Monday, November 30, 2015

The 5 Totally Useless Statements You See In Every RPG Discussion

As a fan of RPGs, there's nothing I love better than sitting down and having a long talk about my favorite games (except, you know, actually playing them). I'll talk about rules, I'll talk about stories, and if I've got a receptive audience I'll even talk about how to subvert the accepted tropes of a given genre to do something unexpected. However, I also spend a lot of time on the Internet, and while I love the RPG community as a whole, I would take it as a huge, personal favor if we could remove these five phrases from our lexicon when it comes time to express our views on the games we love.

Just as a preface, this article is not meant to attack anyone specific. I am not calling out anyone, nor am I demanding that everyone do things my way. Just pointing out some things I've seen over the past few years, and why I think these behaviors are total nonsense.

All right, starting at the top...

#5: Every Table Is Going To Do It Their Own Way

For good, or for ill.
This is one of the first lines people whip out whenever there's a nuanced or controversial subject under discussion. When I first posted Sexuality Matters in Roleplaying Games (And Here's Why), this phrase was legion in the comments sections. It was as if, somehow, hundreds of my fellow gamers had forgotten that I'm just some schmuck on the Internet with a blog and an opinion, and that I have no ability to declare, rule, or mandate that any game out there be played a certain way.

This phrase is appropriate in one context: someone is going on a One, True Way to Game rant, and insisting that anyone who does things in a manner other than this one, prescribed way is playing the game wrong. If that isn't happening, then this phrase serves no purpose except as a placeholder.

Every Table is Going to do it Their Own Way is just like That's What My Character Would Do; a phrase we usually hold up as a shield when someone has made a suggestion, or asked us to re-examine our opinions on an issue. If you have an opinion, state it. Instead of a meaningless, "well, everyone has to make up their own minds," say, "in this situation, I would prefer a game that X's over Y-ing, and here's why."

Don't remind us that everyone has an opinion. We know that already, and you're breaking up the flow of the discussion.

#4: The DM Can Just Change That Rule, If He Wants

Yeah, I can... wait what?
This is another dandelion that sprouts in otherwise verdant lawns. This one typically crops up whenever someone is asking a question about a certain game mechanic, particularly one that falls into a gray area because of wording. Some gamers will insist that a mechanic works one way, and others will point out that because of the wording it could work a different way. Then someone stands up in the middle of the discussion and says, "It works however the DM says it works."

Again, this phrase is inherently true. It is the DM's job to adjudicate the rules, and to interpret them in a way that the table is satisfied with. It is also within the DM's purview to change rules, with the consent of the rest of the table, in order to make the game more enjoyable.

Bringing it up contributes nothing to the conversation, though, unless the person asking the question is somehow unaware of Rule 0, which gives the DM such power. Not only that, but if someone is asking for legitimate input on how a given rule has been run at other people's tables, or if a rule should function with X or Y interpretation, then saying, "just do whatever you want" wastes space, distracts from the conversation, and makes you look vaguely like an NPC yelling out stock lines while the main characters are trying to solve the plot.

#3: This is So Unrealistic!

I know, right? Magical fireballs conjured from the ether should TOTALLY do more damage.
I know that most people who use this phrase when it comes to RPGs don't realize the sheer irony of calling games that allow you to play immortal bloodsucking badasses, demon-tainted barbarians, or wizards who can conjure lightning from thin air unrealistic. But it is. It is not only ironic, but it is ironic in the most painful, eye-rolling, head-desking way.

No, it is not realistic that a gunslinger can reload a musket in a bare few seconds. It is also not realistic that you can use that musket to shoot a necromancer raising an army of the dead to do her bidding. It's also unrealistic that a level 1 fighter can take a critical hit to the face and die, but a level 10 fighter taking that same ax to the bridge of his nose would barely even bleed. It is not a roleplaying game's job to simulate reality as we know it. A roleplaying game's job is to act as a conflict resolution system and storytelling tool.

Note that this is not a, "magic exists, therefore no complaints are valid," argument. Simply that the way physics work in the game world is not bound by the laws of how physics, damage, or chemistry work in the real world. The system for falling damage should be enough to explain that, but sometimes we need to be reminded. Yes, we know that the actual long range of traditional longbows, period crossbows, etc. isn't what it says in the book. We know that rapier fighters can attack faster and more often than someone swinging a greatsword. The book also lets you play as a hulking, tusked brute who can see in the dark. Perspective, people.

#2: It's So Broken!

Assassins... not even once.
There is a trend in video game criticism where some players will use the phrase, "this isn't a real video game," as a way to deride games they personally don't like, or which do not cater to the things they want from a game. The phrase "X is so broken," is essentially that, but with RPGs.

Again, this phrase has its uses, and there are time when it is appropriate. For example, if you begin your post with, "X is so broken," and then go on to explain why you feel it is that way, using examples from the game and pointing out instances where the "broken" thing in question creates real problems, you will be given a pass on my complaint. If you can show that you have a full grasp of what the rules say, and that you have carefully thought through your opinion about why a given ability exists the way it does, then you may have a point that it is not properly balanced. However, if you're just shouting about game mechanics you don't like, then you're not helping anything.

Put another way, if you just want to shout that you don't like a thing, scroll on by.

#1: That's Historically Inaccurate!

Ridiculous! Ducks didn't harness the power of magic till 1582, 200 years after this campaign is set!
This one gets the top honor because it is deep-fried bullshit on a stick on multiple levels. The biggest one, though, is that if you are playing an RPG that takes place anywhere other than the Earth you actually live on with unchanged history from the way things actually happened (which means no secret vampire cabals, no hidden mage sanctums, and no behind-the-scenes war between heaven and hell), this argument is completely irrelevant to the discussion.

