Saturday, July 17, 2010

John Wick's Play Dirty? What happened to play collaboratively?


That's right, I made an adverb out of collaborative, wanna make something of it? I was cruisin' the open games forum and came across this thread asking about the GM advice guide "Play Dirty" by John Wick. John's a guy who has a lot of cred in the game design world. He originally designed Legends of the 5 Rings and Houses of the Blooded (something I've been interested in for a while now) amongst others.

Anyway, I guess the first chapter of Play Dirty was originally posted in 1999 on The Gaming Outpost. Go ahead and give John's post a read. It's ok, I know you'll be back. Read it? Ok, just a bit more homework. Evidently these two youtube posts (one and two) are supposed to give you a more well-rounded idea of John's intent in Play Dirty.

Keep Reading once you've finished your homework (or just for general controversy)!

Now that we're all caught up, let's see if we're on the same page. By the title of this post, it's not hard to imagine where I'm coming from. I don't like what Mr. Wick has to say about how a GM should run a game. I respect his thoughts and opinions, but I vehemently disagree with them. The thread over at has some decent debate, but it's just not possible for me to see the validity of the "adversarial" GM model. The post itself just screams power-gaming and munchkining on the GM's part. The problem is that he justifies it because he wants to stop players from power-gaming and munchkining their characters.

Maybe part of my limited view on the topic is that I've never played in an adversarial game. Does this mean I've never felt challenged in an rpg? Not at all, when the rules allow it, and the GM plans for a good fight or challenge to overcome, I accept failure. That is, I accept failure when it's a result of dumb luck or my own poor decision-making. Failure because the GM tweaked the scenario and then railroads the outcome of the situation is a no-go. The biggest example of this kind of thing is the following chunk from John's original post on Gaming Outpost:

"On Grandmama’s seventieth birthday, Malice took her out to her favorite restaurant. In the middle of the meal, one of Malice’s most hated enemies showed up on the roof with a bomb. Of course, Malice made an appearance. Her enemy (who knew she would show up) was prepared. He had a single agenda and he stuck to it. In the middle of the fight, he hit her with a paralyzing ray, ripped off her mask and threw her through the glass ceiling – right in front of Grandmama. The combined shock of seeing her granddaughter get thrown through the glass ceiling, fall fifty feet and slam to the floor was shocking enough. Add to it the realization that her granddaughter was that masked hussy was a bit too much for Grandmama to handle.

Her heart seized, and as Malice watched on, trapped in her paralyzed body, her grandmother died.

Malice retired the very next day and nobody ever bought a DNPC again."

Oh good, nobody ever again wanted to create their own NPC's to try to impact the world the GM built! Remind me why this is a good thing again? "Her heart seized, and as Malice watched on, trapped in her paralyzed body, her grandmother died." Wait a second. So, did Grandmother have a full NPC sheet written up and failed her rolls, or did the GM decide before the session began that she was going to die no matter what? I have no problem with the villain knowing the superhero was going to show up at the restaurant, but really, Grandma's gotta bite it because she exists? In this scenario, the Grandmother NPC only exists to die and destroy the character. This isn't a disadvantage, this a "Marley was dead: to begin with" drawback.

This doesn't even touch on the fact that all of his players seem to give up so easily. So Malice's Grandmother died as a result of Malice's reckless hero'ing? Just like how Uncle Ben dying killed Spider-man's superhero career? Let's try to be a little creative here - the NPC died - roll with it. Make it change your character, but don't throw in the towel! I just have to assume that his players are used to having their characters nullified regardless of what interesting things they try to do with them. After all, to quote Mr. Wick:

"You see, I have a bit of a reputation.

I kill characters.

A lot of characters."

I guess I never knew this about myself, but putting time and energy into creating a character for an RPG so that he can be killed by a GM who really likes killing him or her is a joy or role-playing I've just never had the chance to experience.  Wait, that's not right either. Look, TheBro recently announced to the group that he wants to run the new 4th Edition Tomb of Horrors scenario for us. A couple of us are familiar with the notorious lethality of the module, but we're looking forward to it nonetheless. Here's what TheBro has to say to set us up:

"You have reached level nine and have decided to test your abilities against the greatest treasure filled dungeon ever heard of, The Tomb of Horrors. Rumors abound about the tomb include:
  • The tomb is filled with secrets and puzzles.
  • Your passive powers of perception will not always help you.
  • Traps will claim the lives of the unwary.
  • An arch Lich designed the tomb for some nefarious purpose and may still reside inside somewhere.
  • Over the years, ghouls, ghosts, and liches among other undead creatures have built Skull City around the tomb to worship the arch lich.
You will need to develop a level nine character. I will run the tomb as written for fourth edition. I am not your adversary, but it may feel like it at times since this scenario is brutal to say the least. So long as your character is legal according to character builder or using the books, it is playable in my game. You can use whatever backgrounds, etc. that you want. You guys may want to post the type of character you want to play here so you can build a balanced party."

