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Don’t Fall For These RPG Arguments
Posted By Phil Vecchione On May 12, 2008 @ 3:37 am In GMing Advice | 23 Comments
In the world of RPG’s there are several classic RPG arguments that float around on various RPG blogs, message boards, and even raise their head in seminars at gaming conventions. I like to call these arguments, “spam arguments” because they are as original as the Nigerian 419 email message, and are just about as pointless. In hopes to have some kind of exorcism or cleansing ritual for Gnome Stew, I am going to present these 5 pointless arguments, discuss the root cause for each one, and ways to resolve or avoid the argument. It is my hope by discussing them in one article that they never have to appear on this site, leaving Gnome Stew to be a home for more enlightened RPG thought.
Argument 5: “Thats not how it would happen in real life!”
This argument seems so obvious, that it is a wonder that this comes up, over and over. The crux of this argument is that someone believes that the way the rules address a specific situation, is not realistic enough for the person’s taste. The most recent version of this argument, that I heard, was that in D&D a person with more than 10 hit points, can fall off a horse, something that is very dangerous in real life, and not be in any real danger of being hurt; that the mechanics did not sufficiently address the danger of falling off the horse. To the argurer’s point, they are right, with more than 10 Hit Points you are not in danger of falling off a horse. That was the mechanical trade off of not having your character turned into a pile of broken bones and ruptured organs on the first swipe of the dragon’s claw.
The truth is, that rarely are the mechanics of an RPG overly realistic or so complex to completly model every situation. In most cases RPG mechanics are geared for a more of an action-adventure feel, where falling off of a horse is just not as life threatening as standing in a cone of red dragon breath. Game mechanics are often designed to balance realism with entertainment, and a game that was super realistic is verly likely to be rule bloated and not much fun.
There is no real way out of this argument, other than to acknowledge that rules have mechanical styles and limitations, and that they are not perfect models of the real world. If your group finds a rule system too unrealistic, then shop around for another one. If you think that d20 Modern gun combat is not dangerous enough, try something like first edition Conspiracy X. Eventually you will find a model that best suits your group.
Argument 4: “Yes, my character is single, an orphan, and has no real attachments.”
This is the case where a player has created a character background that had left nothing for the GM to hook into for plot development. There are a few reasons why the player may have done this: lack of imagination, lack of interest, or fear of the GM doing something to the character during the game. Lets assume that your players have adquate imagination and that you have done a fine job creating and sustaning intrest in your game. That leaves a fear that you are going to take one of the characters loved ones, put them into harms way, and force the character into rescuing them.
Of course you are going to do that. As a GM you would be remiss in your duites not to take some part of a characters background and develop a story from it, even if that means hanging a loved one over the jaws of a red dragon. The catch is that as a GM, you need to establish with your players that you are using their background elements to make a more interesting and engaging stories, and are not dangling the character’s loved ones for your own enjoyment.
On the player’s side of this argument, it is your job to create interesting background material for the GM to take and use. In a way similar to the Burning Wheel beliefs system, the NPC’s and relationships you create, in your background, are your way of telling the GM, “Hey, these are some cool things about me, that I would like to explore.” Planning to have a spouse in your background, why not have them hate that you are an adventurer, and it has created tension in your relationship, every time you leave for a quest. How about instead of having a plain close friend, have a close friend with a substance abuse problem, or an obesession with the kingdom’s princess. Put some material out there that you find interesting, and bait your GM into letting you play it out.
Argument 3: “I am not being a jerk, I am playing in character!”
This sounds like it is part of the previous argument, but this is its own unique argument and is a much worst problem than the previous argument. In this case, a player has decided to become a disruption, in the game, and is defending their actions by using their character design. This is a social contract issue, plain and simple. Either the GM has allowed the player to create a disruptive character concept, without challenging the build, or the player has decided to take their character into a new direction…jerk. In either case, as the GM, you need to step in and talk with the player and address the character/player’s disruptive actions, before things boil over at the table.
