    I think Erin's not giving her players enough credit.

    Perhaps players in general, but not my players in specific. 2 out of my last 3 groups have been full of engineers and pilots, who are great at solving tactical dilemmas and puzzles, but who are somewhere between "humorously inept" and "Terrified" when it comes to role-playing. For them, the height of RP is "My character says something persuasive."

  11. Hmm....just had an interesting revelation that I'm sure plenty of others have had already.

    See, first, there was this James Maliszewski post about how the gaming community, in the old days, was all about the need to 'initiate' people into the fold - you learned to play by learning from older gamers -

    When I read it, I was reminded of the fact that I and my grade-school gaming group were all self-taught from the 2nd Ed books (and a little exposure to the Red Box). I didn't think too much of this remembrance.

    Then, this 'debate' got touched off, and people talked about the Reaction Chart, and something clicked -

    We never used the reaction chart. Ever. I'm pretty sure it existed in 2nd Ed (can't be sure, as I no longer have the books), but we never used it. Monsters were monsters, people were people. When npcs showed up, it was fairly obvious whether to commence to dialog or charge at them screaming, and it was usually that second one.

    So, if we didn't use that, I'm suddenly curious what other rules we didn't use, what other subtleties got completely ignored - plus, we're talking 2nd ed, so I assume there's a lot of the older subtleties that didn't even make it to the book. There was SOME exploration aspects to our games, yeah, but for the most part, it really was just about hacking our way through the Monster Manual.

    So now, it's finally clicking. I notice a lot of old-schoolers look at 4th ed (and 3rd ed, to a certain extent), and get confused - I saw somebody once say it looked like it was written BY people who didn't like DnD, FOR people who didn't like DnD. There's this question of who it's written for.

    Well, I'm guessing it's written for all those self-taught teens from the 90s. The guys who didn't use Reaction Chart. People for whom the game is more about combat than anything else, because nobody told them otherwise. I'm not gonna say whether I consider that good or bad (though I'll admit that 4th ed doesn't really work for me), but it's a realization about the editions that makes the paradigm disconnect on both sides make a little more sense to me.

  12. All involved in the latest debate have their good qualities. But, the discussion feels kind of daft. I mean, your summary condenses it quite succinctly I think. No need for further examples. Just well put.