Sunday, July 31, 2016

Some Thoughts on Theater of the Mind Combat

In response to this thoughtful blog post by Jeffrey Dufseth on Theater of the Mind at, I have this rather TLTR-for-a-comment reply. Before I begin, I want to apologize in advance for a rambling post as I'm going to try to think through this as I write. That said, here we go.

TLTR? The upshot is that the question of Theater of the Mind vs Tactical Combat is one of game style focus. Theater of the Mind lends itself to the story aspect where the narrative is the primary concern, whereas tactical combat lends itself to the game aspect where fairness and adherence to the rules of the game are primary.

This is a more complicated question than it sounds on the surface, at least in regards to the Traditional style of RPG play. The issue is one of fairness.

Yes, Theater of the Mind is great, and it has all the virtues ascribed to it in Jeffery's post. But what I feel is missing is the question of victory or defeat in regards to game-fairness. When you play Theater of the Mind combat, the players must rely on the GM's descriptions to determine what tactical options are available. The GM may or may not be able to describe the scene in a way that makes the tactical options clear. Could the Party hug the shoreline and still remain out of range of the archer's vollies? What battle maps do is ensure that accurate tactics are played out, so there is no question as to whether or not what happened was actually fair. In the Theater of the Mind game, the players have to rely on the GM's word in this regard. What happens, for example, when the players, based on an incomplete or inaccurate visualization of the battle choose to follow the shoreline, but in the GM's mind the distance was not as far as the players imagined? "You all hug the shore line for 30' but are then cut down by a volley of arrows!" I can hear the players protest, "But their archers were out of range!", to which the GM answers, "No, but your characters thought they were!" "Unfair! Unfair!" is the outraged cry from the player's side of the table.

Lets assume for the sake of argument that the GM was right about that. The player's didn't know the exact range and they guessed wrong in regards to the distance. Let's say they even checked with the GM before hand asking "Are the archers far enough away that we can dash along the shoreline" and the GM, after rolling a perception check or the equivalent, said "You think so", but the roll was bad, and so they had inaccurately estimated the distance. And as a result there was a TPK. In the GM's mind this is a case of "fog of war" and the uncertainties of actual combat. And yet, I can imagine that the players would be upset.

"That's bad story! Now we're all dead, and that's not heroic!"

"That was unfair! We should have been able to tell!"

"You gave us bad information, which amounts to cheating!"

And this is the problem with Theater of the Mind combat. It puts the GM in the awkward position of having to either allow the party to die due to poor tactical choices, or safeguard them "for the sake of the story".

What makes this complicated is that it depends on the psychology of the players and GM as to whether or not it will work out well for everyone involved. If you're playing a Story Game and the assumption is that The Heroes Always Win because that's a good story, and the GM ensures that because the tactical environment is vague and therefore the PCs will in fact always win, somehow (with of course the appropriate amount of "risk" added in the narrative so it seems like they might get killed, but they don't) then this style is fine. As long as everyone is on the same page as to expectations it's great. The players romp through thinking they are taking risks, and the GM is pretending they are, dealing out just enough damage and pretend rolls to make it seem like that's true, but in the end protecting the party from calamity. And this works quite well for some groups.

Another option is that the players accept that in their Theater of the Mind game they could get killed by virtue of the fact that they didn't understand the tactical situation in the same way that the GM did, and decline to argue about it when they get killed. In other words they accept the Fog of War assumption and instead of complaining they say "Oh man! Wow! We all got killed that time! Hah! That was cool! Let's roll new characters and start again!"

Such players as this are probably not all that common. Most people I know will feel some consternation in that situation, and express it in the form of a cry of "Unfair!" in one form or another. And even if it's one or two players in the group, the accusation of "unfair" can spoil a game, and turn into an argument. This is in fact somewhat of a risk from the GM's point of view, and one most GMs would prefer to avoid. And this is why some (if not many, or most, even) GMs will feel forced to go with the first option of pretending the battle had risk, when it didn't.

