On The Best Way to Ruin Your Game

I said:
"So there is nothing wrong with smarter more social people being better at play, and players who are not social or creative or intelligent being worse and losing or doing badly on their own merits."

J. Michael Matkin writes in and says:

"If I have any misgivings from this otherwise wonderful series that you are doing, it's this. At what point does adventure gaming allow me to step outside my own limitations and enable me to accomplish things that I could never do in real life?"

What a fantastic question.

My response is below.

I hesitate to reply to your comment, because I am absolutely certain you will not like the answer.

In an adventure game you can step outside of your limitations and slay princesses, rescue dragons, and subject a kingdom to your peaceful or terrifying rule.

Just because it is possible to do these things does not mean that you are entitled to get to do them.

It is a game, and it is one you can lose. What makes it worth playing and worth winning is that you can fail.

If you can't fail, if you just get the game handed to you on a silver platter, if there is no challenge, if there is no game to speak of, then it is just one person telling another how cool what they just thought of is. It is social masturbation. Affirmations.

Though that may feel good temporarily, it pales in comparison to actual victory where the possibilities for failure are real and the consequences are dire.

There when you succeed, you know you have accomplished a thing of worth. A thing that was accomplished because you were able to accomplish it, and another man might have failed.

This is why not fudging is important. This is why agency and player freedom matter. Because anything else removes any meaning from your victory.


  1. Bravo. And, I might add, because with the rules we're playing under, you win by applying "analog" problem-solving and social skills to the situations of the fantasy world, not by mastering the bonuses and multipliers of a "digital" simulation thereof.

  2. "So there is nothing wrong with smarter more social people being better at play, and players who are not social or creative or intelligent being worse and losing or doing badly on their own merits."

    I agree in theory, though it isn't all or nothing--and I'm wary of an excluded middle. There are varying degrees of utilizing player skills versus having rules-based abstractions. We don't typically adjudicate success on combat based on a player's superior ability to describe the effects of their attacks (though some games do), so I'm not sure that a game more based around social interactions would solely resort to that means of resolution either.

    There is skill involed in Monopoly but the skill isn't being a real estate tycoon, being able to convince someone you are a real estate tycoon.

  3. "Dumb" players can be quite successful by cooperating with folks who have smarts; just like how things work in the real world.

  4. I love the use of the word masturbation in your blog post, because at one point I had some of my players complain about the difficulty of the fights and explaining to me how they preferred to imagine themselves wiping the floor with their enemies and being great -- to which I replied that the game was not called "wanking with Alex" -- it was called "Dungeons & Dragons!!"

  5. I must say that my meager amount of "acting" skill comes directly from taking on roles in games. Over 15 years of play, hundreds of in-character arguments slowly let me 'grind up' my skill at finding compromises and win-win situations.

    Likewise, I credit some degree of my problem-solving skills to RPGs. Having to examine various aspects of an impediment, consider teammates' skills and available resources helps build a mental toolbox. Heck, hearing the DM describe a puzzle ingame isn't that different from listening to a user describe their printer setup over the phone. You listen to descriptions, ask for details, attempt obvious fixes, re-check your assumptions, and work to a solution.

    All of that is lost if you're not challenging your mental and social skills via descriptive dialog. Players (and people in general) BECOME better, smarter, more contemplative if those areas of their mind are exercised.

  6. My favorite part is the bit about slaying princesses and rescuing dragons! Good post.

  7. I didn't care for this post very much, as the answer you give is completely unrelated to the question you were asked.

    J. Michael Matkin was bringing up the topic of player ability vs. player-character ability; your answer, however, was about player entitlement. These are two completely different things.

    J. Michael Matkin's question was about the appropriateness of requiring players to personally represent their character's abilities, when it's already been established that the character's abilities (in a particular area) outstrip those of the player.

    To put it another way, you wouldn't ask an out-of-shape player to act out the physical prowess of his Str 16, Con 18 fighter. By that token, how appropriate is it to ask the shy introvert to act out exactly how his Cha 17 rogue is seducing the nobleman's daughter? Or have the high school dropout personally figure out the puzzle that his Int 18 wizard is facing? etc.

    You, by contrast, are tackling the question of the PCs "deserving" to win simply by virtue of being the heroes. On that point, I agree with your statements - there is no "deserving" to win; failure should always be possible - if not probable - simply because that makes achieving victory have real meaning.

    But that's not the question you were asked.

  8. I concur with Alzrius. His response mirrors my own.

  9. @alzrius: If you adjudicate those things according to dice rolls rather than player ability, then they're not challenges, they're just random chance.

  10. @John: By that logic, combat in D&D is nothing but random chance either, something I don't believe is an accurate statement.

    Deciding things based on a die roll might very well be an inadequate substitute for how things would "actually" go if the situation were really happening. But by their very nature, RPGs are an abstraction, which means that things can't be perfectly simulated (at least not until we have working holodecks).

    It should also be noted that pointing out that die rolls are a less-than-perfect solution doesn't undercut the assertion that requiring the player be able to live up to their character's abilities is a far less perfect solution.

  11. Wow, I take a day off of reading and miss all the fun. Thanks for taking up my question.

    Alzrius accurately captures my intention, so I won't simply repeat what he(?) wrote. For me, thru thirty years or so of playing adventure games, much of the excitement and joy have come from playing characters that are different (sometimes distinctly different) from me. Now we generally expect to simulate the physical aspects of our characters -- nobody argues for using player ability to accomplish hits in combat, for example -- but the social and intellectual aspects are more problematic. These are, after all, role playing games. At some point, I have to play the role.

    This is one of the reasons I've been enjoying this series so much, because it makes an effort to prune back the kind of ROLL playing that has, to my mind, threatened to kill ROLE playing. Dice rolls shouldn't eclipse player ability; they should supplement it.

    The question of how best to accomplish that, and achieve an appropriate balance mechanically between those two goals is a tough one, and even this series demonstrates that dice rolls remain appropriate, even necessary, under certain circumstances. That's why I found the passage I quote in my question a little disconcerting, in that it seemed to be swinging off towards the other extreme.

  12. @alzrius No. In combat, players make decisions about tactics, actions & reactions, etc, with a heavy dose of random chance. Those are intellectual decisions.

    Like -C's last post but one, the way things would "actually" go doesn't really matter. It's a game. The game lies in the challenges, the decisions and the roleplaying, not in the dice rolling. You can make allowances for people who are bad at the game, but it should be with the intention of helping them to become better, not letting them opt out.

