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Jon Lemich @RunAGame
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Who is your game about?
#RPG #DnD #GM #DM thread.
Let's get the obvious one out of the way, DMs: Your game is not about you. And it is not about that really cool NPC you invented.

But that's not what I'm going to talk about in this thread. I'm going to ask: Is your game about your PLAYERS or their CHARACTERS? No wrong answer.
Both answers get at different styles, but if you only ever learn one thing from all the stuff I say, it should be this: Be mindful about your choices! Pick a strategy because that's a fully informed choice you made, not just because that's the way you've always done it.
This tweet inspired me to write this thread:

Let's unpack it.
"Only if they act stupidly" is one of the four options in the poll, and why I'm writing this thread.

Consider chess. If you move your knight into a square threatened by a pawn without noticing the pawn was there, you made a stupid mistake, and your knight is going to be captured
This decision, the opponent's response, and the knight's death are not about the knight (the character, in our metaphor).

They're about the PLAYER. The player made a tactical blunder, and the character died. It was not a test of the knight's tactical skills, but the player's.
This is what John Wick meant when he said "Chess is Not an RPG."
You aren't deciding that the knight's homeland is that square in front of the pawn, and though his death is futile, he cannot allow the White's vile infantry to threaten it unopposed. Sir Horsey's noble sacrifice will remind King Cross Crown of the human cost of this futile war!
No, let's be honest. You just screwed up. And the same is true if you move out of melee with the ogre (forgetting about the opportunity attack rules), while you were down to 2hp, and you MEANT to drink a healing potion, but it's 11:30 and this game has gone on too long.
All of a sudden you've taken 13 Bludgeoning damage and you're making death saves and the rest of the party is too far away to help. You did something stupid and your character dies for it.
Now here's the thing: There are play styles where that is not just OK, but AWESOME.

That game-tension where you, the PLAYER, are constantly tested? That can be fun!
But like all decisions: It has its benefits and drawbacks. For one, it puts the focus on the player's tactical decisions, so the player's mind is constantly in the frame of "How can I make my character a better tool for me, the player, to overcome game challenges?"
The style of game doesn't just abide optimizing - it IS optimizing.

