Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Tyranny of the Player

I've been thinking a bit about my post from yesterday about The Black Hack. Not so much about TBH itself, but about the fact that the game only wants the players to roll dice for success/failure. I get that TBH tries to merge some aspects of indie story games with traditional TTRPG play. This one, though, sorta bothers me.

In my post yesterday, I said:
The fact that the DM doesn't roll for very much is a bit annoying for me, though. I'm not the sort of gamer that thinks, "Man, I wish I was rolling the dice more often!" So maybe I'm not the target audience. But after over three decades of games where the GM rolls to hit and saves for the monsters, this seems a bit meh to me. I mean, it allows for your ability scores to replace a separate AC number, but why not just let the DM roll?
I probably should have worded that better and taken a bit more time to organize my thoughts.

Of course no one's playing RPGs thinking the main draw of play is rolling dice. Granted, I think I've read things from WotC before about wanting to give the players more chances to roll dice. That talk was related to their idea that every character should be a vital and integral part of combat in the game. Which is a whole different topic I've touched on before and I won't go into now. Suffice it to say, if rolling dice is your thing, pure dice games are what you should be playing. Craps. Yatzee. Race track board games.

No, the real reason someone would design a game where the game master rolls as little as possible is because there's a deep distrust of the game master to be a fair arbiter of the rules and even more so a failure of trust to be a fair arbiter of things that fall OUTSIDE the rules.

Again, I'm reminded of the stories of Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign I read in Playing at the World. Coming from table-top war gaming, where a neutral referee would take spoken or written orders and then spend time consulting charts and rolling dice to find the results of the miniature battle taking place, Dave seemed to do most of the die rolling himself. Gary Gygax may have also done a lot more rolling for the players in the original Greyhawk campaign.

In a turn based war game, it's probably not a big problem to pause the game for however long it takes the ref to make all the moves and resolve all the attacks in a round. But in an RPG, it's a big burden to put on one person. Especially when it's not that hard to have the players make their own rolls. Add in several decades of play in which some people experience poor and/or arbitrary game mastering, it's not surprising that there is a push to put more of the onus on the players themselves to roll the dice and determine their own fates.

But it's a move that I reject. Maybe it's because I've mostly played under good game masters in my many years of gaming. I could have been lucky not to have had too many poor DMs. Or maybe it's that I don't have a problem dropping a game if I don't like the DM's style. People stuck with little or no choice of games to join have to put up with it, I guess.

Still, I find it odd that there's this push -- both at big companies like WotC (well, big being relative to the size of the hobby) and from the Indie crowd -- to try to neuter the game master. WotC does it by trying to spell out all the rules in lawyerly fashion so that players can litigate away a bad DM. Indie gamers seem to do it by trying to eliminate or divide the role of the referee to avoid concentration of power.

It's this second goal at play in The Black Hack. It's this idea that "to be fair" means the players must accept their own fates by rolling everything themselves. However, this very idea might lead to a deep distrust of the game master. And what good does that server? If you can't trust them to be fair at rolling the dice (and from personal experience, if I'm going to fudge die rolls, it's going to be in the players' favor), can you trust them to be fair at descriptions of the game world? Can you trust them to be fair with scenario/adventure/encounter design?

Yes, poor DMs may use things like quantum ogres or railroads or too much fudging of dice. And yes, it can suck for a player. But by taking away things like the ability to roll the dice from the referee, it won't help the problem ref to improve. Getting good at anything requires practice. It requires making mistakes. And if the game master is never directly testing the probabilities of the scenarios they run, they won't be getting as good a practice or making as many mistakes as they otherwise would. So their growth as a game master will be stunted. And I think that may be a bigger problem. Instead of a few spoiled sessions while the game master learns the ropes leading to fair to average sessions and eventually good sessions, you'll end up with a lifetime of mediocre sessions.


  1. Great post. I agree with the points you are making. However, I think the rule you describe is problematic for more reasons than just that. For one, the DM is a player too. Maybe on another level, but nonetheless a player and as such he needs to be able to play a game as well. Taking away combat like that is a huge step in the wrong direction, imo. What is left for the DM to do? Pull the story out of his arse as he sees fit? I had players looking at me as another form of entertainment system, a form of media to be consumed and I think it's a development to be wary of. Next thing you know is that you are expected to wear funny clothes ...

    Another aspect, although connected, would be that giving a DM tools for the game helps them to avoid cognitive bias as the narrative manifests at the table. It helps mixing up the outcomes and having the DM improvise situations outside what they might have construed as what they believe to be wrong or right. My favorite example of this would be a positive result on the Random Encounter Reaction table for a monster that would always have fought if it were just for the DM. It opens the game into new directions as he has to find reasons for the monster to interact friendly instead of going all Mortal Combat (random morale would be another good example for this, imo).

    So there are lots of reasons to give the DM something to play with and I don't think it's good game design to cut down on that side of the game. My two cents.

  2. Like you, I'm in the "GMs should roll the dice" camp. I also think having players roll the dice more makes them focus on the dice more, instead of immersing themselves in the setting.


    I think fear of the GM is only half the reason why there's a push for players rolling the dice more. I think there's also people who hear "roleplaying game" and really zero in on the word "game". They want it to look and feel more like a game, with everyone rolling dice on their turn and making system-level strategy decisions. And to some extent, I think they use dice-rolling as a distancing tactic to avoid immersion, much the same way they use out of character jokes. They don't feel comfortable pretending to be in the fictional world.

  3. Don't you think it has more to do with AW being a hit, making ppl realize that asymmetric die rolling was a viable option?

  4. Thanks all three for some good food for thought on this topic.

    Jens - I did consider what you're saying when writing this, but it was already getting long so I left that for another day. I do agree, though. DMs need something to do and die rolling can spur creativity. Of course, I don't think TBH precludes rolling for reactions or rolling on random encounter charts or things of that sort. The GM just doesn't get to roll to hit or save in combat.

    Talysman - I've always played it that the players should roll for themselves (aside from some things like certain Thief skills where it adds tension not to know the outcome right away) and the GM should roll for everything else. To me, that's the natural way to do it. The GM rolling nearly everything or the players rolling nearly everything both seem so strange to me. But I lean more to "when in doubt, the GM should roll it."

    Olav - I've never played any PBA games. Don't they fall heavily on the story-game end of the spectrum? I know a lot of OSR types dig them, but from what I've heard it's very much like playing an indie story game. I don't have any experience with it though, so I can't say for sure.

  5. PbtA is a storygame.

    I'm not sure if this is the specific reason for TBH's asymmetric rolling, but David Black has said on Reddit that he has dyscalculia, so that is feasibly a reason for that rolling situation.

    Personally; I'm good at math (pursuing an MS in data analytics) and I like having the players roll, one fewer thing for me to try and do.

  6. @Squidd - I wanted to ask David about this, but since G+ was tanked, I don't have an easy way to contact him.

    And if passing off most rolls to the players works for you, that's great. It's not for me, obviously.