Roleplaying

Five Destructive Myths Perpetuated by Roleplaying Games

Roleplaying games take us on marvelous adventures. They provide hours and hours of entertainment with our friends. They let us become active parts of our favorite stories instead of passive observers. Unfortunately, they have a dark side as well. Several dark sides, in fact. We’ve all had a game or two where things just felt wrong. Sometimes these problems can be chalked up to a single disruptive player or bad GM. However, there are a number of more systemic issues that are harder to explain away, and those are what we’re looking at today. If we really care about roleplaying games, we have to acknowledge their flaws in order to improve.

1. The Great Man Theory of History

Founding FathersPut simply, this is a way of looking at history that emphasizes influential individuals. The idea is that certain important people, for good or ill, caused events to turn out the way they did. Napoleon caused the rise and fall of post-Revolutionary France, Gandhi was the man who made India independent, etc. High school history texts tend to use this method, even if it isn’t explicit. They focus heavily on who led what battle and who was elected president on what date. The problem with the Great Man Theory is that it’s incredibly narrow and simplistic. Napoleon came to power in a time of great chaos caused by the French Revolution and all the events that led to it. Gandhi became the face of an independence movement that had been building for decades, at least. The Great Man Theory ignores the contributions of countless people and social circumstances in order to examine a select few. It doesn’t help that those few are almost always male and white, Ghandi notwithstanding.

What does this have to do with roleplaying games, you may ask? The PCs are those Great Men. They are the important people whose whim shapes history. This is more obvious in large scale games, where the PCs lead armies or steer the course of nations, but it’s visible at small scale too. Even if all the PCs are doing is saving a village from goblin attacks, the focus is on them. There’s little to no examination of how the villagers feel – or how the goblins feel, for that matter.

To a certain extent, this is how it should be. The PCs are supposed to be the main characters of their story. Otherwise why spend so many hours playing them? The problem arises when the game focuses exclusively on their actions, as if nothing else matters. You see this more in roleplaying games than in other stories because nearly everything is told from the PC’s perspective. Everything is about them because they have the character sheets. Not only is this disingenuous, but it contributes to a savior complex – the idea that when there are problems, the only solution is to wait for some exceptional person to solve them. Outside of heroic fiction, those individuals are rare to nonexistent.

The first step in solving this problem is simply to have a well developed setting. If the fantasy kingdom/space empire/land of talking mice is more than just a collection of encounters, it will provide some context. If the PCs are invested in a setting, they will understand the complicated factors that give rise to their adventures. Are the villagers unable to protect themselves from goblins because they have no iron to make weapons? Were all their young people of fighting age conscripted to the King’s army? Perhaps the goblins are attacking in retaliation for their hunting grounds being turned into farmlands.

For the advanced GM, another valuable method is to flesh out minor NPCs. Not the village mayor or goblin chief, but the carpenter trying to patch up the holes in his stockade before the next raid. Be careful with this because it runs the risk of distracting the story with unimportant details, but it can be very valuable. If your players know what regular people are going through, what they think of the current situation, it will put a better context on their adventure. The game Kingdom uses certain PCs as Touchstones, someone who represents the views of common people.

The goal isn’t to make the PCs slaves to what’s going on around them. Player agency is important, and sometimes there are legitimate moments in which the course of history is determined by a single person’s choice. Instead, players should understand that their characters are part of a bigger world, that there are larger factors influencing their situation.

2. Social Ties Don’t Matter

Depression-loss_of_loved_oneWe’ve all joked about PCs being amnesiac orphans with no friends. It’s an oldie, but all too often it’s true. Protagonists in films and prose stories often have few familial connections as well, but PCs take it a step further. Not only do they not have parents, but they often have no human (or elven or Wookiee) relationships at all. They get quests from people, complete the quests, and receive their rewards. When PCs do have loved ones, they are usually the McGuffin for a vengeance or rescue story. There aren’t a lot of 30 Rock-style social drama roleplaying games.

Because most roleplaying games focus so heavily on combat mechanics, it’s easy to neglect a character’s social side. Even PCs with maxed out ranks in diplomacy focus more on heroic confrontations than healthy relationships. Roleplaying games are all about the adventure, and anything that could get in the way of rushing into the wilderness to plunder for treasure is ignored. PCs don’t have jobs, and they don’t have family members who depend on them to pay for student loans. They occupy a bizarre space that is parallel to society rather than part of it.

We do this to justify how the same group of people can get into a different, dangerous adventure every week. If the PCs have friends or family, why aren’t they with them? Nothing can distract from the search for more copper pieces!

Of course, anyone actually living the adventuring life would either be miserable or suffering from severe mental issues. Humans are social creatures, and few of us would last long in such a scenario. We all depend on others, even if we don’t want to admit it, and others depend on us.

It seems like the natural solution would be to have PCs create relationships with each other. After all, some of the strongest bonds between people are forged in the face of extreme adversity. However, it’s all too common for the PCs to barely tolerate each other. Characters who shun human contact in favor of treasure are unlikely to bond with others who are doing the same thing. Players get used to their characters as isolated islands and are unwilling or unable to connect with their fellow party members.

The key is to build up a stable of NPCs who can relate to the PCs in some way. They can be friends, family, or even enemies – anyone to show that the PC didn’t spring forth fully formed from nothing. Some systems, like Mouse Guard or Prime Time Adventures, make this part of the character creation process. For those that don’t, the GM will have to do a bit of extra work, but it’s worth the effort. PCs who are part of a community will be more willing to interact with each other, and they will feel any threat against that community more keenly.

For obvious reasons, this is easier to do in a stationary campaign than a traveling one. It’s difficult to justify all of the PC’s friends and family following them around. However, it is still doable. If your characters are part of a ship’s crew or other mobile group, then relationships can be drawn from that community. If they are truly on their own, then play on that. Have them receive letters from home. Give out bonuses to players who roleplay feelings of isolation. Torchbearer is a great example; in that game, adventurers want nothing more than to earn enough gold so they can stop being adventurers. Most importantly, show that no person is an island unto themselves.

3. The Explorer Fallacy

Sacagawea, without whom Lewis and Clark would have been hopelessly lost. Sacagawea, without whom Lewis and Clark would have been hopelessly lost.

Western culture has a bit of a fetish for explorers. We idolize them, from Marco Polo to Lewis and Clark. It’s no surprise, then, that so many of our roleplaying games focus on exploring new lands. PCs are always forging new paths through primal forest or being the first to set foot on an alien world. The problem is that, all too often, we have a completely incorrect idea of what exploration was like.

The vast majority of people we think of today as explorers were traveling through places where people already lived. They weren’t conquering untamed wilderness; they were asking for directions and buying supplies from the locals. The successful ones relied as much on diplomacy as navigation or survival.

Why does this matter? First of all, it’s pretty self-centered to say a place was discovered only when someone from our own culture got there. Far more importantly, the explorer myth pushes an idea of these new lands being effectively uninhabited. When natives are mentioned at all, they are documented more as part of the terrain than as actual residents. This is dehumanizing, and it justifies claiming a land’s resources for ourselves. After all, no one was really living there.

In roleplaying games, we’ve established an elaborate framework to justify the explorer myth. It’s amazing how the ‘evil’ races are used as obstacles to be overcome rather than neighbors that deserve respect. Orcs have a culture and society, yet no one bats an eye at intruding into their lands in search of treasure. We have the luxury of knowing that orcs can’t be reasoned with. They are inherently bad, so we don’t have to feel guilty about whatever we do to them. They are often referred to as a ‘savage’ race, inferior to civilization.