He's running the Tomb as written and has given us the heads-up that he is in fact not our adversary although it is going to be super-tough. You know what he didn't say or even give indicate at all? He neglected to mention how much he would love to kill our characters and how many back-up characters we should prepare because he wants us to waste as much paper as possible. You know what else I liked about it? There's a feeling of optimism and opportunity throughout his short message to us. The scenario itself sounds fun, but our characters know what they're getting into (unlike Mr. Wick's superheroes who have no idea they're working for the devil), and he encourages us to plan smart. He doesn't want us to do that so he can find our one weakness but rather so we can work as a team and possibly overcome the challenges.

If I pick a character that reduces the necrotic damage he takes (knowing we're going to be facing some nasty undead ghoulies in the Tomb), I expect that the TheBro will not add the power that ignores necrotic resistance to all of his skeletons and zombies. Otherwise why pick this as an advantage?

"Immunity gives a character supernatural immunity to diseases and poisons. It’s a very popular advantage. Of course, Mr. Carter had to do something about that.

I had his scientists come up with a disease that would kill off anyone with the 'super gene' that meta-humans had. Carter had a cure, of course. The only problem was all those super fellows who bought Immunity were, well, immune to it."

Let me re-emphasize this, "It's a very popular advantage." So of course his penchant for killing characters means he gets to take the advantage and make it a disadvantage, and a completely non-sensical one at that. How is the super who has Immunity to diseases not immune to a disease that targets people like him? That's like saying taking the Polio vaccine makes you more likely to get Polio. Afterall, wouldn't immunity to disease be considered a super power, which would then make you vulnerable to this supers-killing disease? It's makes perfect no sense!

When it comes down to it, I play RPG's for the collarborative fun of it all. I play board games, miniature games, and CCG's for competition because these things all at least attempt for a very balanced play experience. RPG's, ALL RPG's, are too easy to skew one way or another, and the GM has the power to just make the game feel unfair. In all of my experiences, role-players don't mind losing as long as they lose fair and square. The whole "Play Dirty" thing is just off-putting to begin with. Do I want each challenge and combat to be gimme's and never feel like my character is in danger? Of course not - every GM section in every rulebook out there tells you to stay away from this situation in your game. You have a player who munchkins or doesn't take their disadvantages seriously? You talk to them afterwards about your issues out of the game. You don't punish the character, and by proxy, the party they're a member of because you don't like how they're playing. Some games work well with combat monsters (D&D 4th Edition) and some don't (Fiasco), and that's cool. If you have someone whose character conflicts with the style of game you want to run, tell them. Don't passive aggresively take their character out in an artificial way.

Maybe I'm wrong. I just write a blog - who am I to say anything about RPG theory and the social contract between players and GM? I know what I can do - next time one of my players picks an advantage that they're a super-macho guy and immune to crying, I'm going to have a villain create a super-evil onion that makes people cry only when they're immune to crying. I know my player will appreciate it and I'll feel better for it. I will win.


  1. Yeah, I completely agree with you on all fronts. Maybe because I'm a GIRL and get my feelings hurt all easily, ya know, but I get the feeling I'd play in exactly one "dirty" game before learning my lesson and finding a new play group.

    This whole concept just reminds me of a really pushy "friend" I had in ELEMENTARY school - she always had to be in charge of what we played, what my favorite color was, etc., with no regard to whether or not anyone else was having any fun. I'm glad to say I've learned my lesson since age 7 and try not to associate with this type of selfish people anymore.

  2. I agree that John Wick's Play Dirty stuff is too hardcore. One the one hand, I understand some of what he's trying to do ("PC disadvantages are point crocks, so I'm going to make sure that they really inconvenience them"), but he seems to be using a sledgehammer to bang in a nail.

    And using advantages against characters? That's just mean.

  3. I'm going to provide the dissenting opinion here, as I geniunely think that Wick's article challenges people's basic assumptions about gaming and brings fresh air into what easily becomes a cliche-ridden hobby.

