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Late Night Post on New Players

I have had a fairly interesting 2 months introducing a whole lot of people to playing rpgs. This is hopefully going to be a pretty small post, focusing on some of my thoughts on the process of teaching/learning rpgs (I'm writing this at 3 am, forgive me if its a little messy). I'm going to focus on a single session of The Pool I played a few weeks ago, but I have also introduced this same group of players to Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Trollbabe, and recently Champions Now, which we played our first session of last week. All of the games have been fun, and everyone in the group brings something interesting to the table. 

I have heard and been given a lot of strange advice about teaching people rpgs. A lot of the advice seems to focus on picking a game extremely carefully that will be "easy" to understand for new players, often with a focus on games with soft failure. What soft failure usually means, in my experience, is no real failure at all, ever, and the absence of real failure in a game often means an absence of real success. Both of these, among other common design choices for these kinds of games, mean that players often have very little agency.

So I decided to jettison all of this advice, which I think is terrible, and commit to my often repeated theory--new players (especially the ones who haven't been indoctrinated into the hobby and picked up bizarre habits before even playing a single session) are awesome, and they can learn new rules and play new games. They can make bold decisions, and most importantly--they can handle real consequences. I have said this a couple times on the site and at the Discord, and I thought I would head out into the real world and prove it. 

So...what happened in this session of The Pool? I'm going to focus on a single, highly consequential roll. Here's some context:

The players were playing explorers on Pasitheia, a once glamorous satellite planet orbitting Mars which had been invaded by aliens and turned into a horrific, flesh-jungle covered nightmare planet, with a few struggling human settlements remaining. I told the players that they had just stumbled upon something they never expected to find--another human settlement. This is the information they used to make their characters, along with some information about the fascist empire that controlled most of the human planets, and some information about the vat-grown "chosen", humans grown with specific genetic makeup and raised to be exploitable workers. I also told them that the characters probably dressed like the monks from Aliens 3. 

The settlement they had found was populated by the members of a crashlanded freighter that had been headed for Pluto with a big supply of Earth grown vegetables, a rare delicacy on the far off planet. The royal gaurds onboard had taken over when they landed and were becoming more and more violent as food supplies diminished.

So the group approached the settlement, and was instantly accosted by a large group of these gaurds. Here's where things went somewhere I never expected. One of the players, my friend Laura, had made a character who had fled her noble parents, who were very important in the human empire, and upon the gaurds approaching, she revealed her parentage to them (and the rest of the group) and demanded to be given control of the operations of the settlement. I told her she should roll, and she succeeded. She took the monologue of victory, and described them bowing to her and ritualistically licking her boots. This was her first session ever, and from the result of that roll, and how it altered the situation in such a fundamental way, I saw her have a realization that she had real agency at the table, and she began to really step up her play. I think that roll taught her a lot--and it worked because she had the real thing in her hands, not a scaled down version of the real thing. I think she realized that she was dealing with real success and real failure in that moment. Having a player come to the realization that what they said really mattered is the single most important aspect of "teaching" or introducing someone to roleplaying, because it shows them what this is all about. 

A little more reflection--we have seen some pretty intense failure in other games, as well as big successes. We saw a Trollbabe get killed (blasted apart by a minigun weilding robot), and a bunch of Lamentations characters get close to being slaughtered by some esoteric creatutes. Through all these experiences, I have only seen enthusiasm for play rise.

I hope this post will inspire people to think twice about how they introduce new people to rpgs. They don't need to be babied, and they don't need training wheels. Get to the cool shit quick--and by the cool shit, I mean the agency. Don't hand them a tambourine, give them a guitar and turn their amp up high. 

I would appreciate comments about other people's experiences introducing people to rpgs, and I'll try to expand on my (pretty brief) reflections here in the comments of this post, if people end up replying. 

Department: 
Actual Play

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

For years, decades even, my understanding of new players' fun focused on the presumed bad-experience aspects of failure. I realized something was off about that concept a couple of years into playing Champions (therefore the late 80s): players apparently loved moments of flat-out "nopes." But then again, far more so the newer players, to a significant degree.

I started paying attention to failed outcomes, although, in retrospect of my 1990s play and early designs, without much insight. But I knew it was important. I thought about an experience of play that I've repeated in writing and conversations many times, in which I saw a person entirely embrace hatred for the narrated outcome, her character, the scene, this system, role-playing of any kind, the GM (her fiance), us, and indeed, anything and everything about every person present and anything they did. On the first roll of the first action her character took in the first half-hour of the first session.