Another option is that the GM really gives out truly accurate narrative descriptive information to the degree that the tactical information is so clear as to provide all the options to the players, and in addition, when the players do happen to lose, they don't resort to the "unfair" argument, but accept it. This however, puts the burden of proof on the GM if things go south for the Player Characters in the combat. It is very easy for the players to later think that the GM didn't provide quite enough information for them to make the best tactical choices. Gamemasters know that it is hard for players to accept defeat without a certain amount of angst. After all, when the tactical environment has been narrated, it's all too easy to come to the conclusion that the narration wasn't clear enough when things turn south for the party - which can lead to an argument and possibly spoil the game. But again, if the players are sincerely cool with the risk of their character's dying for lack of accurate information that they would have had with a battle map, then it's fine. If not, then Theater of the Mind is risky.

And this is the problem that Battle Maps solve and as far as I know the primary reason why GMs like Battle Maps. It takes the burden of covering for the players bad tactical decisions off of them and places them on the players.

What it comes down to is this - if Theater of the Mind is only good when the Player Characters win, and "unfair" when they don't, then the GM can either fudge on behalf of the players, or take the heat when they make a bad or unlucky decision. It is easy for the players to mistake an unlucky decision for a bad one in this case, and this is risky from the GM's point of view. But if the GM is cool with the principal that "Story Comes First" then the results can be tilted on behalf of the players and Theater of the Mind works perfectly. If the GM, however, is oriented towards the idea that RPGs are a game, like chess with dice, or a wargame, then Theater of the Mind may turn out to be a poor choice. The same thing is true, of course, if the players are oriented towards the Game aspect, but in this case the roles are reversed and the players may wind up resenting the GMs buffering for them in order to ensure "good story".

So for Theater of the Mind to work, both the GM and the players have to be aligned on the purpose and style of the game as being Story focused with an emphasis on The Heroes Win because that's "good story". In which case the question of dice-cheating doesn't come up because "Story Overrides Dice".

Battle Maps are used to ensure that the tactical considerations are clear to everyone to the end that the game is played fairly, and there is no blurry gray line between bad tactical choices and bad luck.

It is also worth mentioning, briefly, that in the 'RPG as Game' style of play, the GM is the adversary of the players. The GM sets up the context and details of the opposing forces, and the players try to defeat those forces during the course of the game. So there is no getting around the adversarial relationship between the GM and players so long as the Game aspect is important (unless the GM makes all opposition completely randomized - ie all encounters are rolled as random encounters so the GM is not actually setting up the confrontations but the dice are. However, I don't see many games, if I've ever seen any, actually, where this is the case).

That said, I should also add that even with Battle Maps, sometimes the situation is such that the players may lose, and STILL feel that there was unfair GMing involved. For example, maybe they thought their opponents were weaker than they actually were, and when they lose they think it was a product of unfair GMing. "You made it sound like the Orcs were weak and a bunch of pushovers!" So even with Battle Maps GM's may be subject to the accusation of "unfair!", although it should be clear enough that there is far less of a risk to the GM with a Battle Map than without one. And it should be evident that the purpose of Battle Maps is to prevent the GM from being caught in the perilous gap between Good Story and Fair Play.

So the upshot is this - if the game is Story oriented and the GM is willing to buffer on behalf of the players for the sake of story, and battle is not actually risky though it is given the appearance of being so, then Theater of the Mind is a good option and both the players and the GM will be satisfied. If on the other hand the people playing feel the Game aspect as important, and the players are not willing to accept that their characters may get killed due to the their misunderstanding of the tactical situation as it is narrated by the GM, then Theater of the Mind is risky. Each group needs to decide for themselves what style of game they want to play, and what their acceptance level of risk is.