    I don't quite understand you, solution for what? What's the problem that you think needs to be solved?

  13. @John: I think your view of combat vs. non-combat encounters is a false dichotomy. The same way that a combat action is a set of decisions that comes down to a die roll (with modifiers), so too do non-combat encounters between PCs and NPCs.

    Are you telling a Bluff that will be hard to swallow? That's a tactical decision that adds a penalty to your check. Does the other person decide to take 10 or try and roll with a possibly higher result for their Sense Motive score? That's a tactical decision too. Do you use Knowledge (planes) or Knowledge (dungeoneering) against an unfamiliar monster? These are all intellectual decisions too.

    It's also arrogant to pontificate about "where the game lies" and "helping them to become better," as those are just other ways of saying "you're doing it wrong." RPGs are varied enough that there are plenty of ways of playing the game and having fun, whether that's in rolling the dice or getting heavily into the role-playing of your character.

    The solution I was referring to above is the one regarding the problem of a disparity between a PC's abilities and those of the PC's player. Simply saying "become better at role-playing" is making a personal judgment about a person; it's far worse than having them make a die roll.

  14. @alzrius and John - I don't think it's a matter of acting things out at all. The thing that's most important imo is that a heavy reliance on skill checks can negate a players need (or even ability) to make creative connections.

    To use alzrius' example: Socially awkward guy playing a Cha 17 rogue trying to seduce the girl. The accomplishment in this case is winning the girl/getting her to do what you want/need.

    There are thousands of ways this problem could be approached, and a more social, more creative person should be better at this because they more quickly pick up on, and act upon contextual clues in the game. If, for example, the players know they need the girl, and the first time they see the girl she's blushing profusely while listening to a bard ramble off some poetry, they should hopefully make the connection that poetry could be *a* key to getting to her. And it's being able to make that connection that's the most important!

    Once equipped with that knowledge there are still many many many many ways for the player to use it to their advantage and the two lamest uses imaginable are "I make a bluff check to make up a poem and woo her" AND "I make up and act out some off the cuff poem here at the table". While the later will probably be more humorous, since the guy playing this character is socially awkward, this would probably be a shitty gaming experience for them.

    What I personally think it all boils down to is that a heavy focus on dice rolls can greatly atrophy creative problem solving, and bombastic role play isn't the only other alternative.

    The player could take on the risk of a sidequest and hire the bard to woo her on his behalf. Or develop a plan to send her poetic love notes. Or use it as a character building opportunity to discover that while they may be a silver tongued devil with a 17 Cha, they get completely flabbergasted by women. Or a thousand different other things. But they can't do this as easily if they're always in the mindset of "If I Roll Dice -> I WIN".

  15. This assumption that because the stat is called intelligence that somehow the player must act smart or like an idiot is beyond my understanding.

    Having a low intelligence or a high charisma or a percentile strength has nothing to do at all with the player. Each of these stats has specific in game mechanical effects and the player is under no stipulations to act in any way differently then he chooses to act, no matter what his ability scores.

    The conflation of 'role-playing'; that is to say, taking the role of a person in a situation and making decisions and somehow confusing it with some thespian aspirations is the cause of the disconnect here.

    You are playing a game with rules. You can act however you wish for fun with your friends, but it has nothing to do with the game.

    Their charisma determines the reaction adjustment and number of henchmen (or spell save DC's for charisma casters - whatever) I no more ask someone to be able to lift something heavy or solve a math problem then I would ask them to pick up a girl or go hire people. This is the purpose of the stats.

    Their job is to make decisions and play the game. If they do that poorly that is on their head.

  16. "Their job is to make decisions and play the game. If they do that poorly that is on their head."

    Thumbs Up!

  17. @alzrius: Most of the stuff you bring up has been discussed recently on this blog, so if you're interested then you may like to trawl the comments for the last month or two. Anyway, I hope you don't mind if I do a little linking and paraphrasing.

    Concerning combat vs. non-combat

    The examples of intellectual decisions you give seem trivial and I'm still not sure I understand what you're arguing by them. You get to make decisions about which dice to roll, yes.
    Let me put it this way: you can easily play an entire session of D&D without ever having to roll dice, and it will be just as much D&D and just as much fun. On the other hand, if you take out all the problem solving and decision-making and roleplaying and are left with just dice rolling and choices about dice rolling, it will be unrecognisable and tedious. That's because one of those things is gameplay, and one of those things is supplementary to gameplay.

    It's also arrogant to pontificate about "where the game lies" and "helping them to become better," as those are just other ways of saying "you're doing it wrong." RPGs are varied enough that there are plenty of ways of playing the game and having fun, whether that's in rolling the dice or getting heavily into the role-playing of your character.

    Whatever you may think, there are in fact good and bad ways of playing D&D, just like with everything else. Railroading is bad. Spotlight hogging is bad. These things are bad because they reduce the fun of the game, arguably for yourself and certainly for others. For the vast majority of people, rolling dice is not an enjoyable activity in and of itself.

    The solution I was referring to above is the one regarding the problem of a disparity between a PC's abilities and those of the PC's player. Simply saying "become better at role-playing" is making a personal judgment about a person; it's far worse than having them make a die roll.

    When I play a new game with my friends, I probably won't be particularly good to start with. My friends won't help me to learn and get better, because to do that would be to acknowledge that I wasn't perfect already, which would be a personal judgement and therefore terrible. Instead, they change the rules to replace large parts of the game with random chance. That way, I don't have to play the parts of the game I'm not good at. This makes the game more fun for everybody.

    The above is doubtless a strawman. But in what way? What's the difference that I'm not seeing?

  18. Wow, quite a few things to respond to here.

    @Pandesmos: I think this is another example of a false dichotomy, in that a "heavy reliance" (which is already a loaded term) on die rolls doesn't have to negate any sort of creative connection.

    Role-playing (as in, acting out) something is not necessarily undone by a die roll for that same action. If you want to make a Bluff check, you can still act out the entirety of the exchange, either before or after the die roll, to show what the roll represents.

    The mechanics of an action are the skeleton of the game, upon which the role-playing of those actions are the muscles and skin.

    What I'm saying is that J. Michael Matkin was right that, in attempting to reduce people's use of die rolls absent of any other role-playing, too much role-playing in absence of any other die rolls is no good either.

