Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Say No or Force Them to Make a Saving Throw Versus Death

Flipping through Diaspora yesterday, I came across a sentiment increasingly common to modern roleplaying games. At the core of Diaspora (and many such newer games) is the phrase "Say Yes, or Roll the Dice." Essentially, this axiom requires the referee to always endorse the players' proposed strategy, or at least give them a shot with a die roll.

For Fate fans (which includes Diaspora, Spirit of the Century, Legends of Anglerre and many other related games), this has been heralded as a very "tactical" system. Players are constantly coming up with spur of the moment plans (actually, justifications for why they should win), which the referee must then accept, or let the dice decide. It is reminiscent of old school procedure, where the referee listens to the plan carefully and then comes up with a target number and rolls the die to determine success. The only difference is that "Say Yes…" precludes the referee's veto. The referee is instead slavishly committed to accepting every player strategy, regardless of how believable it is, or how it circumvents the referee's own schemes. Rather than staging a tactical opposition, the referee is subject to player whim.

This is, perhaps, seen as contrasting adversarial-style refereeing. It also developed, however, in response to a style of Dungeons & Dragons that increasingly defined characters by "Player Options," "Powers" and other mechanical advantages. Instead of thinking through a problem, players would simply look down at their character sheet for all the answers. Written in 2002 at the height of the third edition, The Burning Wheel fantasy roleplaying game was, in many ways, a response to what Dungeons & Dragons had become. In contrast with a referee-dominated narrative and players with mechanically enabling character powers, The Burning Wheel introduced the "Say Yes…" paradigm for the first time, and thus framed the referee as an enabler and the players as holding narrative control.

Of course, buying into this premise of "player control versus referee control" has obscured the original simple and elegant functionality of Dungeons & Dragons. Recently, I asked Mike Monard (veteran of the original Lake Geneva campaign) whether referees back in the day would punish Magic-Users who neglected utility spells and front-loaded combat spells by throwing in obstacles that would require the former. His response was illuminating, and is worth quoting here in full:

"Remember… the world was created first, THEN the characters were created to explore it. The way Gary, Dave, and the rest of us did it, we would set up our dungeons such that you would need a selection of both combat and utility spells. Choosing how to allocate your limited spell slots was part of the fun, as was dealing with not having a certain spell where it would be useful.

The world came first, so changing the world based on player spell selection would have been cheating. It's about the only way for the referee to cheat, in fact. Any ref who changed things on the fly to punish players based on that day's spell selection would have found themselves without any players.

What was there, was there. There was a nest of six trolls on Level 1 of Greyhawk. If you went there with three first level characters, you found six trolls. If you went there with nine 11th level characters, you found six trolls. Changing the world as you seem to be describing above would have been anathema. It is really the only way to cheat as the referee.

The referee developed a world, the players investigated it, and changing things after the fact was cheating. It was part and parcel of suspension of disbelief that the world followed its own laws and trajectory. How player decisions might intersect with that trajectory was largely unpredictable, and there was a level of excitement and discovery for both players and referee. There is a classic movement here which is common to Shakespeare plays, whereby one person would pass partial information along to another individual, who would then filter it further to a third. Consider the Doctor who agrees to provide the Queen with a vial of poison but, fearing her evil designs, actually gives her a sleeping draught. The Queen, thinking the elixir to be a poison, hands it further to the naive rival princess, promising that it is a healing balm to be taken when she is feeling ill. The King falls ill and the princess administers the sleeping draught. Chaos ensues.

Likewise, the referee may know what is really going on, but this is filtered through interrogated non-player characters or partial clues that the players may find. Only half of the truth reaches the players, who then introduce a further (and unpredictable) abstraction through their misinterpretation of the situation. This beautiful friction makes for the stuff of true legends. Here, the referee is neither adversarial nor enabling, but rather purely neutral (which reminds me of an excellent and illustrative Knights of the Dinner Table comic, where the Knights are able to "outsmart" B.A.'s flagship dungeon).

The take away from all of this is that we as referees must again become world-smiths. It is hard work, and tremendous preparation must go into the campaign as well as each individual session. Different webs of non-player characters must be charted, including individual motives and knowledge. Interesting eventualities must be at least initially considered, while some obstacles with no apparent solution should be cataloged (perhaps a dungeon at the top of a perfectly sheer cliff, encouraging the players to be creative). The story will take unexpected turns, and the referee's encyclopedic register of history and dramatis personae will breath enough life into the world that it will take on its own momentum. In all of this, narrative control belongs to the friction between player knowledge and referee impartiality. As the authors of Adventurer Conqueror King put it, "every campaign is a law unto itself" and the excitement comes from these worlds taking on a life of their own.


