Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Please Feel Free to Cheat

If the system is getting in the way of the narrative, can overriding it be the way forward?

The Tefr roleplaying system serves three functions; firstly to give both players and narrator a framework within which to tell the story: the world, combat, magic skills, religion; secondly it provides believable limits not only for the characters and their foes, but for the world of Tefr itself. Limits can, and should, be scaled to fit the magnitude of the story. Lastly it is there to provide a mechanism by which random chance can help the evolution of the story; giving the players a sense of risk and excitement over the outcome of their character's actions. This last can also provide a sense of excitement to the narrator’s own decisions as well, though as I will explain, the narrator should be able to override a chance roll that they have made, if it will have a negative effect on the narrative flow (though the need should be rare).

Creating a narrative form of roleplaying using a system like Tefr is more about the will and style of the person running it, than the system itself. This was one reason why I chose to not to use the term game-master, referee, or dungeon-master; instead using the term narrator. I also deliberately avoided such terms as game and rules to indicate that the responsibility for determining how the events in a story-scenario unfold lies with the narrator and players. This leaves the system to be a guide and framework rather than an absolute set of rules. The thought of fudging the rules to ensure a better narrative might seem a little odd to some, something akin to cheating, but if it’s not a game but a story, how can you cheat at that?  Being able to use fudging wisely, and discreetly is a skill in itself; do it too often and the story risks becoming safe and dull, too obviously and the players will begin to lose the sense of excitement that unpredictability brings.

I’m not saying don’t use the system, after all it’s been created to help the way the story progresses while ensuring some events turn on chance to make the story unpredictable and exciting, but if the system gets in the way of the story, if a random outcome is undesirable to the narrative, then change the outcome, fudge the result, cheat; go on I give you permission.


  1. I agree about terms like GM, but prefer umpire or referee because I feel my role is simply to moderate the narrative that the players are creating by their actions. Sometimes those actions seem to create broken narratives (just like in life) but after all we have books, comics, TV and movies for the fully-authored stories - RPGs are interesting precisely because of the unstructured possibility of something that isn't even intended first and foremost to be a story.

    So I have to say, if I'm playing in a game and I even get a hint the referee is fudging things to make the "story" go the way he wants, I'm not coming back.

    Also, most interesting of all, what looks like broken narrative may turn out to go places that an authored story never would. And it all arises out of the characters. It's only when we sit down and recall what happened that it takes on the shape of a story.

  2. Dave thanks.
    What I'm trying to do here is offer a get-out clause for the system, I certainly don't think narrators should force a storyline on the players -that defeats the point of the flexible structure of rpgs as you have illustrated. It's an odd distinction I know, but bear with me, there will be more to come on the subject.

    The experimental aspect of Tefr is that it is not a game, and that the random side: both the players actions, and random rolls by the narrator is what sets it apart from a linear story, and as you say 'what looks like a broken narrative may turn out to go places that an authored story never would', is what gives it excitement, but no system is perfect, there will always be a point when the system itself breaks that suspension of disbelief. And rather than being dogmatic, a narrator should be able to adapt or ignore, in a fair way, a mechanic that does not serve the players or the narrative.

  3. I'm interested in the discussion, Simon. What I feel about bending the rules is that it's not treating the players like equals. I don't see RPGing as the players turning up to be entertained by the umpire/GM, I see it as a group experience. So I like all rolls out in the open.

    Yes, inevitably the umpire can twist what happens - but that's quite enough power right there, he shouldn't get to fudge dice rolls too. (Or, if he can, then every player should just decide what they feel like rolling!)

    Why I like to let the dice and the characters direct the action is that we have had astonishing developments in our games over the years, and shocking sudden deaths that rocked the players' world, and those would never have happened if the referee had intervened. I don't want anybody else quietly deciding that it isn't time for my character to die.

    But then, I don't believe the universe has an author either, and that feels like quite a political belief to me, so in the same way I don't want a dictator running the games I play in, whether benevolently or otherwise.

    Of course, if what you are saying is that the rules are a work in progress, and that sometimes the group have to take stock and see that a mechanic acted to discourage the kind of reality you're trying to create. Yes, I agree that when the rules and the game reality are in collision, that's a sign to rewrite that rule. That's why the US Constitution has 27 amendments :) But I would say the group should abide by the rules as written first, and so any event that happens is not reversible. The rules may get amended later, but I hate being patronized with a "fate point" or whatever that lets me bring a dead character back to life. He died, and his death brought about a change in the "constitution" - that's fine.

  4. I have to agree with Dave's sentiments here: they echo my own feelings in almost all respects, the exception being the use of fate points.