    However, as my defense of "Play Dirty" may take a while in terms of both space and in time to write, I'd like to make it my own blog post. I'll be responding in my entry on Wednesday at Cheers! :D

  4. I don't think there is any kind of justification for making a game people are supposed to enjoy less fun for them, simply because you don't like how they play it. It's called being a jerk, actually, and I've seen too many Closet Napoleons behave like this to consider it gaming; it's more like a passive-aggressive cry for help.

    If someone wants a different kind of game, I say tell your players, find new ones, or shut yer hole and give them what they like - heck, you might even end up liking it.

  5. The only time I have played against my players was a couple of one shot delves I warned them about in advance. I did not have as much fun with it as a normal game. I want to see people use creativity and skill to succeed over difficult challenges, not get ticked because turned something that is supposed to help against them.

    I do like challenging assumptions, and Wick does that. I challenged my viewpoint and it held strong. I also love his call of cthulhu scenario Digging for a Dead God. That pitted players against each other and fit with the Cthulhu genre very well.

  6. Greg--The defense for Wick's article is not the idea that you're "being a jerk" to your players for any arbitrary reason. Wick's premise is that a GM should hold his players accountable for their decisions both within the narrative of the game as well as in terms of their mechanical decisions. Wick doesn't advocate, in any sense, killing characters arbitrarily. To the contrary, the great "lie" of the first chapter of "Play Dirty" is that he doesn't truly kill a lot of characters--he admits to such in later chapters.

    I'm getting into territory that I can better cover in a full article, so if you'd like to continue the debate--which I'm actually interested in, as I like hearing the dissenting view. I do, however, believe that you're either uninformed or misinformed about Wick's true intent as well as his delivery.

  7. I'm not uninformed or misinformed. If this guy is finding ways to "punish" players for decisions they make while playing what is essentially Let's Pretend, instead of just looking for another game, then he's pretty deep into the 7 year-old behavior that Mrs. Gamer mentioned. What else needs saying?

  8. I think that what PlatinumWarlock means by "uninformed or misinformed" is actually, "did you read the book, or just jump in with your opinion based on what this blog article told you?"

    It's been a while since I read Play Dirty, but once you get past the "shock and awe" atmosphere of the first chapter or two, John Wick gets into what he's really talking about, which is, actually, more of a collaborative style of play. It's a great resource, even if you don't agree with everything that he says, and it's worth the read for pretty much any GM.

  9. Greg, the very example you're citing is not a situation meant to "punish" anyone their behavior.

    If anything, it a matter of upholding the social contract that's in the game itself. If you do something in the game, there are concequences for it in said game.

    The character listed in the example--"Malice"--was "a big, fat thorn in Carter's side. She was getting too close to his secret, so he decided to retire her" (Wick 12). The character's actions in game of investigating her patron-cum-crimelord, resulted in Wick (as a GM) utilizing one of the character's Disadvantages (the Dependent NPC). That's right--a "Disadvantage".

    If anything, Wick played this particular scenario in a realistic and reasonable way, if slightly over the top in execution (paralysis ray and dropped through a skylight, over the a simple 'put Aunt May in jeopardy' bit).

    What you don't see, particularly if you didn't read the article, is the fall of Jefferson Carter, due in no small part to Malice's player. As another set of heroes followed the clues (over the course of months of high-tension gaming), they finally put one over on Carter.

    "They didn't kill him. They didn't maim him. They didn't cause a single point of Stun or Body. Instead, they turned him over to the authorities, with all the necessary evidence to convict him for 17 life sentences. The prosecuting attorney was a young woman who used to be known as Malice, making a special appearance for one night only. We did the whole trial...The room was filled with almost every member of the gaming club. We selected jurors...and they turned in a verdict of guilty on all but one count. Jefferson Carter would spend the rest of his life in prison...The good guys won. The bad guy was behind bars" (Wick 35-36).

    Wick does not asks GMs to kill players in any sense of the word. Wick does not ask GMs to "be a jerk" just because you can. Much to the contrary, his narrative is filled with stories of gamers 'coming back for more'.
    Wick simply puts forward the notion that a character in-game should be held accountable for a player's selections out of game.

    If it's "adversarial gaming" to inspire that degree of both passion, interest, and (to be honest) hate for a fictional character, then by all means--count me in.

    I apologize for the length of this: I really intended to continue my assertions with the rebuttal in my blog post this week. I do hope that those of you that haven't read this--Greg, I'm looking in your direction--give it a chance and learn something from one of the greater Game Masters of our age.

