Organization and Time

Live Action Roleplaying (LARPs) avoid the same struggles of planning & timing vs. tabletop RPGs. Photo courtesy of
Live Action Roleplaying (LARPs) avoid the same struggles of planning & timing vs. tabletop RPGs. Photo courtesy of

Last week’s post on meta-gaming lead to a spirited discussion on my personal G+ account and the very first reply from Alexander Williams made an excellent point. While you can read the entire conversation here (also thanks to Gerardo Tasistro for his participation), Mr. Williams’ original comment has been provided below as this week’s Random Thoughts.

When you talk about – specifically – the turn-based nature of game mechanical resolution, you’re talking very specifically about the available time that any given player has to think about their interaction with the mechanics and the environment. That has nothing to do with organization. Even the most disorganized rabble can outmaneuver and outthink an organized opponent if they have the ability to stop time whenever they like.

I know exactly why you’re making this mistake: the primary context of your role-playing (mechanically) has been D&D, in which conflicts are broken down into smaller, quantized pieces, dealt with individually, and the results of the conflict emerges post hoc from the individual contributions of those quantized bits. Notably, that’s not how all role-playing games deal with resolving conflicts in a quantum sense. (That’s not even how all wargames resolve conflicts in a quantum sense at this point.)

Compare your question based on your experience to that of someone whose primary RPG experience was developed in the context of LARPs. In most LARPs, the idea of extremely small quantized conflict resolution chunks is fairly ludicrous. That’s just not how they work. How they actually work ranges from fairly broad not-quite-scene sized chunks (old-school Vampire MET) to we-don’t-stop-for-anything-keep-up continuous-combat that involves padded swords and the potential threat of rhino-hiding. In those games, the question of how you’re heard on the other side of the bar by the person you want to talk to is something that doesn’t come up as a question. It’s a constant concern.

In the real world, we have mechanisms for taming the rabble and making them useful. Militaries have been exploring those in refining the process for thousands of years at this point. In their training, militaries focus on dividing up tasks appropriately, focusing on the success of your assigned task first, assigning leadership roles, making sure that the person in charge actually understands how to bring together a team of people to common purpose, and instills an expectation in the group of success. Observation, orientation, decision, action – this is the loop that successful organizations of people must manage successfully.

You’ve observed that groups of people with no clear leadership, unpracticed in working together, and without unlimited time don’t do very well. The one element that you absolutely must have without practiced coordination or clear leadership is infinite time. That’s the tool that highly quantized turn-based systems allow players and GM’s to use in order to have success. Imagine how little fun it would be to try and get the typical gaming group through a D&D dungeon while requiring an absolute one-to-one mapping of real-time to game time. You would either end up with an extremely cautious – rationally so – group of people barely edging their way through an extremely dangerous environment, as rational people always do, or in an organized mob blundering along until they died. Horribly. The first might be fun for the right kind of group, but the latter is pretty much guaranteed to be no fun for anybody.

There are other ways of providing resolution of conflicts in a time extended way without small-quantum resolution. Scene level resolution is a fairly common one. You make one check for success/partial success/partial failure/failure at the beginning of the scene (or at the end of the scene) and let the role-play and interplay occur within the scene in real time, informed by the knowledge that the players possess about what is likely to or definitely going to happen. That often works much better if you’re looking for modeling and creating an experience which is much closer to that of people whose competencies lie in the simulated experience rather than the active simulating it. Alternately, you can have conflicts resolved without recourse to time – that is to say that they succeed or fail predictably every time based on some specific interaction between players, whether that be holding an appropriate Role (as in Kingdom), in-scene negotiation be a ritual phrases (as in Polaris), or even assumptive success on every act (as seen in Microscope). In every case, the player knows outcomes, all the players know the outcomes, and so their play in any individual scene is much more dynamic.

Basically, you’ve described the disease that only old-school gamers got, and the only cure is more cowbell – or at least exposure to games whose resolution mechanics are significantly different than what you’re used to, and in my opinion significantly superior in most cases to what you’re used to.

This is not a slam on D&D, it should be said. Rather, it’s a slam on the entire mode that D&D plays within without considering and exposing the assumptions on which is built. Pathfinder is an equal offender. In fact, pretty much the whole lot of the OSR movement is guilty as charged. They create patterns of thought which lead to certain reinforced expectations getting in the way of actually playing in a better structure. I’m not going to pull an Edwards and say that they cause brain damage, but as you’ve already determined they can lead to habits which are less than useful if your intent with the experience you want to create is to hew more closely to the reality experienced away from the game table.

Unless the character is psionic, in which case having a conversation across the bar is pretty trivial.

Random Thoughts is an ongoing series of… well, random thoughts provided by BRG’s lead designer, The Warden. Maybe this week will talk about the effects of initiative rolls and the next will cover how cool his new dice look. Whatever comes out of his head, this column is an outlet for these ramblings. 

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