We have to remember that these stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and this exact same ideology has been used to justify horrific atrocities against human beings throughout history. Does that mean we can’t have games about exploration? Of course not; it simply means that we must be careful of how we portray the explorers.

The idea of explorers as diplomats has a lot of potential. Interacting with a strange culture far from home has drama and conflict practically baked into it. Instead of finding gnolls in shabbily constructed huts with treasure just waiting to be stolen, PCs could find themselves in the middle of a gnoll civil war and being entreated for aid by both sides. They could find themselves in the court of a crumbling monarchy, needing to decide if they will assist the revolutionaries or throw their lot in with the king.

If an old-fashioned trek through untamed wilderness is what you’re hankering for, there are options for that too. Some of the most dangerous expeditions in history have been to Antarctica, a huge landmass with no one living on it. Or you could take your inspiration from the early Americans as they crossed the land bridge from Asia, the first sapient beings to step forth on an unknown continent. There are numerous possibilities that don’t indulge the bigoted view of savages versus civilization.

4. What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger

Purple_Heart_caseThis may come as a surprise, but roleplaying games aren’t always 100% realistic. We wouldn’t want them to be because we already live in real life. However, there is one area where roleplaying games are so consistently wrong that it becomes a problem: the continuous upward curve. That is, characters will always gain more and more power as they progress through a story. This power can be in the form of higher skills, new spells, better gear, etc. Across the vast majority of systems, we see the idea that PCs will always be more capable at the end of an adventure than they were at the start.

Clearly this is not the case in real life. While it’s true that humans get better at something the longer they do it, there are any number of factors working against us. For athletes, there is often a physical peak after which they will never be as good, no matter how much practice they put in. A pilot who loses their job and doesn’t sit in the cockpit for ten years is not going to get better at flying. A soldier wounded in combat could acquire a lifelong disability.

Beyond physical limits, there is the psychological impact to consider. Many PCs experience things that turn real people into gibbering wrecks. They endure levels of violence and trauma that should cause permanent damage, but they always seem to bounce back.

This is a problem not because it’s unrealistic but because it reinforces the idea that experiencing adversity is a positive thing. There’s a concept that ‘tough love’ can strengthen a person, make them ready for the challenges of life. You see this in people who think fat-shaming is a way to help others lose weight. In reality, bad things rarely cause anything good. When good things do happen, it’s despite the bad – not because of it.

This myth is difficult to address because (in some ways at least) we don’t want our fantasies to mirror real life. It would be a real bummer for our warrior to lose all fighting prowess because the ogre got in a spine crushing hit. At the same time, stories can have a lot more relevance when they reflect our actual experiences. There’s also empathetic value in stories that give us a taste of what it’s really like to experience serious trauma.

For groups who want to push back, there are a number of options. Games like Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness have systems for tracking a PC’s psychological wellness, and games like Burning Wheel have extremely realistic damage rules. Just be sure that everyone at the table is on board.

5. Violence Is the Ultimate Solution

Predator_and_HellfireIn real life, violence isn’t desirable and should be a last resort. People often disagree on when that last resort is necessary, but they usually agree on the general principle. In popular fiction it’s the opposite. Heroes are expected to use violence to solve most of their problems. In contrast, characters like Captain Picard stand out specifically because they try not to use violence.

In roleplaying games, this issue is even more pronounced, largely because of mechanics. In most systems, combat is still the default method for resolving conflict. There may be other options, but PCs gravitate towards fighting because that’s where most of the rules are. It’s not difficult to see why games work like this. Violence is exciting. It’s something that most well-off citizens of first world countries will rarely, if ever, experience. Dress up that violence with fireballs or hovercraft, and you’ve got an instant hook.

The problem is that real violence usually creates more problems than it solves. Even if a person or group of people seems evil, using violence against them is rarely a good option. There’s a little thing called the cycle of violence, showing that when two groups are in conflict, violence from one side always leads to violence from the other.

Roleplaying games often portray violent scenarios we would immediately recognize as terrible if they happened in any other context. Adventurers break into a goblin inhabited dungeon, kill any goblins that get in their way, then take their stuff. Even if the goblins were doing something bad, it’s hard to imagine a response like that being justified. Here we have another example of our conscience being assuaged because the deplorable act is being done against an “evil race” rather than innocent humans.

Of course, roleplaying games contain a lot of human on human violence as well. Shadowrun has a cyberpunk setting built around the idea of PCs as heavily armed robbers, and this is okay because they are stealing from evil corporations. Very rarely is any thought given to the collateral damage that would ensue if a group of gun-toting mercenaries actually got into a firefight in the lobby of a downtown corporate office. Even assuming there are no unintended casualties, PCs aren’t encouraged to think much of all the corporate security goons they mowed down on their way to grab the McGuffin.

The final contributing factor to roleplaying stories being such violent places is that PCs rarely suffer any mechanical consequences from their fights. When you remove the fear of getting hurt, there’s a lot less reason not to use violence. This is self perpetuating because it’s difficult to impose serious consequences for violence on a game where everyone is used to consequence-free violence. GMs who do run the serious risk of ruining their players’ fun.

Instead, the best course of action for GMs who want to scale back the violence in their games is to provide context. Show conflicts as the multisided, complicated messes that they are instead of simple good versus evil. Show what actually happens when opposing sides resort to killing each other. Flesh out the orc horde as a functioning society. Explore the reasons two groups have for fighting. Make violence something that happens when diplomacy fails. This doesn’t mean you can’t have sword fights or space battles in your game, but your players should see them as more than mechanical challenges to be overcome.

The most important thing to remember when examining these roleplaying myths is that none of them are insurmountable. They don’t mean that roleplaying is a bad medium for storytelling. Quite the opposite. Addressing these issues in your game is a great way to get players thinking, because they can actively participate. That said, not every game has to be about raising awareness or combating a flaw in our pop culture. Sometimes you just want to have a fun night without worrying about this stuff, and that’s fine. But if you plan your game to avoid these problematic myths, you’ll be taking a step towards improving both the medium and our society as a whole.

If you want more tips on how to solve problems like these in your games, I have another list right here.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Bluenateman

    You couldn’t be much more spot on. I am going to be spending time to see if I can add to your well thought out list.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Please do. I’m sure there’s all kinds of stuff I missed.

      • MC Planck

        “Nietzschean power fantasy” would seem to be a good summation.

        The interesting thing is, RPGs always benefit from breaking these rules. Games in which players have NPC family and friends are always more emotionally satisfying.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        I know, right? That was half the point of the article, that RPGs don’t have to be this way and they’re better when they’re not.

        • Skylark

          The Mass Effect series are my favorite video games for a reason – I am happy to go shoot a bunch of killer robots, but even more so to wander about my ship chatting with the crew. Unfortunately the games fall into the other four on this list to varying degrees, especially number 1. (Everything and anything will hinge on the decisions of you, Commander Shepard, and the galaxy seems to just twiddle its thumbs until you order it to do something).

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            To be fair to the Mass Effect series, in 3 especially, the series becomes much more about the Galactic effort. We see lots of little glimpses of other people and their fights against the Reapers.

