Tuesday, April 26

Screw It, Let's Do This Thing

One of the most prominent things that emerged from 4e D&D was the "Yes, and..." rule. It really was a complete mindset shift for a lot of DMs - the idea that the player, and the general attitude of the table, were the point. Not the story, not the railroad, but having fun with friends.

In retrospect, it was pretty freaking obvious. It's a game. You play it with friends.
In my time in RPGs, I've come across some DMs who feel that players should feel privileged to experience their grand narrative. I've got some lovely angry rants about them, but I prefer ranting in person. So I'll address the opposite: I want to praise DMs who have fun.

I've had the great privilege of interacting occasionally with Phil Menard, the Chatty DM. He's embraced "Say Yes" gameplay with both hands, and I must confess: I find his games trippy and bizarre, but intensely interesting to read, and every indication I have is that they're immensely fun. He has a group of old (and some new, I imagine) friends around a table, and they have a great evening. Co-incidentally, they tell a story, roll some dice, and gain exp.

The more I've read of the DMs who are lauded in the present era of gaming, the more I'm realising that gaming is about energy levels and balance.

I've heard about quite a few games recently where DMs will halt gameplay to look up a rule, or will deny an option because it doesn't fit their mental model of a character. This works well in a boardgame, where the rules are written on the back of the box. Heck, even the more complex games like Munchkin can do this, because the rules are highly consistent and once you "get" them, you never need to look anything up.

Then you break out D&D. With dozens of rulebooks, hundreds of pages of general rules, and thousands of pages of overrides to those rule for things like race, class, feats, skills, powers and so on. It is simply mind-boggling to take in all those rules. And looking up the general rule, then each thing that might override it for a character requires ages.

I've learnt a great deal about RPGs over the last decade from Corvys. And probably the most important thing was to go "Meh, I don't know the rule and I'm too lazy to look it up right now (but I'll make a note to look it up after the game), I'll roll a dice. Even, your interpretation is right, odds, mine is." - it keeps game flow running. I wouldn't recommend it for Monopoly, but for D&D it's probably the only sane response.

But taking this even further - I adore players who straddle the border between "in the rules" and "not in the rules". The guy who shoots the chandelier so that it falls on the bad guy. The guy who builds a crazy Machine out of the equipment in his backpack and short-circuits the planned story completely. And I love him for two reasons:
1) Doing that is the damn surest way of getting players to connect, to role-play, to really engage with the fantasy and the game.
2) One of the reasons I love to DM is to stretch my creativity. By forcing me to think "out of the box" with them for a minute, these players do me a favour - they make me a better DM, and it can be immensely fun working out the details for the results of their endeavours.

But what I just described was the "Yes" part of "Yes, and...". The "and..." part is equally imperative to the philosophy. "Yes" means empowering players. Letting them know that they are more important to you and to the game than your story is. But "and..." is probably even more fun, and a wonderful way to jibe characters back. "And..." is your chance to introduce complications. If your pacing is off, "and..." can give you a nice chunk of time to breathe and let players relax a little.

Allow me to elaborate:
One of Corvys' players is the epitome of the out-of-the-box players. A great guy, his current character's goal in life is to build a giant adamantine war-suit (inspired by the titans of Warhammer 40k) and destroy an evil country whose government wronged him (hey, I *said* he was an out-of-the-box thinker!).
A DM who dismisses this as an insane scheme isn't necessarily doing something wrong - it could be dissonant to his style of gameplay, and I'm always loathe to tell anyone that they're "doing role-playing wrong" - but he's missing out on so much amazing fun!

"Yes, you can build your giant adamantine war-suit. And... to get the adamantine to do it, you'll need to engage with my story in this other way." So when another player at the table, say a combat-fan, begins to flag and get tired, annoyed or just uninterested, you can swing the plot to a combat one by making our warsuit player fight for his adamantine. The intrigue player is looking annoyed? Well, it turns out that the plans for the control portion of the warsuit are in this noble's vault, and you'll need to politic your way into his household to get them.

"Yes, and..." is one of the most powerful tools in a DM's bag of tricks. Never underestimate it, and you will find that it makes controlling the ebb and flow of energy around a table much easier.

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