    @-C: I agree with you that it's wrong to conflate a player's abilities with those of his character. I think the reason that you were asked the question in the first place is because your section on skills (which seems to be written with a purpose of steamlining skills, and hence eliminating some) seems to place an emphasis on role-playing a lot of skill uses (albeit not always, such as with your take on Escape Artist). If someone is naturally brusque, not having a Diplomacy skill can make it hard for them to have a character who is a skilled negotiator.

    For the record, I don't think that your series on skills is advocating dropping mechanics in favor of role-playing wherever possible - but it's worthwhile to have the point addressed.

    @John: I think the difference that you aren't seeing isn't with the system here, but with you.

    I'm not trying to flame you, but in reading your post I'm seeing an inflexible position that you know what's "good" and "bad" in role-playing, and that the people who do it "badly" need help to change.

    Fun is subjective, and if people have fun playing an RPG with nothing but die-rolling, that's not bad. But you don't seem to recognize that, saying that such a game must be "unrecognizable and tedious." Likewise, you champion the ability to play D&D without ever rolling a die as being just as much fun as if you do need to roll a die.

    These are your opinions, but you keep stating them as though they were facts. They're not. You don't know "the vast majority of people," and you certainly don't speak for them. Likewise, just because you aren't particularly good at starting a new game doesn't mean that someone else won't be - for that matter, their definition of "good" might be very different than yours. Even if it isn't, that's not really an issue anyway - the game is about what's fun, not about what's good.

    That's the straw man.

  19. @Alzirus:

    Explicitly not, right?

    I may have to write up a separate post explaining this.

    I am not advocating that someone 'try to convince the DM of something' to use charisma, or in your example using the nature of a naturally brusque player against him.

    The way the person is has nothing to do with the way the situation turns out. You negotiate by making choices about what to offer. Knowing what to offer is player skill - their personality is irrelevant.

    I'll expand my comments on this into a full post at some point.

  20. @alzrius: Not so. I don't care how you and your group play D&D, or how other groups I'm not a part of play D&D, and it makes no difference to me whether those groups change their ways or not. Yes, obviously my arguments are opinions. That doesn't render them invalid. -C's original post was an opinion. Your response was an opinion. The point is that we are discussing these opinions. You can respond to any qualitative statement ever with "some people like it that way", but in that case why did you bother to enter the discussion at all? What are we talking for, if not to examine and modify our opinions?

    I posited that dice rolling - the act of throwing plastic polyhedrons - is not an intrinsically enjoyable activity. Also, that an accomplishment made by random chance is less meaningful and satisfying than one achieved through skill. From that I conclude that unnecessarily replacing elements of gameplay with dice rolling has a negative effect on one's enjoyment of the game. If you have an objection to that, I'm happy to discuss it. But crying "that's just your opinion, man" is not constructive.

    P.S. You've apparently misunderstood the last paragraph of my previous comment. That was my simplified interpretation of your argument, which seems silly to me. I was hoping you could point out the key differences between your actual argument and my flawed interpretation, so that I could understand what you really meant. My own opinion of that scenario is that replacing parts of the game (e.g. roleplay, problem solving) with random chance (dice rolls) makes the game less enjoyable for everyone, for the reasons above and because it robs the player of the pleasure of improvement.

  21. @John: It's self-evident that these statements are all matters of opinion. I pointed that out merely to underscore that your previous comment was stated categorically; when you make statements like "Whatever you may think, there are in fact good and bad ways of playing D&D, just like with everything else," that doesn't sound like an opinion, it sounds like you're stating a fact. Hence the need to point out that it isn't.

    My objection to your statement about dice-rolling is another example of an opinion stated as a fact. That's my objection. When you speak of things being "not intrinsically enjoyable" that's not a statement of opinion, as you're calling it intrinsic. When you talk about things being "less meaningful" than other things, that's not a statement of opinion, as you're stating what has a greater degree of meaning.

    In other words, the non-constructive aspects of the discussion are yours. I'm simply pointing out why that's so. (That's without even getting into the inherent arrogance that comes with talking about how others can "improve" by playing that way.)

    Finally, if my simplified argument seems silly, that may be because you simplified it. Notice that I never talked about "replacing" anything with "random chance" in any of my previous posts. In fact, I specifically stated in my previous post that "Role-playing (as in, acting out) something is not necessarily undone by a die roll for that same action. If you want to make a Bluff check, you can still act out the entirety of the exchange, either before or after the die roll, to show what the roll represents. The mechanics of an action are the skeleton of the game, upon which the role-playing of those actions are the muscles and skin."

    That's not replacing anything. That's building upon it.

  22. @alzrius: See my previous post. They are affirmative statements (not categorical, necessarily) because they are either postulates of my argument, or because they're the assertions I'm arguing for. If you disagree with them, argue, or at the very least definitively reject the ones you disagree with. Or if you're not interested, don't. But statements of taste aren't debatable, hence why I didn't make them.

    It is not arrogant to say that someone who is bad at something - like playing a specific game in a specific way - can improve at it with practice. That's twice you've called me arrogant, no need to be unfriendly.

    I would argue that the bluff check does replace the player skill. It's not about whether the player gets to "act out" the exchange per se, it's that success or failure depends on the die roll rather than the player's actions. The player might get to influence the die roll (in which case the less capable player is still at a disadvantage, somewhat defeating the point), but ultimately it still comes down to random chance in the form of a weighted roll. As you say, the die roll is the skeleton. It replaces the player's actions in that capacity.

    I'm not going to be around for a little while for obvious reasons, so catch you in a couple days maybe. Merry Christmas!

  23. I would just like to point out that I do, in fact, think that there are better and worse ways of playing games.

    i.e. you can claim to 'have fun' playing a game, but a balanced game with depth (i.e. a game with many interesting choices, instead of few or one) is more rewarding and engaging then one without.

    And I can certainly point out explicit ways for people to improve play in games and it is certainly possible to become more skilled at the games one plays, and this seems a good definition of 'better'.

    I think that this goes for many things in life. And ipso facto this means that you can, in fact, play D&D less well, have a less intrinsically enjoyable and less meaningful game then someone playing it correctly.

    A moments review of the many games in your past and you can see that this is unquestionably true.