Because it wasn't the failure. I now think it was the combination of two things. The first, which is the lesser of the two, was the GM's description of the failure as tremendously incompetent and humiliating, "and now you look ridiculous" kind of thing. That's not irrelevant to her response, but it's not the second, main thing: that there was no change of any kind to what was going on. Anyone's action that took place before this one didn't affect it, and this one didn't affect anyone's next action. The "miss" meant that the action was rendered blank in terms of the activity of any other character.

I realize now that if this had been raw footage shot for a movie, the editor would have treated it as irrelevant to the action and spliced it out. It would only exist, possibly, as a blooper clip. And I also realize - and did understand, back then, without articulating it - that this is exactly how the GM interpreted it. Once described as a blooper, the activity from start to finish was divorced from the fiction. The lesson was clear, that she was in the position of rolling dice to be present as a person.

 

 

Sam's picture

This comment is about watching a new player experience joy in failing, and owning the failure of their character. I think its highly related to your comment so I'm making it a reply.

I am currently playing a game of Champions Now with a group of new players that include some of the people who played in the game of The Pool I discussed above, and a few other players (also new). In total there are 4 players, and 1 who will be joining irregularly. The game is set in Waco, Texas and has involved interactions between cults and abusive military funded research, all involving a heavy occult flavor. 

So in this particular session, one of the heroes, Scarab, had been invited to the announcement party for a new project between the professor they work with and the shady organization Celltek. They decided to invite their heroic friends, so the whole group was there. 

A series of events happened that led to a fight breaking out between two Celltek supervillains and the heroes (I would go into it but its not super relevant) in the middle of an auditorium packed with wealthy people and local politicians. The supervillains included the cold and calculating Machine Girl (really Dakota White, lead scientist at the Waco division of Celltek), with her floating titanium orbs controlled by a teched-out gauntlet from the demonic realm of Asgard, and Brute, an ex-convict who was given "freedom" in exchange for being the subject of some experiments at Celltek, which led to his body being divided into ~20 pieces, each with a walking, thinking machine attached to it.

The fight was looking pretty grim--my two supervillains were strategizing well, making use of threats against the civilians to divide the attention of the heroes, and generally knocking them all around the room. One of my friends was playing a hero called Hugo the Great, a jovial and humorous hero with some badass robot eyes and morphing robot arms. He decided to try to get in close with Machine Girl and attempt a Martial Kick (which he described as his arms morphing into a huge mace), which he landed solidly, knocking her into the floor for extra damage. I was vocally annoyed (I don't want my badass supervillain's reputation slandered), and everyone else was excited--it was the first real hit someone had landed on her that felt like it really hurt her. As she pulled herself out of the hole in the floor, she screamed for Brute, and his head whipped around like an owl to stare at Hugo. Brute was up next, and he punched Hugo right through the side of the stage, landing Hugo deep in the basement below the auditorium. Hugo hadn't been knocked out, but he had been taken to 0 knockout. Even though Hugo spent the rest of the fight sucking wind and trying to find a way out of the basement, his attack on Machine Girl proved to be a shift in the fight that led to multiple supervillain psychological situations being triggered, ending in a (very suprising) meltdown and subsequent retreat for both of them. 

So...the next session, I asked my friend what Hugo was up to. It was a Sunday, the day after the fight, and I was playing it cool. He told me that Hugo was sitting on his phone on Twitter, looking at gifs of him being brutally smashed through the stage and into the basement by Machine Girl. He described his character sending one of them to the group chat the heroes had. I was kind of astonished that the moment his character (and therefore him) was choosing to highlight was the moment his guy took a beating and was rendered useless for the rest of the fight. 

That same session, Hugo was attempting to sneak into the Celltek building, and failed a security systems roll. He was just barely to make it out of the building (with the help of Cota, a dude who can possess rats and grow them into absurd sizes, who smashed the locked doors of the building down) before the squad of supervillains in the secret basement of the building could catch up to him. The failure was a big deal--Hugo's mission would have involved placing secret cameras inside the villain's base. It also included the potential for violent retribution in the moment (which was avoided by some quick thinking), and certainly means (although the players don't know it yet) that both fleeing heroes will be trailed in an attempt to find out where they live by some of the numerous drones I described as endlessly flying around the Celltek building. 

