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Close to the Edit

The Myth of Advantage

by Ross Winn
May 20,2005

 

The Myth of Advantage

This column expands on my theory of roleplaying. It is somewhat of a mad tear across some well-thought ideas that I see present in games. I am sure I will continue to offend as I have done in recent columns. Stay with me in the beginning: even though this may wander a bit, I think I did a good job of bringing it all together at the end.

I find it amazing that people still rely on the various trappings of roleplaying we have clung to for decades. It is amazing, really, how little there is that is truly new in roleplaying systems. We seem to be stuck telling, in many ways, different tales and stories in much the same ways. Now this is not especially surprising to me in some way, but I do wonder why. There is no end to the myriad ways that we describe things in prose. No end to the differing backgrounds within games. Yet, still so few break new mechanical ground.

To me that has always been the central challenge of designing an RPG; the mechanical challenge. We have gone from the lock-step turn-based wargames like Chainmail to the ephemeral rules presented in Amber. Nearly all RPG systems excel at some element of storytelling. Some model conflict exceptionally well, and others allow the description of esoteric technologies. They allow us to build detailed characters, kill people in many interesting ways, and design amazing starships; but few, if any, of them accurately model even a single part of interpersonal conflict. Some insist that "system isn't important" while they lovingly describe how they choose to resolve randomness and conflict. As I wrote in my earlier column on sex in RPGs, we are not there yet. There are many people trying and a lot of them even succeed at one element or another, but none of them accurately model the idea of character-to-character interaction, intimidation, or seduction.

Does this mean that I am abandoning the idea that "everything old is new again?" Well, not really. Frankly, the themes and stories are going to be generally the same, at least if you ascribe to the theory that there are only thirty-seven basic plots, and I do. However, that we can call up fifty different fantasy games, thirty different SF games, and hundreds of others that have been published over the years; and to have only one or two ideas for how characters develop or other mechanical systems is just absurd.

One of the ideas that most frustrates me is the myth of advantage and disadvantage. The idea that one character is naturally talented, gifted, or even broken in some way for no other reason that the player wants them to be, seems terribly to ham-handed to me. It seems like many systems are adding these elements simply for a coolness factor or a fait accompli idea that they are somehow necessary. The reasons given for the idea of advantage and disadvantage are legion. To some it explains virtuosity, disability, and preternatural ability. The design reasons are also common to many games. For all of this it comes down to one thing. It is the unwritten theory behind the practice, these advantages and disadvantages are there: to give the players and GMs hooks for their stories. Not for cheaper powers, not for more skills, just for hooks.

Hooks.

The idea of advantages and disadvantages allows the GM a way to control interactions in the characters background and play. It provides plot points, adventure seeds, twists, and turns. Still the questions burn in me, why do we need these? When I first saw the idea of advantages and disadvantages used in play I think I was seventeen or eighteen years old. None of the implementations have changed in that time. The reason then was simple, players and GMs didn't trust each other; somehow after all of this time that may well still be true. We want it to support roleplaying, but we have to have this scatological system because we do not trust the GM, nor they us.

Is it that most of the players that we meet as GMs simply refuse to cooperate in building their character? Do they refuse the conversation and dialog necessary to integrate their character into the game as a whole? More importantly, do they feel somehow threatened by the process? This comes back to the ideas of trust, and it bothers me.

The adversarial character of many GMs does nothing to help the problem. For a great many years the "wargame paradigm" put the GM in an adversarial mode. GMs, many of them, wanted to "win", "tell a story", or simply accomplish some other goal; and for them to do that the players had to fail. Among the effects that the wargaming paradigm had on roleplaying to be sure, the adversarial model is one of the most damning. Some of my earlier columns dealt with the lexicon of RPGs. I think that this is tangentially related. We think, in our collective geek unconscious, that this is the only way to go about it. We do not see that there should be another way.

If you are winning, you are not roleplaying; this is how it works in my head. I have yet to see a compelling argument otherwise. If you think you can make one, take your best shot. Hell, I will make you a guest columnist if I like your argument, even if I do not agree with it.

