The DM is Removed

This is sort of but not actually a response to something said in Chris Franklin’s latest Errant Signal video. Chris makes good videos, I like his work and I think I’ve even commented on them in the past. Here’s the video I’m talking about:

This video is a good video, and when I talk about the ideas in it, I want you to understand that I’m not saying that Chris did something wrong or incorrect or that his analysis could have been better if he’d done it my way.What’s more, Chris’ video is about video games and has to mostly focus on roleplaying in videogames, but also mostly as focused on by the commercial industry. You know, the kind of games you can get your hands on at a game stop or on Steam, and some on itch.

I’m in the tabletop space, so for me it’s a little bit different, and I don’t see there as being a hard division between videogames and my spaces that many people (including my own wings of academia) do. This aids me well when I get to talk about things that are definitely done with computers but need a more traditional tabletop or roleplaying setup, with games like Starship Artemis and Spaceteam, or the app-driven modes of games like Mansions of Madness or One Night Ultimate Werewolf.

What Chris suggests in his video is that, as he says, these games don’t have a storyteller or dungeonmaster. The game, he argues, has to present you possible options. But the thing is, someone made those options. Those options were still created for you by a storyteller, it’s just that storyteller isn’t in a position to readily get feedback from you. You’re being confined by a storyteller’s imagination, and that storyteller’s imagination is in turn not receiving any feedback from yours.

But in a tabletop roleplaying games, the storyteller is in many ways confined by their own preparation; it’s actually something of a hllmark of good systems how well they handle a storyteller’s need for some new mechanical content. Dungeons and Dragons may not be a reliable system on every front, but one thing that those monster manuals and dungeon books let the game do is provide you with game content that you don’t have to imagine up on the spot.

Rather than a vision of the videogame RPG as a thing that lacks a storyteller and the tabletop one as one that has one, I prefer to instead suggest that in this case, the question is not the presence or absence of a social connection, but rather the distance in it. After all, the fully remote DM of Fallout has had a lot of time to make sure all the mechanical stuff is absolutely robust (which of course, it doesn’t have to be).

Another idea in Chris’ take is the idea of consequence. There’s an example in the video of Geralt saying thing A vs thing B and then suggests there’s no change in the game between these two choices. Except there is: Geralt says thing A in one, and thing B in the other. The rest of the game doesn’t necessarily react to that, but that doesn’t miraculously make those things the same thing. This presents something of an unconscious videogaming question as it relates to play: just how much impact does a choice have to have to make it meaningful, and following from that, is a meaningful choice the same thing as memorable choice?

Videogames are absolutely smothered in choice, and lots of the times it doesn’t make that much of a difference to the narrative people walk away with. For most people who beat Super Mario it’s not important that you beat it in twenty minutes or beat it in thirty minutes; the backsteps, double checks, general reconsideration, bathroom breaks and double checks are all things that get smothered away in the general narrative of ‘I beat the level.’

You can see there’s a subtle trend towards this in Chris’ piece; he views that it’s not enough for a choice to be a choice, but a choice must be validated. He even refers to these not-good-enough-choices as warping the game; the idea that being the kind of person who cares about tradition or moralityis not important enough to express if you’re not doing it with some consequence. What I find most interesting about this is consequence works against actually playing a character. In Bioshock there’s the infamous moral question of do-or-don’t eat a baby, and eating a baby gives you  reward now and not-eating a baby gives you about as much reward later. This was regarded as a bad choice, because people wouldn’t eat babies just for the rewards unless they were better than the rewards for not eating babies and good god, videogames are morally confused place.

Finally, I think of playing with a game, any game, as a creative act. The game has all its pieces and its interface, but how you choose to interact with it, wht you do with it, is creating your play experience in that space. I’ve talked about this before, and it involves using the word paratext, which I understand gets me weird looks. With that, it means that your individual experience of a game isn’t just a thing that happens to you, it’s a thing you create, and you are part of that creative act. This is important to my vision of games, too, because even if the game limits your ability to be choosey (like, say, a corridor shooter with a lot of cut scenes), the choice of when and how to engage with it, and you as a person become part of the individual experience of that game. Making play experiences paratextual is, in my mind, a valuable tool for enmeshing the player in the game, and centres what players choose to do without making the game’s ‘text’ somehow beholden to every individual player.

It’s a good video! I recommend it! I just don’t agree with it 100%!

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