This comment is getting really long, but I'll end with this. I saw this player experiencing much more joy in these failures than in his successes. Notably, these were the events he wished to reincorporate into the story, and remind us all of, and retell them in his own words. And after the second of those two sessions, all of the players remarked on how they understood that they needed to "play smart and strategize" to defeat these villains. 

Ron Edwards's picture

Regarding the topic, this account of play totally speaks for itself and I can only gesture at it mutely, making awkward thumbs-ups and pointing.

I'm commenting to say that Champions Now provides me with little sense of accomplishment, and unfortunately quite a bit of "no good deed goes unpunished." The few people it seems to reach make a world of difference to me, and I am really glad and really happy that you and the others are enjoying it this much in this way.

LorenzoC's picture

It sounds like a great time, Sam, but reading your recount of the play session made me think about something; it doesn't necessarily apply to your situation here, but I think it's related.

I would advise some caution when analyzing player behaviour and the idea of success and agency, because I've often noticed that from behind the GM's screen player enjoyment and partecipation is often hard to read. Combine this with the "fetshization" of GM behaviours and authorities and the risk is that of seeing agency as "someone got to do the GM-thing for a while". I don't think it works like that, and in particular I think this often leads to that style of play where nobody is playing with each other and everyone is taking turns being the "GM".

The Pool is a game where players have quantitatively a lot of influence on how the narrative develops, but if I learned something from it it's that getting to have a big speech or to put on the GM's hat and describe the actions of characters other than mine is worth very little if play isn't authentic up to that point.
If we got more successes and thus more MoV in our failed Frog Pool game... nothing would have changed. We would have talked a lot and described a lot but that would have been fruitful only if we had played up to that point. I think part of "learning from the Pool" consists in learning how to stop worrying about the MoV.

So again, this isn't criticism of your story. But immeditately going "that was an awesome MoV!" with "this person immediately understood play!" could be dangerous. Because the "awesome MoV" is the type of GM-stuff that is really easy to pick up. I think the GM role is the easiest form of play, personally. We're natural storytellers and when you're given near-absolute power it's even easier. 
Ron has often been warning me about sitting in the GM's chair too much, and from my understanding part of the problem is here. "Play" isn't just talking a lot and making cool shit out of the outcomes; that's the easy, flashy part. I think the most important element is learning to not be scared of failure, and in fact owning those failures and have agency in failure. 

I've seen people with no experience or interest in roleplaying games create wonderful stories while playing Dixit. 

Again don't take this negatively; it isn't criticism of your example but rather what's going on in my mind and how your story made me think about it.

LorenzoC's picture

Trying to explain a bit better what I mean:

If this is the first step towards new players enjoying play, great.

But if the outcome here was "Wow, she got a lot of control and she described everything so well!", and people immediately think "This MoV thing is awesome, I want to do that too!" and eventually they identify play with that, and get dissatisfied whenever the game/other games doesn't give them that... you have created a new GM, rather than a player. And since the GM is another player, if you leapfrog the player stage and immediately go GM, that may be trouble.

 

Ron Edwards's picture

I just lost a reply by clicking something wrong. Everyone leave this alone until I get back to it, please.

Ron Edwards's picture

(unfortunately the more fatigued and less articulate version)

Your general point isn't wrong as a concept, but it concerns unknown third-parties, "people," "players" in the abstract, and you've needlessly framed it as a direct caution or contrast to what Sam says. I don't see that going anywhere good.

Let's take this as exactly what does not happen in some cases and examine why. I think you're right to point to failure, but I'll expand that to any outcome at the point when we expect to know "what has happened." [Depending on the system, "outcome" may require a lot of different procedures and input. So I'm not talking about isolated rolls necessarily.]

Let's also extend it backwards a little to the activity and understanding before applying a device like dice. So it's not just "how we determine the outcome" but also how we knew what we were doing in the first place. Even if, as in The Pool, it's often functional and even desirable not to know every last detail of getting to an outcome beforehand, it's still critical to know, fictionally, why the fuck we are even doing this "dice" thing, or whatever an equivalent may be in some other game.

