View Full Version : PAX Panel Discussion - Beyond Dungeons and Dragons

2010-08-14, 01:34 PM
I found an interesting video on youtube of a panel from the Penny Arcade expo, run by a pair of people named Rym and Scott. They run a podcast called Geeknights which deals with technology, board games, roleplaying games, video games, books, anime, manga, comic books, and "all manner of geekery" as they put it.

Their panel is called "Beyond Dungeons and Dragons", and while the youtube video seems to only have parts of it, I thought it would be interesting to post it here and have some discussion about it.

I've transcribed it below, both because the volume and sound quality are low and so that bits of it could be more easily referenced without have to keep referring back to the video.

However, here is the original video if you want to see it as well: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rz39yejS9IQ&playnext=1&videos=uawjEkMOiiM

If anyone sees this that has information about their other panels that I've heard of and have been interested to see but have not had the opportunity to, "Beyond Candyland" and "Losing Should be Fun", I wouldn't mind a private message about them.

Anyway, here goes:

Rym: First we're going to talk about "What a roleplaying game is." I assume this is what we're talking about: [points to a slide of several people situated around a table with books, drinks, and dice littering the surface]

(slight tangent)

Rym: Anyway, this is a roleplaying game. This is what we're talking about. But what does that mean? This is a roleplaying game? I mean, people say *that* is a roleplaying game: [points to a slide with the cover of a Final Fantasy game on it and several screenshots of gameplay from it]. The same term is used, and yet clearly this is a completely different game. I mean, this is a roleplaying game, but there's really not roleplaying is there? It's just a game. And there's a story, but you really don't have control of the story. You're just kinda going through the motions.

(fade out and switches to later in the panel)

Rym: [points at a slide with a screenshot of a Final Fantasy game with two characters conversing and a text box asking "Yes" or "No", with the explanation that if your character says "No", the same text box just appears again until you pick "Yes"] This is the Penny Arcade Expo, so I hope people know this, but we've actually had to explain it at another convention we go to. But that's really the extent of the roleplaying in a game like that. So while people call it a roleplaying game, for our purposes, I think we can all agree that *that* is not what we're talking about.

Rym: So, alright, maybe what we're gonna say is "Alright, *tabletop* is what we're saying". Tabletop roleplaying games. But what about LARPers? There's no table. But yet, LARPing, and the white wolf things, and all these sorts of Live Action RolepPlaying games, they're not a tabletop game. Sometimes they don't use dice, they use that kind of [makes silly rock-paper-scissors motions with Scott]. They use all these alternate systems but I think that's kinda what we're talking about too. So we're not talking about Final Fantasy, but we can't really say "Tabletop Roleplaying Games".

(switches to a slide of an actor in Shakespearian garb and holding a skull in one hand)

Rym: What about *that*? There's roleplaying, but there's really no game. I mean its not like Shakespeare was sitting there rolling up characters and seeing what they did.

(slight tangent and then switches back to the slide of people sitting around a table with books and dice)

Rym: But yeah, we're definitely talking about *this*. I think we all agree: a bunch of nerds sitting around acting out some sort of scenario using some sort of dice mechanic or whatever.

(fade out and switches to later in the panel, then a slight tangent)

Rym:[points at a slide with a picture of adventurers on the left, various creatures and things on the right, and a man on a throne sitting in the middle above them] Now, what we have on the left is our Player Characters and on the right we kind of see the environment, the world, the game. And the Dungeon Master in a game like Dungeons and Dragons, they basically mediate the conflict between the two. We're adventurers; we're PCs. We wanna go slay the dragon. And "the dragon" is kind of the game; its a construct of the Dungeon Master and they kinda mediate this conflict and decide what happens. [turns to Scott and they begin to talk in a slightly off inflection]

Rym: I stab the dragon. Does that work?

Scott: No, in fact, the dragon has mighty scales and you can not slay it.

Rym: Maybe I can.

Scott: Can you?[inflection ends]

Scott: Now, we're telling a story, right? So we have a story, and we've agreed: You are here. There is a dragon in front of you. You have these things. The Dungeon Master wants the story to go "The Dragon Eats You", and the players want the story to go "We Kill The Dragon". Well, how do we decide which way the story goes? We have to somehow decide who is going to get their way. All of us together are going to create only one story, as opposed to a whole bunch of different stories.

