Monday, May 16, 2016

You Can't "Overthink" An RPG (And Here's Why)

If you've ever participated in an online discussion about RPGs, or about fiction in general, you've likely come across the "overthinking" defense. It usually comes up whenever someone asks a question about the politics of a fictional world, or about the morality and motivation of struggles which are currently taking place, and the other party is frustrated or angered by these questions. That's around the time the other party starts saying things like, "stop overthinking it, it's just a game," or, "just enjoy it for what it is, and stop trying to make it something else."

Stop making me question my assumptions about my game!
There are a lot of forms this criticism takes. Sometimes people accuse the questioner of trying to make a game about politics, or about social justice, instead of being about stabbing orcs in the face. Other people will question why someone can't just sit back and have fun being a hero in a fantasy world, without having to complicate everything. No matter the accusation, though, the undertone is always the same. "I'm happy with the game as it stands, shut up, and stop trying to change it."

I'd like all those people leaving these comments to do me a favor. Take a deep breath, and remind yourself of the justification you constantly use when you're on the receiving end of arguments that aren't going your way. "Everyone likes different kinds of games, and that's okay."

The, "it's a game, stop overthinking it," argument could be seen as a form of the ad hominem logical fallacy. This fallacy is when, during an argument, you attack the person making the argument instead of the argument itself. If someone asks, "why does this setting endorse killing creatures who are sentient, and who have their own culture, without treating it as an evil act?" then you should answer that argument with an argument of your own. Simply saying, "you're overthinking it, and that makes you wrong," is no more valid an answer than saying, "you use black dice, and thus your questions are invalid."

You Can't Overthink Stories

Roleplaying games are, at their core, about stories. Saying, "stop asking questions, it's just a game," makes about as much sense as saying "it's just a comic book movie," or, "it's just a chick flick," or, "it's just a YA novel, stop picking it apart." Being an RPG doesn't provide the game world and story any special protection from analysis, critical thinking, or criticism.

With that said, however, players should be encouraged to find the kinds of games they like, and which suit their wants and needs. If this sounds like a dichotomy to you, then you need to remember that the same game, and even the same game world, can be used to tell vastly different stories, depending on the DM, the players, and the materials they're choosing to use.

You wanna back that up with some examples?
All right, let's take Pathfinder. One campaign might be a clearly drawn, black-and-white, heroes versus villains game set in Golarion. The party are all good-aligned, and the enemies they're opposing are unquestionably evil. Vile necromancers who seek to end all life as we know it, demons and devils spawned from the darkest places in the nine hells and the infinite layers of the abyss, and corrupt antipaladins commanding legions of black-armored killers are what you're standing against. There is no taking prisoners, and no way to negotiate a peace. It's unlikely that any of your foes can be redeemed. It's a fight with steel and spell for the fate of a nation, and perhaps the world.

There's nothing wrong with that kind of stark setup, and if that's your kind of game, then play it to the hilt. However, the same system, and the same setting, can also support other kinds of stories. For example, a game where the usual, "protect this town from being raided by orcs," might have more layers to it than there at first appear to be. Players can still storm the orc stronghold and fight to the death, but when they do reconnaissance they realize this isn't just a band of hulking warriors. There are women, children, and pets in these camps. Lives are being lived down there, and these raids aren't done out of spite, or evil, but purely out of a need for resources, and to try and reclaim some pride and standing by a marginalized people. The orcs, in this case, aren't just fodder for a battle glory fantasy; players have to ask if they're willing to just summarily execute thinking, feeling creatures. That doesn't mean they can't do so, but it also doesn't mean they can't try to find alternative solutions. Single combat between champions, for example, might get the orcs to surrender with minimal casualties. Diplomacy could turn the raiders from foes into friends, recruiting them to care for the very town they were preying on. For characters who earn the orcs' respect, it might even lead to them becoming your followers, and fighting under your banner against greater enemies.

Both of these approaches are equally valid, in terms of what a game can do. The question is not whether you can play a certain way, but how you and your group want to play.

You Shape The World, You Shape Your Story

The easiest way to make sure everyone's on the same page for a game is to actually answer the questions players have, and to be sure everyone has the facts for your world. For example, if you want a game where things are clear-cut, where heroes can be heroes and villains can be villains, then make it clear that certain creatures are universally evil in your world. There are no goblins just waiting to be taught how to be good, and hill giants will never understand anything beyond might makes right. There isn't a heart of gold inside that drow noble, and those kobolds are killing you because they want to take your stuff, not because they're protecting their clutches of eggs.