  1. Great post, though I'm not sure how much preparation is really required. I think it is possible to organically grow a campaign setting, and still play in this manner (though you do need at least a dungeon level or something). Of course, in my own games, I do lots of prep, but I don't think it's necessary.

  2. I have run many FATE games, and the "Say yes, or make the players roll" is really more of a tool to force GMs to think about which actions are important, and need a roll, and which are trivial. It is not about making players happy; it is about keeping the game moving and focused on making the players make choices about how they use their resources. In FATE games, players are also less dependent on the GM's desire to please them or make things go their way than in traditional games. This is mechanically enforced through declarations, where players can make micro narrations by spending a FATE point. And I can attest that Diaspora combat can be quite fast, deadly and unbalanced as any old school game.

  3. I would add that I see no contradiction between having happy players and having players who feel challenged. Both together facilitate gamer retention and sustainable campaigns.

  4. 2 things

    1. FATE is a different style of game. Where with DnD there is (or at least can be) an element of sandboxing where the PCs simply explore and live in the DM's world, with FATE it's about telling the stories of what happens to the PCs. The author of a book doesn't simply create a world and then think up a few characters to see what they end up doing. The difference with FATE is that there's a chance that they might not complete their story.

    2. With FATE (and any "Yes or roll" mechanic) there's still the difficulty for the roll. FATE (at least the Dresden Files) actually provides guidelines for difficulty settings that discourage the throw stuff against the wall to see what sticks approach. One of the three criteria is if the action suggests a plan. You could easily interpret this as if the action suggests a plan other than "let's try this because 'hey why not?'" It will let them roll anyway (because sometimes random things work), but if the "random plan" isn't playing to the character's strengths and giving the GM something to work with then it's impossible to succeed unless the player declares the character's story happens this way (spends a fate point), and even then things can go horribly wrong.

  5. *Sigh* and THIS is why I am NOT interested in OSR.

    I think you don't get the spirit behind "say yes... or roll dices" the point is not for the GM only to be an enabler, the point is that both players and GM are creating a narrative experience, the idea is to have the players immersed in the story because its ALSO their story, not just a story they play.

    Mike Monard is not wrong but it is ONLY useful if you play that kind of game, there is no less work in any game using FATE, it’s just different. Instead of creating only the world first, you need to have an idea of the setting, but then as everyone creates their characters you can fill part of such world, because what appears in the player's character sheet is exactly what they expect to see in the story, and the idea is that the CHARACTERS are the MAIN CHARACTERS, is their story and they should matter. It's not cheating to add something to the game because is more relevant for them.

    I have played in campaigns where I create a "hunter of the dead" and you only find undead once on a while so my purpose is nullified by the fact that the story don't present what I need. When that happens I get bored, yes there are other monsters, other dangers, but my concept is left unexplored because "it doesn't come in the adventure."

    Personally I am DONE with narrators and systems that want all the narrative power for themselves, I am tired of following the next railroad into adventure, I want my characters and my narratives to matter. FATE gives me that both as player and GM, I don't feel oppressed by the player's creativity, I expose the universe (we are playing Dragonstar) and the circumstances and they do the rest.

    1. If you made an undead hunter, then why didn't you go find some undead to hunt? Was it because the other players were not interested in hunting undead? Was it because the referee didn't like undead? This sounds like an interpersonal problem to me.

      The style of play Mike Mornard is talking about is built around proactive players. The players decide where to go and what to explore (though obviously you need to give some indication about where you might want to go if you want the ref to have a chance to detail it before you get there). So if you weren't hunting any undead, maybe you were not seeking them out? The problem, it seems to me, is when such specific concepts are tethered to an inflexible referee narrative. That is certainly not the kind of play being advocated here though.

    2. @Brendan: the example is an old one, but I agree, the problem is that when the group is railroaded (or presented an adventure) you either follow it or go your own way, separating the group in such a way for a long time is quite destructive. And oh yes I talked to the GM previous of making the character.

      And I understand the style of game you speak of, but the truth is that while its poractive its set in stone (which is what Monard's speaks about), I agree in your above comment that it doesn't need to be. That there is a lot of space for improvisation when needed by, and I have done that through AD&D and Dnd 3.x and Pathfinder.

      My main complain is how many OSR GMs panic when threatened with shared narrative. And that is how it reads through Evan's post: "if you change something in the scene for any reason, is cheating." Even if that reason is to make the game fun for the players.

    3. You definitely misunderstand the philosophy being put forward here. Railroading is where the adventure or campaign can only go one way.

      World building ahead of characters is nothing to do with railroading, it's actually the opposite of it. How so? Because all of the bits of the world already exist to be interacted with. So, for example, the entire dungeon already exists and sprawls out in all directions for the players to explore. As does the town above and the land the town sits in.

