Tuesday, July 20, 2010

In Which The Warlock Burns His Wicks at Both Ends...

I find myself situated in an odd position, my lovelies. A few months ago, I posted a review of John Wick’s article series “Play Dirty”, after Kat recommended it. Now, I knew that John Wick was a successful game designer—-Legend of Five Rings stands for itself, to say nothing of his other numerous credits—-but I did not know of the massive controversy that “Play Dirty” had apparently inspired in the gaming community at large. And now, over 10 years after its original publication, Wick’s article again seems to be raising eyebrows, with no less than 3 separate threads on RPG.net (as I type this, anyway) as well as a scathing review on The Hopeless Gamer (http://thehopelessgamer.blogspot.com).

Now, I’m hardly anywhere near the top of the heap in terms of gaming design or even in terms of games run. I’ve been lucky in my years of gaming to have played with some great people, to have started my own campus gaming club (and convention with it), and to design both unique modules and board games on my own. All this time, I’ve been happy to classify myself as a “Dirty GM”. I’ll readily admit, I have a reputation amongst the Wittenberg gaming community because of it, yet somehow my tables are always full (and often, there’s a ‘waiting list’ to play).

As a GM, I’ve enslaved my players’ characters to illithid and had them eradicate the monastery where they trained. I’ve had characters die, while in the Nine Hells, then convinced them into infernal pacts to return to life. I’ve had characters arrested and placed on trial (as mentioned in an earlier post) for killing foes that they viewed as legitimate adversaries. I’ve had characters trapped for nearly a month of game-sessions on a derelict ship infested with daemons, with nary a weapon between them. I’ve done numerous horrible things to characters, in the name of story…yet they keep coming back.

Why, you ask? Why subject a character to such torture? Why are you such a bad person, Mr. Warlock?

Well, the long and short of it is, in fact, the same reason why Wick’s advice burns so true.

One of the big reasons that people game is, in addition to tell a good impromptu story, to feel heroic. And, at their core, heroes face challenges. Massive challenges. Challenges that we, as ordinary mortals, could not hope to face. When we overcome those challenges, we feel heroic, we feel proud for our vicarious accomplishments, and we enjoy the satisfaction of a job well done. A “Dirty GM” is one that finds creative, distinct ways to challenge both his players’ characters and the players themselves.

The Hopeless Gamer contends this view: “Does this mean I've never felt challenged in an rpg? Not at all, when the rules allow it, and the GM plans for a good fight or challenge to overcome, I accept failure. That is, I accept failure when it's a result of dumb luck or my own poor decision-making. Failure because the GM tweaked the scenario and then railroads the outcome of the situation is a no-go.”

THG then continues, describing one of the tactics that Wick used to challenge a player who had been taking advantage of the “Dependent NPC” Disadvantage in one of his Champions games. The scenario starts as a standard one: a hated villain places a bomb at the top of a restaurant where the super, Malice, and her supers-hating grandma are eating lunch. The twist is, of course, that the bomb is a diversion, leading to a fight with the villain, who paralyzes Malice, unmasks her, and sends her crashing through the restaurant’s skylight down in front of Grandma, who has a heart attack (and dies) due to the sheer shock of the situation.

In that example, Wick did nothing that was even reasonably outside of his jurisdiction as a GM. Combat between his villain and Malice was rolled, with her failing. As Dependent NPC is a Disadvantage, Wick was well within his rights to place Grandma in peril. Malice’s character—her decision, mind you—did not clear the restaurant, nor did she go save Grandma…instead, she went off to fight the villain; a fight that she lost fair and square. The villain’s actions after her paralysis were simply the icing on the cake of Jefferson Carter’s master plan. Wick did not, as THG implies, "doctor the scenario" or rig the dice. He did, however, stack the deck in the villain's favor, but he did so the way the player themselves requested, by taking the Disadvantage in the first place.

And, lest we forget, Malice “retired” after this scenario. Note the terminology here. Malice retired, not the player. Were I in Malice’s shoes, I’d have probably retired as well, but note that the player stayed. In fact, the player came back for more…particularly at the very end, as Malice’s alter-ego returned to place mastermind Jefferson Carter on trial.