Now, the closer your game world is to Earth's actual history, the more these complaints may become valid. However, you cannot argue that the trends in real human history are at all valid when your game is set in another world that has never shared any of its history with the one you live in. Social structures, religion, ideas about freedom, and how the economy works are independent from your experiences in this world as soon as you set foot in Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Golarion, or any of a dozen other settings.

So, before you make the "historically inaccurate" argument, ask yourself the reason why you're making it, and look at the context of the thing you're objecting to. Then ask yourself if the argument you want to make is valid, based on the history of the game world where the campaign in question is happening. If it isn't, then tuck your objection back in the box, and close the lid, because it won't contribute to the conversation being had.

And if someone is having a conversation about how historically inaccurate the pseudo-medieval fantasy RPG world full of wizards and dragons is when compared to the actual history we experienced, just walk on by. Even if it's meant as a joke, there are going to be all kinds of terrible things jumping into this bait-filled swimming pool.

All right, that's all I've got for this Monday. Hope you at least had a few moments of amusement, and that none of my bile splashed on your shoes from up here on my soap box. If you want to make sure you keep up-to-date on my latest posts, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. If you would like to get into the holiday spirit, you can drop a few dimes in my jar by becoming a patron right here on my Patreon page!


  1. Point 3) Realistic is often used to mean internally consistent. Stupid interactions create lack of verisimilitude; they make the world seem artificial. Artificial and fantastical are not the same things. An artificial world is a world where a person cannot jump over a 5ft fence but is able to wound a 10,000 lb dragon with their fist. A fantastical world has a 10,000lb dragon. And, certainly fantasy and reality are different, even, I daresay, opposite things. Reality in this context is rarely if ever used to mean anything other than "bound by logic." Speculative fiction is the process of imagining a "what if" and examining the consequences. Your assumption seems to be -- and this hobby is rife with those who agree with you -- that if you have fantastical you may as well have internally inconsistent, artificial, contrived, and nonsensical. You conflate all these concepts together.
    This also ties into your point number one a bit too. History is internally consistent. When new technologies, like armour, evolved they were adopted. They had context. Armies weren't made up of soldiers with vastly different technologies because each soldier was expressing their individuality.

    I quite liked how you introduced the concept of context and consistency in this section. History is useful as a guide to inform a contextualized criticism of the structure of an imaginary world. It cannot be an authority on how things have to be.

  2. #4 is not actually useless when talking to new players / DMs. You are looking at the rules through the lens of a person who has been breaking them for years...

    But that is a *very unique things in RPGs*. There are no other games where one player can just break the rules because he wants to... So, therefore, when talking to a new DM that needs advice, it is *not* useless to say, "Hey, you are allowed to change the rules as you see fit at the table." because they might not know that!

    They have played games their entire lives where breaking the rules equals cheating... and this is a significant paradigm shift for new DMs.

    So, I disagree with your #4 on the grounds that it is relevant to new players and DMs... and on the internet when someone is asking for advice, you often don't know whether they just started playing in the last 4 months, or have been playing for almost 40 years.

    On the other hand, if you *do* know they've been playing for years and years, then yes it is a waste to restate the obvious. But what is obvious to you is not necessarily obvious to everyone.

    On #3, there is a distinct difference between "unrealistic" and "not internally consistent". Even though the laws of physics can be broken using magic, the game should have internally consistent and logical workings.

    Even though a game has magic, the rules *do* exist as a simulation reality...Not an exact one, but still the mechanics are there to crudely model what we know of reality.

    So really, there is nothing wrong with saying "I believe the falling damage rules are flawed" if the assumption that gravity works essentially the same way in the game world as it does in the real world.

    You state "Note that this is not a, "magic exists, therefore no complaints are valid," argument." but then you essentially make that exact argument.

    What it boils down to is that, even though it is a fantasy, certain "reality" rules are going to exist that are basically the same as our world... Unless the game world explicitly notes a difference (like a different level of gravity, or you can walk across water because of the inherent magic, or whatever). Without the game world adjusting the assumptions, we have to go on what we know from real life.

    1. As noted in each of the above sections, there are exceptions to each of them. I expressly noted that, provided the individual is aware that the DM has the right to alter rules as he and the table agree are fit, the statement is worthless. The assumption being that the opposite, the DM hasn't read the book and doesn't know that, is also true.

      I agree, games need internal consistency. Which is what a rules system is there to provide. The argument is not that you shouldn't infer things that aren't expressly covered to the best of your ability. The argument is that you cannot say that a rule is wrong and simply impose your own logic by using "that's how it works in the real world" as an excuse. You can't do this *precisely* because rule systems are designed with an internal consistency that has been balanced to work a certain way. So if someone says his dual-dagger rogue should get 4 attacks at level one because of his inherent speed and lighter weapons, while the greatsword wielding barbarian should still be limited to one, that argument would break, rather than reinforce, the system that's in place. Because attacks are balanced in number not based on the speed of the wielders, but by feats and base attack bonuses, which establishes a baseline of how many times you can roll your attack dice in a full attack action.

      Yes, you can stab with a quarter pound stilletto faster than you can swing a ten pound bastard sword. It is not, however, relevant to how the system was designed, and therefore changing that rule will throw everything out of whack in the name of one person's interpretation of being more "realistic".

    2. No, the sword will deliver a blow faster than a dagger. It has reach. A small turn in the wrist results in a quick acceleration at the tip. And swords don't really weigh 10lbs. Most swords in history weighed between 2 and 5lbs (two handed).

      At any rate, D&D (the example you give) is a highly flawed system. Yes, trying to fix one problem in it could break three or more other parts of the system. The system's inability to be modified shouldn't be used as an argument against criticism.