In talking about advantage and the artificiality of it, I guess I should talk about how it "should" be handled, specifically the method that I have very much enjoyed. It is important that every character has a weakness, a hook, or a flaw. The nomenclature is unimportant, but to keep me from constantly writing all three I will use the term flaw for the purposes of this discussion.

Over The Edge, the legendary game from Jonathan Tweet (with help from Robin Laws in the second edition) handles flaws about as well as any implementation I have seen. A very nice added bonus is the visibility of the flaw. It is not something to be hidden and kept secret. Instead it is an integral element of the character description. Dead Inside, which we have discussed before, has a similar take though the flaw is less outwardly visible than in Over The Edge.

Games that I think can miss the entire point are those games without a mandatory disadvantage. I realize this means that I think that most games are missing this. I still enjoy the games and I play them. Yet when I run these same games I ask my players to have flaws much the same way I ask them to have motivations. Every character must have a flaw to be viable in an RPG. Flaws give you roleplaying, disadvantages just give you numbers and (usually) formulae.

What is it about having a flaw rather than a disadvantage that's going to change gameplay? Maybe it is just as simple as a mnemonic difference, but the idea of a disadvantage implies a corresponding advantage; whereas the idea of a flaw does not carry that same connotation. The other idea is that there really are not a lot of up sides to the idea of a flaw. Having players feel that there is no down side is dangerous. It sets up the GM and the player in an adversarial frame of mind. I recall an old Danger International game I played in the 1980's. We were a kind of Ghostbusters/X-Files fusion with a lot of body parts. One of the players kept bringing the police and the feds in all the time. The GM felt it was spoiling the mood (and it was) so he gave the player a parasite that made it very dangerous for him to continue to call the cops. Basically if anyone had noticed it, he would have been locked up. The player actually said, YELLING out loud, at the table "you are trying to kill my character!!!" He did not understand, and many players don't. GMs who unscrupulously twist the characters for no reason other than it somehow amuses them sicken me, as did the GM I knew who had a player who was diagnosed with cancer, and gave his character a wasting disease.

Is it any wonder, then, players refuse the conversation and dialog necessary to integrate their character into the game as a whole? I think it is only natural that there will be understandings as well as misunderstandings in any communication. The trick is to be as clear as possible from the beginning. From the beginning make the effort from both sides of the equation to build trust.

One of the core reasons that I think many players and many referees are resistant to adding flaws is trust. In a world where 99% of the games that you and I are taught to play are adversarial, the idea of trusting other players is completely alien. I get that; so why do we not change our minds after we learn and experience games with higher levels of trust? I do not think we think about it, and I do not think that enough developers think about it either. Rather than teaching and expanding over time most developers are content to have one idea and beat it to death with a hammer for twenty years or more.

Why, as consumers, are we not asking for more? Back again we go to education and expectation. No one thought of it. No one modified for it. No one educated about it. Around and around we go in a vicious cycle.

GMs need to be aware, players need to be aware, developers need to be aware, and designers need to be aware: flaws are a necessary evil and a much needed element within the roleplaying community. To make this a reality we need to teach, and use mechanics if possible, to support trust. Once we have the mechanism for trust, and once we have the necessary flaws, we will be able to have better games, better stories, and better players and GMs.

The concept of advantage is even more counterproductive because in most RPG systems these things can be purchased without the corresponding disadvantage. In the real world, as I see it in any case, the most brilliant people are the most unstable. The strongest are not also the smartest. The toughest are not always the biggest. Each of these advantages always has a corresponding disadvantage.

My assertion is that as trust evolves in RPGs, the idea of advantages and disadvantages should be replaced by the sole use of flaws over that time. I think its corollary is that because that has not happened, it may well be that we are stuck in a rut that is hurting the hobby as a whole. Many of the gaming intelligentsia (as a good friend of mind suggests "unintelligentsia") insists that the hobby is growing and changing. My worry is that this is not true. I think that the myth of advantage may well support that.

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What do you think?

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