          • Adam Reynolds

            Another interesting element in Mass Effect 3 is how the secondary characters seem far more independent in their choices. While Shepard is still in charge to a great deal, secondary characters don’t just fall in line. Without spoiling half the game, Wrex, Mordin, Legion, and Tali are impossible to convince to your way of thinking if Shepard acts against their people. On a smaller scale, one minor detail that is interesting is that secondary characters also noticeably interact without Shepard playing a direct role. Assuming neither was with Shepard first, Tali and Garrus even fall in love while on the Normandy, without her having anything to do with it.

            Another element that weakens the sense of Shepard’s importance is the fact that regardless of what decisions she makes, events still largely play out the same throughout all three games. Even the big decisions of the setting often don’t have as much of an effect as one would think(notably, regardless of who ends up on the council, they still do the same things) . Even though this is limited by game design more than anything, it is still significant. We especially see this in the way that whichever characters die, there are always others who can take their place(even if usually not as effectively). This is also shown to be the case with war assets in the third game. While Shepard helps increase the number of war assets by carrying out side missions, it is clear that others would be doing that work if her team was not.

            And as Miranda points out at the start of the second game, what makes Shepard important is the trends she represents rather than who she is personally. She represents humanity making its way into the wider galaxy. Also as the second game so significantly points out, it is not Shepard alone that does anything. Shepard is only as good as her crew.

            While limited by the mechanics of the game, Mass Effect also allows for the Normandy’s crew to attempt and avoid violence in their dealings with various groups, with the ideal resolutions to events involving diplomacy rather than gunplay.Though the Reapers have the same problems in this respect as zombies(with their low level units even basically being zombies), because they are an enemy without any possibility of negotiation or diplomacy, leaving violence the only possible answer.

          • Krssven

            Mass Effect plays and slightly subverts the Big Damn Hero trope. Shepard is simply a natural leader, something she (mine was FemShep – tough) does not fully realise until regrouping with your pilot Joker in ME2. Without Shepard, none of the non-standard crewmembers like Garrus or Tali had much reason to stick around, and went off to do their own thing. But once she turns up again, they jump at the chance to rejoin her. What Shepard was largely oblivious to was the qualities that made people sit up and take notice. To Shepard, she was just a soldier. To others, she was a leader and role model. Later, this becomes something that weighs heavy – the Alliance is essentially betting all-in that Shepard will pull something out of the bag vs the Reapers while they delay, and she doesn’t feel up to the hype.

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Turns out that kind of depends on how you play Shepard. If you go full renegade, she (Femshep FTW) is well aware just how important she is. Also that everyone else is lame.

          • Skylark

            I suppose the “big damn heo” vibe is mostly on the first game, somewhat in the second. ME3 is really the first time you find crew mates wandering the ship, interacting of their own accord (except when they have fights in 2, which you are supposed to settle in one fashion of another).

            Of course, at the end of 3, you make a decision that shapes the whole galaxy, so there’s still a “Commander Shepard is the center of everything” vibe. Maybe it’s more Forest Gump than Big Damn Hero, but still. Again, limitation of the medium – you kinda have to be involved in everything for it to be interesting.

            Also, I deliberately left pronouns out of my references to Shepard because I play both DudeShep and FemShep. It does warm my little heart to see so many people playing FemShep, particularly after all those bro-gamer complaints about her voice in the N7 Day video (Jennifer Hale is the better voice actor and you know it!)

          • Oren Ashkenazi

            Jennifer Hale is in fact my favorite.

  2. Mike Pureka

    Most of these seem to only apply to certain, sometimes extremely specific types of games. (Mostly 1,2 and 3). I know you are a big fan of Mouse Guard, so I find it strange for you to even put #2 in the list. #4 is true, but seems so obvious that I’m not sure this is a myth that anyone actually believes.

    I think you’d have been better served by just writing a whole article about #5, which is indeed the real winner here.

  3. Lucas

    Reading this more thoroughly later, but I may have to make some stuff in my game boost the social. Already detatched XP from combat.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      That’s always a trick, and it’s easier or harder, depending on what system your using. May I ask what you’re running?

      • Lucas

        Sagas of Olde, well playtesting anyway. It is a system I am creating. Some links, the Patreon below, even $1 pledges keep up to date. As soon as I make a new version of the playtest rules, that is where I upload.

        http://www.facebook.com/SagasofOlde
        http://www.patreon.com/LucasPuryear

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Oooh, that’s a different beast all together, but it also means you get to put that stuff in from the very beginning instead of trying to fight an existing system.

        I think at the most basic level, the easiest thing you can do is devote more time to non-combat conflict resolution systems. It’s hard not to get sucked into combat when 90% of a game’s rules are about Combat. Games like Mouse Guard or Fate are good examples.

  4. Anon Ymous

    I am a huge advocate for social justice, but this article is just unnecessar, and it attempts to assert that RPGs perpetuate these things, but these “faults” are not with the games, they are with the people playing them. RPG systems provide a framework of rules for people to jointly tell interactive stories. They do nothing more than this. It is players — people — who take this framework and turn it into whatever they want to. Some people do play out epic social dramas. Others pretend to savage strange lands, murdering and pillaging everything in sight. To blame this on the games themselves is a gross injustice to the art out into their creation. Instead, blame the players that perpetuate their own ideas on how “heroes”, “villains”, and “explorers” are “supposed to” act.

    • Argamae

      That sums it up quite nicely. While I admit that my response to this article would probably not have been as polite as yours.

  5. Miehm

    Well this was a waste of my time. This entire article was a bunch of mealy mouthed hippie crap that misses the entire point of RPGs. And most of the issues tend to be system specific, disregarding the ones that aren’t actually problems. FFGs 40k based games disregard 1, 3, and 4. D&D doesn’t have any of these “problems” unless the group wants to play that way.

    As to the hug it out nonsense in “problem” number 5, violence has solved more conflicts throughout the course of human history than any other method. Get with reality.

    • Alverant

      Violence has also CAUSED more conflicts in human history than any other method. Also no one said to “hug it out”. Not resorting to violence every time and using diplomacy is by no means “hug it out”. Get with reality!

      • GunsmithKitten

        Here’s the problem; most times, Orcs (to use their example) CANNOT BE REASONED WITH! They think of other races as weaklings to be killed and exploited for their means, and have no hesitation to do so! Those corporate goons? Do you really think they have any quams about shooting someone for a paycheck? Or even out of boredom in a lot of cases (take it from a longtime Cyberpunk 2020 player/GM, they don’t)? There are plenty of times where diplomacy just doesn’t cut it, and you have to meet steel with steel, and bullets with bullets. Does it mean every time? Of course not. Does it mean ignore collateral damage? Of course not. I’ve made sure that trigger happy edgerunners who inflict civilian casualties or who hang around the place they just open fired on get to meet a tactical response from the NCPD in short order. And then there’s the investigations that follow to deal with…

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s true, but consider, who made them that way? We did. Orcs and corporate security NPCs only exist because we invented them.

        Orcs are only unreasonable because we decided they should be. They could just as easily be like us, looking out for their own interests as best they can, and I for one think that would be a lot more interesting.

        • Cay Reet

          Exactly the point I was about to make. RPGs give us a host of ‘regular’ enemies – orcs or goblins in fantasy setting, robots or androids in SF settings, corporate goons of any kind in cyberpunk etc. They always behave in a way which makes a non-violent approach impossible. They can’t be reasoned with. They have no real background and no sense of self-protection. They only exist to attack and be slaughtered. Not because they can’t be any other way, but because we don’t even expect them any other way. Because they’re standard enemies listed in the source material.

