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Tag: Risus

The Artist is Present

I am about to ask you to do something I have to admit I didn’t do as much of during my academic career as I should have: do the reading before getting to class. Or in this case, I want you to watch a video on YouTube. Which is something I did more of during my academic career than I should have. Anyway, I need you to take about half an hour and go watch Ian Danskin’s excellent video The Artist is Absent: Davey Wreden and The Beginner’s Guide to understand where I’m going in today’s post. I want to put forward an argument that there are some games where the author is present.

I think the absence of the author is partially true of tabletop roleplaying games in some important ways. It is most certainly true of the rule books, supplements, and literary fiction that uses the same setting as the game that your GM/DM/storyteller wants to run. It is not true of the story the players are at the table to play through, though, because the DM acts as an author-figure during the play of the game. They can adjust the narrative in real time to make things clearer to the players, answer questions at the table, and confer in between sessions. The difference between this and the campfire storyteller is that the players are active participants in the procedure of creating the narrative rather than an audience that is expected to sit and listen quietly. This is what makes the tabletop RPG special. I did not say unique because I recently heard of a collaborative storytelling game called Storium which eschews solving problems with polyhedral chunks of plastic and other elements of what we normally consider games and really zooms in on the process of creating a narrative. I haven’t played this yet, but am very interested in doing so.

“The introduction of so powerful an agent as polyhedral dice to a collaborative narrative with players will make a great change in the situation of storytelling.” – Thomas Jefferson in Made-up Quotes Falsely Attributed To Founding Fathers, p. 133 

If, in the person of the DM, the artist is present, what does that change? Well, it ends the debate over authorial intent. Danskin argues that interpretation trumps intent when the author cannot be present. When creating a work, the author must think in advance about how the work will be interpreted. For example, if Beginner’s Guide included a sequence where the player was beset by enemies who look like they came straight out of a minstrel show, it most likely would not matter to us what Narrator Davey says or even what Davey Prime says about how the work is supposed to be a critical commentary on racism. If the game has us saying out loud and/or in our heads “holy shit, this game is super-racist and that’s awful” then at best the author had great intentions but failed as an artist if it really is that hard to see through to his critique. That’s the main beef I have with Bayonetta: it’s not that I can’t understand the argument that it’s not objectifying women, but it comes off that way so much that it’s not possible for me to come away without feeling that it does even if that wasn’t the original intention. Likewise, I wouldn’t blame people around my game table if I submitted official character portraits that depicted characters (particularly female ones) in a way that needlessly sexualizes them.

Why won’t anyone believe me when I say that I intended my druid to be a strong female character?

This is where the tabletop RPG is different from other kinds of games: if I have a femme fatale NPC that I hear from my players sounds more like creepy fan service than legitimate character, I have some options that I would not as a published author. If the character is straight out of a published module, then maybe that author ought to rethink the portrayal of women, but I as the DM can take the basics and rework them as I see fit. Or I can choose a different module, or homebrew something less offensive. Or, I can run with the character and do a session on peeling back the layers to show that she’s actually a person underneath the mask if that’s something that would interest the players. Or, I can just have her exit stage right and never appear again. There will be many options available to me, which will render the question of intent moot: if I proceed to play out something the players don’t like, and the players know it, then I alone am responsible for it and can’t hide behind some other author’s intent.

So, what does that mean for aspiring authors and dungeon masters alike? Be aware of your presence or lack thereof. In partially or non-interactive media (from video games to paperback novels) remember that authors are responsible for making sure the content they put out there can be interpreted in mostly reasonable ways by the target audience. There will always be people who insist on being exceptionally unreasonable, but the people who are never happy with anything are few though loud. In general, reasonable people will make reasonable interpretations but should not be expected to perform impressive feats of mental gymnastics to discover the artist’s cryptic intent. We create things to be interpreted by audiences and there is nothing we can do if they just don’t get it except create something else that does a better job of expressing our original intent. In fully interactive media where the author is present, remember that you are responsible for the content you use to shape the world. In the wrong hands, tabletop games can be used to create some pretty horrific situations for the people trying to play. Done the right way, the rules and the narrative can change during the course of play to facilitate additional play. That is why I find the tabletop RPG to be interesting enough to play, run, and write about. It’s the only kind of game I know where the author is present.