    I would also say, in the case of D&D and the bluff check, the 'acting out the entirety of the exchange' has exactly zero to do with the actual play of the game. It is just something you are doing for the purpose of entertaining your friends.

    in Dungeons and Dragons A bluff check should be part of an encounter, which should be constructed by the DM, which should give the players the opportunity to A)acquire information, B)make decisions, and C)reap consequences.

    In your example of wooing the girl, as I would run it in my game, since I don't use bluff or skill checks for stuff like that.

    "I woo the girl."
    "Well, traditionally when wooing women in this area, you either recite them a poem, sing them a song, or bake them a pie. Which do you intend to do"
    With this reply I've given the player the opportunity to come up with their own idea (traditionally. . . in this area. . .), I've informed them of their standard three choices and asked them to make a choice.

    At this point it is up to them to either guess blindly or pick one based on some in game reasoning or retrieve more information.

    Their personal skill is being tested and there is no reliance on their abstract personality characteristics. They are also not required to 'preform' to some abstract unquantifiable metric.

    Now this is not to say, I wouldn't inform them after they made their choice "Since you've chosen to recite a poem, I will give you additional (reward) if you actually recite a poem for our enjoyment".

    That is, after all, entertaining.

  24. @John: An affirmative statement is a statement that holds something to be true. That's fine, but you then keep mentioning that your stance is just your opinion. You can't make an affirmative statement about your opinion, save to say that it IS your opinion. Or rather, you can affirm that your opinion is true, but then you're holding that your opinion has the weight of something objectively valid.

    I'm not trying to insult you by calling out that position as arrogance; I'm simply making an affirmative statement of my own in that regard. It's not a question of holding that someone who is bad at something can improve at it; it's that you're passing judgment on whether they're good or bad at all. If they're having fun, it shouldn't matter.

    Finally, you seem to be holding that making a die roll at all for any sort of social interaction between characters is bad, as opposed to role-playing the entire exchange, because the die has a random element. Personally, I think the die roll is necessary, for a number of reasons. Partially this is because you can't totally assume the mentality of an NPC, which may include unconscious factors that they're unaware of. Likewise, the die roll helps to provide an objective metric for an entirely subjective interaction (e.g. "was I convincing?").

    The mechanics are the skeleton, and role-playing what the mechanics determine are the flesh and muscles on top of them. There's no replacement happening.

    @-C: In regards to games where there is no objective "winning" and "losing," I think that questions of playing the game "better" or "worse" are de-emphasized to the point of meaninglessness (at the very least, they tend to be used for little more than how well one knows the rules, rather than how one plays the game).

    Ways of "improving play" and becoming "more skilled" are therefore judgment calls on someone else's ability, which is virtually always one's opinion disguised as fact. If they're having fun in the manner that they're playing, then why isn't that enough for you?

    Just because there are areas in life that you can improve, doesn't mean that that's true for playing an open-ended RPG; hence, your assertion that improving at life means you can improve at D&D is demonstrably untrue. People may have game moments that they'd do differently, but those tend to be the results of bad luck, mistakes made even when they had the best information, and simply guessing wrong.

    One can say that things "should" be a certain way, but it's hard to realize that that's you saying that your preference for doing things is an objectively better way; it's not. You may be giving players the "opportunity" to come up with their own ideas, but that assumes that they didn't have any to begin with, or even wanted to in the first place.

    What's fun is what's fun. Stop trying to make people have fun your way.

  25. @Alzirus


    "What's fun is what's fun. Stop trying to make people have fun your way."

    You're not the boss of me, neener neener.

    I think I disagree with your core assertion. In D&D specifically, unlike many other RPGs, there is explicitly winning and losing and more than that, not one way to keep score, but two.

    This isn't true of all RPG's certainly, and I stress that. And it is certainly possible to play D&D in a non-standard way and have different goals, but as it is designed, it is a game with explicit goals (acquire treasure), lose conditions (die), and skill can quantitative be measured (do you continue to live).

    Now you can certainly have "fun" if you suck at a game, but isn't it more fun to win? And certainly playing a game without intending to win can certainly provide insights that make you a better player. I'd talk more about it but I'm pretty sure David Sirlin covers all this in "Playing to Win", which is an excellent book and discusses (and dismisses) most of the scrub theory you're purposing.

    "People may have game moments that they'd do differently, but those tend to be the results of bad luck, mistakes made even when they had the best information, and simply guessing wrong."

    And yet in a game filled with hidden knowledge and chance like Magic: the Gathering, the same people come out on top, year after year.

    Perhaps there's something to this skill thing, no?

  26. @-C: I salute your neener-ing. The rest of it, not so much.

    Needless to say, I disagree with your premises - the only real "goal" of D&D is to enjoy yourself. Acquiring treasure is certainly how the game is slanted, but it's by no means necessary (Vow of Poverty, anyone?). Likewise, the "losing condition" is often a speed-bump (resurrection), and simply continuing to live is hardly a measurement of skill (you're taken prisoner alive, and then escape).

    Simply put, it's possible for various scenarios and situations to go well or go badly, but those don't really equate to any sort of "winning" or "losing" beyond the construction of a given adventure or campaign; that's a construct within the game, and not the game itself.

    I haven't read David Sirlin's book, but if he thinks this is "scrub" theory then he sounds like one of those armchair bloggers who likes to talk about how the game "should" go, but has little experience actually playing it. Such people tend to pontificate a lot about things that bear little resemblance to actual play around the table.

    And there's a reason why Magic: the Gathering isn't an RPG. Not the least of which is that it has clear-cut win/lose conditions. So the answer to your last question is "no."

  27. @Alzrius:

    Well, any attempt to control someone's behavior (beyond making arguments and having rational discourse) on the internet is absurd.

    So what other response is there to dictates other then absurdity?

    If the only goal (as you state) is to enjoy yourself, then would you consider me successful if I attacked and killed the rest of the party? If I did that, would you say that I was successful at playing D&D? How about other unacceptable enjoyable behaviors (dominating play, disrupting campaigns etc.) As long as I'm enjoying myself, I've got down the essence of D&D is your thesis?

    The goal (as outlined in this post at B/X Blackrazor) is explicit in Dungeons and Dragons. That, and the fact that you explicitly keep score are some of the reasons that D&D was so incredibly popular in comparison to other RPG's.

    I see in your refutation of score keeping, you discuss the acquisition of treasure by pointing out an optional book published in 2003. That's 29 years after the creation of D&D.