          I, for instance, was highly fascinated with the orcs in WarCraft 3 (not RPG, I know). Suddenly, there was some sort of orcish culture, because the player needed to play them as a fraction in the game and that meant they needed to identify with them. Even WarCraft 2 already had some traces of that, but it was more pronounced with Thrall’s story in the third game. I was fascinated enough by that background to read the ‘Lord of the Clans’ novel for more information. I liked the idea of playing a race which normally only exists to be slaughtered and hand the heroes the XP they’d need for the next level-up.

    • Brass

      Are you serious? DnD is basically the poster child for each of these. Especially #5 – violence is always an option because hey, everyone knows goblins are evil (and squishy). It’s built in the system! And how on earth is #4 not DnD in a nutshell – fight, get levels, get more powerful. Yeah you get wounded like hell but it’s ok, someone will magically fix you in 6 seconds.

  6. harriet

    Yeah, I agree with the waste of time comment. It’s a game people, lighten up. This is totally goofy and I can’t believe someone would sit and concoct this imaginary issue.

    • Alverant

      Maybe some people want a more realistic game. Who are you to judge?

      • KCRift

        The entire article was a bunch of judgmental drivel. Putting the working into and creating a “more realistic” campaign is something ENTIRELY DIFFERENT than telling everyone who plays a RPG is essentially ‘doing it wrong’ and being self-destructive. This author is an epic troll.

      • Argamae

        The judging comes from the author of this article. It’s fine if he wants more real-world social dynamics and multi-layered problem-solving into his imaginary realm. But don’t go about finger-pointing on rpgs as the source of his troubles.

  7. John

    Are you fucking kidding me? Are you familiar with the term projection?

    RPGs is games driven by the players and the GMs imaginations. If you’re experiencing these myths then that is on you and your conscience.

  8. Zak S

    Is there any research indicating that people who play RPGs believe these things more or more often than people who don’t play them? Or that they became more popular after RPGs became popular?
    Or are you just guessing that if you see a theme, then the game must automatically be perpetuating your interpretation of that theme?

    • Lev Lafayette

      It’s a good point and I suspect that even given telic inclinations in game systems these ‘destructive myths’ maybe less prevalent because of the medium. RPGs, due to the communicative aspect in the creation of the share imaginary space invites consideration and debate among the participants. These issues are raised successfully in a manner that high definition information (e.g., film) is less prone towards.

  9. Asif

    You have to realize, many people don’t get their kicks shitting on things and being self-righteous. Some of us like to just have fun, and some do that by playing RPGs. Sometimes its because we want to get away from real problems in our lives and just enjoy a fantasy. But you probably don’t need this, as no one with an actual problem in life could have taken the time to shit out this garbage post.

  10. Aeryn Kelly

    While I think you make interesting points, and for a non-player based story some of these things would be good to keep in mind, but as for RPGs you’re ignoring one big factor that the player brings to the table: escapism. Sometimes people that are powerless need to feel heard. Sometimes the meek need to be brave. Sometimes people *need* things to be black and white, because the real world is not. As others (not to politely) have referred, perhaps it’s a lack of problems in real life, but I can tell you from personal experience that just being able to watch my character jump on screen, when I cannot in real life, is a form of escapism. Is jumping constantly, or throwing my character off a cliff and having her not get hurt realistic? No. But it’s fun as hell for someone who will *never* experience such a thing in real life. My characters can do things I can’t. My characters aren’t sickly, my characters are strong, fierce, brave, and daring. To someone who has spent their entire life disabled and sick… how is that *not* valuable?

    • Rogue

      True Aeryn. I don’t mind crushing skulls and blowing things up. That is part of the fun for me because I can’t do it in real life… well without being killed by cops and losing everything i have built thus far for my kids. Like one of my players “guys put your guns away c’mon we can talk this through.” Go play pretty pretty princess politics man as Conan the Barbarian would say, “Enough talk!” :::thwack:::

      • Cay Reet

        And that’s when you get a group of people like in the comic ‘Knights of the Diner Table,’ where the only female player who wants to see if there’s other ways, too, always has to argue for half an hour before the rest lets her try it … even though it usually is much better for the group in all aspects than just hit things.

        And the inability to be diplomatic might be why Conan never stays a ruler for long – he simply is not qualified for it.

  11. Riley

    People saying this is a waste of time clearly don’t realize the point of this, or what this writer has been doing. The entire nature of this writers back archive is looking at and challenging narrative tropes.

    This article looks at those same narrative tropes in games, and the ones most common in gaming.

    Just because its for fun doesn’t mean theirs not value in reflecting in its message or the meanings it carries with it.

    I find “Enders Game” to be a very fun and enjoyable novel. It doesn’t mean its not meaningful to reflect on the inherent messages it carries, on how those messages relate to the writers world view, and how his world view shapes his other works.

    Violence has solved many problems in human history. Violence has also made just as many problems way worse. All historic evaluations show that World War II would not have happened without the political cacophony that was World War I. Violence didn’t solve a problem..the violence actually created a much bigger problem 30 years later.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Awesome to hear you enjoyed the post, and that you thought the archives were worth a look as well.

      I’m particularly excited that you picked up on the WWII example. WWII is always sited as the Just War, but not nearly as much attention is given to how it could have been avoided in the first place.

      • EasyEight

        “but not nearly as much attention is given to how it could have been avoided in the first place.”

        Oh, really? How, pray tell would you have avoided WW2 when Hitler was bent on the conquest of Europe, and then as much of the world as he could grab with his Panzer armies?

        “Violence didn’t solve a problem..the violence actually created a much bigger problem 30 years later.”

        But you can also point to the American Revolution which led to the formation of the first modern democratic nation, the American Civil War which ended slavery in the US, the English Civil War which broke the power of Rule by Divine Right, etc. Sometimes when all other avenues fail, violence is a just solution to unjust situations.

        • Cay Reet

          Because Hitler and his party only rose to power in a beaten and highly unhappy Germany post WWI. Without the severe reparations, Germany wouldn’t have suffered as much as it did during the Great Depression and a party which basically said ‘we were betrayed in WWI and should have won it, then everything would be fine – vote for us and we’ll make sure you get what should have been yours’ wouldn’t have had a big chance at the polls.

          Hitler would never have risen to a position of power without WWI.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        “Oh, really? How, pray tell would you have avoided WW2 when Hitler was bent on the conquest of Europe, and then as much of the world as he could grab with his Panzer armies?”

        I would have enacted a policy of reconciliation rather then punishment after WWI. Essentially, I would have done what the allies did after WWII, except two and a half decades earlier. One result of those policies is that we never had to fight a war with Japan or Germany again, and both countries remain strong allies.

        As to the other examples, personally I could take or leave the United States as an independent nation state, but that’s just me.

        The civil war and others are legitimate examples of when violence probably was necessary, but you could just as easily point to the ending of slavery in Britain, which took no violence at all. I don’t think anyone is saying violence is never necessary, just that there are usually other options, and they are worth exploring.

      • Marc

        Not to mention that WW2 led to the cold war and all of its proxy wars.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        True, although that’s another case of diplomacy at least preventing a conflict that would have completely devastated both sides, even if it didn’t stop all fighting all the time.