If you want to make the game about the player, then the character is the player's tool to beat the challenges you create. The player is incentivized to master and exploit the tactical and character build systems
Because failure and death are the PLAYER'S fault, failure and death feel bad to the PLAYER. A failure of the character is either a failure of the player to optimize or be tactical; or a failure of the GM or game system for being unfair.
Another consequence of this play style is that because the PLAYER's decisions matter more than the CHARACTER's decisions, the GM moves to penalize the player first when the player/character makes a mistake. How?
Well, since the player's only means of interacting with the world is through their character -- specifically, their character is a tool for interacting with the world -- the most common penalty is hurting the tool's capabilities: Hurting, killing, or maiming the character.
RPGs like D&D are built to support this play style, so there are LOTS of ways to hurt/kill/main the player's tool for interacting with the world and beating its challenges. Curses, level drain, taking away magic items, character death, etc.
Some RPGs are real bad at supporting this style of play. Fate basically CANNOT support this style of play, for instance. Even if you take an Extreme Consequence, you can still invoke it for a BENEFIT sometimes!
So let's talk about the other style of play: Play that's about the CHARACTERS. Fate, which sucks at the "play that's about the players" style, is phenomenal at the "play that is about the characters" style, and teaches you how to do it. So do PbtA games and many others.
(Even D&D, by the way. Fifth edition tries to teach both styles.)
Consider our low-HP character walking away from the ogre example. In a game focused on the character, the player and GM are talking about the character. The player isn't talking AS their character, so when the player takes the foolish tactical action...'s part of a conversation between players about what's going on in this tense ogre fight. The GM says, "Oh, so you're being really reckless? Is Sir Gerard underestimating the ogre?" and the player says "Oh right, opportunity attacks! No, Gerard will drink a potion instead."
Or maybe it IS a character moment. "Gerard is feeling cocky and reckless right now. So he underestimates the ogre and feels invincible in this armor. He just turns his back on it and walks away, and yeah, the ogre probably takes him out."
A game that's about the CHARACTER has its benefits and drawbacks, too. While a game about the PLAYER will keep players on their toes, feeling the tension you feel in tightly paced and balanced board games and CCG duels, a game that's about the CHARACTER draws on your storytelling
See, in a game about the CHARACTER, the GM doesn't think up penalties for the PLAYER when the PLAYER makes a bad move. The GM thinks up interesting STORY as a CONSEQUENCE that follows from a CHARACTER's choices. Often the player HELPS devise their consequence!
Killing Sir Gerard is a penalty to the PLAYER: The character is still the only way for a player to interact with the world -- whether it's about tactics or story, player tests or character tests. So in CHARACTER-focused play, death is just one lame option in a big set of options.
"OK, the greatclub comes down on Sir Gerard's helm and he blacks out. When he wakes up with a splitting headache, he's been left for dead, and his squire, Fedric, is lying face down in the mud. Clearly dead. How does Gerard feel about that?"
To a GM used to running their games about the PLAYER, that sounds like "plot armor" or "going easy" or "walking away from a mistake." But it was not a mistake! Gerard's player made the choice to express their character's reckless arrogance, and their character suffers for it.
Death would be going TOO EASY on Gerard. The player gets to decide: Does Gerard rationalize it (that ogre didn't fight fair!) or does he have a profound character-changing moment (my reckless actions got Fedric killed!) or somewhere between (rationalization + nagging doubts).
There are drawbacks to character-focused play, too. The players and GM need to be very good at communicating their expectations and they need to resolve conflicts about those expectations in ways that satisfy everyone. That takes no small amount of emotional labor to pull off!
So in a way, the player skill being tested in character focused play is your EQ (ability to collaborate with others), while the player skill being tested in player focused play is your IQ (strategy, tactics and system mastery).
Also, the CHARACTER aspects being tested in character focused play is their "character" - their personality, morals, etc. - while the CHARACTER aspects being tested in player-focused play are their stats - their utility as a tool for the player to use to overcome game challenges.
There's a big question out there in the indie RPG community right now about whether the focus on player vs focus on character thing should be black and white, or if there are *valid* shades of grey.
I don't think it's been resolved. John Wick (mister Chess is Not an RPG) produced 7th Sea second edition, which is full of both player-test tactical mechanics and stat optimizing mechanics AND character-focused story mechanics. Clearly he believes a grey area game can work fine.
Others say that if you're often testing the player, the game develops a perverse incentive for the player to protect/optimize their character as a tool for overcoming player/tactical challenges. And that means choices will be made for tactical reasons more than story.
Lordy be this thread is getting long. And I still have to talk about the Stormwind Fallacy here.
I already see a bunch of notifications, and I wonder if any of them are like "But Jon! You're committing the Stormwind Fallacy!"
"The Stormwind Fallacy, aka the Roleplayer vs Rollplayer Fallacy: Just because one optimizes his characters mechanically does not mean that they cannot also roleplay, and vice versa."…
Let's start by pointing out that you can optimize a character mechanically in a character focused game. You always want a character whose mechanical stats match what you envision them doing, and where your expectation of what they can do matches what their stats say.
That's optimization 101. And I don't want to sound like there's no roleplay in player-focused RPG play! But it's necessarily going to be very different in player-focused play vs. character focused play.
(This question: Player-focus vs character-focus is such a backbone issue in GMing that it touches almost EVERY aspect of RPGs. So bear with this thread getting even longer.)
Player-focused play lends itself better to character immersion play:… So roleplay in that style often involves thinking and acting AS your character, which means that your player's mistakes ARE your character's mistakes.
There's a lot of bleed… in and out of the character. You feel what they feel. They think like you think. If you approach conflicts by first establishing the objective and boundaries, so will your character. Hard to break fundamental patterns.
And as a result, you the player will work very hard to protect your self/character. If Gerard's choice is to act recklessly arrogant and risk death or grow as a person and survive, there is a STRONG incentive for you to grow as a person and survive: You're imagining you ARE him!
That's powerful (adds a lot of tension) and also doesn't lead to as much story (the characters are a lot closer to avatars of the player, like you're playing a video game).
So this *isn't* the Stormwind Fallacy: There can be just as much ROLEPLAY in a player-focused game, but the STORY will be very different, because the players' task is to make the right tactical choices to protect their characters from the GM's threats.
I don't want to sound like I'm favoring character-focused play over player-focused play. For one, character-focused play doesn't have much "Game" in it, and RPG stands for Role-Playing Game. We come to the hobby with different preferences, and the game aspect is SUPER fun.
You want to run a Pathfinder game for me, you'll see how many hours I put into nerding out over my 20 level build before we even have our first session. I have SPREADSHEETS people. Plus, character immersion play is super fun.
And when you do character-focused play, yes you can do character immersion, but you have to BREAK immersion to think critically about your character and have them make a decision that you-the-player know is bad, but them-the-character thinks is fine.
So player-focused play has more purity of character immersion (though see above re: perverse incentives, player avatar, etc.), and more fun in the game aspect. One could say it in Wick terms: Chess is Not an RPG, but Chess is Sure As Hell Fun!
I'm not saying one style or the other is bad, or better, or worse. I'm saying GMs need to think of play styles as tools in their toolbox.
GMs need to choose their tools carefully based on what they want to get out of their game. Immersion and game tension? Or complex characters and less focus on penalties for the player vs. consequences for the character.
If you take nothing else away from this (LONG) thread, please remember the Gerard example and make a mindful choice when designing a penalty/consequence of a bad decision. Who is being "consequenced" - the player or the character? Tailor your GMing for who you're "penalizing."
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