Spot the "fictionally" in the above paragraph. I just blowtorched the core of the situation you are rightly criticizing. I just barbecued the whole concept of rolling to get what you want, i.e., controlling the parameters and/or content of what happens next, after this outcome. This is what we might call being trapped in the future:

  • Perceiving successful rolls (in all play, at any time) as the method for assuring characters' safety and competence, which themselves translate into the continuance of play, the goodness of the experience, the desired status/identity of our characters, and our very relevance as persons to this social experience. These things are experienced as being at risk.
  • Recognizing that even a successful roll may be shaped into a controlling effect or impact on what happens next by the person who gets to speak about it, in my concept of authority, the spoken content which is specially tagged as available for reincorporation. The participant says, ah ha, it's not just rolling well, it's getting to say or talk about it too. That person maintains control, they determine what that outcome does, going forward.
  • Therefore any interaction prior to this randomizing or otherwise unpredictable factor in the procedures, or (now they see) just afterwards, is solely about getting to influence or even control that "next, going forward, new now." The toxic interpersonal styles to do this or to survive other people doing it are legion: passive-aggressive, self-subordinating, legalistic, et cetera. 

This is why I'm focusing hard on characters' intent in an active situation, including their implied reactions, as fictional content and not "what I want" in the sense of controlling the future.

To bring it back to the main post, we are talking about play in which this problem does not occur, and what that may entail regarding people arriving at role-playing for the first time. We know the bad outcome happens, even that people are trained to it like abused animals, but instead of wallowing around in that (those "people!" those "players!"), let's focus on the better outcome. When and how does the positive concept of agency become the unconsidered, durable, enjoyable norm?

Ron Edwards's picture

To repeat from my comment above: When and how does the positive concept of agency become the unconsidered, durable, enjoyable norm?

For anyone who thinks I'm using a feelgood-buzzword, here's what agency means: that when you say something in your sphere of known contribution to play (the fiction), that it is heard and known to be available for reincorporation - what someone else says later. It might concern a stated action, it might concern the description of something, it might concern some transitional concept like "I'm there too," or it might concern the effects of something that happened. Whatever it is depends on the rules at this particular table.

Nothing stated in this sense should or can ever be overruled or judged in terms of its importance. There is no vetting of stated content when it is a rule (at this table) for your statement to be heard.

You know agency is occurring when you look at the events of play, at any scale (two seconds, two hours, two sessions, two  years ...) and see that what happened relied on some statement which might have been different, for any reason. You said X when you might well have said Y or Z, and X was known and reincorporated. You were present in play as a person, not merely an agent of moving options and numbers around in a known and expected way.

This is a reality of play. It is either present or absent. There is no ambiguity and no lack of clarity.

It has absolutely nothing to do with a wide scope of authorities, or increasing to a wider scope in the moment. Nor does it have anything to do with the mechanical capacity to override some otherwise-occurring result or event. Both of those are fine things as rules in and of themselves, when well-designed, but nothing special compared to any other rule.

It has absolutely nothing to do with "getting what you want" or "guiding the story." Such toxic un-play is beneath discussion; a system with well-designed authorities removes the need for correction through such concepts.

Sam, you have a lot to teach everyone else here about how these newcomers to the activity learn that it is worth doing. I consider myself a student in this topic.

John Willson's picture

Some of us have talked about good experiences introducing new players to role-playing.  Were any of those experiences good because of the advice in the game text?  If so, what game was it, and what about the text worked so well?

Or are the good techniques for introducing new players to role-playing still only transmitted culturally?

Sam's picture

I'm going to present a different take than I think most people would. I don't believe in advice, I believe in rules and procedures and doing it for real. I think that any functional game text contains what you need to teach new players how to play. I don't think that new players need to have a bunch of things explained to them, or need a lecture about authorities, or anything of the sort. Although I will say, when the understanding of authorities becomes relevant to actually doing it, it can be very helpful to give a brief talk on them (the specific one(s) being employed). For example, when telling the new players how to go about a MoV in The Pool, I described backstory authority and explained that they didn't have it, using a simple example that Ron uses a lot, the unmasking of a killer clown and subsequent revelation of their true identity.

 New players sometimes need a reminder to get out of discussion mode (especially when playing games involving the crawl) and into describing specific actions, but so do older players, often moreso. 