    I don't think a GM should ever override a dice roll and I find it detrimental to the enjoyment and excitement of the game if I even suspect it is happening. If the outcome needs to be of a particular nature then don't roll the dice - just say what's happening. If the outcome isn't predestined, then simply ensure that the dice roll represents a range of outcomes that the story can accommodate, and go with whatever is rolled.

    I rarely run games with dice and rules any more (works absolutely fine), but when I do I roll the dice openly, in front of all the players. Because they know I will go with whatever outcome the dice dictate, the tension can be quite intense. If I'm not prepared to go with the outcome I don't roll dice in the first place.

    Most often, though, I like the idea that something bad could happen when the dice are rolled. It engenders excitement and suspense. It can take the game forward in unexpected ways.

    Changing the rules on the fly (i.e. before the dice are rolled) is, however, fine with me. No matter how comprehensive the rules are, they can only ever be an approximation and it seems to me that a GM can bring a valuable human touch to the game by modifying them whenever they are clearly failing to do the job in a particular circumstance. However, I believe the GM should declare a rule modification and the reason behind it *before* any dice are rolled.

    Rules, though, provide a consistency to the gaming experience which enhances the sense of reality. In real life I know how far I can run in a minute, how long I can hold my breath underwater and what kind of weight I can lift etc. Game rules give the players that same knowledge about their character's abilities and so should not be modified without an *especially* good reason, or the game world starts to become too random and less convincing.

    Dave's points about character deaths is a good one. I've never known a game to be destroyed by a character's death. However, a game can ruined by a sense of immortality, knowing that any dice roll that results in anything really bad happening to a character will be overruled by the GM. You know, I've even known players in my games to allow their characters to die dramatically because they saw it as a poignant end to their character's story and as a special momnent in the overall story. Character deaths are not the end of the game, but sometimes they can be the beginnning of a great one.

    As for fate points, I like them. My players get two each. They are not replaceable, ever.

    They can be used for *any* change to the story, not just reversing an unfortunate occurence such as a character's death. They have been used in the past to: make the Evil Overlord have a change of character and give up his evil ways; have a key NPC fall in love with one of the characters; have an invading force change sides and rebel against their leaders etc. Anything at all, so long as it doesn't completely spoil the game for the other players. I see them as an exciting challenge, because no matter what storyline I'm pursuing it can be derailed by a player's fate point! For me, that's an opportunity to be creative - to keep the story alive despite the sudden change of plot line!

  5. I think the key split here is between two quite different ways of looking at a roleplaying game. Myself, I'm not at all interested in the metafictional approach, eg stepping outside my character to decide whether it's the narratively appropriate time for me to die.

    Truth (or a game approximation of same) to me is stranger and more interesting than fiction, and I want to be shocked and surprised by events in the game. I can influence things to just the extent that I can in real life: by formulating a plan and seeing if it works. Authoriality seem a bit of a cheat - and distancing - in comparison.

    But I recognize that other people see role-playing as a sort of shared storytelling experience where everyone is half in character and half an author - for example, when a D&D player says, "My half-elf thief runs across the room" where I would just say, "I run across the room." So I am opposed to fate points because if any of my players were sufficiently detached from the action to see their fate authorially like that, I would figure I hadn't done enough to encourage their "poetic faith" in the action.

    Naturally I don't say that either style is right or wrong. Depends on what players are looking for. But there is a problem if half the players turned up to tell each other a story and the others want to exercise free will. So it is worth clarifying which style of play is being used from the outset.

  6. This all pretty much makes sense, except that it seems like you're trying to do two different things; you're trying to create a coherent game world whose consistency the players will appreciate, and you're trying to give the narrator the opportunity to tweak the story so it's more interesting. That's all right, and it's great that you're up front about what sort of experience you're going far (something many RPGs lack), but I can't help feeling that you should stop being tentative and commit to something full strength. ;)

    Last year I wrote about this on my little blog: Dice Fudging and why it's bad. (Actually, my conclusion was not that it's always bad; that was just a catchy title to provoke discussion!)

  7. I came here to write a rather lengthy post on this topic. Now I can reduce it to one sentence.
    "I agree with Dave 100% and plan to quote his explanation next time there is a discussion on this topic!"
    Here, you have my post now.
    Well, there is one thing I disagree about - Fate points can be used in other manners than for saving your character. If they give a bonus to, say, attack rolls, they become a convenient approach to express how much your character hates a particular opponent. If you spend them, his attack was fuelled by pure hate! In my experience, people that hate their opponent are indeed more likely to hit, and to hurt him badly.
    Most often, I still run without any Fate or Hate points, though. I can always give these same bonuses on the fly for good roleplaying of a fight against a hated enemy.
    Either way, those bonuses are usually part of the system, or houseruled by me. Fudging remains a totally alien concept to me!