The swans all radiate an evil aura. All of them.
It's important that you deliver these statements as facts, if they are facts in your game world. If they aren't facts, then make it clear that these are beliefs people have, and that they may not be universally true. The same approach should be used when players have questions about race relations, human ethnicities and where they're found, and what is considered "normal" in terms of religion, gender identification, sexuality, and a thousand other areas.

Some people like to read Tolkien, some people like Rowling, and some people like George R. R. Martin. Some people like the escapism of a world where good is an easy choice to make, and others like games where doing the right thing is always hard. Just as two people might like vastly different books, so too they might want different games. There's nothing wrong with that, and you need to remember that just because someone else wants a game that's more in-depth, gray, and complex, that doesn't mean you have to play in it if you don't want to. Nor does it mean you have to agree with another person's views of a class, an alignment, or a race if you're not sitting at the table with them.

Most importantly, if all you have to say is, "stop overthinking it," keep it to yourself and move along. You're not adding anything to the conversation.

Also, for some other thinky pieces I've penned on RPGs, take a look at Absolute Good, Absolute Evil, and Alignment in RPGs and Sexuality Matters in Roleplaying Gamers (And Here's Why).

As always, thanks for stopping in to have a look at this week's Moon Pope Monday update. If you liked it, please share it with your friends, fellow players, and DMs. Also, if you're feeling generous, why not stop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to help fund Improved Initiative? $1 a month goes a long way when it comes to getting you content just like this. Lastly, if you haven't done so yet, why not follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter?


  1. Hey, I actually agree with everything you said here. Wasn't expected that when I clicked the RSS link. :-)

    Still, I have to wonder: Do you have any pragmatic advice for a hypothetical GM whose table is already split roughly equally between players who just want to stab orcs and take their stuff, and players who want morally ambiguous plots with characters walking a thin line? I've been in that situation a couple times and it always stumped me.

    1. Best advice I have for that situation is a proper Session 0. Talk to the table, and get everyone's feelings on what's happening, and what they want. If, for example, the players who just want to roll dice and stab things are okay with their characters being viewed as morally questionable psychotic thugs, then you should be fine, but if they want to be considered righteous and noble for killing monsters, then you're going to have a sticking point.

      You can easily make it a cultural difference in-game (the fighters come from nations where death on the battlefield is the purest form of victory or defeat), but that's a kind of flavor that should be worked out before you begin in order to avoid misunderstandings and problems down the line.

  2. Well said. I've kind of gotten sick of the generic evil races and the default attitude that murder is the best solution. In a recent homebrew RPG, the metagame was mostly what kept me going along with the party plan, which involved a tournament with fights to the death. My character was a thief, not an assassin or a gladiator.

    I think part of what attracted me to Changeling is that it enforces a degree of subtlety, at least when dealing with the human world, and murder can be hard to get away with. Since it's a horror genre, sometimes fighting as if you were a D&D/Pathfinder dungeon crawler is suicidal. Talking the cannibal ogre into letting you walk away with a pledge is a viable option, since promises are magically enforced by the Wyrd. You can exploit faerie psychology in numerous ways if you're not strong enough to fight them.

    Or at least, that's how I'm going to be handling my Chronicle, based on how I read the setting. While I enjoy the power fantasy involved in D&D, I wind up feeling less powerful if killing is the default solution. I want to be able to talk down a sympathetic antagonist on occasion, or untangle a warmonger's conspiracy so I can prevent bloodshed. I want to be able to walk away from an adventure feeling like the world is just a little bit more civilized because I found a better solution. I once had a quest in Elder Scrolls Online where I saved the sympathetic villain and saved everyone's lives (albeit aided by a dose of literal divine intervention). I felt like The Doctor at the end of The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances. "Everybody lives! Just this once, everybody lives!"

    That sort of thing is certainly possible in D&D and Pathfinder, but many DMs reduce everything to massacring orcs and kobolds without a thought. I don't want mindless violence to be the assumption going in.

  3. nice article! I would love to see some good starting ideas or something for pathfinder, I have trouble getting a good grip on what I want to do, and my friends have been wanting me to become a GM.