And lastly, the real problem for many games is that the GM winds up stuck between both styles of play. On the one hand the GM wants a Story oriented game where the Heroes are victorious because that's "good story", and on the other hand the GM wants there to be actual risk during the game play. These are conflicting goals. This situation often results in the GM pretending there is risk, when in fact there is none, but not feeling comfortable with the pretence but doing it anyway "for the sake of the story". And this kind of game amounts to a kind of magic show where the GM is hiding the lack of risk behind a pretence of risk during combat. I will also say that in my experience most of the GMs I know actually play this way, and most players I know are cool with that because the level to which they are being buffered is unclear to them. And I will also add that in most cases that I know, this style of play, what I think of as The Parlor Trick style, is perfectly fine, totally common, and despite the deception, a heck of a lot of fun. Just like magic shows are a lot of fun. As long as you don't poke your nose into it too far, everything works fine and fun is had by all.

If you want a fair tactical game where there is actual risk and tactics matter, then you should probably use Battle Maps, and take your chances that your characters might get killed. If you want a good story use Theater of the Mind, but forego the idea that the dice actually matter because it is more likely than not that the GM is buffering for you so you won't shout "unfair" by the end of the game.

I'm frankly not seeing a way to have both at the same time, good story and fair tactics, because fair tactics includes the bad luck that might cause the heroes to get killed. Battle Maps, however, at least give the players of a fair tactical game a chance - they can look carefully at the map and make good tactical choices. That's a lot of fun, too, like chess.

Both styles of play are fun. But you need to understand what the choice entails and choose one or the other. Or play the Parlor Trick style, which is also fun, but as it is a kind of cheating (like a magic trick is a kind of cheating) you have to agree not to look into it too closely or you will spoil the game.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Notes on OD&D - Part 28

Time for us to take the next step forward! On to the next batch of 6th Level Spells!

Men & Magic
  • p30 - Explanation of Spells - 6th Level

Lower Water: Utterance of this spell causes the water level in a river or similar body of liquid to drop 50% of its depth for ten turns. Range: 24" (720').

Um. That's a 6th Level spell? Really? Um... I don't know about you but this one is not on my "Must Have" list... at all. Nope. This seems like a totally wasteful spell to take as I can not think of any time in the past 30 years of gaming that I would have needed to lower a body of water 50% for 10 turns. I am guessing though that it's intended to allow troops to pass over waterways like rivers where otherwise it would not be possible. Let's remember that D&D 1st Edition was a military miniatures wargame, and things like River Crossings had a bearing on troop movements. That, of course, no longer (afaik) has much bearing on how RPGs are played, but if we harken back and consider the potential utility of this spell in that particular context then perhaps it begins to make more sense. Ok, on the assumption that I'm kinda guessing right about this, I would still say that as a 6th Level spell, this one is more or less shite. Why? Well because reducing a river 50% will not necessarily allow troops to cross, and doing so for 10 turns only even moreso limits it's potential usefulness. An army can not cross even a dry river bed in 10 turns. So, yup. Pretty much shite all the way around. I guess you have to have some shite spells in the list so that people can feel good about saying "Nope, not that one."

I rate this Spell 1 Star out of 5 for uselessness.


Part Water: A spell which will part water up to 10' deep for a maximum of six turns. Range: 12" (360').

Goodness no. That's pretty much just as bad, and pretty much for the same reasons, although at least if you actually part the water then the troops can certainly pass through, as opposed to "maybe" for the previous water barrier passing spell. So this one is a minor improvement. But it only will only part water 10' deep. Sorry Moses, this ain't gonna be so easy after all. Yeah, I think this one is only a thin silky blond hair better than the last one.

I rate this Spell 1.01 Stars out of 5 for uselessness.


Slightly Shift Water A Little Bit Spell:  This spell moves one gallon of water an inch or so in any direction the Magic User wishes for 1 turn.  Range: 1" (30').

Hehe... Just kidding!


Projected Image: By means of this spell the Magic-User projects and image of himself up to 24" (360') away, and all spells and the like used thereafter appear to originate from the Projected Image. Duration: 6 turns. Range: 24" (360').