I find it interesting that THG and his group are fans of Icons, particularly, since Icons has a built-in methodology to take advantage of players’ weak points by Compelling the Challenges that a player has chosen, with only Determination points in recompense. In fact, Icons recommends that GMs “compel those things and bring them into the game…since it helps to keep the game more fast-paced, creative, and exciting” (Kenson et al 92). In fact, the game goes so far as to state that compelling a weakness “lets the GM inflict pretty much any effect short of killing the hero outright” and suggests that this sort of compel should be used to take away powers, handicap characters, and expose them to near-death experiences (Kenson et al 77). Can a GM be a jerk for doing so? Yes, if it occurs in every session, time after time. Is a GM “Dirty” for using such a thing? Not necessarily.

A Challenge in Icons could be, for some poor GMs, license to abuse his players. However, Wick’s advice isn’t to do so. Rather, he recommends taking these items into account and using them judiciously. A Challenge isn’t meant to be taken lightly—rather, it’s meant to be something for the player to overcome. As Wick writes in Episode 2: The Return of Jefferson Carter, “The point here should be obvious. Heroes, real heroes, are willing to pay any cost to rid the world of its Jefferson Carters. Any cost at all. I only told you about the characters who failed, who lost resolve…I was testing them. Pushing them…Because a hero isn’t measured by how many times he gets knocked down, he’s measured by how many times he gets back up” (Wick 31).

Wick continues, as per these challenges: “The whole point of mythology is to teach lessons that cannot be communicated any other way. Roleplaying is living myth. We aren’t hearing the heroes’ trials, we are the hero. ..pain is what pushes us, We don’t grow without pain. We don’t evolve without pain. We don’t learn without pain. If nobody ever knocked us down, we wouldn’t know the bliss of getting back up” (Wick 38).

Two other examples seem to continue to come up, in discussion of Wick’s piece: Wick’s use of Luck and Immunity powers. I’ll deal with each of these individually.
Admittedly, Wick does stereotype players who take Luck as an advantage, stating that they “tend to be a little self-centered. After all, they would rather spend points on something that will get them out of trouble, rather than something that would compliment or aid the group” (Wick 15). However, his suggestion of “get the group in trouble” is a perfectly valid one. It’s, in fact, the premise of nearly every RPG out there—a group works together to overcome a challenge.

However, if a character chooses to avoid working as a group, they’re essentially asking to take on the challenges on their own. Playing ‘by-the-book,’ the luck-based player not only decries the other players—“perhaps one of his powers could have countered the effect? If he had stayed behind, he’d have been able to help them out”—and chooses to run-and-gun by himself—“Let’s see him Luck his way out of a combined total of 1,500 points of hard hitting villains” (Wick 16).

If a character is willing to take on those in-game consequences, all of which are realistic circumstances, then there shouldn’t be a problem. Further, it’s legitimate in-game. Many rail against this example, saying that “You didn’t make the character Lucky—you made him Unlucky, because now he’s up against all of those other forces!” To the contrary, the character’s Luck was applied to exactly what the character wanted it to be. Could a random dice roll have been applied to which side of the blast the character ended on, so that there might be a chance that he wasn’t on the same side as the villains? Sure, but it doesn’t change the narrative end result. At the end of the day, his buddies get fried and the villains focus on the outlier.

I’ll readily admit, I thought I had a much harder time defending Wick’s “Immunity” example, if for no other reason than it’s so short. Literally, the sample that he provides is a total of 2 paragraphs. To be honest, that alone speaks of people reading too much into it. But then, I realized something. Incurable, superhuman-only virus? No cure, aside from one that takes away powers? This one wasn’t Wick’s idea at all—this is an adaptation of The Legacy Virus storyline from the X-Men! And, of course, in the comic, Colossus (a character with Immunity if there ever was one) sacrifices himself to make a cure available to everyone.

There’s not an RPG out there that doesn’t say, somewhere in its GMing section that “Story trumps rules.” GMs are expected to come up with ideas that are both out of the book and out of the box to challenge their players. In this case, it’s obviously a major plot point, but it also speaks to the player’s endurance. Did the player change his character, to reflect the changes in him due to Carter’s virus? Did he undergo training with other heroes, to take on a new superhero identity? No…he chose to walk away, unpowered and cowed, rather than forge on. No player should be so locked-into their own character, as to not want to change to reflect a major narrative event. That’s not bad GMing—that’s being a bad sport as a player.

