Sunday, May 7, 2017

GM Philosophy: Playstyle Matters

When starting a new D&D game, there are many things you want to get new players on the same page with, and other entries in this series have addressed several of them.  But perhaps one of the most important is to figure out what style of game you want to play.  Now, there are many different ways to categorize style of play, but I’ve come up with one that I think will make sense to everyone: you can either play a Conan-style game, or a Game-of-Thrones-style game, or a Lord-of-the-Rings style game.*

Now, to fully understand what those different styles mean in concrete terms, we should discuss what D&D’s fifth edition (affectionately known as 5e) calls the “Three Pillars of Adventure.”  From their online basic rules:

Adventurers can try to do anything their players can imagine, but it can be helpful to talk about their activities in three broad categories: exploration, social interaction, and combat.

Exploration includes both the adventurers’ movement through the world and their interaction with objects and situations that require their attention. Exploration is the give-and-take of the players describing what they want their characters to do, and the Dungeon Master telling the players what happens as a result. On a large scale, that might involve the characters spending a day crossing a rolling plain or an hour making their way through caverns underground. On the smallest scale, it could mean one character pulling a lever in a dungeon room to see what happens.

Social interaction features the adventurers talking to someone (or something) else. It might mean demanding that a captured scout reveal the secret entrance to the goblin lair, getting information from a rescued prisoner, pleading for mercy from an orc chieftain, or persuading a talkative magic mirror to show a distant location to the adventurers.  ...

Combat ... involves characters and other creatures swinging weapons, casting spells, maneuvering for position, and so on—all in an effort to defeat their opponents, whether that means killing every enemy, taking captives, or forcing a rout. ...  Even in the context of a pitched battle, there’s still plenty of opportunity for adventurers to attempt wacky stunts like surfing down a flight of stairs on a shield, to examine the environment (perhaps by pulling a mysterious lever), and to interact with other creatures, including allies, enemies, and neutral parties.

This explicit distinction between the three different aspects of roleplaying is new for 5e.  Previous editions (and a majority of other PnP RPGs, for that matter) have been all about combat.  It’s a bit refreshing to see the other “pillars” get some love, especially if you believe as I do that roleplaying is storytelling: a good story needs some good fights, sure, but a string of constant battles glued together minimally with various other bits does not a story make.  You need a balance of all three.  But of course you can lean one way or another (or another) pretty hard.  Which brings us to the 3 styles.

A Conan-style game is all about killing things.  Recall your fondest memories of the archetypal barbarian: Conan fighting a giant serpent, Conan holding back hordes of wild Picts single-handedly, Conan using a giant sword to lop off a wizard’s head.  Oh, sure: there’s a few other bits as well—sometimes you have to fool some guards in order to get into the wizard’s tower to lop off his head, and sometimes you have to survive the dangers of the swamp where the fell beast lurks—but, generally speaking, Conan wanders around, kills things, and takes their stuff.  It’s just what he does.

Contrariwise, a Game-of-Thrones-style game is all about politics.  Think about the most iconic Westeros moments: Littlefinger saying to Ned Stark “I did warn you not to trust me,” Tyrian talking himself out of the dungeon in the Eyrie, Cersei consistently crushing her enemies without ever having to stab a single person.  Again, there will be aspects that don’t involve interaction (duels with Kingslayers, wandering around the frozen tundra beyond a giant ice wall), but mostly it’s about diplomacy, treachery, and manipulation.

Then you have the Lord-of-the-Rings style, where you know there’s going to be an epic quest with many obstacles to overcome.  The big set pieces here are things like the chase through the Mines of Moria, Sam and Frodo trying to sneak past entire armies of orcs in Mordor without being seen, or Aragorn’s amazing tracking of Merry and Pippin.  In a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game, you’re certainly going to have to fight a giant spider or two, and you may have to talk some walking trees into helping you take down an evil wizard, but mostly it’s going to be about the journey and all the challenges you face along the way.

Now, one thing to note here is that each of these has a different balance among the three pillars.  For instance, say we rated the amount of each pillar in each style of game on a scale of 1 – 5.  A fully Conan-style game might be rated: Combat 5, Exploration 2, Interaction 1.  And a Game-of-Thrones-style might be: Interaction 5, Combat 3, Exploration 2.  Whereas a Lord-of-the-Rings-style might be: Exploration 4, Combat 3, Interaction 2.  At least those might be the numbers if we were trying to emulate the trope namers as closely as possible.  But of course we’re not locked into those numbers: each pillar is like a dial, and we can turn it up or down.  So, if we wanted to play a Conan-style game but with a lot more social interaction, we could change it to Combat 5 / Interaction 3 / Exploration 2.  Or say we wanted to play Lord-of-the-Rings-style but we also want to kill things more than anything else—just crank the combat up to 11, so to speak, and get Combat 5 / Exploration 4 / Interaction 2.