(fades out to later in the panel with a slide up where at the bottom is a group of people working together, at the top is a man sitting on a throne, to the right is the word "Roleplay" and to the left is the word "Game")

Rym: At the bottom we have, I guess that's my icon for "collaboration" in terms of storytelling. At the far extreme at the top you have the story where the Dungeon Master wrote this giant story and he's basically presenting it to you and you're kinda going through the world much like a Final Fantasy. That's basically what that is. So if the story that's there is mediated and controlled by the Dungeon Master, you kind of explore. I mean think of a D&D game where you're investigating some mystery.

Rym: I roll a search check! If I succeed, the plot continues because I found the McGuffin. If I fail, the plot stalls because I didn’t find the McGuffin until eventually I find the McGuffin. I “take 20” lets say.

Rym: At the bottom we have a completely collaborative story. Imagine, and there are systems like this, there is no Dungeon Master. There are systems where you just play, and there’s like 6 people playing this game but there’s no Dungeon Master; there’s no one in charge, no one with more power than anyone else. You’re using the rules to create a story. There’s actually a game called “Nanofictionary”, where you go around, you draw cards, and you create stories from the cards, and you’re competing to see who created the best story. I don’t want to get into the whole game but there are roleplaying game systems like that too.

Rym: Now, on the other continuum: on the far left we have “Game”. Pure “Game”. So lets take the example that if you take “Dungeons and Dragons” and you say “Everybody roll up level 15 characters; we’re gonna have a brawl!”. That is just “a game”. You’re playing this kind of turn-based strategy “let’s all fight until someone dies” game.

Rym: On the other end you have a “Roleplay”. And you’ve probably seen this. Ever been to a camp or you’re hanging out with your friends or something and you wanna play D&D but no one brought dice so you just start coming up with a story and just kinda roleplaying with no real rules. It’s like “I wanna be an elf”, “Well alright” you just gotta go with it. That’s pure roleplaying.

Rym: Every roleplaying game falls somewhere on this continuum. Dungeons and Dragons falls much closer to the Game side than it does the Roleplaying side because the roleplaying isn’t really built into the system. I mean the roleplaying is just kinda tacked on. You roleplay your character, but the system doesn’t have any of that. It’s mostly a combat game.

Scott: I mean, when you play D&D, there are people who have great roleplaying and great collaborative storytelling while using D&D but all of that collaborative storytelling is added on by them, just from their minds, from them, there’s nothing in the rulebooks to help you out.

(fades out and back into a later part of the panel, the same slide is up as before)

Scott: I mean, if you look in the D&D rulebook, you can’t figure that out. You’ll have no idea what a roleplaying game is. It doesn’t say “Say what you do” it-

Rym: -it says “This is how you calculate your THAC0”. And also, I talked again about people complaining about “railroading”; look at when 3rd edition D&D came out. A lot of people freaked out: “Oh, 2nd edition was better. Oh my god, it was such a better system; I’m not switching”. 4th edition is coming out and I see the same number of people saying “Oh my god, 3rd edition is so much better” and...I used to think that. When 3rd edition came out, I hated it. I complained about it all the time, like “This is crap. They ruined *this*, they ruined *this, I don‘t like how it‘s balanced, I don‘t like all this blah-blah-blah” and I never realized what it was that frustrated me and a lot of people just said “Oh, well, you’re just dumb and you just have this fondness for AD&D 2nd edition because you’re a super nerd and you don’t own the books already.” But I played a lot of other systems and I’m older now; a little wiser, a little more tired; can’t stay up so late at these conventions anymore. But I start to see now that it wasn’t that I was frustrated about 3rd edition over 2nd edition, it was that 2nd edition D&D left so much to the imaginations of the player because the rules were *terrible*. They were absolutely terrible. You just had to fudge everything all the time. And that fudging is what made the games that I liked to play, but I never realized it was the fudging. I thought it was the system. I thought I liked the THAC0 and I didn’t like the d20. And it took a long time for me to realize that what it was, was that I, my personal roleplaying style, I didn’t like Dungeons and Dragons that much. But I didn’t know there was anything else out there. I tried. I was like “Oh, I’ll play L5R”. I love the setting of L5R, but the game, fundamentally, was just the same game.

Rym: Now, we could talk on and on about the theory and this sort of stuff, but I wanted to bring up one more thing and then I wanna get into some specific systems, because its a lot easier to give you examples. “Look at this system, look at how alien it is”. So, this is a little bit of Game Theory. I’ll try to keep it a bit down-low, because Game Theory is one of the most boring topics in the world. I’m not talking “Game Theory” like “Playing German Board Games”, I’m talking “Game Theory” like “Discreet Mathematics”.

