Me and Spouse recently made an agreement to "try role-playing with other people"

For the last several years when we played any RPGs it was together or not at all. So, it sounds like a joke, but we actually did a have a talk about trying out RPG-non-monogamy.

She's running a Prime-Time Aventures game for some of the other history teachers at her school. It's about sailors on a blockade-running ship during the Russo-Japanese War.

I've been in a very rules-light D&D game based on Slavic mythology. Think somewhat tragic fairy tales in fantasy Poland. (and we're trying to not make too many Witcher jokes)

PTA and D&D are probably the two systems I've played more than any others, over the years. Spouse is running PTA for people who are mostly only familiar with D&D. I'm coming back to D&D after years of mostly indie games.

So it's interesting to compare notes, especially about players having to unlearn the habits of one game in order to play the other.

They're both role-playing games so no matter which one I'm playing there's always a core sense of like

"Hmmm I have this real cool idea about my character(/the setting), I'm excited to share it with the other players, how can I steer the fiction towards a chance for me to express the cool idea?"

but beyond that the two games could hardly be more different.

I'm not talking superficial differences like "kitchen-sink fantasy vs. any-genre-so-long-as-it's-TV" or "d20 vs playing cards" or "massive decades-long publishing phenomenon with a zillion books and editions vs. one small booklet made by one person". Set all that aside.

I don't even mean "D&D is rules-heavy and combat-centric, PTA is rules-light and centers character-interaction". Because the D&D we're playing now is... rules-light and centers character interaction! Last session had a handful of skill checks for information-gathering and social-interaction, zero dungeon stuff, and zero combat, but an awful lot of exploration and figuring out how our characters relate to each other and the world. So this difference doesn't currently exist.

No, the difference I wanna focus on is: how you make stuff happen in each game? I have that cool idea, how do I make fictional things happen so I can share that idea with others?

My main feeling after last week's session, was that D&D feels really vague and fluffy compared to the indie games I'm used to.

Ironic, right? "Vague and fluffy?" Not what you'd expect about supposedly the crunchiest and most mechanics-focused of RPGs?

But in fact the D&D game is a lot more "freeform" -- rarely referencing the rules -- while my PTA experience is using 100% of the procedures 100% of the time to structure everything we do.

The muddle that is "free-form"

First session D&D always feels weirdly fraught to me. Awkward and tentative. Because I'm feeling out how to RP my character, feeling out how they interact with the other characters, feeling out what the DM expects from me, feeling out how I can contribute mechanically, feeling out how much freedom I have to go off the rails... (and also, with a new group, feeling out whether there's That One Guy in the group who's going to ruin everything) Solving the adventure is often like 7th or 8th on the priority list.

And typically I'm feeling all this stuff out while I'm still in the town and/or wilderness, which is to say, above ground and not fighting anything: AKA not the part of the game that has well-defined procedures.

It's frustratingly unclear how to make anything "happen" when you're above ground and not fighting anything, when there is neither a Dungeon nor a Dragon. The game offers no structure at times like that. What is my responsibility as a player? What am I allowed to have my character do? What are my options?

Say I don't know what I'm supposed to be doing, because I haven't found the adventure plot hook yet, so I'm "gathering clues". I wanna find out who's threatening the town. But to do this most basic of actions requires a weird dance like so:

  • "Is there an inn or a tavern or something here?"
  • "Yes, it looks like such-and-such"
  • "OK, I go in. Is there someone inside I can talk to?"
  • "there's this person and this person, who will you talk to"
  • "Um, i talk to that person"
  • "what do you say exactly?"
  • "I say excuse me sir, can you please direct me to the nearest plot hook?"
  • "no, say it in character"
  • so I have to decide my exact words and then maybe I offended them or whatever, maybe we decide to roll Charisma and I flub...
  • or suppose I do all that perfectly, but then the DM says the NPC doesn't have any useful information after all, so we're back at square one!

It's a very slow, murky, back and forth, Q-and-A session to gradually creep towards establishing sufficient fictional context to prove that my PC should have permission to do a thing. Even a very basic thing. Even a thing the DM wants me to do! This isn't even when the DM is actively stonewalling me, which can also happen, this is just... when all narration rights and story-creation rights belong to the GM and there's no procedure to support me, I have no recourse but requesting permission one tiny step at a time. Thus, the muddle that is "freeform".