I think that new players absolutely must be taught by doing. Get into the game and start to play it. To do this you need a functional game that actually allows you to play with the rules in the text. No baby steps involved or any of that bullshit. Use all the rules as they become relevant, and explain them when it is the first time to actually use them--there is never a reason to explain a bunch of shit a player has never seen and that isn't relevant for what they are actually doing right now. But again...this is how we always teach people games, regardless of how many they have played in the past. You can't explain everything before you are going to actually do it. 

Again...there is nothing you can say that will make all this stuff click with someone. If anything, you will unintentionally misguide someone with vague "advice" or big promises about "what this is all about". By just playing, and explaining what you need to as you go, the learning will happen naturally. Let them see for themselves how great this shit is, because it is great...but let them like it how they like it, not how you do.

I should say here, I'm not claiming that you, John, do any of the things I am saying are bad here (I'm talking simultaneously to my past self and to the hordes of terrible advice givers on the internet.).  I think your comment is fine and I am trying to answer it as well as I can. Usually advice that is given about teaching new players is either focused on priming them with just the right speech or tricking them by not letting them do the real thing--thats the stuff I'm addressing here.

My central belief here is that learning how to play rpgs happens only when players get genuine agency at the table. Again...this requires only 2 things. A real game that really works, and a teacher who lets them do exactly what they are supposed to do given that game. 

So, leaving advice behind, here are some games that are good for introducing new players to roleplaying by simply playing them: Champions Now, The Pool, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Trollbabe, The Clay that Woke, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf. I have played all of these with new players and all of them have been great. 

Greg's picture

I can't agree more than with Sam here. 

The most recent games I've played with players who never played a rpg before is The Clay That Woke, and Sorcerer.  

I had an excellent time with Sorcerer and a full new player group. I wasn't really ready myself and it could be better. But I'm not saying to focus specially on this game. I think like Sam, that anything well designed can work, and like Helma - anything one is really excited about is a great start.

Jesse Burneko's picture

Something I think we need to consider with new people is: Color Matters. S/lay w/ Me I think is structurally great for new players in terms of pure procedures but some people bounce HARD off the color.

If something like this is what makes you light up, then S/lay w/ Me isn't going to work.

In fact, we don't seem to have a lot of great games that do "gentler" themes. There's sort-of a HUGE body of these over on itch.io but a lot of them (seem) very widgety almost verging into guided meditation exercises.

Ron Edwards's picture

I think your point about Color applies to anyone playing anything, not specific or different in any way regarding new players. It's not a given game's problem to accommodate or account for people who aren't inspired by what it is.

I'm pretty skeptical about characterizing any game system as "good for new players" - perhaps at all, but especially if these are the presumed best features toward that end:

  • Simple mechanics without subroutines or accounting
  • Gentler themes or topics, especially tending toward cute or family-friendly
  • Guiding GM oriented procedures, so that "story" is guaranteed
  • Minimal consequences to characters

I don't buy that model at all; I think it's flat-out wrong. I've seen people go berserk full bore "role-player" upon encountering the activity through RuneQuest (so-called 2nd), Champions 3rd edition, and Shahida, which rank among the most structured and probabilistic designs available. I also think standards regarding explicit or confrontational content, or harsh consequences, are wider and more resilient among non-role-players than among role-players, defining both in terms of acknowledged hobby subculture participants. Finally, and although this is my interpretation I'm ready to die on the hill for it, "guided storytelling" and its destruction of agency is probably the main reason that so many people leave role-playing after a brief encounter.

Helma's picture

thanks Sam for posting this, I was reading it and nodding along (not because I'm sleepy, just because it resonated so much with what I feel.
So ... I'm coming from a slightly different direction as I still feel like the new player that is introduced to role playing - and remember the first games I played (in order: Freemarket, Spione, Runequest). The first two we never finished playing, but they still made me to want and explore things more. The Runequest game, I remember the first session and the joy of being able to take the result of a dice roll and make it into a relevant part of the evolving story. Realizing, as Sam describes and Ron uses to ask about, it matters that it is me who makes decisions, who talks for my character and even more, I'm forming the story together with the others around the table when we listen to each other and pick up and carry on with what has happened so far. It is addictive.
How much it mattered that we played those games and whether they are especially "beginner friendly" - I don't think it mattered and classifying games as "beginner", "intermediate", "advanced" or in any other comparable categories to me seems not productive anyway.
I don't think it is som much about the games that you encounter as your first, it is more about the people that introduce you and play with you, about their attitude towards you and your curiosity and about their attitude towards playing.
I'm not sure I understand what John means with "cultural transmission of good techniques", but I think if you want to introduce somebody to role playing (or somebody asks you to introduce them to it), simply choose a game you really like and play it with them.
Don't worry about them being new, the difference to introducing them or "experienced" players to this game you like and they never heard of is probably not going to be that they have difficulties to understand how playing works.