(end of youtube video part 1, fade out, transition to part 2)

Rym: -or you go to the arthouse theatres and see the weird movies like clowns licking pancakes upside-down or something. So, there’s a lot of these systems, and if you really wanna find out more about them, you can go to our website, we’ll tell you about them. Or just go to gaming conventions. And you’ll always see this guy; he’ll just be sitting there in the back and he’s got like some stapled together piece of paper and he’s got his new gaming system and he’s like “...you wanna play my game?”. While those guys are kinda scary, you might find something awesome.

Scott: I mean, back in those days, y’know I was real...what was it, 6 years ago? I think 4 or 5 years ago. I was really, really cynical about any sort of alternate system. Because everyone knows that one guy in a D&D group who’s like “I hate the D&D rules, I have these house rules I play”.

Rym: “Yeah, my rules are great. I use d30s! They’re so much better than d20s.”

Scott: “Aw, yeah, I made up my own system, this system is no good.” Yknow? And I was really skeptical of anyone who came up to me with a different system. And I was like “Everyone already knows D&D. Yours really isn’t all that different. Why am I gonna bother? Y‘know, I don‘t care about any of those other roleplaying games. It‘s not worth my time to learn them.” I was mad skeptical. I didn’t want to put in any effort. If you got a bunch of people together to play a game, it was the common denominator, everyone knew how to play. It was the path of least resistance. We always went with it even though there were things about it we didn’t like. And while that’s somewhat true, you gotta get over that.

Rym: ‘cause, I mean it got to the point playing D&D that, and some of you might have experienced this, that you love roleplaying, you play D&D, but you get frustrated and you’re not always sure why. And when I say D&D, I mean all these systems, whatever. It got to the point where we’d be roleplaying, and then, y’know, ‘the fight’ would happen. Like “Oh, time for the fight?”. And I was so bored that I started making pacifist characters with no fighting skills just so I’d have an excuse to go across the street and not play in the game until the fight was over.

(fade out and into a later part of the panel)

Scott: I mean, basically it would be “Roleplay, roleplay, roleplay-” a fight would start. And that would take about-

Rym: -and the whole room would groan, like “Awww, the fight...” but no one said “Why are we doing this?” we all just did it. And we all acting like this is what we wanted to do. And everyone was just like “This is how these games are.”

Scott: “Alright, this’ll take 3 hours and then we can have fun again...”

Rym: Yep, and 3 hours was a liberal estimate.

Scott: I think his character was like a pacifist ghost or whatever and he would literally just go “Oh, well there’s a combat; I run away.”

Rym: Yup, “I’m a ghost. I levitate straight up until I’m out of range” and then I go across the street and play Counterstrike for 4 hours.

(fade out and into a later part of the panel)

Rym: A fight with two Roman senators arguing over whether to go to war, is mechanically almost the same as two barbarians fighting to the bitter death. There should be mechanics for both. And there are games out there - how many of you have played a game where arguing and player conflict like that was actually a part of the game? And I mean, its technically a part of D&D. Heh, “I roll an 18 on diplomacy. I win. We‘re going to war”

Scott: And what defense do you have? Sense Motive?

Rym: Well yeah, of course. Sense Motive. [mimes rolling dice] “He wants to go to war!”.

Rym: So, I guess just one thing I want to point out is...well, I want to talk about all the weird kind of different mechanics, but one thing that’s inherent about a lot of roleplaying games is levels. Levels. “I’m a level 8 Dwarf“. And well, in the old D&D, “Dwarf” was a character class.

Scott: Elf was also a character class.

Rym: But yeah, a lot of these roleplaying games have been following suit. Like “Oh, we’re making a roleplaying game! Gotta have levels.” But why? Why not *not* have levels. Primetime Adventures doesn’t have levels. There’s other ways to advance your character. Inspectors doesn’t have levels; they have different ways. And this [talking about Burning Wheel] system does something you’ve always wanted to do in D&D or GURPs, but you never could. “I want to practice something!” How does that work in D&D? I want to get stronger. Your 17 strength is never going to be an 18. There’s nothing you can do. Unless you get a ring, or you get more levels.