But now I hear you thinking, “wait a minute ... I thought a focus on combat was what defined the Conan-style.  If we crank up the combat dial on Lord-of-the-Rings-style all the way, haven’t we just turned it into a Conan-style game?”  No, not at all.  Because the focus on the different pillars turns out to be just a characteristic of the various styles; what actually defines the styles runs deeper.  The tales of Conan are a series of disconnected adventures.  Robert E. Howard once wrote:

In writing these yarns I’ve always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That’s why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.

So a Conan-style game is basically just a set of adventures whose only connection are the lead characters.  Now, they won’t “skip about” the way Conan stories do—they’ll happen in chronological order, and the characters will grow stronger and more deadly as the campaign progresses.  So, if the characters can be said to have any goal at all, it would only be personal growth: to gradually become better and better at what they do, which is mostly killing things in the classic Conan style, but could be exploration or even interaction, if we’ve twiddled the dials.

Contrast that with the Game-of-Thrones-style, where the characters have very definite goals that revolve around gaining more power and respect and influence (which is what politics is all about, really).  Most of the characters tend to do that through social interaction—Tyrian, Varys, Littlefinger, Cersei ... even Daenerys becomes quite an astute political animal as the story progresses.  Jon Snow is probably the only real exception to this rule, and even he has to learn to navigate the political waters of the Night’s Watch.  So the goals of the characters in this style of game are to gain more and more importance, eventually perhaps becoming rulers of their own kingdoms.  (Some early D&D games often focussed on this style, particularly settings like Birthright.)  Though this is most commonly achieved through interaction, you could imagine a campaign where characters amassed military might and conquered their kingdoms, or carved them out of untamed wilderness.

And the defining characteristic of a Lord-of-the-Rings-style game is the quest to defeat evil: in this type of campaign, you are assured to have an evil artifact to destroy, or an evil sorcerer to slay—or preferably both, as Frodo and the Fellowship do.  While Frodo and Sam work on getting the Ring into Mount Doom, Aragorn and Gandalf lead the main forces to Sauron’s door to confront him.  (Although note that the combat aspects of this latter confrontation are downplayed even there.)  There may be other stories along the way—one could convincingly argue that that’s exactly what The Hobbit is—but overall the entire campaign is going to seem like one overarcing storyline when you look back on it.  And that will be true even if you had to mostly kill things to defeat the great evil, or if you just had to talk it to death.

So, when we first decide to sit down and play D&D, one of the first things I want everyone to agree on is what style we’re going to play.  Are we going to go with the Conan-style, having a series of mostly disconnected adventures, probably focussed on killing things and amassing treasure?  Or perhaps we want a Game-of-Thrones-style campaign, focussing on rising to the upper echelons of nobility and perhaps even acheiving godhood, almost certainly with lots of political maneuvering and finessing?  Or would we rather see a Lord-of-the-Rings style epic quest, no doubt including solving puzzles or even crimes, wandering through or taming nature, and avoiding traps set by long-lost civilizations?  All of these things can be fun, but if we’re not all on the same page, some of us are going to be bored, and eventually disappointed.  At the very least we can set the expectations of the players appropriately: you may think constantly wandering around killing everything you encounter is boring,** but you can’t complain as much about it if you had your chance to opt out at the beginning but agreed, however reluctantly.

Thus, playstyle matters.  It matters because roleplaying is storytelling, and it happens to be shared storytelling, and all the storytellers need to be on the same page.  Otherwise we end up like those stories crafted by grade-schoolers, where each person gets to contribute a single line to the story, and the whole thing ends up being a schizophrenic mess as each narrator tries to wrest control back and force the story to go in the direction they had envisioned.  In the end, those exercises rarely produce good stories.  Because the participants didn’t agree beforehand on what type of story they were telling.  In the case of D&D, you know you’ve already agreed to a fantasy story.  But there are still several different kinds of stories that fall under that rubric, and we need to choose one.

Because, once all the players are aiming in the same direction, the net effect will be magical.


* The fact that these are the top 3 things I mentioned as likely being in everyone’s shared experience (when talking about how roleplaying is storytelling) is no accident.

** This practice, by the way, is sometimes derogatorily referred to as being a party of ”murderhobos.”

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