  10. And to build again on PlatinumWarlock's quoting of Play Dirty, here's an excerpt from the book that directly addresses the "killer GM" idea that The Hopeless Gamer seems to have about it:

    "But before I get started, I’d like to lay a couple of ground rules. After all, the title of this column could be a little deceptive. We’re here to talk about GM tricks. Nasty GM tricks that would make Ol’ Grimtooth himself do a double-take. What we are not here for is killing characters. Nobody wants to play with a Killer GM.

    But everybody wants to play with a Dirty GM.

    Just to make sure you know what I’m talking about, let’s spend a moment or two defining terms. In some circles—the ones I was educated in—that’s a pretty important step.

    A Killer GM is someone who takes glee in destroying characters. He kills them without remorse, without compassion, without care. He does it because he can. Gives him some sort of sick rush.

    This is bad.

    A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick in the book to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla tactics, he increases the players’ enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed.

    This is good."

  11. I think you guys might be missing something - my blog post, and I'm assuming Greg's reaction to it, are all a direct reaction to the posted first chapter. It comes from a thread on asking for reasons to buy Play Dirty. It was then suggested (by, I believe, Mr. Wick himself) that the first chapter would be a good example of the rest of the book and tell you if you want to buy it or not. Based on this, I thought it was very much not something I would want to pay money for.

    Chris, I appreciate you posting about how Wick defines these two different GM's, but I'd like to suggest a slight edit:

    "A Dirty GM, on the other hand, is someone who uses every dirty trick IN THE BOOK to challenge the players. Keeping them off balance with guerrilla tactics, he increases the players’ enjoyment with off-beat and unorthodox methods, forcing them to think on their feet, use their improvisational skills and keep their adrenaline pumping at full speed.

    This is good."

    See what I did there? The emphasis is on "in the book" which I would guess making the lucky advantage literally unlucky and making immune to disease superheroes extra susceptible and weakened against superhero-targeting diseases is not just dirty - it's breaking the social contract between GM and Players. It's just as bad as bending the rules too much in favor of the players to make things easier.

    Out of all the discussion about this first chapter and Play Dirty in general, I haven't seen anyone even attempt to defend those two points (luck and immunity). I really look forward to your response PlatinumWarlock and am curious if you plan on addressing these two areas specifically.

  12. I'll do my best to address those two points, if an adequate defense hasn't been raised for them. I can understand how people would be off-put by those two in particular, but I can equally understand how Wick adjucated and GMed the situation.

    As I said earlier, look for it all on Wednesday. :D

  13. I have since posted my rebuttal. Please enjoy. :D

  14. Hi there. I'm John Wick.

    (No, really I am. My e-mail is if you'd like to confirm.)

    First, as I've said before, the Champions game was a unique circumstance. It was an Iron Man environment (who can make it longest at John's game). It also followed on the heels of me running Call of Cthulhu for a year. I was dared to run a game like Champions where "it's impossible to kill characters." You'll also note that the only character I "killed" in those examples was the last one and only because the player requested it. The "I kill characters" comment was meant as an ironic statement and a lot of folks missed that. I don't kill a lot of characters.

    Second, I also wrote the article in 1999. That's 16 years ago. Times have changed a lot. My own style of GM'ing has changed and is reflected, I think, in the current Play Dirty videos I post on my Youtube channel.

    The John Wick of 1999 and the John Wick of 2010 have a lot in common, but they are not the same person. I disagree with some of the things the 1999 John Wick did and agree with others. So, I guess I'm in the same boat as everyone else.


  15. Wow, thanks John for replying!

    I really appreciate you working to clarifying some of the questions we have here. I think it's important to clarify on my end that I'm just reacting to the one post in question, not Play Dirty in general as I haven't had the chance to read it.

    I'll be the first to say that no one should discount anything else you've produced because of the sample chapter or my reaction to it. I've watched the youtube videos I've linked above and since discussed others of your videos with TheBro (he especially likes your video where you talk about the players working to create the dungeon for you).

    The best reaction I've read on the boards was that, like it or not, the Champions story makes you think about role-playing and your own views on it. I'll definitely cop to that being the case for me here. I've heard (and deeply believe) that good writing evokes a guttural response from the reader.

    I'm not so obtuse that I can't appreciate context and realize that investment in the game was your goal with Champions. I can appreciate that. I think when it comes down to it, the real aspect I took issue with was suggesting that the GM-Fiat presented in the Champions post is not appropriate for most games, and hence doesn't make great GM advice for most GM's out there. This is my opinion though, and of course others are welcome to theirs.

    Thanks again John for your thoughtful reply. Any chance you'll be at Gencon and could chat for a couple of minutes for the blog? :D


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