    By the way, I can play in "story mode", too. I just call these games "my story games", as similar but separate from "traditional" roleplaying.
    And when playing them, I still find fudging doesn't help me producing a good story. On the contrary, it hurts the story, by reducing the impact of other players decision. If I want to get a story with just nominal input from my friends, I'm going to write it myself, and give them the manuscript to read, so they can provide input. Done this, too, but it has nothing in common with either roleplaying or story gaming!

  8. Good discussion!

    Dave, you write "So I have to say, if I'm playing in a game and I even get a hint the referee is fudging things to make the 'story' go the way he wants, I'm not coming back.".

    Don't you use pregenerated adventures/stories (either by others or yourself)? I don't necessarily mean a detailed story but at least some form of plotline. If you do, could you please explain how you combine it with your approach to game play.

  9. Hi Joakim, no I never use a pregenerated adventure. At most I'll have a page of scrap paper outlining some possible events: "Caligula intends to call a vote in the Senate this afternoon" or whatever. That, a map and list of NPCs. Everything else is created on the fly.

  10. Most of the time you twist my ideas on gamemastering (I even have to leave that beloved word behid me soon...:)) and you did it this time too, Dave. What an opened ended way of roleplaying! Exciting stuff - will it work in an Tefr setting, Simon, or are you heading elsewhere?

  11. I think where I'm heading and where Tefr are heading are not necessarily the same things. Dave could comfortably shrug himself into the Tefr system and play it exactly the way he likes, the only difference might be that the world in which things take place have got a bit of history attached.

    Where I'm headed is a different sort of roleplaying, though I'm sure I'm not reinventing the wheel. It is also going to take me a little time and work to explain how to do it, I may even fail in trying.

    What I find interesting is that though Dave will never use much in the way of prewriting he has a hugely developed set of neural pathways dedicated to creating narratives off the top of his head; it's his job afterall. He can do on the fly what most mere mortals have to write down, and fiddle with to get right. I haven't played with Dave so I don't know how much unconscious narrative appears, if any.

    For my part, I'll do my narrative thing on the fly, but I like to see it strung into some sort of backdrop, although everything is still just as changeable if it comes to it; the story has to change to fit the characters, that is the point.

    I'm just standing up and acknowledging that most scenarios will have identifiable periods of linear progression, interspersed with unfettered player led elements. And if the players play the same characters continuously, the temptation to tell them and involve them in a story that happens between scenarios, or links those scenarios, or those linear segments for me at least, is too great.

  12. Actually, Simon, when I'm umpiring a roleplaying game I don't think I'm creating a narrative at all. Not if I'm doing it right. I'm just reacting to what the players are doing; they are the protagonists and prime movers. Often I think of something I'd like to have happen, and if it were a novel or a comic I'd put it in. But if it doesn't fit naturally with the course the player-characters are steering, I let it go.

    There is a background narrative, of course. Caligula has a plan to put himself in charge of Rome or whatever. But the players always have the option and means to disrupt that possible timeline. It's absolutely essential that they lead the process, that they are the lead characters - otherwise I might just as well line them up and tell them a story.

    Which is why I say umpire or referee, not GM.

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  14. Then, how do you get the characters together as a group, and make them stick together?

  15. That's like the set-up to a TV show. For example, in one campaign we were the last survivors of an Elleslandic mercenary company that had been massacred, in another we were the principal figures (governor, army commander, etc) in a small Tsolyani fief. Once you have that set-up, players themselves will originate the "storylines" (just shorthand there, I don't like the term wrt role-playing).

    Sometimes a player-character's course will take him in a different direction from the rest of the group, and then he'll have to retire that character and bring someone else in.

  16. A culinary analogy comes to mind. What is the meal being offered at my table? A set piece three course meal, where the guests can like it or lump it, a buffet, where they can choose the elements that I provide, or a pot luck supper, where everyone brings something to the table.

    The success of the event depends, in the context of the analogy, on how good the guests are at cooking. If a gourmet chef comes to my table for a buffet or even a set piece meal that I've prepared and it isn't up to his standard, sure, he's going to go away disappointed. But if my guests are expecting to be fed by me, participating perhaps by bringing the wine and flowers (and perhaps a desert), and if I'm a good cook, then everyone is happy.

    This appears to be a question of styles and preferences rather than a discussion of the right and wrong way to GM/umpire.

    I'd certainly like to have a go at the pot-luck style described here (I wish I could find a less negatively loaded term for it), but my group's gaming style is different.

  17. I don't really follow the analogy, as one implies a product that is there to be consumed, ie a meal. But a role-playing game session is created by everyone present. So it isn't really anything like invuting people round for dinner. Or, if you're going to use that analogy, the game session is like the conversation at the dinner, not the meal itself.