    The earlier editions do explicitly keep track of score on two separate metrics, and although there may be some interest to play a game attempting to keep your score as low as possible it does not disprove the premise.

    You then point out that the losing condition can be averted but only by lowering your score. (See, it's a penalty for lack of player skill)

    However, there is no logic to your statement "continuing to live is a poor measurement of player skill". It is true the more skillful player will have a higher score (more gold in earlier games, more kills in later ones) but that doesn't prove that survival somehow doesn't measure their skill.

    The thing about situations turning pear shaped is that within the context of the game it is always player choice (and therefore skill) at some earlier point that led them there. The continued survival of your character is what equates to winning or losing. I await your evidence that it somehow does not.

    Slurs about books you haven't read are pretty pointless - since David Sirlin is a game designer, world class game competitor, has decades of industry experience and multiple degrees from MIT he has much much more than "A little" experience playing games. He isn't "pontificating". he's sharing knowledge gained from thousands of hours of actual play experience.

    You're right - Magic is not an RPG because you aren't defining the abstracts of an avatar.

    It is however a game. Which, just like D&D has clear cut win/lose conditions.

  28. @alzrius: In case we're somehow working from different definitions:

    Opinion: (1a) a view, judgment, or appraisal formed in the mind about a particular matter

    (2a) Belief stronger than impression and less strong than positive knowledge

    (2b) Generally held view

    It is certainly and entirely possible for an opinion to be made as an affirmative statement. If I were to make the affirmative statement “There is no life on the Moon”, that would be both my opinion and an assertion of fact. The fact that it's my opinion is obvious and irrelevant. I do not “keep mentioning that [my] stance is just your opinion”, except in acknowledgement to your argument. Everything I say is an opinion, but it doesn't matter. It's an affirmative statement for a reason, and it should be treated as an affirmative statement.

    Look at the following:

    “X is good, because Y and Z” is constructive. It presents a position that can be argued for and against. It contributes to the discussion.

    “I like X, because of my personal tastes” is not constructive. It cannot be argued, since personal tastes are not a matter of argument. It contributes nothing besides itself.

    “I disagree that X is good, because I disagree with premise Y, and also because Q” is constructive in the same way as the above, and furthers the discussion.

    “I object to you claiming that X is good, because that's just your opinion” is not constructive because it's self-evident and irrelevant, and leads to us getting bogged down in this conversation unrelated to the question at hand.

    Once more: My statements are affirmative because they are either postulates of my argument, or assertions for which I am arguing. If you disagree with one of my postulates, reject it. If you disagree with one of my assertions, argue against it. Pointing out that they're “just” my opinions is meaningless.

    Re: arrogance, as long as it's not personal that's fine. I'm not offended. In that case, it's ad hominem; my arrogance has no bearing on the validity of my points.

    If so long as they're having fun it doesn't matter if they're doing well or not, why replace the activities of problem-solving or roleplaying with dice rolls for players who are shy or obtuse? I thought that was the point. You seem to be arguing opposite to your original statements now. My position is that players will have more fun if they play the game in full, rather than forgoing enjoyable parts of it by off-loading the responsibility onto the dice, even if they are bad at those things to start with. Then, if they are bad at those things, they'll get better at them with practice, so it won't be a problem. I'm not sure where “passing judgement” comes into it.

    I don't object to the inclusion of random rolls in social interactions, as long as the outcome of the encounter ultimately rests on the player's decisions rather than the die roll. The reaction roll, for example, sets the initial attitude of an NPC according to the character's charisma, but subsequent interaction depends on roleplay. The roll makes the interaction easier, rather than the interaction providing a bonus to the roll – the exact opposite of a diplomacy check. The skeleton you keep talking about should be the player actions, not the dice.

  29. @-C: I'm not sure why you're pointing out the absurdity of dictating behavior, since I don't think anyone is attempting to do so. Rather, I'm simply saying that you're wrong in stating that there is an explicit "goal" in D&D, and that by extension you can "win" or "lose" the game, and as a consequence play it "better" or "worse."

    Your premise of attacking the other players may be fun for yourself, but it directly impinges on everyone else's fun. In that case, yes you're pursuing the goal of any game - to have enjoyment. It's not conducive to your long-term enjoyment, however, as the others are likely to kick you out of the group (rightly so, since you're making the game more difficult for them to enjoy).

    If what you're attempting to do is prove that one can have fun "the wrong way," however, then that's still not correct, simply because it doesn't necessarily hold that the other players will dislike that (some enjoy PvP).

    My "thesis" is that D&D is a game, and games are meant to facilitate fun. If you ruin others fun while having yours (which can happen any number of ways), then it's not the fault of the game - it's your fault.

    Likewise, the post you outline is a poor one if you're trying to prove otherwise. It explicitly says "most RPGs provide no objective for play."

    Now, he does say that D&D has definite objectives. I simply say that he's wrong, and the objectives are neither definite nor inherently part of the game.

    You take issue with my noting something from 29 years into the game's existence...to what point? The game is open-ended, and has no "victory" or "failure" conditions. That there was something that enabled one style of play to be easier after 29 years doesn't mean that that style of play never existed prior to that.

    The measurement rubrics in D&D - experience points and treasure - are not scores by which to measure the manner in which you're "winning" the game. That's making them more than they are; they're simply measuring your character's abilities and money. By your example, someone who played an E6 game (wherein the maximum levels is capped at 6) is "doing it wrong" compared to someone who uses the full 20 levels of advancement.

    Similarly, the fact that the game has penalties to what your character can do is also not a score-keeping mechanic. Someone whose character is drained of a level is not "losing" D&D compared to the other players.

  30. @-C (continued): Also, this entire paragraph:

    However, there is no logic to your statement "continuing to live is a poor measurement of player skill". It is true the more skillful player will have a higher score (more gold in earlier games, more kills in later ones) but that doesn't prove that survival somehow doesn't measure their skill.

    Is wrong on every level.

    First, the fact that "as John argues" die rolling acts as a randomizer shows that there is logic to the fact that continuing to live is a poor measure of player simply because it could be due to a succession of good die rolls.

    Secondly, you say that it "doesn't prove" that survival "doesn't measure" player skill. You don't seem to realize that one cannot prove a negative. The onus is on you to prove that survival alone is someone player skill (as opposed to luck, a permissive GM, or other factors entirely), which so far you have failed to do.