John Willson's picture

Thanks Sam, Jesse, Ron, Helma, for sharing your thoughts and experiences on this!  I wonder why a lot of people feel the need to introduce newcomers in ways that are different than how they themselves first encountered the hobby.  I remember my first times role-playing (D&D); we must have gotten every single rule wrong - but we loved it!  Is that what people are trying to do?  Make sure that newcomers play it "right" the first time?  Rhetorical question.  As you all have said, that's not the important part.

Helma, by "transmitted culturally" (perhaps an awkward phrasing), I meant that the techniques are passed and taught from person to person. 

For example, in the early years of D&D, the game was only transmitted culturally, i.e. you could only learn to play from someone else who knew how to play, because the rulebooks were incomplete.  They had rules for adjudicating combat and so on, but no text about why to play or what a game looked like.

Perhaps "how to teach newcomers to play role-playing games" is still in that cultural transmission stage; i.e. a good approach has not appeared in a reasonably popular text yet.  (Or maybe it won't appear in a text at all; this is the 21st century, it'll probably appear in a video online.)

Ron Edwards's picture

You had me until that last paragraph, which is almost completely bizarre to my eyes.

  • Why are we suddenly talking about some reference point like a text or video, at all?
  • What does "popular" have to do with this topic?

This is where I have to start guessing in order to understand the perspective from which those questions may have arisen, and then critique that perspective fairly, and then address whether those questions make sense from that perspective. That's a lot of effort based on guessing; I can't do it.

So I'm staying merely with being baffled, and for purposes of understanding you, here's my perspective for you to compare.

I think the world includes a considerable number of people who need no special instruction in order to play, to play well, and to enjoy it. They are found in two places: semi-participants in gamer culture, who don't really identify as such and phase in and out of role-playing; people who don't know much about gamer culture and don't participate in it, but have heard a little bit about role-playing and find it intriguing. I consider both groups to consistently and obviously play better and more enjoyably than anyone who self-identifies as a gamer and especially anyone who claims expert experience in role-playing.

I agree with Sam regarding playing with any such person or (with any luck) persons plural, and I'll take it one step further. The more honestly and straightforwardly I play regarding my own enjoyment, the better designed and inspirational the procedures, and the less I concern myself with special explanations or smoothing the way by mitigating those procedures, the easier and more quickly they show me how to play better and enjoy it more.

LorenzoC's picture

I've been thinking a lot recently about what being an "experienced" player means - relative to a single game or group, or towards several games and a variety of people.

The process of introducing someone to a specific game has often felt very similar to the process of introducing people to roleplaying at large, for me. My experience is that people start out this process (of learning how to roleplaying or how to play a specific game) with very little need for instructions. 

How to make positive agency the norm is a difficult question. I can only speak from personal experience, but I've noticed that there's a stage when people are learning about roleplaying or learning a new game when they're curious, unafraid to speak or ask questions, and generally feeling like everything that is said by anyone is up for grab and usable by anyone, at any time.

I've been trying to write down ideas or suggestions but I keep deleting and restarting because it feels like a bunch of negativity. But I'll try to see if something is salvageable.

I think a lot of the problems with agency are learned and not innate; bad experiences (with pushy GMs, with faulty game design, with social pressure bleeding into the game) seem to be to be at the roots of a lot of the fear for consequences that leads to the undoing of agency. The GM who shuts down player interaction to "focus on a character's story or personal scene", the culture that defines players whose actions have effects on other players' characters toxic, the game design that tries to isolate and vacuum seal moments of "when I speak, only I am playing and you all need to listen" aren't born out of inexperience but the results of bad experiences. 