How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Grid Map

There are many ways to play Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop roleplaying games. Some people love power gaming. Some people love drama and political intrigue. Most like at least a little of bit of each. I’m not here to judge your game. If you and your fellow grognards love your old school dungeon crawls and have a special affinity for grease pencils and plexiglass, you do you. That being said, I have a particular way I like to run things and there is a reason behind every one of the choices I make, from race relations in my settings to the crunch of the numbers on the character sheet to the physical elements on my table. I present my choices merely for consideration; I am not out to convince anyone else that my style is better than theirs.

Last week I talked about fighting to the death, and the week before on how visual elements are the first tools given to players for understanding the world. Today I will delve into some of the visual elements I use in my tabletop games (which by volume is mostly D&D, though I will be trying my hand at running World of Darkness on November 5, 2016: more details on that closer to the date). One important element of the D&D game is the encounter. This is, loosely defined in the context of a D&D game, an event where players interact with non-player characters in some way that involves dice rolls and success/failure conditions. Some editions are more explicit than others when it comes to exactly what an encounter is, but in all circumstances it is left to the Dungeon Master to make it work.

So, you are in for an encounter. You have tried to defuse the situation with the best Pelorian apologetics and an epic song and dance number courtesy of the party’s bard-in-residence, but the mind flayer and his ogre associates are having absolutely none of it. Your party is going to have to fight at least a few rounds. It’s time for heroic combat in a space that looks like this:

So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the plucky heroes showed up?
So, what were they doing in that featureless room at a dead end passage in the dungeon before the intrepid heroes showed up?

Ouch. Someone has gone to the trouble of finding his box of dungeon tiles, but this visual representation of the room is hardly inspiring. If pitched battles in featureless arenas are your thing, then carry on. But if, like me, you want this encounter to take place in a space that the players can believe in, you’ve got to put more work into fleshing this out. You don’t need commercial dungeon tiles, pre-printed poster maps, detailed drawings on grid paper, or indeed any physical encounter map at all. A lot of DMs excel at creating an interesting room with their words. However, I am a fan of the encounter map for the following reasons:

  1. Good graphical maps include elements that I might forget to mention or draw. I might draw a rectangle on a piece of grid paper and label it “dining room table” and I might say something like “in the middle of the cold, dimly lit room there is a foul-smelling feast of various offal laid out on a table that once held fine dinners for the king’s family” but neglect to mention the lit candelabra on the table. It might seem rational to assume that is there, along with cutlery, platters, plates, etc. but a little reminder to both the players and DM that there is a live source of fire in the middle of the table.
  2. It’s good for the wow-factor. Nice maps have people imagining that the rest of the world they are not looking at is similarly detailed. You might even get further with this by detailing a tavern complete with pantry, etc. than you will with a grandiose world map full of nations the players may never visit. What good is it to know that this nation’s main export is wool scarves if the shop you’re in doesn’t have any cues to remind you that there is a wide selection right in front of you?
  3. Sometimes people zone out when it’s not their turn. Any method of keeping track of player and non-player character positions can help them stay focused. This can be done very simply with dry erase mats or grid paper. I just happen to like the look of printed graphics. Tokens and miniatures help too. They don’t have to be elaborate or cost more than a few cents for a large set. In the picture above, the custom player character tokens were created using a consumer-grade colour printer, some cardboard out of my household recycle bin, and a little bit of 2-sided tape. It is a cheap and easy way to make something unique to each character and, along with the grid map, helps keep players focused on where their characters are in the room.
  4. I enjoy the process of making maps at both the micro and macro scale. I also like figuring out how to take an existing location and sew it into my larger setting. The chance to be creative is what drives people to DM.