      • Jason Dandy

        Oren, I’m particularly curious as to how you think a policy of reconciliation would have stopped Japanese imperialist ambitions. Having studied East Asian culture, history, politics, philosophy, and economics as my major in undergrad, I have a very hard time seeing it.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        That’s a good question, Jason. Certainly by the time WWII rolled around, it was probably too late. Perhaps if Japan had been treated as a more equal partner by the Allies after WWI, they wouldn’t have left the League of Nations and given up on diplomacy.

        However, I think the real key to stopping Japan’s imperial ambitions without war would have been to avoid the policy of gunboat diplomacy in the 1800s. In that time, the United States sailed warships up to Japan and said “Trade with us on our terms, or we’ll shoot you.” Japan had no choice but to agree.

        Prior to that forced opening, Japan hadn’t perused war with another country for centuries. They saw what military expansionism was doing to them, not to mention China, and decided the only counter was to use their own military expansionism. And they turned out to be really good at it.

        Something else to consider. If the Allies had pursued a reconciliation policy with Germany after WWI, and that had prevented the NAZI rise and a second war in Europe, would Japan have been so eager to wage war? Without their German allies, they’d have been facing most of the world alone.

  12. Correct

    I think Genghis Khan may be offended that Gandhi is considered the only non-white Great Man.

    Jesus, Muhammad, & Buddha would probably let is slide.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Interesting side note though, how often do you see Jesus portrayed as anything but white nowadays?

      For serious though, I was not meaning to imply that there’s any shortage of influential people who aren’t white, just that we tend not to focus on them in the American historical narrative.

      • FrivYeti

        That’s a real complaint, but I feel like it’s a little unfair to lay it at the feet of the Great Man Theory, as opposed to at the feet of our culture as a whole (ironically!)

        I mean, frankly, I think that if you were to mandate teaching people about an entire culture’s social circumstances and mores instead of individual people they could latch on to, you’d see a lot fewer non-Americans popping up in your education system, not a lot more.

        • Cay Reet

          Perhaps the first step should be teaching more world history in the first place, instead of mostly focusing on the US history. Just saying.

      • ArthurRex12

        Jesus is and was portrayed in the post-crucifixion world as whatever nationality happened to be dominant in the area. In Asia he’s whichever Asian nationality holds power in the region (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, ETC.) In Italy during the Reinessance he was depicted as Italian. In the Middle East he was portrayed as Middle Eastern. The reason the Italian paintings are the ones we see the most is because the Italian reinnessance made them the most popular images of him at the time.

        • Cay Reet

          The reason why we see a lot of ‘Europeanized’ versions of Jesus all around the world, though, is that a lot of the missionaries were European or had a base in European culture (like having been converted by Europeans themselves).

          Yes, Jesus is usually depicted as one from the area where the picture was made. That doesn’t change, though, that he was of Middle Eastern origin and at least today he should be considered a Middle Eastern person. We are no longer in the Middle Ages, we know where he came from and what people in that area look like.

  13. Mandy

    This is a great article. Thank you for taking the time to put this together. These issues are reflective of society as a whole, and becoming consciously aware of them only helps us make better games : )

  14. Johnathan Preshaw

    What happened to that guy who was dumb? I want him to know he’s dumb.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      His post was removed because his “tard” comment.

      -Edited for simplicity.

      • Marik

        Thanks for verifying this is an echo chamber before any people who’ve lived their lives waste time commenting.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Also, I removed your original comment because it was out of context now. Hope you don’t mind.

  15. Johnathan Preshaw

    I haven’t decided yet. Will update after pondering.

  16. Kristen

    The author of this article is a goddamn idiot. Not every facet of life is something to get offended by. SJW dumbasses can’t let anyone have any fun, even in the privacy of their own homes with a few close friends sat round a table.

    • Johnathan Preshaw

      (Minor edit to remove personal comment)

      Author never told you what you can and can’t do, just talked about patterns that exist in table top gaming, weather or not you choose to listen to it is entirely up to you. Go hog wild with your orc murdering! I know I do!

      At least come up with some sort of actual rebuttal beyond “I FEEL ATTACKED BY THIS.”

      Maybe talk about some great people whose influences were truly independent of outside factors, or find some studies indicating social ties aren’t important. Just fucking substantiate your claims instead of assuming someone is ramming moral demands down your throat. You can play whatever the hell you want, ain’t nobody stopping you.

      • Johnathan Preshaw

        Ayn Rand would be appalled at your lack of ability to objectively prove your claims.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Hey Randfan, while I super appreciate that you’re willing to go to bat for me and think you make some great points, I did have to edit out the personal comment at the top. That sort of thing is against our comments policy.

      • Johnathan Preshaw

        I would also be interested in proof that America was devoid of human societies before the west landed on it.

        And to be clear, you can still have a story about people exploring populated lands, because it’s still discovery for them, just making all the natives murderous savages is dumb and boring, make it objectively interesting. Also add cats. Cats are objectively the best. I can prove it.

      • Johnathan Preshaw

        While I appreciate the autocratic power you wield over your articles, I find censorship of any kind over free speech to be unconstitutional.

        A formal complaint will be lodged.

        • I, User

          That’s not how the constitution works. The people at Mythcreants own the site, so they get to decide what kinds of comments they want and what sort of things can be said in them. No-one’s putting you in jail or making you face any legal consequences for your comment and you can start your own website and say whatever you want and Oren and Chris will have no way to stop you.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Well, of course cats are objectively superior. We can all prove that if we weren’t covered in so many cats.

        • Cay Reet

          Easiest proof: cats have never voted a dictator into office.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        And this here is that comments policy I was talking about. https://mythcreants.com/comments-policy/

    • Josh

      This is a thoughtful and probably experience-based article, for which I am sure the author has a lot of fun playing and developing intricate conflict webs and diplomatic issues that must be really interesting to play. If you don’t have the capacity to go beyond a barbarian-style of play, you can just go ahead with your preferred styles, while others -including myself- consider the author’s excellent claims, and use out of it whatever SUGGESTIONS that may improve our own games. You know, by using our critical thinking feats.

      Also, isn’t Kristen comment as personal as RandFan’s?

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        You gotta be careful Josh, I might come into your house and hold your dice bag hostage until you agree to play the way I want you to.

  17. Johnathan Preshaw

    There is your problem right there. Respect is earned, Kristen did nothing to indicate she deserved respect, her argument was unsubstantiated ranting and until she comes up with better she will get none.

    However, in according with the local laws I will not express my contempt directly anymore.

  18. Steven Test

    After reading this and based on my more than twenty years of playing and writing RPGs I can only conclude that, for whatever reason you have almost entirely missed the point and have no clue to offer. Whether this is because of the style of your DMs or groups or the game systems you’ve chosen I do not know. The only advice I can offer is the etch-a-sketch approach. Forget everything you think you know and start over. I mean this sincerely and with good intent so please try not to get offended and actually consider what I am suggesting.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey man, have you seen some of the other stuff people have been posting here? If I was going to get offended that someone thought I didn’t know what I was talking about, my head would have exploded by now.

      I remain confident in my assertions, but the concern is appreciated.

  19. Berin Kinsman

    Great article. I think too many roleplaying games lean too heavily on these tropes, many of which were prepetuated by early pulp and fantasy fiction. If nothing else, calling these things out shows the opportunities to be found by going in a different direction and being a little more original worldbuilding and game design. I’ve bookmarked this as reference for some of my own projects.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Alternatively, I could be someone who either hates roleplaying games or has never played roleplaying games. We must never forget those possibilities.