Hmmm... 6th Level? Um, hey, Gygax, old buddy... what's up with the super-underpowered 6th Level Spells? My MU has gone through hell and high water (literally) to get to a level where he can select even one of these puppies and ... this is the selection? Seriously? This is ok useful, to a certain degree, but still... I'd have thought this would make a perfectly fine 3rd Level Spell, frankly. Not 6th. Don't waste my time with this one.

I rate this Spell a 2 Stars out of 5 for uselessness.

NEXT!! (come on, come on)

Anti-Magic Shell: A field which surrounds the Magic-User and makes him totally impervious to all spells. It also prevents any spells from being sent through the shell by the Magic-User who conjured it. Duration: 12 turns.

Well that one was looking promising, until the joy-diminishing caveat that it doesn't allow spells through in either direction. That's like jumping inside a tank, only to find that all you can do is drive around because you're totally out of shells (see what I did there)? Can I say that this too is a Booooooogus spell? Ok, let me think this through here. Maybe Gygax really, really, really didn't want Magic-Users to be too powerful. So the list of 6th Level spells is designed to make Magic-Users lose heart, and fall into despair, maybe? I don't know. If I'm going to take on that much risk, and commit to that much of a long slow haul up Levels to get to the point where I can get my dirty little hands on some 6th Level (that's the Maxi-Premium-Top-of-the-Line spells, btw) spells, and they turn out to be this crappy and mitigating... yeah, I'm going to be preeeety disappointed. And next game I'll be playing a frikkin barbarian with a two handed broadsword with the words "I Kill MUs" on his shield. Just sayin.

Also, almost as an aside, the description doesn't tell us what the diameter of the Anti-Magic Shell is. Can it fit more than one person in it? The whole party? Well, from the description as written it seems to suggest (strongly) that only the Magic-User can fit inside the Anti-Magic Shell. Yay for the MU. The rest of us? Oh, yeah well you guys are SOL. Sorry bout that. :p

I rate this Spell 3 Stars for usefulness (its not horrible, but ... meh. Not impressed after all)

Ok, that was depressing. I'm going to stop there. BUT ... I notice from a quick scan that the last 5 Spells actually do look promising! Let's keep our fingers crossed that good old Gygax doesn't screw the pooch on those as well, eh? :)

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

RPG Worlds as Embodiments of Philosophy

It seems to me that every RPG rules system, and style of gamemastering, selection of back story, dispositions of characters all combine under the umbrella of the Gamemaster's philosophy. The world itself becomes a reflection of the GM's philosophy.

In some cases, such as science fiction, the philosophy is concealed to some degree behind the forefront of whatever the science aspect of the fiction regards. However, despite this appearance, any amount of investigation will likely soon reveal that all of the same aspects apply for science fiction as they do for any other kind of fiction or fantasy. All worlds embody the philosophies of their authors.

In our day and age things have become angst ridden due to the ever present anxiety under which we all are living. Ever since the 2000 stock market crash, which was the dot com bubble bursting, the red flag that told us we are heading into troubled waters, we've suffered a near continuous series of calamities. The Sept 11, 2001 saw the beginning of the Twilight War between Islam and the rest of the world. Then the 2008 Financial Collapse, nearly destroying the entire economic structure of the West, and perhaps the world. And more recently, the Syrian Civil War resulting in a humanitarian and refugee crisis throughout all of Europe, not to mention the ravages of civil war. And all of this is due to conflicts of philosophy both large and small, and spanning the breath and width of civilization. Philosophy, as it turns out, is important. In fact, it governs everything. When philosophies collide we get disasters. However, when Philosophies unite and harmonize we get peace and order. And to a very large degree the choice is ours. It has always been so even from the most remote times of antiquity.

GMs imbue their Worlds with their philosophies. They must. It can't be helped. And it's not a bad thing. Unless those philosophies are so tainted as to pose a danger to those who adhere to them or those around them. Then, of course, it is indeed a bad thing.

But the GMs I've known have chosen to create worlds whose philosophies remained covert, and yet interesting, and often amazing for their originality and depth. I've not been bored in any of them.