    Again, you're the one holding that D&D has specific winning and losing conditions, despite the fact that it's possible to play a character that never even goes adventuring (an extreme example, but not an implausible one). Hence, you're the one who must prove your stance; I do not.

    Similarly, the fact that you think my notation that Sirlin's opinion is just an opinion speaks poorly of you. That he's played for "thousands of hours" has little meaning; he has no special insight because he's played RPGs more than other people. If you're absolutely intent on an appeal to expertise to determine whether or not D&D has a goal, then I point you to this quote by Gary Gygax:

    "The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience. There is no winning or losing, but rather the value is in the experience of imagining yourself as a character in whatever genre you’re involved in, whether it’s a fantasy game, the Wild West, secret agents or whatever else. You get to sort of vicariously experience those things."

    So right there, you have the godfather of D&D saying that there's no winning and losing.

    Hence, not at all like Magic: the Gathering, D&D has no win/lose conditions.

  31. @John: An fact - it must be verified as an objective reality. Leaving aside questions of descending into questions of solipsism, opinions cannot be verified. You can say that there is no life on the Moon, but that's a fact. Saying that you don't believe that there is life on the Moon is an opinion. It's a small distinction, but such distinctions matter - you have yet to hold that questions of "improving" how one plays the game is simply your beliefs, which have no objective weight or affirmation.

    Hence why it's not a question of what's "constructive," because what constitutes fun is in and of itself an opinion. You're attempting to affirm your opinion as a verifiable truth, which is inherently impossible.

    Re: your arrogance. It's not an ad hominem fallacy, because that fallacy is based around avoiding the argument to attack the person. That's not what I'm doing here - I've already pointed out why your stance is flawed (re: objectively stating that your opinion of "improving" one's game-play is objectively true), and that you continue to assert that your opinion is somehow backed up by verifiable truth is an act of arrogance.

    You don't know what constitutes the game "in full" because that definition is different for everyone. Stop acting like your way is the right way.

  32. @alzrius Claiming I'm arrogant is ad hominem if you're trying to use that to impugn my argument. If you're not, then it's just irrelevant. Your choice.

    I'll cut this short: Stop talking about how I ought to have phrased my arguments. Claiming that arguments which were stated affirmatively ought to have been stated as matters of opinion does nothing in itself to refute those arguments. Whether I am arrogant because of the way I have stated my arguments does nothing to refute those arguments. Do me the courtesy of responding to the statements I actually made rather than complaining about how I should have made them. If they are truly unsupportable as affirmative statements then they should be easily torn down. If you're not willing to do that, then tell me now so we can part ways before frustration sinks in.

  33. @John: If you want to ignore the personal implications of the fact that it's arrogant to tell people how to "improve" having fun, that's your prerogative, though it's certainly ironic that you don't care to hear advice about how to improve, given that you're eager to tell others how to do so.

    Likewise, the fact that your arguments are opinions does, indeed, invalidate them. It undercuts your assertion that there's a "right" and "wrong" way to play the game, which requires there to be an objective measurement of such things. There isn't, and therefore your entire argument is just "this is what I think," and has no objective weight behind it.

    Hence, what you said is easily torn down: I've already done so.

  34. @alzrius I'll give this one last go, because you were lucid before this sidetrack and I've been having fun up until now.

    Here is the argument that I would like you to address:

    Activities of problem-solving and roleplaying are enjoyable (postulate). The act of rolling dice is not, in and of itself, enjoyable (postulate). The use of dice-based resolution necessarily replaces to some extent the activities of roleplaying and problem-solving with the act of rolling dice (assertion). Therefore a game which depends on dice-based resolutions is less fun than one dependant on player skill (assertion).

    Do you disagree with either of my postulates? I don't care whether they're opinions or not, only whether you agree or disagree. Do you agree that problem-solving and roleplaying are enjoyable? Do you agree that rolling dice is not enjoyable in itself?

    If you agree with both postulates, then which of my assertions do you disagree with? Again, I don't care whether they're opinions. Which do you disagree with?​

  35. @John: I'll overlook your "lucid" slur, since you've managed to keep your composure moderately well so far.

    Your second postulate is one that I disagree with, since I've seen plenty of people enjoy die-rolling. I therefore disagree with both of your assertions, since without that second postulate they both fall apart.

  36. I meant lucid in the sense of "clearly comprehensible", not in any way meant to imply insult.

    I refer specifically to the act of rolling dice, not any system of rewards or gameplay surrounding it. Does your statement still hold true?

  37. @John: I believe it does. Which is to say, I do not agree with your postulate that the act of rolling dice is not in-and-of itself enjoyable.

  38. Okay. For my part, I take it as axiomatic that the physical act of imparting spin to numbered polyhedrals is not an intrinsically enjoyable activity to be promoted for its own sake. As you disagree, I feel we have insufficient common ground for argument.

  39. @John: I appreciate the use of listing it in the most mechanical terms possible to make it seem more tedious, but basically yeah, I think that there can be fun in simply rolling dice.

    Now, I'll grant that the enjoyment is certainly diminished, though not necessarily negated, by stripping the activity of any context or meaning. But that's true for almost everything. It's certainly true for role-playing(-as-acting); if you simply start role-playing a random persona while you're at the grocery check-out line, that's also going to lose the vast majority of its enjoyment.

    For most things, I think, the structure and nature of the scenario and environment in which they're taking place is what lends them the vast majority of their meaning. This is true for rolling dice and role-playing. Both can be fun in a vacuum of meaning, but both are more fun as part of a larger structure.

  40. I put it in mechanical terms to make sure there was absolutely no misunderstanding. I consider dice to be a means to an end; you consider them an end in itself. I honestly don't think we can have a productive debate coming from those two positions. Fear not! While I may not understand your strange and alien ways, I vow to respect them.

  41. @John: I think you're overstating my position regarding dice as being an end unto themselves.

    Yes, dice rolling has some fun to it (to put it context, spinning tops are fun also, so why can't dice rolling be fun?), but that doesn't mean you can't enhance that with a greater degree of context, both in terms of the roll (e.g. higher is better), and with complementary role-playing.

    A game of D&D can be fun in more ways than one, all at the same time, in other words.

  42. @Alzirus

    As I've discussed recently, there are guidelines to discussion on this blog.

    I am glad to provide clarification for any statement you have questions about, but rhodomontade will not be tolerated.