      But I am glad you enjoyed the post, and felt motivated to comment on it! Makes my day a little brighter.

    • Charles Batchelor

      A lot o these points hing solely on the type of RPG game you are talking about and the type of game being ran. Star Trek – most of these points are mute as it’s a game that at it’s core isn’t violent. D&D, well you are playing a medieval style game where most of the bad guys are people who either greet you as friends, enslave you, kill you, or eat you, not necessarily in that order. Try to find a culture that was like that at one point. I don’t =know what type of games you have ever played but most of mine may start like what was described but morph into the Diplomacy type with all the intrigue you talk about. Why is that, because the characters become the leaders of their society, they become something special, the whole point of the game.

  20. Haplo22

    While I don’t agree 100% with everything in this comment, and I do not play in this style, I do have to say it does make me think of how to construct a game as a DM/GM.

    I have been a part, and have ran games where there is a lot of generational players, and that the lands they have been in have been well established with main roads, and just “Trouble areas” that are part of the adventure, and places that have been cleared by other players. We have done whole mystery based adventures, where there is zero damage dealt, and certain damage means your character is alive, but unplayable has to retire (which can play into the multi generational world of players)

    But while the article is a bit stereotypical and generic, it does help to keep the mind fresh on how to make a world sustainable and not just hack and slash

  21. Moses Wildermuth

    For me, this article cut both ways. I found some of it relevant and have already implemented fixes and some other parts relevant but don’t like any of the proposed “fixes”. The rest completely changes the flavor and nature of the game itself. I only ever play old-school (A)D&D style fantasy and Gamma World post apocalypse. So my comments will reflect that system bias.

    1) what you call great man syndrome is what I call being a hero. I always try to inspire my players to run their characters like heroes and not murder-hobos. I can’t actually stop them from being murder hobos, but I provide scenarios that require a range of possible actions for success, including justifiable combat and looting, but also diplomacy or stealthiness or running away to fight another day is sometimes the best course of action and a smart group will figure that out. I do not allow evil PC’s anymore, so that also kinda cuts down on the number of murder hobos in a party. I’ve actually heard of groups of players that after destroying the humanoids in the caves of chaos, turned on and destroyed the people at the keep (module B2- keep on the borderlands). Now, that’s just wrong on so many levels, but it shows that some players will do it, if they figure out that it offers the best reward for the least amount of risk.

    2) Social ties- this one I agree with. I always help my players write a back story for their character. It’s as detailed as the player wants it to be, within reason, but at minimum has current status of mother and father (living, dead, etc), number of siblings, and hometown. Some characters such as Wizards, Druids and Priest have a professional group of their peers as well as mentors, that sometimes have their own agendas they push on the character.

    3) The Explorer thing. well, this is where alignment starts to come up. You could take away alignment. I have heard of many who do not use it. But the 9 point alignment system is so ingrained into (A)D&D that removing it from the system would create a different game altogether. From gods and their priests to the nobles and commoners, everyone’s actions are determined by their alignment. My other favorite game, Gamma World, has never had alignments but rather the characters join groups of like minded people (and thus also form another social tie). In Gamma World a character’s actions are guided solely by the current circumstances and his interpretation of the goals his group espouses. Actually the groups are not mandatory and if not a member of a group, the character will be guided only by his own conscious (like the real world). Gamma World gives the creatures some standard personality traits, but it’s not set in stone like alignments are. One group of Badders may be a raiding party of cut throat bandits attacking whatever moves along the road, that just happened to be the PCs this time, but the next group of Badders could be “explorers” willing to trade items they found in the local ruins. You really never know what to expect in a game without an alignment system, but you also don’t have Paladins and Priests and gods either.. The 9 point alignment system drives most of the action in (A)D&D and I can’t think of a way around it.

    4) Another point I can agree with. Again Gamma World has a fix. All characters and creatures have a good amount of Hit Points to begin with and get only slightly stronger with each level increase. To implement this into (A)D&D is something I have considered, but haven’t tried yet. It would definitely change up the dynamics and may not work without some other major refits.

    5) I agree that to make combat a more scary and less attractive option, by all means add hit locations & wound effects, with consequences. I did this with Gamma World, and it is one of the changes I see accompanying an (A)D&D where a 1st level fighter might have 100 hit points instead of just 10 and the common orc could have up to 80. My combat wound effects turned out to be a little too good the second time it was play tested, and I have to dial it back a bit. Again, see #1, the characters are heroes, so you don’t want serious injuries all the time and the crippling injuries should be extremely rare, but just enough of a threat that the characters think twice before attacking everything they see.

    As another poster mentioned, unhinging XP from combat is an idea, but rewarding XP equally whether combat, stealth or diplomacy were used is a better good way. In a game that already has no winners (or worse, you feel like a winner any time your character survives the session), players crave the rewards along the way. If combat is the only way to get XP, then that is what they will choose first, always. If you completely unhinge XP from combat and reward it for some other actions instead, the players will naturally choose that option more often. If you then also remove alignments and there are no natural enemies only friends we haven’t met yet, and while we’re at it add a scary realistic combat system, well- then you’ll find you have to use a cattle prod to get them to fight anything because there simply isn’t any reward in doing so.

    I can already here my players saying- “The 4 of us..you say. Stop the Vikings from sacking the village- you say? I don’t think so. Too risky, We could get hurt and then what would that solve. Besides, Wilm is still limping and nursing three fingers on his sword hand from the last fight we foolishly got ourselves into. We should stick around until the Vikings are gone and try to help the survivors. We’ll get XP for that, right?”

    I’m sure I missed a few discussion points, but that is the gist of how I see it.

    If you actually made it to the end of my post, you get 250XP and 100gp. ::)

    • Randalthor66

      First: Go Gamma World!!

      Second: I get what is being said in the article, but it really is just an overall cultural aspect as opposed to a specific gaming one. Sure, we could all be more sensitive to a wide variety of subjects, but at the end of the day, what consenting groups do in their games is up to them. If you join a group and they play in a way that you don’t like or makes you uncomfortable, leave and find one that doesn’t.