Scott: Yeah, and this goes back to mechanism design. In D&D, you can tell a really good story about someone getting stronger by killing monsters. That’s really the way to get stronger: by killing monsters. Those are the rules. So it encourages you to go out and kill displacer beasts and chop heads off hydras, to get more levels, so you can stab someone else. Sorta the same as World of Warcraft, right? And that’s the kind of story it tells. And all these other games; there’s no levels like that. It doesn’t encourage you to go out and kill monsters. I mean, sometimes it does; there’s some benefit to doing that. There are still monsters, and there’re still swords, and magic spells, and fireballs in some of these games...well, I guess not so much in Primetime Adventures.

Rym: Well, there could be.

Scott: Oh, I guess. No reason not to.

Rym: You could do Lord of the Rings in Primetime Adventures just fine.

Scott: Absolutely. But the game itself does not encourage you to just do one thing. There is no “this is the way to get stronger”, you just get stronger by roleplaying better and telling a better story.

Rym: Now, I had a bit, and I didn’t do it, because it would’ve been hard to fit in and took a long time, but I had all the old D&D character sheets. And I sat down and highlighted all the parts of the character sheets that had to do with roleplaying or conflict resolution that wasn’t stabbing and was somehow tied to game mechanics. And every D&D sheet was like...a little note here and a little note here. And then I went into other systems and got all these different character sheets and highlighted them all. And I look at this character sheet [points at a slide with the Burning Wheel character sheet on it] compared to other systems, and much more of this stuff is tied to actual roleplaying and storytelling than you’d really expect, but that’s why I want to talk about the stats a little more and advancement. The way you advance in this particular game is by attempting to do things. And, not to get into any detail, say if I try to do 3 routine things, 1 difficult thing, and 1 crazy impossible thing for a given skill or something, then that skill advances. Now, I did not say “succeed”. In D&D, you only get experience points if you succeed; if you beat all the monsters. If you walk away, you don’t get experience points. Maybe 4th edition changes that, I haven’t read the rules.

Scott: And, in fact, there are some ways in D&D that you can lose experience. Like, I gotta raise someone from the dead.

Rym: Or, oh, there’s a ****ing vampire! ****! Ugh, I hated undead in D&D.

Rym: But, in this game, think about that. Succeed or fail, you tried. You attempted a skill, you started something. And this opens up possibilities that were never achievable in games like Dungeons and Dragons.

(fade in and out into a later part of the panel)

Rym: Because this is what I wanted to talk about. D&D has a lot of metagame in it. You’re playing combat; you get to the combat, and you don’t think from the perception of your character. You think from the perspective of “Alright, I’m gonna move four squares forward, 1 to the right. I’m gonna do a flurry of blows on that guy because it does the most average damage." You’re out of the game and everything you do is kinda this meta “This is the best meta thing to do in the game.” But in this [still talking about Burning Wheel], it kind of contextualizes a lot of these decisions. The best example of that is Instincts. If Beliefs are what your character wants, Instincts are what your character is fundamentally. You can have instincts like “Whenever there’s trouble, I draw my sword.” And this is kinda like an automatic ret-con.

Rym: So lets say, “Oh you’re surrounded. You’re in the back alley, and a bunch of thugs come out and they’re gonna drag you and press you onto His Majesty’s ship.”

Scott: In D&D, if I don’t have a partial action to draw my sword, it’s not gonna happen.

Rym: But in this “No, no, no, Instinct! Whenever there’s trouble, I draw my sword. My sword was already freaking drawn.”

Rym: Alright...I am now in front of the King. I am presenting my case for my land that was stolen by my evil half-brother. My rival, the Duke of Edmonton comes in, and I hate him, and I think he’s going to ruin my case. And I know he’s gonna try to kill me or something as soon as I leave. I’m in danger. My instinct is to draw my sword! Now, the game isn’t just “Oh, you drew your sword”, the game is “Alright, you can choose not to draw your sword, and nothing happens. Alright, keep going.” But if you decide, “Alright, I drew my sword, lets see what happens!” automatic Artha [a game mechanic in Burning Wheel similar to a ‘Fate Point’ or ‘Action Point’ in other systems]. The game encourages this meta play, but it contextualizes it. Instead of saying “Alright, I wanna flurry-of-blows whatever, blah-blah-blah, to get my experience points to get my level”, you think “What would make the game more interesting?” And the more you play this game, the more you think less of “How will my character get what he wants?” its “How will I make everyone else in the room go ‘Oh my god, holy ****!”

So, thoughts? I'll reserve my judgment for now.