    If you have a claim to make (such as "you're wrong about there being a goal to D&D", "He's wrong there are no definite objective", "There are no victory or failure conditions", and "measurement rubrics are not scores") then they must be accompanied by your reasoning.

    I will now do as you ask and explicitly clarify my statements for a second time so that there is no question of the reasoning of my stance.

  43. I am having this discussion from the stance that words have specific defined meanings. If they are not explicit in the statement, they are provided with a quantifiable metric. This metric can be measured, pointed at and discussed in an objective way.

    Dungeons & Dragons is a game. It is the only game under discussion.

    I am defining a game as a collection of interesting choices. An interesting choice is defined as a choice with significant consequences. That is to say consequences that are measurable and relevant to the goal of play.

    In Dungeons and Dragons you are provided with a representative avatar. This avatar can increase in ability and power. This ability to do so is a self-evident measure of the avatar's success at play - it is in fact the reward for succeeding at play.

    It does so using two gauges. The fact that these gauges are the only way to increase character level indicate their importance.*

    The goal of successful play is an increase in this level of character power, therby allowing the avatar to have more influence and control within the game environment.

    You win at Dungeons & Dragons by playing. You continue to be able to play in the method you choose by surviving. That is, surviving allows you to continue to play the game in the style to which you are accustomed and increase in power. If you do not survive, or you do not increase in power then your play is not defined as successful.

    If you do not survive, then it is a self-evident failure because you are forced to stop playing the game. If you do re-engage in play, it is either after a penalty or you are forced to change the method by which you interact with the game. That is to say you are made to create a new avatar.

    None of these statements contradict axioms such as "There is no 'Winner', no final objective" (page 7, 1e DMG). You win by playing - this does not mean you cannot fail to be successful or fail to accomplish objectives. My win condition is the one that requires to be fulfilled in order to continue to play.

    *An exception is made for 3e onward, when one of the gauges becomes tied into the other. There is only the experience gauge, and your wealth and the resultant power gained from it becomes tied to level, leaving only one gauge for success.

  44. Now to address some other points:

    Re: Your thesis "Games are meant to facilitate fun"
    I cannot address this because some of your terms, such as "fun" remained undefined and therefore meaningless.

    Re: Avoiding Win Conditions
    It is certainly possible to engage in a game without the intent to succeed or win. You could avoid adventuring or attempting to accumulate experience or gold. You could also play chess to lose or try to make your football team fail. Why would one do so?

    Re: Measurement Rubrics
    The measurement metrics, by definition, measure success in a literal specific explicit manner. When you accumulate enough of one, your level increases. When you accumulate enough of the other, you can purchase power.
    There is nothing wrong with an E6 game because none of these metrics are limited. Characters continue to gain levels in those games, but they receive only feats. Since they receive gold, experience and advancement I fail to see your point.

    Re: Level Draining
    A fourth level character has less power (hp, level, abilities etc.) then a sixth level character. Is not the loss in level an objective loss in power? Since this is self-evidently a removal of power giving experience points, it is pretty explicitly not a success. Not succeeding is called failing in my neck of the woods.

    Re: Die Rolls and Player Skill
    As explained above, in highly random games such as poker and magic the same people end up in the finals year after year, even though millions of people compete. This is because skill is a larger factor than the randomness. A smart player will not get into situation where their life hangs on the roll of a die.

    Re: Other factors affecting player success
    I've addressed luck twice, and you did not list any other factors besides "permissive GM". I am assuming that the Dungeon Master is an impartial adjudicator of play. Now clearly if he is not, if he fudges die rolls, moves encounters, changes hit point totals, and other dishonest activities, then the game cannot be fair. I cannot speak to those that engage in those behaviors other than to say I will not play with them.

    Re: David Sirlin
    This was not an appeal to expertise. It was a bibliographic reference to Scrub Theory. Scrub Theory is the creation of non-existent structures and rules in games or the denial of exiting metrics and rules in games. Examples include saying legal game behavior (like say, camping or turtleing) isn't "fair" or is "cheap", or redefining victory conditions such as "Most Headshots" or "Most Lands Played" instead of the actual victory metric. My explanation of his credentials had to do with your projection. (You being the armchair blogger and him being a published author, game designer and world class competitor)

    Re: Misunderstanding Gygax
    Yes. To play is to win. It is a cooperative game. The value of the play of the game is in the experience. I see nothing in that statement that conflicts with mine.

  45. @-C: First, it should be noted that while "rhodomontade" is a noted variant, the word is typically spelled rodomontade. Likewise, I'm sorry you feel that my contradiction of your points is a rant, but I don't believe that to be the case.

    To clarify, while words unto themselves have a meaning, but this meaning is not objective, but rather defined by majority consensus, hence why definitions change over time, and words are added or deleted from the dictionary (that's how it is for English, at least. I'd much prefer that English had a language academy that decided what was or was not the correct definitions of words. To date, however, no such organization exists for this language). Given that, there is no truly objective metric for words beyond mutual consensus.

    In response to D&D being a game, I'm defining a game as the first definition listed in the link provided - "an activity engaged in for diversion or amusement."

    Now, it's certainly true that the consequences of your choices while are relevant and meaningful, but this does not necessarily mean anything in regards to "winning" or "losing" the game, as you'll see below.

    That one's player-character can increase in wealth and experience points over time does function as an in-game reward; that's not in dispute. This is not, however, necessarily a function for "succeeding" at play, since "success" is an artificial construct of a scenario within the game, and not a function of the game itself. (e.g. you gain money and experience for completing an adventure - that does not mean you are "winning" Dungeons & Dragons).

    You "win" at Dungeons & Dragons by having fun playing. This is true even if your PC dies and you create a new one (or have the old one brought back to life). Because the point of the game is to enjoy yourself, the metric by which your character increases in their personal rewards is thus a secondary characteristic which, while it certainly adds to the game, is not necessary to play it, let alone enjoy playing it. Hence, it is incorrect to say that creating a new player-character is in any way a penalty; it can be viewed that way, or it can be viewed as the reward for deciding that your existing character was less fun than a new character you want to play.

    This, then, is directly supported by your quote from the First Edition DMG. Rather, the goals you cited are artificial creations that are a sub-aspect to the game itself. Those are the goals you have created for D&D, but not the goals of D&D.