I will admit that John Wick got one major thing wrong. On RPG.net, he mentions that the first Episode of “Play Dirty” is emblematic of the rest of the article. I beg to differ. You see, I find that a great gulf exists between those who read only the first Episode and those who read the full series. Those who read only that first Episode lose context and miss out on the redemptive message on the resilience of both heroes and the players that come around the table. They miss out on the justification for “underhanded” tactics, particularly as they apply to experienced players (who like to think that they’ve ‘seen it all’). They miss out on the glorious Episode 5, on how to narrate combat, making fights feel real. They miss out on Episode 7, which rips apart three massive Player Assumptions which, when inverted, make for games that none will ever forget. They miss Episode 10, which is geared specifically towards players. And worse, they miss Episode 11, which hits home the emotional point that Wick builds upon through the entirety of the series: that games are capable of changing people, just like his friend “Happy Fun Ball.”

The people that read the full article, though, either become converts (likes yours truly), or at least have their own perspectives on gaming challenged. In this case particularly, you can’t judge the book by its first Episode, much less the cover.

I suppose I’ll leave off with the words of another Wick—Larry Wickman, my pseudo-boss and author of WEGS. WEGS is, at its core, a decidedly adversarial game. The Kreator/Minion Master in WEGS is a role designed to be like a casino boss, smiling to the players and chit-chatting, as he pulls away their stack of chips. Larry sums this the core of “Play Dirty” perfectly, in the opening pages of the WEGS Old Skool Redux:

In any given game, minions will be vanquished, Arks will be lost to the Spheres, and kingdoms may crumble. All this may come to pass routinely during the course of great adventure. As long as the players play their parts and do their best to immerse themselves in this fantastic experience, they capture the essence of the game. That’s the biggest win of all. (Wickman 4)

The best stories out of gaming come out of the adversity of heroes. To pull the punches of the forces of evil, to hold back on providing a true threat to the characters due to the misguided believe that it’s “not fair” to target the players or build in story-driven choices that drastically affect their characters….to do any of these robs the characters of their heroic destiny. “They want to think that last die roll was the luckiest one they ever made. They want to feel that their characters’ lives were hanging in the balance, ready to fall like a pin hanging on the edge of a precipice. That’s what players want. And that’s what a Dirty GM gives them” (Wick 22).


  1. Thunderforge7:28 PM

    Interestingly enough, I was at first repulsed by reading what ideas he was making, but the more I think about it, the more I think I agree with him. I think it's his presentation that tends to turn off people, not necessarily his content.

    As I understand it, he essentially defines being a "Dirty GM" as providing lots of very difficult challenges which constantly put players in rough spots. I have no problem with having very dangerous campaigns (heck, part of the reason I'm the resident Savage Worlds junkie is because I love the fact that there's always the threat that the next shot will kill you outright). But I feel like there are three things you have to include if you're going to be a "Dirty GM" like that:

    1. The game must be fun for everyone, not just the GM. One of my favorite things to do in the Age of Empires computer game series is to use cheat codes and defeat the enemy's puny swordsmen and archers with machinegun cars, laser gunners, and monster trucks. As a GM, I've got the ability to kill a party of dungeon crawlers with AK-47 wielding kobolds, but that'd only be fun for me and not for the whole group. I feel like this is the ironclad rule, if playing dirty isn't fun for everyone, it's just an ego-stroking for the GM.

    2. Players have to be alright with you playing dirty. You may have the most beautiful story point in the world that would require something nasty to happen to a player. But if they aren't going to want it, then it will only create a lot of tension and anger.

    Admittedly though, I was quite disappointed last semester when I asked my player if he was alright with his near-death character getting turned into a mind-thrall (awesome recurring villain with a new plot point to try and save him!), but he said no. Still, I realize that the game is for all our fun, not just mine, and unfortunately it wouldn't have been fun for him to lose his character and I respected that. Happily, I did eventually ease the character into an ending where he sacrificed his memory to save the world. The player loved that.

    3. Characters must have a (somewhat reasonable) chance of success. For me, this is why I'm not a huge fan of the Warhammer universe: because my character sucks at everything and can't even shoot someone at point blank. Any challenge must have the ability to (eventually) overcome it. If the players have no chance of overcoming it, then the challenge is detrimental to the story. To quote your example, the Legacy Virus was really bad, but there was a longshot for a cure. As a corollary players must have a (somewhat reasonable) feeling of being in control of their destiny because feeling like you're just along for the ride isn't too much fun.