  22. Corsarius

    Role-Playing allows us, the effectively powerless, to feel powerful (this was particularly the case when ‘geek’ was very uncool and the individuals playing RPGs were usually small/week/nerdy). Thus, the choice to overcompensate was normal. Why play an ugly guy when you can play a paragon of heroic good looks? Why worry about social situations when all you need is a sword?
    Even today, role-playing is much more about escapism than it is about reality. If I want reality, I have a front door that leads me to that. I think that the author has forgotten the reasons that these games exist, and who they tend to cater to.
    To elaborate:
    1) The Great Man Theory.
    Absolutely, we teach that Great Men/Women tend to lead. It’s really about leaders. Would Hitler have risen in Germany, had not the Treaty of Versailles created such resentment? Probably not. These folk are symbols of that time of history, though. The author then goes on to be dreadfully PC and say how they are mostly male and white (although even in our culture, this is changing), then commits seppuku on his own argument by mentioning Gandhi twice. While our (ie: western) culture was largely male/white dominated throughout history (and if it’s, Europe/European-style fantasy, then of COURSE it’s going to be white). That’s not necessarily the case for other cultures that have entirely their own heroes/leaders that we’ve not even heard of (Indira Gandhi is a pretty good example).
    2) Social Ties Don’t Matter
    PCs are basically cartoon characters. Even the most realistic is not all that real. You can’t play someone with an IQ of 450 if your own IQ is equal to your combined shoe size, no matter how hard you try. It’s even tougher for the GM, who has to juggle dozens of characters, abilities, rules, NPCs and his players. A good GM can create other characters, but, like Chekov’s Gun, they always will have a purpose. Anything that’s developed will usually have some sort of point. Anything that’s not developed will be a throwaway villager with a funny accent or hat.
    It’s up to the GM to make sure that his/her players have a responsibility to one another, a reason to be adventuring (which can then turn into more RP) and an association with others concurrent to his character sheet. If you’ve got a high diplomacy/charisma, then it’s likely you’ll be using it. If you’re not, then the GM might dock a few points here and there.
    I tend to make players produce an a4 sheet of character background before we even start gaming. It makes the characters more real than just statistics on a page.
    3) The Explorer Fallacy
    Yep. It’s always been the way that ‘wild unexplored lands’ tend to have people living there already. Australia, PNG, and deepest, darkest Africa are good examples.
    It’s mentioned that people intruding on Orc lands are ‘exploring’ and tend to do so without repercussion, but sometimes that’s the whole point to the game. It’s a game, and sometimes the terms need to be deliberately simple.
    Fighting Fantasy’s Titan deliberately turns this on its head mentioning a great battle between courageous human fighters and despicable orc farmers, who clearly enraged the humans by farming otherwise unused land for several generations.
    But mostly, villain races are socially and culturally so different from our own that their overall alignment is ‘evil’. Then again, if you’re going around killing orc babies, then your GM is probably going to drop you from that Lawful Good alignment your paladin so covets.
    4) That Which Does Not Kill You Makes You Stronger
    Quite true. A way to emphasise the ‘score’ of the game is to increase in experience. An increase in XP makes you a better player. Who the heck wants to keep on playing once your character starts dropping stats with every victory? The only games I’m aware that does this is Streetfighter the RPG (where your fighter will lose rankings after losing fights), and the Songjuicer OCC in Rifts Australia, who initially becomes quite powerful, but as the power takes its toll he ages and withers.
    The author mentions that real people will become scarred mentally and physically, but RPG characters always bounce back. Well yeah. So do protagonists in films and novels. It’s what protagonists do. Imagine a superhero RPG ported into real life? The first guy who gets hit by someone who can project fire is going to be horribly scarred for life, but in Marvel or DC, people just shrug off those hits and stay model-like beautiful regardless.
    Gaming is just the same. You’re telling a story where the players are the protagonists. XP is the score (some would say gold is, but XP is forever). Increased stats are the carrot that keeps you playing.
    5) Violence Is The Ultimate Solution
    If you’ve read this far, then you’ll know my answer: It’s a game, and it’s been overly-simplified into good/evil black/white duality. It’s a sad state of affairs when a heavily-armed group of PCs gets all the way into a trap-and-monster-infested dungeon and out again by having a nice chat and a cup of tea with everything they meet (although it would be fun in certain cases). In my Heroes Unlimited game, which by its very nature is a solved-by-violence game (how often do superheroes use their heads, except as an extra fist? Even the ‘smart’ ones tend to blow stuff up a lot more than is healthy), heroes are working for an agency that then has franchises in each major city. In our case, I use our home city because we all know the landmarks and locations. So the heroes work for the city council. You’d better hope like hell your insurance is paid up if you have earthquake powers, or smash up the town hall. While the city council will take justified power use into consideration, it’s one reason why (in my game) all superhumans must be registered. The point being, though combat is a major part of role-playing-games in general, you can think around it and put limiters on it, while still being combat-heavy. If you take that out, then your RPG is not going to attract too many players. The only game I can think of that does this is the Dr Who RPG, where diplomatically talking will halt combat and everyone listens and talks (combat has the lowest initiative. Think how many times the doctor says ‘stop!’ and the Daleks stop their rampage and just sit about listening to him yabber on instead of vaporising him. Works in the show, works in the game).
    .
    In the end, it’s a game. It’s a highly simplified escape from reality into a pre-made world of conflict and violence with easily-gained rewards. It makes epic heroes out of the players, and showers them with love, wealth, and respect. If you want to play reality instead, then put the books and dice away, open your front door, and discover your character sheet is inside you all along. Oh, and stop writing bad blogs about RPGs not being realistic. That’s important too.

    • Charles Batchelor

      Could not have said it better myself…I didn’t as clearly seen by my post.

  23. Lev Lafayette

    A good article that engages in the relationship between game design and the ideas that these designs embody. Those who write off the importance of this association are probably simply not aware of how emancipatory cultural criticism is applicable here, as it is with film, art, literature, & etc.

    However, I do think that the article could elaborate on alternatives. For example, to avoid the the worst aspects of “The Great Man Theory of History” in gaming, scenario design could emphasize dynamic conditionals that arise from PC action (or even lack of action). It still allows for the PCs to be the protagonists of the story being told, but it prevents NPCs being static balls of inertia waiting to be prodded.

    A previous poster made the very sensible remark that when in-game progression (e.g., experience points) are awarded for violent conflict resolution then other forms of conflict resolution tend to be overlooked, if only from a pure gamist agenda; “kill the monsters, take their stuff, go up a level.”

    Some allow for equal experience or other game benefits from different forms of resolution, and have at least equal dedication in the game system to resolving such matters. Of course, it is not as tactically exciting, but properly integrated it can strategically even more powerful, if the game has a social relationship and reputation system. The HeroQuest RPG immediately comes to mind as an example.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Those are some great suggestions, Lev. Have you ever tried the Duel of Wits from Burning Wheel? IT and other systems like it allow for the more tactically minded of us to also enjoy social conflict resolutions.

      • Lev Lafayette

        I know Burning Wheel, and have read it through a few times but alas never have had a chance to play (although I did run several sessions of its younger sibling, Mouse Guard).

        Another game which recommends a tactical approach to social conflicts – but alas with less elaboration than physical conflict – is Agon.

        On this though, I would be interested in a game where “prejudice” was a difficulty that prevented both parties in communication from reaching a common goal of understanding. Now that would be an interesting mechanic!

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Oh man, ya it would be. Hmm… you could probably adhock something like a trait “Doesn’t Hold With Those Green Skinned Devils” or something similar that would impede social interactions. New WoD and L5R had special character flaws that just represented your character being prejudiced against some group for some reason.

        But I’d love to see it built directly into the mechanics.

  24. Dakin

    I read your article but disagreed with it. My response is http://lostdelights.wordpress.com/2015/01/03/five-destructive-myths/ And now, back to the fantasy city I’ve spent the last 4 weeks building (i.e. “social ties”).

  25. MythofMonsters

    An interesting if misguided article. Many of the issues you bring up are more one of real world issues that just don’t apply as we are talking make believe. The real problem I have with your conclusions is that with the variety of games available, they only apply to some of them. There are lots of systems that do just what you suggest should be done. You even mention some of the ones who do so. This breaks down your own arguments as there are systems that don’t perpetuate your ‘Destructive Myths’. This article feels more of an attack on certain specific systems you don’t like than RPGs in general.

  26. Mike O.

    Your article drips with leftist propaganda which is ruining this country. I for one will not be altering my playing style. I happily use all of the “destructive myths” in my games and shall continue to use them.