  46. @-C: In regards to the other points that were raised:

    Re: That "Games are meant to facilitate fun"
    This point is central, and your notation that you cannot address is is similarly salient. The fact that "fun" is individually-defined, and so cannot be measured by any objective metric that you may provide, is central to my point. D&D is supposed to be fun - fun cannot be objectively measured - ergo the purpose of D&D, and play in regards to that, cannot be objectively measured.

    Re: Avoiding Win Conditions

    This point is incorrectly named. One does not "avoid" win conditions that are not explicitly there. Rather, there are artificial conditions for "winning" that you have created within the context of the game; the game, however, does not require such things in order to serve its primary purpose: to be fun for those playing it.

    Re: Measurement Rubrics

    I pointed out E6 because it shows that the nature of the rubrics your using are variable; this is a more limited example of my larger point, which is that they are not only variable, but not intrinsic to the game itself. They can be changed, or eliminated entirely, and the game's primary purpose can still be served. Again, fun cannot be measured, meaning that D&D's primary purpose cannot be measured; hence, one cannot say how much they are "winning" or "losing" the game itself.

    Re: Level Draining

    This was another example to show the necessary fallibility of your larger point. A player that has lost levels but is still having fun is in no way "losing" the game.

    Re: Die Rolls and Player Skill

    Your point regarding skill being a larger factor than randomness undercuts your earlier assertion that "D&D is the only game under discussion." It's also another attempt to avoid the central purpose of the discussion we're having (the D&D game as a vehicle for fun vs. the D&D game as a vehicle for winning or losing). How "smart" or how "skilled" (the two are not the same) a player is has very little to do (if anything at all to do) with whether or not a PC's life will hinge on a die roll.

  47. Re: Other factors affecting player success

    I believe that your attempts to address the issue of luck are lacking, for reasons outlined above. Similarly, while a GM can be "impartial" in regards to the outcome of various actions, that's a very different thing than what's "fair" - partially because he's created the game world and thus has designed precisely what (if any) challenges the players will face, but also because what constitutes "fair" is itself a matter of opinion (for example, is it fair to artificially weight the degree of challenges in regards to player "skill," or does one design them with an eye towards verisimilitude in world-creation?).

    None of this, of course, addresses the central point of the game, which is how much fun it is to play.

    Re: David Sirlin

    It's worth noting that Sirlin's "Scrub Theory" would actually apply more to your stance than to mine. By creating artificial conditions for "winning" D&D (e.g. earning more experience points, gaining more wealth), you're creating new conditions to try and replace the actual purpose of the game.

    It's also worth noting that you - in total violation of your own rules against engaging in a rodomontade - say you're not appealing to expertise, and then cite his credentials a second time, which is a pointless exercise since you're not only incorrectly citing his theory, but admit that you cannot measure fun to begin with.

    You also conveniently forget that the armchair blogger is, in fact, yourself.

    Re: Misunderstanding Gygax

    Given that you've admitted to misunderstanding Gygax, and that you herein admit that the real winning is playing (and, by extension, enjoying playing), I'm not sure why we're still having the debate. Those statements inherently invalidate yours (as yours are that to "win" is to gain experience and wealth).

  48. If your primary point is:"The fact that "fun" is individually-defined, and so cannot be measured by any objective metric that you may provide, is central to my point.", then we have reached an impasse. We cannot achieve any resolution, since many of the things you describe or imply seem torturous or un-fun to me, and I assume vice-versa.

    If you will provide no concrete definition of the goal of D&D any further discussion is meaningless. You can say whatever you wish, and without an objective metric anything you dislike is wrong and anything you like is right. That is pointless effort and belongs on your blog and not mine.

    I have no trouble admitting you cannot measure an undefined subjective experience. I have provided some definitions about what the purposes of D&D are, and since you reject them outright (while admitting that my definitions are all factual, just unimportant in your opinion) then what is the point of your reply?

    There are minor points that I quibble with, but it seems as if there is nothing else to discuss. I leave these footnotes.

    Formal debate requires the presenter to define terms. One could define Africa as 'territory Africa owns on the moon'. I have done so.

    You mention that "the metric by which your character increases in their personal rewards is thus a secondary characteristic which, while it certainly adds to the game, is not necessary to play it. . ." If it refers to D&D then I posit since experience gain is a core element of every version of D&D, it, technically, is necessary.

    I disagree with your contention that a skilled player won't take steps to avoid situations where his fate hangs on random number generation. I believe he will, and his ability to do so is representative of his skill at the game.

    I did not intend to discuss other games, simply provide factual proof that player skill trumps randomness AEB win rates of Kai Budde in both Magic and Poker.

    I never libeled Sirlin. I was simply pointing out that it was incorrect to do so, and why.

    Gygax was not misunderstood on my end. His statement is not in conflict with mine. You misrepresent my point as "Those statements inherently invalidate yours (as yours are that to "win" is to gain experience and wealth)."

    What I actually said was:
    "You win at Dungeons & Dragons by playing. You continue to be able to play in the method you choose by surviving. That is, surviving allows you to continue to play the game in the style to which you are accustomed and increase in power. If you do not survive, or you do not increase in power then your play is not defined as successful."

  49. Also @Alzirus: Thank you for the cogent discussion. I look forward to your thoughts on future posts.

  50. I was wishing for someone to Finally point out how one does handle "player skill vs character skill". I mean, what if I have a player that wants to be a clever detective and according to the stats his character is one, but the player misses even the most obvious of clues?

    Surely that player is not having fun, and cannot get into his role. Then what? I get that the player will "get better" with time, but in that particular session he clearly was not having any fun. Is that bad to get him making some rolls here and there to try to support his vision of the character (for example, making an intelligence check to get some sort of nudging from the GM towards solving a case)? I mean, my number one goal as a GM is to get my players to enjoy the game and enjoy their characters. If a couple of dice rolls can get things moving, so be it if you ask me.

    @-C, I found this blog a few hours ago, and I like what I am reading. There are a lot of things I never considered before. But so far so good. I see myself using things I learned today. Congrats!

    I know this is a discussion that happened years ago, but I just finished reading the comments and I do agree with Alzirus that "player skill vs character skill" is a very real part of RPGs. At least that has been my experience thus far. And I was waiting for your take on it. Maybe I´ll find it somewhere around here in your wonderful blog, but here I saw you dance around the question.

    If you elaborated in some other post, would you be so kind as to point me towards it. But then again maybe I´ll find it first. Either way, thank you.


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