    Addendum: Try not to be so dirty during one-shots. As a personal rule, I tend to make one-shots, especially at conventions, "safer" than I might for a full campaign. The Shadowrun game where I spent the entire game an inch from death and ultimately dying while a player-turned-yeti killed me in my sleep, all without ever getting a chance to attack the whole adventure, wasn't my favorite game (although I'm not bitter about it because it was mostly some really bad dice luck that caused it). But for some players, an experience like that would permanently turn them off of the system, which would be really bad especially if I'm trying to promote the system. (For the same reason, I also discourage PVP and try to have a plan for if characters die so that they're not out of the game).

    A long reply to a long post. At any rate, thanks for sharing what you go out of it.

  2. Ahoy, Will.

    I appreciate what you've said for 3 reasons (Rule of Threes, right?)

    1) It's obvious that, despite the fact that you're not as fanboyish as I, you still got quite a lot of milage out of the article. It made you think, and made you contemplate your own games. Many of the dissenters fail to get to either point.

    2) You get that it's about FUN. To me, that's the core of Wick's article. It's easy to make Superman in a superheroes game. It's easy to make an uber-character. Most people don't do it because the appeal wears off after a while--it's not fun to constantly win. Wick puts forward the idea that 'Adversity is Good', which people don't always recognize.

    3) Your thought on One-Shots. This I agree with wholeheartedly, specifically for convention games. When you have no pre-existing relationship with someone, you never know how they might react to a "gut-punch" of a plot twist, or to a narrative element that disables them. It's not fun to sit there for 2 more hours, while the rest of the party moves on. Outside of my Dark Heresy one-off, I do typically try to adhere to that advice, despite my Dirty GM status.

    Thanks for the thoughts! Cheers!

  3. I appreciate your thorough reaction PlatinumWarlock. My first though after reading it is that we agree - the Champions excerpt is a really terrible piece to work as a sample chapter. The chapters you mention sound like they could be great. I'd love to read about the three player assumptions and all the other stuff.

    My problem comes from the excerpt when it's supposed to represent the book as a whole. A book made up of advice like from the Champions chapter is something I don't really want to spend time reading the rest of.

    John was kind enough to spend some time replying to my post. I responded with another comment which I'll paste below. I think it addresses some of your rebuttals. Before pasting my comment, I do want to point out that I think there's a huge difference in GM-fiat between highly mechanical games and games that focus on story-telling. I've never played Champions, but it sounds pretty crunchy compared to something like Icons. Icons insists on random character creation for instance, and as far as I'm concerned, any game with random character creation starts on the right foot of being a big wackier than general.

    Here's my post:

    "I really appreciate you working to clarifying some of the questions we have here. I think it's important to clarify on my end that I'm just reacting to the one post in question, not Play Dirty in general as I haven't had the chance to read it.

    I'll be the first to say that no one should discount anything else you've produced because of the sample chapter or my reaction to it. I've watched the youtube videos I've linked above and since discussed others of your videos with TheBro (he especially likes your video where you talk about the players working to create the dungeon for you).

    The best reaction I've read on the rpg.net boards was that, like it or not, the Champions story makes you think about role-playing and your own views on it. I'll definitely cop to that being the case for me here. I've heard (and deeply believe) that good writing evokes a guttural response from the reader.

    I'm not so obtuse that I can't appreciate context and realize that investment in the game was your goal with Champions. I can appreciate that. I think when it comes down to it, the real aspect I took issue with was suggesting that the GM-Fiat presented in the Champions post is not appropriate for most games, and hence doesn't make great GM advice for most GM's out there. This is my opinion though, and of course others are welcome to theirs."

    As a sidenote, I'm perfectly happy to agree to disagree on the topic and have been thankful that I've had the opportunity for a high-spirited, but civil debate when it comes to gaming :)

  4. THG--

    I really appreciate the ideas you've put forward here. As I mentioned in my rebuttal, I do think that the first chapter really isn't emblematic of the whole--which it seems that you agree with.

    If you've still got the PDF (or print version, for that matter), definitely check out the later chapters. Wick's ideas, while they can be somewhat 'radical', are really unique and worthwhile.

    Thanks again!