      This is why your undead hunter example makes no sense as an attempt at a counter point. You could have (if you were inside the kind of campaign being described here instead of the one you were in) sought out areas that had problems with undead, traveling the land to do so.

      To summarise: Building the world ahead of time is nothing like railroading, nor is building the adventure. Railroading is simply one way of creating an adventure and not a very good one at that. A better way is to create an environ that can be explored and a number of goals; the quest becomes about fulfilling the goals (for example, find and slay the griffon in the mountains) but the exact way this occurs is not set. Do the party scale the mountains to find the nest? Do they lie in wait in ambush for its next attack? Do they even bother with griffon hunting and instead go chase some undead that were seen around a nearby swamp?...

  6. @Montalve: It is so cool that you are using FATE to run Drangonstar! Which FATE game are you using as the platform?

    I think you are also correct that as well as still doing a great deal of worldbuilding, GMing in FATE means a great deal of work creating setting and NPC Aspects, as well as thinking about how to create hooks into players' Aspects.

    On my blog, fatesf.blogspot.com I have been developing OSR style D30 Tables for location/situation Aspects, so GMs have more support in cooking these up on the fly.

    1. @John: Right now we are using Strands of Fate with a couple of alterations (mostly in the area of 'units' - minions, I still don't understand how units work)

      We have already tried Dresden Files (which the only part we disliked was how magic became a standstill, don't get me wrong we loved how detailed the system was... but it just killed the game to call a faerie to ask a couple of questions)

      We have already tried Legends of Anglerre and antoher one (the name escapes me, it's another sci fiction oriented game) in each we have found a couple of things we would change but besides that we have absolutely loved the core part of the system (aspects and fate points)

      Except one of my players... for some reason he believes there is a lot more power in the hands of the GM, giving the GM an option about the input they use in their aspects (we need to reducate him, he likes his bonuses in stone).

      Thanks John I will check your blog for ideas, since my players already smuggled the fae court from a world governed by green dragons and taught a harsh lesson to their aristocorp's mercenaries that tracked them I need a new smuggle for them. (soulmech technomages can be creatively dangerous).

  7. An example of how FATE points work:

    Last session after the soulmech technomancer sabotaged a mercenary's starship (class frigate) one of the characters had to return to check on his love interest... the issue... so did the mercenaries who send a group to question her.

    After rescuing her the character had to deliver the girl to her own spaceship (a space fighter) the problem? the hangar was FULL of ships (specially emergency pods and drop ships from the sabotaged frigate) so when the mercenaries saw him running in a hoverbike in the hangar they began chasing him like the speedbike chase in the SW Episode 6. 2 hoverbikes and a mecha (bigger than a power armor) pursued him, the bikes along every free space, the mecha above the space ships. He got rid of the bokes maneuvering to force them to crash or shooting at them. But the mecha was a very different animal.

    Solution? The player asks me if there is a crane in his path, since we are in a docking hangar and there is a lot of movement I ask him to spend a FATE point, which he does. So now, there is a crane loading merchandise in his path (which considering the recreation of the scene, it has always been there). He plans to run behind it and when the mecha is about to run behind shot to the crane and let the boxes fall over it. The mecha is following close so he doesn't need to roll for the mecha to fall for the trick, but he STILL NEEDS to roll for his shot against the crane to be successful, if he had failed the mecha would have catch them.

    So when people say that the above is cheating... well I don't take it kindly. Yes he could have turned around and tried to shot it down, but it would not have been half as fun or rewarding for the player, or cinematic for all the table, as what he did. That is what I like to play.

  8. I referee this way: player says "I'm gonna do XYZ" and I consider the situation and the character and say one of three things:

    A: You try and try, but fail.
    B: It could go either way. Here's a target number (whatever the system calls for), roll the dice.
    C: Of course, that's really easy, it works.

    A is impossible. Player tries to jump to the moon.
    C is impossible to fail or uninteresting regardless. Player wants to clamber up a tree and look around.

    B is everything in between, and accounts for a lot of adventure. B is mostly what the game has rules for. A and C are commonsense outliers.

    This system prevents the endless DC or TN lists in many systems, since a B situation can often be resolved with an ability score roll on d20 or an x in 6 chance.

    But it requires a neutral, strong referee who is not out to "tell a story" or "kill the party".

    This also assumes that you're playing a game where there is a veil of mystery between the referee and the players. If the players have creative input on the world, or if there isn't a referee at all, I'd need a different way of gaming.

  9. As an example, in Montalove's comment, here's how I would have handled the crane thing.

    If there is a map I can look at where the player is and see if there is a crane nearby. This is probably never going to happen because who is going to draw up a map for everything?

    So I say sure, in your movement you can get behind a crane.

    If it was a primitive sort of starport and there weren't any cranes, I'd tell the player that, but the initial description sounds like there would be cranes all over the place.