In contrast, what a relief when something I wanna do in the fiction lines up with something that's on my character sheet! Like, i'm a druid, so "turn into an animal" is on my character sheet, so that's like a button I can just push to make a thing happen in the fiction, I don't have to ask permission or tiptoe towards it. I just say "i'm turning into a beaver now" and it happens, because the mechanics back me up.

(D&D players have a reputation for loving combat, and I think partly it's not so much that they're bloodthirsty as that combat is the part of the game with most clearly defined roles, goals, and interface, where there are a lot of concrete "buttons you can push to make things happen", in contrast with the muddle that is freeform)

Once upon a time, I thought this was just "what role-playing is". But having played a lot of systems that give me explicit procedural authority to say things that advance the plot, going back to this way is like "uhhh why is everything so slow and clunky"

The PTA pitch

Spouse's pitch for PTA - specifically how to play PTA for people who have only played D&D -- is just 2 things: scenes and conflicts

  1. when it's your turn to request a scene you say where it is, who's there, and what's generally happening, and the GM is obligated to narrate that. There's no pretense that you're going to play out every moment of your character's life in order. You don't have to say things like "While he's shopping for armor, I'm walking over to the tavern to ask people for clues" -- when there's nothing else to do, a scene just ends.

  2. conflicts are not like "I swing my sword at him, do i hit?" it's much more broad-strokes than that: "Do I escape the aliens trying to capture me?". You're resolving story stakes, not granular "skill checks". Furthermore, not everything has to be a conflict -- only things that would be interesting for you to lose. So there's no "You're looking for clues, oops you failed you skill check, you don't find anything" -- you just find a clue.

PTA structures replace the muddle with something very clear: I frame a scene to start with something interesting happening, we role-play it out until we either discover a conflict or don't, if there's a conflict we resolve it with cards, then we end the scene.

Importantly, PTA sucks if you try to play it like D&D. If you have former D&D players like she does, you gotta break 'em out of their habits

The TV-show-ness of it is really helpful for this -- "remember, we're making a TV show, you don't just say what your charcter does, you can say that there's slow-motion or a flashback or a monster that's obviously a crappy CGI effect".

In PTA it works to say "The camera does a close-up on the guy's pocket so we can see he's hiding a gun, and the music goes BUM BUM BUMMMMM!" There's no equivalent to this in D&D.

The important part is you don't want people in the habit of just being-their-character, hanging out waiting for stuff to happen -- every player is a co-storyteller, you're supposed to make stuff happen, remembering that you can "control the camera" helps with that.

How to be a team player in D&D

Conversely D&D also sucks if you try to play it like PTA.

In PTA the "Issue" blank is the most important thing on your character sheet, and it's explicitly the goal of play to address and resolve each character's Issue during their Spotlight Episode. The story literally revolves around it.

In D&D I can make backstory and character goals and motivations and stuff for my PC -- but the rules don't support it, it's "extra". The campaign doesn't revolve around my guy, and it would be kinda "prima donna" behavior to expect it to. I can wait for opportunities to bring up my tragic past or my lifelong quest during in-character conversations but don't let it derail the adventure we're actually on, please; if I ask nicely the DM might write me a side-quest.

A huge reason D&D is the way it is comes back to: creating characters takes a long time. Adventure prep takes a long time. Therefore they're done outside the session, alone. We want to be respectful of other peoples' time. So we don't invalidate the adventure the DM has prepped, and we don't refuse to work with another player's PC.

The classic reason for D&D games to flame out is the PCs being uninterested in the DM's plot hooks and insisting on doing something else instead, or PCs who won't play nicely with other PCs.

"but it's what my chaaaaaaracter would do" Shut up, D&D is a team sport, there is a social contract around it, let's be mature adults and accept that that means certain limitations on our behavior. Namely that we WILL go on the adventure the DM planned, or else nothing interesting will happen. Therefore it's your responsibility to invent an in-character reason to wanna do that.

In PTA you want characters whose interests are tightly enmeshed, because the interaction of the characters IS the plot. A thing that works great is to first brainstorm all the characters who ought to be on the show, and their relationships to each other, and then have everybody choose one of those characters to be. And it's great if some of those relationships put them partly or entirely at odds with each other -- that's the stuff the drama will be made out of.

Whereas D&D characters need to be, to coin a term, "modular", able to be dropped into any party or any adventure with a little adaptation. That means PCs with little attachment - you don't want them to have a family that keeps them away from adventuring, for instance. You want a character who can plug into an adventuring party. That's why D&D pushes everybody towards playing jaded mercenary types, aka "murder hobos".