The way to avoid this issue is when starting up a game, you need to define in the social contract what kinds of character builds, alignements, amount of intra-party conflict is going to be allowed in the game. This is a group decision, and needs to be a unanimous agreement, or this issue will creep its way into your campaign. Perhaps you do not want to GM a Chaotic Evil party, or that you do not want the Rogue to be stealing from the party between encounters; put it in the social contract and you wont have to worry about it coming up. If it does, refer back to the social contract and tell the player to get back on track.
Argument 2: “That’s not what is written in the rules!”
What can be said about this argument that hasnt been said on countless discussion boards. Hell some discussion boards (I am not naming any names, but you know who you are..) drive post after post over these very arguments. This argument arises when the rules for the game do not cover some specific application of a spell, ability, etc, forcing the GM to make a ruling. Often the ruling is in conflict with the player in question, and the fireworks begin. The discussion heats up and eventaully it is a showdown between the GM and the player. In the wake of this conflict, the fun of the game as been sucked dry, and there is nothing but hurt feelings and some teritorial pissing.
The heart of this argument is the concept of the letter of the law vs. the spirit of the law. The rule book of an RPG is finite. There are limits of how many rules can be put between the covers of the book. At some point some rule description is not going to make it into print. A good RPG has a clear central mechanic that allows a GM to make a reasonable ruling when there is a gap in the rules. Central mechanic or not, ultimately the GM must become the Supeme Court of the game, translating the spirit of the rules to address things that were not laid out in the rule book.
Where the argument really comes in, are with the people who belive that if it is not written in the rule book, then the rule does not exist. They are not comfortable with the GM making rulings, and fight the GM by pounding on the rule book trying to negate the GM’s ruling citing that the GM can’t go around making up their own rules. I like to call these people Rules Fundmentalists, and I think that history has shown us that Fundementalism has never really made anything any better, and often have made things much worst. There is no easy way out of this argument, until the Rule Fundementalist has a revelation and comes to understand that the GM is the final arbitrator of the rules for their campaign. That is not to say that players cannot have input, but ultimatly the GM is charged with the responsibility and the power to translate how the rules apply to their campaign. As long as that is done fairly and consistently, and not done with an agenda, there is no ground for the Rules Fundementalist to stand upon.
Argument 1: The Sanctity of the Dice
This argument is so polarizing, that even as I write it, I am scared to even bring it up. I once saw this very topic turn a rather easy-going, and fun, GMing seminar at GenCon into a raging debate, in under five minutes. The sancity of the dice: should the GM roll their dice in front of the players or behind the screen, and should the GM be allowed to “fudge” the roll to the betterment of the story. Every group has a feeling about this. Personally, I am for keeping my dice rolls hidden and sparingly fudging the rolls to maintain the story. But I am not without understanding of my open-rolling brothers and sisters.
The center of this argument, so that you can avoid it in the future, is based around two issues: the players trust in the GM, and the importance of playing the game vs. telling a story. Lets start with trust. If a group does not trust their GM, they are not going to trust that he is rolling fairly. If trust is the issue, there are larger issues within the group that may have to do with GMing style, GM vs. Player mentality, etc. Trust issues are hard to resolve, but by laying out some ground rules in the social contract, and making a leap of faiith, you may feel comfortable enough to let the GM roll his dice behind the screen. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.
The second issue, which I think is more common, has to do with what is more important to the group, playing the game as it was designed, or telling an engaging story. If playing the game is the most important issue, then the rolling of the dice can be done in the open, as you would if you were playing Monopoly, and if the next roll the GM makes leads to a TPK, then so be it, that is how the game is played. If the story is more important, then a GM needs some wiggle room to push those dice around, and take some liberties with the rolls they get. You don’t want that opening fight with the Kobolds to turn into a TPK, so you are going to let that natural 20 on the Rogue turn into a miss. The way to avoid this argument is to establish this firmly into your social contract. Discuss with your players what is most important in the game, then make that part of the contract, so that it works for your group. It does not matter how other groups handle this as long as your group is comfortable with the choice you made.
There you have it…5 of the worst RPG arguments, listed, discussed, and disarmed. Now we can go forth in this beautiful new blog together, and not have to worry about these arguments raising their ugly heads. What are some of the other classic arguments you have heard, and perhaps we can dissect these as well.
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