    I guess if I don't detail the world enough to answer a question, I think about whether I would have put a crane there if I had drawn the map. And honestly, I'd have mechanized cranes roving around on the I-beams in the roof, on special tracks, so they can move stuff all around.

    Now whether there's a crane in your line of movement that currently has a big load ... heck, I'd have him roll a d6 and the higher the roll, the bigger the load. 3+ means it's big enough to really smash that mech.

    In a game with special mechanics for player input on the world (such as Donjon), that's part of the game, but I'm not sure I would make them spend points just to get something that's already there. Big dining hall, player wants a chandelier, OF COURSE there's a chandelier! If he wants a series of chandeliers that he can swing all the way across the room and up to the balcony ... uh, better spend a FATE point or whatever. Same deal with the crane: if he wants to blow a FATE point to get a crane with a 6-load, that's fine with me.

  10. Wow, I am not sure I have ever received this many comments on one article. To clarify, my intention is less to expound on the Fate system (which I actually like, for the most part), but rather to discuss the evolution of explicit narrative control in modern roleplaying games. Original Dungeons & Dragons, I argue, had no narrator (neither player nor referee), but rather narration was driven by the confused friction of acting upon partial knowledge, and then having to interpret those results.

  11. Hello Evan.

    Personally I began with AD&D 2nd Edition where the place of the GM (narrator) is more or less set into stone. The role of the GM/DM was good in groups that are more passive and reactive than proactive. They expect things to happen, which is not much different from dungeoncrawling, you advance through the dungeon looking for traps and monsters, making maps, etc. You can decide where to go, and its fun, but you can move a lot from that paradigm. Proactive players will approach this hiring mercenaries, sending them in advance, creating "advance camps" where they can rest, maybe support a few enterprises out of the dungeon, even construct their own fortress, but at the end of the day everything is about what already exist.

    Storytelling in the sense of WoD and similar games let the players explore a different set of stories and how they developed, it’s about telling an story, still players could be reactive watching what happens to them or they could be proactive (planning to kill and take place of the Prince needs a lot of planning and work than just entering his home and trying to kill all his minions, actually that last thing is most of the time suicide or someone else plan to use the chaos in her benefit. My friends had more fun in the second style of gaming than in the first, but still the world beyond the players is very much sets into stop until they alter it.

    What I like about shared narrative as a player is that just by creating my character I am telling the DM what I expect to see on the game, how I will alter the world and that part of such world exist because of me, and there is chance to take advantage of that to make a better story for everyone. As a GM is not that it lifts some of the work over my shoulders (for good and bad I have always narrated or gmstered with improvisation in mind). I think about a basic storyline, basically from A to B to C and the players fill the gaps as they go, and if they want to move to E ignoring B well more power to them, if needed be I ask for 5 minutes to come with what happens next due to their actions, but for this to work I NEED to know my world, I need to understand its structure, otherwise it would blow in my face (yeap it has happened a couple of times).

    1. All this emphasis on story is moving it away from being a game and this is where the tension in the two approaches arises. In a good sandbox, the story is emergent based upon the interactions of the character with a preset world that existed before the character did (and will exist after the character has gone).

  12. The first example of a narrative device that I know of is in the James Bond RPG from 1983. Here a character's "Hero Points" could be spent to alter the game world to his advantage. In fact, one of the examples given is Bond using one to escape from being chased just like Montalve's example. An important distinction was that in the James Bond game, the bad guys got hero points too. I'm not sure at what point someone decided that only the PCs should have them.

    1. One of the best games ever! Still getting mileage out of the James Bond 007 RPG. Such a class act, so well written and simple to play, such great mechanics. Man, now I want to run a new game of 007!

  13. I'm not sure that "Say Yes or Roll the Dice" originated from Burning Wheel, but I could be wrong. In the latest edition, Luke Crane credits Vincent Baker's "Dogs in the Vineyard" by quoting a very extensive two-paragraph explanation of this very thing.

    In a nutshell: "If nothing is at stake, say 'yes' to what the player wants." It avoids bogging down the game, and if you want to withhold something from a player, put something at stake and make failure interesting.

    Burning Wheel doesn't shy away from making things tough or impossible for players. A sheer glance through the book at Obstacle 10 tasks is enough to confirm that.

  14. A good write-up of how I remember the game being played when I first started, with AD&D, and how I've always run it as a GM... and preferred it as a player.
    Sure, I've played under bad GMs who tried to run railroads... but most of the railroads I've seen have come from the players believing that they had to follow any trail of breadcrumbs the GM put down.

    Systems like Fate can be fun (with the right people...) but don't scratch the same itch for me. I like a lot of mystery and tension when I'm a player... things that I find systems like Fate and Savage Worlds remove in favor of giving players more power... just not my taste.



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