Horizons aren’t always literal horizons, sometimes it’s being absolutely sure there is a pantry behind the kitchen and that there is flour there even if it’s not part of the DM’s notes and descriptions. It’s also semi-mandatory for keeping the DM’s sanity when running 4e encounters. Other editions and rule sets may lend themselves better to the theatre of the mind, but the system I started out with and have by far the most experience running games in makes it hard to run encounters without a grid map. Some people didn’t like this; I didn’t mind. Either way, it’s become a habit for me and I find it difficult to run a game with no maps. The one-night Risus scenarios I ran last year used maps closely resembling floor plans (in fact they were actual floor plans from a few Canadian universities I mixed and matched to create a fictional college), as that rule set is pretty much the opposite of 4e in this regard. However, I still liked having the layout to go from when coming up with the descriptions for each room as I went.

Now you know why I like my grid maps so much. If you like playing without them, keep on doing what you do. However, if you find that players often get inconsistent ideas such as one player assuming “crate in the middle of the room” means a large but portable box and another thinks of it as something that would require a crane or forklift to move then you might want to consider drawing it out. I’m not writing this to tell the DMs out there that they need to change, but I do encourage experimentation with different styles that help bring out the best of your tabletop RPG’s potential.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem with killing creatures in tabletop roleplaying games such as Dungeons and Dragons. I don’t think the problem is the violence itself. We play these sorts of games to escape into a different world and engage in heroic conquest in ways that we couldn’t (and/or wouldn’t want to) do in real life. As much as I loved Undertale, I’m not wishing that every roleplaying game was committed to making the case for pacifism. But I am thinking that those of us who run tabletop roleplaying games as the GM/DM/storyteller/etc. really need to rethink the way we set our players up for combat. I think this could apply to video games too, but the consumer is less often also involved in designing scenarios.

I have a confession to make: I ran two major campaigns in 4e D&D, and in each of them I railroaded the party into fighting a lot of things. The worst part is that I lead them into evil, “the termination of infinite play in unheard silence” (p. 32, Finite and Infinite Games). Evil, not just in the pitched battles with the “boss” creatures, but in the process of killing enemy mooks for experience to gain the levels they need to go toe-to-toe with higher-level enemies. Too many monsters or generic cultists were willing to fight to the death without having any purpose in the story except to be designated targets. If there is one thing I regret in my “A Trip to Castle Stirling” campaign, it was not setting a breaking point for all of the enemies (with appropriate punishments for good-aligned clerics and paladins who go for the kill after a surrender).

If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.
If I kill this, I will gain XP, which will make me better at killing other things, which may be guarding magical treasures I can use to kill progressively stronger things. I am living the murderhobo dream.

It makes sense, though. Take a look at your published modules for your favourite sword-and-sorcery tabletop game. See how they provide a wealth of statistics involving hit points, armour, movement, damage, attacks, etc. What don’t you see as often? How to defeat rather than fight monsters to the death. Will lizard people respond well to bribery? Dryads to flattery? Are demons actually quite cowardly? A skilled and determined DM would be able to improvise something, but the default course of action is to fight the minotaur until its HP reaches zero, it is dead, and the players gain XP and treasure. I did a little bit of experimenting with NPC-surrender with named NPCs and one group of snake-people in my last 4e campaign, but in retrospect it is kind of terrible that this was a variation rather than what usually happens. I can do better. We can do better.

I just finished playing in a tabletop campaign run under the Risus system. It’s better suited for short one-session games, but my regular tabletop group has found out that it is possible to keep it running as long as any D&D campaign. One of the most interesting ideas I came across in this system is that there is no such thing as HP. You run on cliché dice, and once you have been brought down to zero, you are out. Defeated. Not dead, unless it is explicitly a fight to the death, and the winner chooses the consequence to be death rather than some kind of last-minute mercy).

I ran a one-night Risus game a little while back, where the premise was that there is an annual scavenger hunt at a fictional university which everyone becomes irrationally obsessed with. Except one year when a mad scientist type became so obsessed with winning a broken version of the contest he ended up holing up in the abandoned areas of the basement and playing out a Phantom of the Opera sort of trope. The game ended when the party of player characters was able to outmatch him at his game. In the end, they defeated him more decisively than they could have if they killed him and made him the tragic protagonist of his own story. They responded to his outrageous villainy by handing him the old trophy and declaring him the winner of the impossible contest. He was left speechless, dumbfounded, and completely lost. The sense of pure and unadulterated defeat was palpable. It was wonderful, possibly one of the finest moments I have ever had as a GM. I want to do more of this, and less guiding players into the kill-XP-level-kill cycle. My future campaigns will have a Mercy button.