I completely agree with Ron on the idea that "simple games" are better than structured games where consequences are accounted for in visibile terms is wrong. In fact, I've noticed positive feedback from new players when using progress clocks in Blades in the Dark; much better than the usual "yes, the GM will do something with what you said... eventually". My first experience with My Life With Master included a lot of accounting and discussing the effects of actions in mechanical terms and it still was much more immersive than saying something impactful and seeing it dismissed as "oh ok, next". I don't think those instruments are necessary, but the healthy incorporation of consequences into play probably is. I love playing D&D but recent experiences we're having moving from it to RQ/Mythras tell me that the tendency to dilute consequences (there's always another roll, we keep doing until something happens, this is just a bit of HP) can lead to be scared of actual consequences (and agency).

Lastly, skimming over failure feels problematic when teaching (to others or oneself) how to play. In my experience few things are worse than telling someone "oh you failed your roll/your plan doesn't work, nothing big happens, next". First you cut play time down significantly and teach people that a bad roll means nothing happens and you stop playing for a while, but you also can lead people to think that the only way of playing is "winning the die roll", with a long list of other consequences (hating dice, hating failure, isolating play to descriptions only etc).

 

Tod's picture

I agree with the OP, but I'm kinda stymied by all this talk about failing. Firstly I would expect that anyone frequenting this site has internalized the maxim of not bothering to roll if no dramatic negative consequences are possible, right?

Certainly the implication of that maxim is that any roll you do require will have a dramatic consequence. And dramatic consequences are not the ends of stories, not at all, but vital (i.e. structurally mandatory) "pinch points" in every story ever. The writer's motto is "Whenever you get stuck, make things worse for the hero." This is no different.

"Worse for the hero" doesn't mean "death spiral" or "end of the line" or even "out of ideas." It just means the stakes have gotten higher, the problem has gotten complicated, the scene has become more intense, the enemy has called in reinforcements, and/or you're gonna have to find another way. Something has shifted. This is not only good narrative structuring, but often pays into character development in exciting ways.

One does not take mushrooms and then complain about seeing colors.

Given this, there are only two real no-nos as I see it...
1. Calling for rolls that have no dramatic consequences
2. Saying "you failed" and giving the Player nothing else to work with

Note that these are both failures on the part of the GM.
The Player has failed at nothing.

Sam's picture

Hi! The following comment is possibly a bit blunt. Your comment opened up some thoughts that have been simmering in me for a while, and I thought this would be a good place to dump them. Please let me know if you feel I have been rude--it isn't my intention, but I am going to be disagreeing with your comment pretty much totally here. 

To start off with, the idea that we should not roll if "no dramatic negative consequences are possible" is absolutely not something I have internalized, nor is it a general piece of gaming advice I would give to anyone, or expect anyone to have internalized as a prerequisite for talking about failure. I could talk about a single game and tell you why I would roll--so here's an example of a specific game. In The Pool, I would roll (or call for a roll or whatever you know what I mean) if there was a lot of uncertainty about how something inside of a scene was going to work out that involved a player character. That's the prerequisite, and that's the only consideration I would make. I'm not in the habit of forecasting out how every result of a roll could go and choosing based on that.

The text of Circle of Hands (if my memory serves me right), tells you why to roll each specific stats, and has an explicit instruction to always roll given these circumstances. You don't skip a roll because this time it doesn't feel interesting or dramatic enough (if this isn't actually in the text, well...it was a rule at my table the last time I played so forgive me).

My final point is this--the GM, who we seem to be assuming here (reasonably) is introducing some new people to roleplaying, is a player too, and is in a practicing state just like the people they are introducing. When I say that they are in a practicing state, here is what I mean. What they are doing is not rehearsed. When they make a decision about whether or not to call for a roll, or how to describe something, or whether or not to cut this scene at this time, or what this character will say, or anything else...they are coming up with it on the spot (probably with guidelines and certainly with a set of constraints). This isn't a concert in which the pianist dazzles us with their practiced-to-perfection concierto.

Basically, they are learning too, and they will be making mistakes along the way, just like the new players will. I hope we can all be a little kinder to ourselves when we make a player (yes, even a new one) feel lost or aimless or crappy based on the result of a failure (after all, in many games the GM is left with the responsibility of describing failure). Real failure is often fun, but it can hurt. And that is part of the learning that we are all going through whenever we play. Let's throw away the idea that the good GM is the one that ensures that none of the players' feelings are hurt, that no one is getting bored, and that every time a roll is made it is the perfect roll.

 

PedroPereira's picture

"I agree with the OP, but I'm kinda stymied by all this talk about failing. Firstly I would expect that anyone frequenting this site has internalized the maxim of not bothering to roll if no dramatic negative consequences are possible, right?"