However, once you're actually on an adventure with the other PCs, then you need to start creating those relationships. Discovering all the little ways for my PC to connect to the other PCs has been my favorite part of my D&D game so far.

Help, where's the adventure?

The non-dungeon, non-dragon part of D&D is a guessing game so much of the time. "Guess what the DM wants you to do for this puzzle!" "Guess where the DM wants you to go next!" So often there's a single right answer, nothing interesting will happen until you find it, but the DM doesn't want to tell you what it is. So you guess a lot.

We can have a problem where the prepped adventure is over here but the DM doesn't wanna tell you it's over here because they don't want to be a railroader, so you lose the thread and wander around poking at stuff. The DM in my current game is real subtle about the plot hooks and also good at improvising locations, so we spent an hour investigating a graveyard that had nothing to do with anything (it only existed because we asked about it!) while she dropped increasingly frustrated hints about the road, you know, the road over here that you were previously following, remember that?

(This could be easily solved if the players and DM could break character and say "hey where's the adventure" "it's over here" "thanks", but that's culturally taboo to D&D players)

None of this happens in PTA. you can't "lose the thread" because the story is improvised, you're making the thread as you go along. There's no concept of having to "travel to where the adventure is"; instead a problem just comes to where you are, and you deal with it, or if a location is required you're just there already when the scene starts.

I find this concept is one of the hardest to explain to D&D players. But in practice it's easy to do, it's highly intuitive as long as you're not attached to the D&D way. You just... scene-frame straight to the good stuff. I lack the vocabulary to describe it better than that, but it's extremely powerful.

Why use D&D rules at all?

It sounds like I'm really down on D&D, but I want to end with some positives. PTA is great, it's very well-designed and very accessible and but if it sounds like I'm saying everybody should give up D&D and play PTA instead, I'm not. Not every game should be PTA. It's a game about TV and as such has a lot of stuff that's specific to the medium.

D&D has its advantages. There are things it does well that you can't get from indie games. Obviously, if you want the highly tactical, dungeon-crawl, resource-management, combat-grid-with-miniatures experience... well, actually, there's a zillion games that do that now, including a lot of video games and board games, you can get that in a lot of places other than D&D...

But there's a huge difference between:

  • "we're playing D&D because we want The Dungeons And Dragons Experience"
  • versus "we're playing my friend's homebrew fantasy and we happen to be using D&D rules for it".

And the second one is the one that's far more interesting to me. But if your homebrew fantasy doesn't have a lot of fighting or dungeon crawling, what does it actually gain from using the D&D system?

We should think about what the system does for us, not just use it because it's the default, because it's the one system everybody has heard of. And what it does for us is all combat, it provides no useful structure for role-playing...

...or does it?

  • A thing I've decided I like a lot about D&D is just the simple fact of having a race+class selection be a starting point for both your role-playing identity and your mechanical "team niche".

  • Sometimes having one really crummy stat is a fun anchor for role-playing off as well. We all remember the person who got 3 WIS and played it to the hilt, right?

  • Sometimes you don't want the artifice that a game like PTA imposes: sometimes you wanna inhabit a character for the boring parts of their day, sometimes you want things to develop naturalistically in real-time, sometimes you wanna just hang-out in character without pushing towards conflict, or strike up a friendship with random NPCs.

  • You also get to be, like, surprised a lot more as a PC in D&D, because the DM has literally prepped things to surprise you with, but also because you're not pre-planning the shape of your story arc or authoring your own antagonists like you sometimes do in PTA.

  • A thing that can be surprisingly good about D&D is when you take all these disparate colorful characters and apply yourselves to the challenge of figuring out why they'd be adventuring together -- like, why DOES this paladin tolerate this thief in the party? Could there be a fascinating in-character reason?

  • When it's working well, "organically figuring out how my character interacts with these other characters, and how we can help each other out, socially and mechanically" is fun and interesting and not quite what you get from more focused game designs

  • This is gonna sound weird, but because PTA almost guarantees you a satisfying story shape, and D&D does nothing of the sort, it kinda feels like more of an achievement when you manage to get a decent story to happen in your D&D game?

A lot of times our favorite memories of a D&D game are less about the adventure and more about goofy character interactions that happened parallel to the adventure. That structureless parallel space that D&D creates -- almost in spite of itself, because it exists in the negative space of what the rules don't cover -- despite my frustrations, that might actually be my favorite thing about it.

Last modified April 8, 2021, 7:48 a.m..

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