On the other hand, I've played in some worlds where there is very little in the way of philosophic content, and generally focus on things like combat tactics and loot. Which is just as fun for me as the next guy. But I also like the other, more literary, if you will, aspect that is also possible in RPGs. It is this potential of literary quality of RPGs that I find truly fascinating, and why I think RPGs hold so much promise for the future. They are in and of themselves a new and wonderful combination of game and art form, drawing in a all manner of skills into one complex yet cohesive activity. I count it among the most brilliant of mankind's inventions to date, along with orchestral music and the wheel.

So the result is that the philosophy of the GM's World is going to have a lot do with how it is perceived by the players. To a large degree it will determine how much, and what kind of fun they have exploring it. They experience the philosophy through all of the events in the world that the GM narrates, as well as the character descriptions, tone of voice, and so forth. 

Some GMs will do this overtly, and it will be quite clear what the underlying philosophy of the world is. It may be something as simple and straight forward as "The Rule of the Strong Prevails", and that's it, or any similar one dimensional viewpoint. For those Worlds one expects to encounter monsters and villains, kill things and take their loot. Because that's the nature of the World. And the players therein share in that nature, or I should say philosophy. Which is of course to be expected.  The RPG is a social event, and takes place within the context of friends.  It would be natural for them to share a common viewpoint. A common philosophy of life.  And so when the game, the world in which they play embodies that philosophy, and this is the game they enjoy because they are familiar with it and it suits them.  Which is all well and fine, naturally.

In other cases the GM may be more circumspect, and the philosophy may be more nuanced and less overt for that reason. These kind of GMs might have several competing philosophies embedded among the races and peoples of their Worlds.  And those philosophies might become the subject of a wide range of Role Playing opportunities for the GM and players to explore.

So different Worlds are going to have, in other words, entirely different characteristics, and in fact entirely different meanings.  A world whose underlying philosophy is nihilism will have entirely different characteristics than one whose philosophy is utopian in nature.  One might have the story revolve around a Dark Lord whose war forces are ravaging the world out of lust for power, and that is the primary underlying story, while another might have the rise of an Athenian style Space Empire at the height of it's glory.  It entirely depends on the philosophy underlying the world's creation.

When we understand this facet of RPGs we can better understand our options, and navigate more purposefully through the experience of this shared collaborative story making we call Role Playing.

If the GM has a sound philosophy, something profound and of interest, then that GM's world will be interesting. Well, to those who might take an interest in such things. Of course not everyone will, and so some players will glance over the underlying aspects of such a world and take little note of it. The philosophies of the GMs shimmer beneath each world's narrative layer, but the truth is, quite often we take little notice of it.  And that's perhaps a bit of shame.  What's going on beneath the surface may be more mysterious and rewarding than the dragon's horde we send our characters off to acquire.

Some GMs will wind up experimenting. They will adopt different philosophies for different worlds in order to try them out and see how that function. In that sense some worlds will become testing grounds for all kinds of philosophic hypotheses. For example, one GM might wish to explore a comparison between democracy and monarchy. Another might wish to examine a particular theme in romantic literature. The possibilities are infinite.

So when I think about world building, I think about the nature of the underlying philosophy I'm imposing on it, and I think about my players and what they may find interesting, and what might make for an interesting mystery or fascinating puzzle, and it gives me something to ruminate over for a few months while we play out the campaign. It also gives me insights in regards to how my players react to the world, and what they come away thinking.

So as I see it, RPGs can be a bit more than simply a bit of hack and slash and murder hoboing about the landscape. I'm not saying that isn't a perfectly fun way to play RPGs, but I am saying that there are other approaches to it, and of varying levels of sophistication.

The Literary RPG Society's primary goal is to collaborate on, brainstorm about, discuss and experiment with techniques that will help GMs derive more interesting worlds, and ones that may more easily result in stories that contain literary elements, or works of artistic merit in their own right. We are a collaborative society of GMs who wish to contribute to the art. Please join us if you feel this is something you'd like to contribute to.