That's right, I made an adverb out of collaborative, wanna make something of it? I was cruisin' the rpg.net 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 rpg.net 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.
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
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.