So, I propose that for the purposes of determining defeat conditions the DM/GM/storyteller/etc. should consider enemies in combat encounters as being part of one of three groups based on function:

  1. Robots: things that are designed or built with the specific function to fight and kill the players, includes not just mechanical robots but also reanimated skeletons, raised zombies, etc. They may be able to speak and understand language, but for them it is more like how computers understand input.
  2. Animals: creatures which are alive, likely sentient, but not capable of higher reasoning. This would include traditional animals, fantasy beasts, as well as anything else that runs primarily on instinct. Creatures such as zombies could also be this if they are created by a natural phenomenon rather than a person. They can communicate emotions but not ideas.
  3. People: sentient, intelligent beings capable of abstract thinking. These are not necessarily organic, bipedal, and humanoid. These are characters with agency, judgement, feelings, beliefs, values, and motives of their own. Sometimes we want to populate our fictional towns with people but end up putting a lot of human robots in there instead of human people. Where possible, people should be made to function as people.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.
Sans the skeleton and Flowey the flower are not people in form, but are people in function.

For this purpose, the finer points of what constitutes the difference between an animal and a person at an ethical level are up to your group to decide. By all means, consider a cat to be a person, a cultist to be a robot, or a feral clockwork automaton to be an animal. I am not suggesting that this classification be used to determine whether or not it is ethical to hurt/kill/destroy the creature if it is attempting to coerce the players in some way. That is up to the players to decide. I am only drawing this distinction for the purpose of suggesting how each should be defeated other than a fight to the death:

  1. Robots should be able to be defeated by circumventing their programming or mechanics. Robots, if sufficiently provoked, will attempt to fight the player to the death unless specifically prevented from doing so. Of the three, it should be easier to justify destroying these than either of the other two types of creatures. By all means, smite the necromancer’s summoned undead without a second thought.
  2. Animals, when provoked, will try to fight to the death unless they become scared. Fight or flight. To provide a solution to avoid a fight to the death, the DM should back up one step and make the encounter with an animal not lead to a fight unless specific conditions are met. Additionally, the conditions under which the animal will submit or run away out of fear should be spelled out in your notes. The players should not be too harshly punished for killing the owlbear if they really felt like they had to.
  3. People should rarely try to fight to the death if given the chance to be spared, unless they are true believers in a cause. These are the hardest creatures to plan for, but that is what makes the tabletop game such a great medium. You can improvise a little at the table. People should always have a breaking point. Perhaps it is fear and self-preservation, perhaps it is greed, or perhaps it is an appeal to their conscience. Players may choose to execute defeated enemies who are people, but that should lead to more consequences than an experience point reward. Killing people should always require justification. Defeating them should be more satisfying than killing them.

Simply by considering what the function of the enemy is can help determine how we let players go about defeating them without a battle to the death. You can only go on so many super-hammy rants of to-the-death defiance as a DM before it starts losing its impact. By the time you hear it from the main villain of the campaign, it starts to sound the same as when the hobgoblin deckhand swore to end you at any cost because you wrecked his ship. If the hobgoblin is functioning as a person, let the players convince him to give up piracy instead. And don’t just bring him back to assist in the battle when you later fight the pirate lord to make it harder than if you had simply executed him earlier, either. That reduced him to a talking robot. The players should also have the option to stab him in the back on his way out of a holding cell. I am not calling for DMs to enforce morality, but rather to provide for the existence of a reasonably tenable morality that players can play with and around.

So, when you are designing encounters in a tabletop roleplaying game rather than a combat simulation game, consider making combat and death a part of the game but make it the means to an end rather than the goal itself. I think it makes the game more interesting whether the players have the choice of finding a non-violent solution, fighting only to submission, or choosing to go all the way. Giving players the choice of how to solve problems allows for a wider range of play and that fills me with determination.