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. 

Order From Chaos

EscapeManorHey, gang. Warden here. From time to time – as I’m sure it is with any game designer – my mind drifts away from reality and ponders the intent and purpose behind game mechanics when the world around us offers a new puzzle. This is one of those moments.

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in a rather exciting and new form of party game that psyched all of us in the group because we’re all hard core roleplayers. D&D mostly, but that’s beside the point. It’s a place in the heart of downtown Ottawa called Escape Manor and the premise is this: you and a group of no more than five other friends are locked in a room for 45 minutes. The room has a particular theme and is packed with hidden clues, which you and your group must uncover and decipher one-by-one until you find a way to unlock the door and escape. Oh yeah, the decades of D&D gave us an empowering sense of experience and we were incredibly confident this room would be open within 30 minutes.

Nope. We failed. According to the host, we were probably 50% of the way through. Maybe 60%, if he felt generous.

I’m not going to get into any details nor were any photos allowed because it is truly something you have to try yourself and any hints and lead-ins can truly spoil the experience. If you’re interested in checking it out and live in the Ottawa area, here’s their website. If not, check around any major metropolitan area and see if there are others like this near you. (I know there’s another one in Toronto at least.)

Why did we fail? Each of us had a different opinion, but I couldn’t help but notice the absolute flood of independent thinking going on during our time in the room. This was a given as it’s human nature for everyone to scramble without proper leadership, guidance, or experience, but that’s not what struck me at that moment. The irony was that the quote-unquote experience we had solving similar puzzles in a roleplaying game did jack squat for us in a real life experience. It seemed that without the order brought on by organized turns, we were all running around grabbing clues left, right, and centre without devising any plan of attack or working together on each clue individually. Instead, everyone started grabbing things and shouting out questions and suggestions in a mad panic.

Which brings me to the crux of this post. What would your game be like if there were no turns? If everyone could freely act whenever they wanted and play as if it was Black Friday: The Shopping Frenzy RPG, how chaotic would things become after time? Even during organized turn structures, player still have a tendency of forgoing logical limitations such as distance during communication (one player moves in the opposite side of a crowded room and yet can still provide a suggestion to the other player or share details on what they witnessed). Basically, meta-gaming. It’s part of the gaming experience, there’s no doubt. Unless the rules clearly state no player shall vocally contribute during another player’s turn (and punish any infringement), players will push their opinions and observations into the game as part of a mad dash to move the game forward.

It can be very easy to forget that while it is a game with friends gathered around pretending to be other characters in dangerous situations, there are many in-game restrictions that drastically affect how their characters function and how gamemasters allow these alterations to happen for the sake of play. In other words, if our characters acted as chaotically as players, how well do you think they’d do in an actual dungeon or in negotiations with a hostile nation? Granted, the entire purpose of a roleplaying game is to pretend you’re someone else with skills and powers beyond your own, so the entire function of an RPG should allow for these kind of exceptions. My point in all this is to simply consider the effect meta-gaming has during tense moments where every minute action, movement, and sentence can make an impact on the game. How would characters actually communicate if they’re on opposite sides of a crowded tavern? Would the group have a chance to continuously huddle and consider their next words when brought before a powerful warlord? How well would your players perform if they had to face similar restrictions in a social scene as they would in combat?

Just a little something to think about next time you’re playing your favourite game.

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.