Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Improvisation: D&D is not a video game

There have been several occasions when I have tried to introduce D&D to newbies. Since all of them are familiar with board games where you take turns and move around game pieces, they would invariably look at D&D from that frame of reference. "Taking turns" is a concept that comes naturally. But in RPGs, the taking of turns only occurs during combat. The other parts of game play that involve traveling between dungeon and town seem ridiculous and unnecessary. To them, nothing happens that seems of consequence. There is no earned XP, no treasure gained, nothing that seems directly related to rules stated in the books. When I declare to the newbie players that a "wandering monster" has appeared before them on the road, it seems to them that I'm being arbitrary. It doesn't fit into their idea of a confined arena that is carefully defined by a map printed on a board sitting on a table top whereupon game pieces are pushed around.

Or maybe the newbie has played medieval fantasy RPGs on the computer. He is very familiar with the idea of exploring underground labyrinths, fighting monsters, and looting treasure. He is well aware that more powerful weapons, armor, and magic items await them once they have gained enough gold. But when it comes to the improvisational aspects of character interaction, he is almost always confronted with a barrier: actual role-playing.

I experienced the latter type of newbie the other night. He's a smart guy and has played plenty of computer RPGs. I have not.

The last computer RPG that I played was probably Wizardry on an Apple II sometime in the early 1980s. Or maybe the Farscape computer game counts as an RPG? I enjoyed that. There was that time that I gave one of the Final Fantasy games a try. I don't remember which one it was but I do remember getting bored and selling it to someone else. I made a concious effort to avoid Everquest because I knew from the tales told about it that there was a danger of becoming addicted. At the time, I was hooked on playing first-person shooters and I was afraid I'd waste even more time on a MMORPG. I've never played Morrowind, although it has been repeatedly recommended to me. Do the recent Grand Theft Auto games count as RPGs? Because I really enjoy playing games from that series. Conspicuously, I've never played World of Warcraft.

The prime reason that I've never been very interested in computerized role-playing games is that you don't actually play a role. Yes, you can create characters that you gradually enhance over time. No doubt pre-programmed NPCs react to you based on your class, race, and your choice of responses. But the player is not tasked with actually taking on the role of the character and engaging in improvisation.

I am not an actor. But I was raised by one. My mother was an actor and a theater director. Although I did not end up becoming an actor myself, I did become involved with local community theater. I tried a little bit of stage acting but it just wasn't my cup of tea. Along the way, I took part in acting classes of one sort or another. One of the exercises that actors practice is improvisation. Sometimes this skill is necessary during a stage performance when another actor forgets a line, someone misses an entrance, or perhaps because of a technical malfunction backstage.

Improvisation is vital for playing a role-playing game. It's the only way that a story can be built or advanced. Otherwise, it becomes the much-maligned hack-and-slash variety of dungeon crawling. Monsters appear, players kill, loot, buy gear, rinse, repeat. Dullsville. That's fine if you just want to play a tactical war game. That's what D&D really is at its heart. But the game evolved beyond its strategy war game roots. Role-playing is what makes it distinct.

You don't have to be a skilled actor to play a role-playing game. As a player, it's your option to actually speak what your character is saying in the imaginary game world. Or you can merely describe what your character is speaking. Sometimes the DM might just require the players to roll the dice to see if they succeed at some sort of social skill such as "Fast-talk" or "Diplomacy." Skill rolls rely upon a PC's known skill score. Social skill rolls can be used as a crutch for players who may not be inclined to resolve in-game social interactions.

But even social skill dice rolls are useless if the player does not engage with NPCs at all. That was the situation I faced the other night.

One of my players is an experienced computer RPG gamer. He is very familiar with fantasy adventure scenarios and what constitutes them. But he is used to having the computer program provide him with "quests." All interactions with NPCs are pre-programmed and have limited variability. This guy has never had a successful experience with pencil-and-paper RPGs.