I'm gonna have to answer this in the negative, because the purpose of play is different from game to game (and, if done correctly, links directly to this game's design, which in turn links directly to the GMing techniques used in this game), while your observation assumes that it is a general characteristic of any and all roleplaying. I understand where you're coming from, but I can't agree with the above. Here's an example: If I'm playing an hardcore survival dungeon crawl and I fail the pick lock roll, then all I expect as a consequence is that the door won't open. I'll just move on and perhaps come back later. In such a game, I don't expect, nor care, about dramatic "story" speed-bumps and "yes, buts" and "sucessesses with complications" or any such thing.

Does that make sense?

Dreamofpeace's picture

Ok y'all, consider the following scenarios:

  1. A PC is pouring a cup of tea. You’re not certain they can do this successfully, because they have an injury to their forearm, and they might spill the tea. However, nothing important hinges on whether they spill the tea or not. 
  2. A PC is searching a room for clues. There is some important information to be gained by searching here; if they fail to get this info, neither they nor the players will know what’s going on, and will have no idea what to do next. 
  3. A PC is searching a room for clues; if they don’t find the information in time, a trap will be triggered, or the enemy guards will reach their position. 
  4. A PC is sneaking up on an enemy, preparing to stab them in the back; if they’re not stealthy enough, the opponent will be alerted to their presence, take defensive action and raise an alarm. 

In which of these cases would you ask for a roll? 

I personally would only want the player to roll in case (3) or (4). The basic reason is because in neither (1) or (2) does the result of a roll produce a new Now, a state where the fiction is significantly and irreversibly different from what was happening before the roll took place. In fact, in case (2) a failed roll slows down and frustrates play, producing nothing dramatic or interesting. 

Pedro, in the example you describe, I agree that it’s a common practice - but that doesn’t mean it’s a good practice. I personally wouldn’t have an item or door that was just “locked”; I’d have a failed roll trigger a poison needle, an alarm, a trap, etc. 

PedroPereira's picture

 

Pedro, in the example you describe, I agree that it’s a common practice - but that doesn’t mean it’s a good practice. I personally wouldn’t have an item or door that was just “locked”; I’d have a failed roll trigger a poison needle, an alarm, a trap, etc. 

 

Dreamofpeace (that feels weird):

In my example, there's plenty that could be done, if wished. Hack at the wooden door (making noise and perhaps rolling on the encounter table for that section of the dungeon), or blast it with a fireball, or simply come back later when the area is clear and a base is established and logistics are operational. Or maybe I never bother going back after weiging the pros and cons, and that is a strategically meaningful choice for a game like this too. That is the purpose of play I'm interested in in a pure dungeon crawl (or would be, years ago, since I'm not into that these days). It's perfectlly functional, and there's nothing "wrong" with it as practice, common or uncommon as it may be.

The point I'm trying to make across is that discussing GMing techniques a) without the specific fictional context in which they are to be aplied and b) without taking into account the specific purpose of play (why are we playing *this* game at *this* table now) is meanigless.

Not sure I can explain this any better.

 

Dreamofpeace's picture

Hi Pedro!

Well, there's one thing I can't quarrel with: if the scenario you describe is actually what you want and expect from the game, then so be it: your fun is not wrong, of course. 

I can also say the kind of failed roll you describe is not something I personally want from any game, ever; my main frustration with a number of systems is rolls that take up time and change nothing.

Is this simply a difference in play style? Or is it something deeper?

It seems to me that if the entire point of having a roll is Bounce, then although some people might be ok with having no Bounce from rolls in some contexts, this doesn't imply that the principle "rolls should result in Bounce" is wrong in general. 

Ron Edwards's picture

I might comment on a couple of things, but this is just for one.

Pedro - I think you're right, but also that the solution is an adjustment rather than a correction. If Tod's comment used the word relevant instead of dramatic, I think your point is included.

"Relevant" might be vague or seem too easy to assign, so I'll specify that I see only two kinds of relevance which really matter to the procedure of when-to-roll (or the equivalent), which map to Story Now and Step On Up.* I think this matches up with what you're saying.

* directly or indirectly, large or small, now or later ... there's no reason to set this bar high.

PedroPereira's picture

@Ron,

I think your comment summarizes well what I'm trying to convey. You put it more elegantly than I did.

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