I was running my group through a Dungeon Crawl Classic module that was published by Goodman Games. It took place in a building located within a city. The dungeon was beneath the building. The game was proceeding normally. But when they encountered a group of NPCs in one room, the game came to a dead stop. He wouldn't talk to the NPCs. He was clearly expecting a fight like with all the other monster encounters. The player was confused and just looked at me as if I was about to reveal to him what he should obviously do next. Nothing. Dead silence. No interaction. Eventually, the player made feeble attempts to brush past these NPCs. But I wasn't going to let him do that. This made him think that these NPCs were somehow related to the main subject of the adventure. I imagine that he was used to that sort of thing in his computer games. But these NPCs had nothing to do with the adventure and were merely placed in this module to open up role-playing, generate possible future story hooks, and/or create new allies or enemies. But the player just sat there, having no idea what to do. I finally realized that this was going absolutely nowhere and so I just made the NPCs ignore the players and go back to drinking and playing cards.

Another big problem I had with this player was a puzzle that the group had to solve. It was an entrance to the next level of the dungeon. In order to open the portal, words had to be spoken in a particular language. The required language was not obscure. It's just that none of the players could speak it. It was just like that scene in Lord of the Rings where all Gandalf had to do to enter Moria was speak "friend" in elvish. So there my players were, in this dungeon, and none of them knew the language required to open the magical portal. They knew it was some particular language, but they had no idea which one.

They had absolutely no idea what to do next. The computer RPGer could not conceive of the idea that, because no one in the group could speak dwarven, the solution to the puzzle was not within the dungeon. He tried searching through all the rooms that they had previously explored. Reading all the books that they found. Nothing helped.

Other DMs might have done something to help the characters along. Perhaps I could have said that they finally find a piece of paper in a desk drawer that describes exactly how to open the portal. But that doesn't challenge the player. I recently vowed that I would not allow my players to get off easy just so they could advance. No, they would actually have to solve the puzzle and I wouldn't allow them to just "make a skill roll."

Nothing was coming to them. I realized that as far as my computer RPGer friend was concerned, this dungeon represented the entire reality of the PC. The most I felt I could do was give him this very general clue. The player eventually suggested the idea, "Well, I guess I could find someone in the city who might help. But I have no idea who." I awarded him bonus experience points and we ended the night's session.

I'm not sure that this campaign is going to get anywhere if the player is not willing to interact with non-player characters. If the dungeon doesn't have the obvious means to overcome obstacles laid before him, he doesn't seem to have the ability to improvise.

D&D is not a video game.


Gamer Dude said...

Interesting post...

I most heartily agree.

One of the tenets of "old school" gaming is to challenge the player and not the character. It's what we did as kids when we first started this hobby way back when. ('77 for me...)

At the time there were no rules that dictated the outcome of any kind of social interaction. (beyond morale and reaction I suppose) We had to describe to the DM what we were attempting to achieve and how we were going about it. Nearly everything was's just "how" we played. The landscape has drastically changed though.

In today's games, players simply drive a set of stats around looking for touch points within the structure of the game. I suppose that it's now necessary for a game master to spell out the "type" of game you're looking to run at the beginning of play. There's an interesting document called the "Old School Primer" (I think) that has some interesting things to say about this topic.

jamused said...

Why don't you just tell them how the game works instead of expecting them to guess? If you know that they're having trouble wrapping their heads around the freedom you're giving them to interact with the NPCs, and you don't want to kick things off by having the NPCs initiate the conversation with them, it's ok to clue the players in. There's nothing wrong with discussing the game as a game with new players and teaching them the differences between face-to-face RPGs and so-called RPGs on computers. I think old school GMs can fall into this mind-set that because in the game they don't want to be steering the players, they're forbidden to explain to new players how they're supposed to play, so they sit there like inscrutable oracles while the players get frustrated. If you had just unbent enough to say "Look, these NPCs have nothing to do with the adventure and were merely placed in this module to open up role-playing, generate possible future story hooks, and/or create new allies or enemies. It's not like a computer game where they'd only be here if you could fight them or get a quest from them; they're people in this world and as GM I'll do my best to make them react appropriately if you approach them in character as if they were real people." you all could have had more fun.

M.gunnerQuist said...

@ jamused:

I did do all of that. I explained everything that you said in meta-game terms. I thoroughly and completely explained it to him, many, many, many, many times before we began game play. And I explained it again after it finally occurred to him that they could seek help elsewhere in the town. I'm sorry that I did not make that more clear.

They needed that lesson. I did not want them to depend on me for answers during the course of the game.

Also, I think my point of this post was that some people are just not cut out for pencil-and-paper RPGs and would probably have more fun playing computer games.