  27. Johnny 5071

    I feel like most of these complaints are specific to some editions of D&D, but don’t apply to rpgs as a whole.

    An easy example is to compare #5 to a system like GURPS 4th Edition.

    I think #1, #2, and #3 can be addressed with story telling, writing, and a conversation among the group about what style of game they want.

    To some extent, I do relate to this article. However, I wouldn’t paint rpgs as a whole with the same brush (and you did provide examples of games which do things differently.) I would say that many games in the d20 family of systems which have the D&D style levels push some of these ‘myths’ pretty heavily, and it’s a big reason why I explored other gaming systems, but I don’t think it’s accurate to say that rpgs as a whole perpetuate the myths detailed in the article.

  28. FoolOfATook

    This article had great potential. The “destructive myths” that are somehow “perpetuated by role playing games” are not at all inherent to the game system. Only in a very few cases (insanity mechanics in Call of Cthulhu) do the rules of the game actually push things one way or another.All of these “problems” are the result of the DM-group dynamics.

    They’re just unsophisticated collaborative story telling that can be improved on *if the group wants to do that*. Calling them “destructive myths” is just listicle clickait trash, to put it bluntly. I’ve seen articles written on pretty much the same topic, but it didn’t have the soap-box moralizing and so it was a far more powerful article.

    Drop the judgmental social justice nonsense, and present the same information as a tool to improve the overall gaming experience. Nothing is gained by trying to convince people that what is no more than a less-than-optimal role playing experiences is actually destructive.

    • FoolOfATook

      Minor addendum:

      It’s one thing to encourage DMs and players to think about if these “destructive myths” are part of their gaming experience. Encourage them to consider whether or not this is a deliberate choice of style. If they want to do better, then offer your great advice on how to make it better. But whether or not it’s a choice is irrelevant to the fact that calling these “destructive myths” and peppering the article with Moral Judgements is “problematic”.

  29. Johnny 5071

    second thoughts:

    I think there are some really good pieces of advice in this article. I think the first reaction for many people was to skim through and get upset without reading all of what you had written. There are some very legitimate complaints about common rpg story-telling styles and mechanical styles.

    Though, I’d again say that many of them are isolated to a handful of systems.

    I also think that part of the battle is the society we live in. It’s hard to find people who want a deeper and more engaging experience. We live in an era of smartphones, Facebook, and various other things which have trained our brains to more shallowly and casually take in information so as to move along to the next thing more quickly.

    A good example of that is the most recent Hobbit movie. While I’m sure it will make plenty of money and be a commercial success, I came away from Battle of The Five Armies highly disappointed due to the shallowness of the story. The movie looked fantastic visually, and there were a ton of cool special effects, but the substance of the story was lost. However, I suspect most people will love it based on a combination of name recognition and being mesmerized by the cool special effects.

    • Charles Batchelor

      You will find that it’s just like the book it’s taken from, published in 1937.

  30. Yves

    I’m sorry to say, but each and every one of these problems has to do with poor GM’s, not rpg’s. A good GM will never make the characters into gods, will never make violence the only means of solving a problem and will always make a compelling story that is about the people, not the treasure.

    Just seems to me like you’ve really only had shitty GM’s rather than a good one.

    A good gm will make every single thing that a character does have a cause and effect, no matter how small it will happen. Whether it is having the town guard follow the adventurers because an innocent person got killed during a fight, or having a bounty hunter follow them because they blame the heroes for the death of their daughter. It’s very ignorant to put the blame on the RPG’s themselves when it’s the game master’s job to run the RPG.

    • Johnny 5071

      Personally, I agree with a lot of your post. I do believe a lot of the issues presented can be handled by the DM.

      That being said, I do think there are some mechanical choices that some systems make which push a game more in one direction or the other.

      For example, some editions of D&D have a very vertical structure which is based around gaining XP and leveling up. That structure continues to stack numbers on top of numbers and promotes what I would describe as a more linearly advancing game. There have been plenty of times when I was playing 3rd Edition (or even Pathfinder) and wanted to invest in the character of my character by buying a business or helping a NPC, but chose not to because it took away from resources that the game system was built around assuming I had at a certain level. Wanting to invest in those out-of-combat things hurt my character’s ability to function in combat. That matters because combat is one of the primary conflict-resolution methods that the system is built around.

      In contrast, there are plenty of other systems in which breadth of play is supported; for a lack of better words, the games are more horizontal in how characters progress as opposed to the more traditional vertical structure of something like D&D. Rather than gaining a level and new combat abilities in such systems, you might instead gain allies, social regard, or a variety of other things; what the character can do and how they are connected to the world expands in ways that aren’t so heavily tied to the vertical stacking of more combat numbers.

      Can I gain allies and such in a game like D&D 3rd? Yes, yes I can, but let’s look at that for a second. Let’s say I decide to take the Leadership feat and start attracting followers. That’s cool from a story perspective, but, realistically, no amount of low level followers will likely come even close to helping my character face challenges which are suitable for the level of my character. A high level PC can pretty easily defeat an entire army of low level NPCs. …and, yes, I’m aware of stories like Tucker’s Kobolds; that sort of ingenuity as a DM does help the problem, but it doesn’t change that there are hardwired mechanical aspects of the system which make some methods of character advancement and conflict resolution far more desirable than others.

      Even among D&D there are differences; while there are also issues I have with 4th Edition, one of my favorite things about the edition is that it lessened the power curve between levels. There wasn’t such a huge change when going from one level to the next; it was easier for creatures to stay relevant for longer. 4th still does have some problems inherent in the mechanics of the game which bother me and push toward a specific style of play, but I’m mentioning it to showcase that “ze game did not remain ze same” despite what the marketing slogan was during its release.

      There are other games which don’t even have levels at all, so the vertical stacking I mentioned quite literally does not exist in those systems. Sure; as mentioned, your character might gain new abilities and resources, but you rarely advance to a point where you’re immune to the world around you. For example, in a GURPS 4th Edition game, I might very well be a powerful Dungeon Fantasy Knight, and maybe I can slay several goblins at a time, but being a jerk and turning the entire town against me is still a problem because even low point mooks can still hit and harm me. It might take a lot of them to bring me down, but it still remains within the realm of possibility; in contrast, my high level D&D Fighter laughs in the face of entire armies because they likely will never even come close to hitting my armor class. What I’m trying to say here very closely ties into what the author lists as #5.

      D&D 5th Edition has addressed that to some extent with the idea of bounded accuracy. That has helped some, but the system is still young, and I’m starting to see a few aspects of gameplay that are starting to be of concern. I still think 5th has improved a lot of things, but I don’t have enough experience at high level play yet to have a fully developed opinion.

      Even choice of dice can very heavily change the mechanical parts of a system and how those parts interact with the story. Star Wars: Edge of The Empire relies on dice which don’t even have numbers on them; the dice are more geared toward a sort of narrative play. It’s a mechanical choice which (I feel) very heavily changes the feel, tone, and style of the story. Likewise, there are choices in game time design such as to use a flat roll (such as a d20 ) or multiple dice for a bell curve (such as 3d6.) Those choices also have an influence on the feel of the game and what player expectations are from the perspectives of their characters.

      • Yves

        You bring up a good point, but yeah I always think that a good GM will be able to deal with those issues. Yes 3rd was pretty much aimed at violence, but there are plenty of other RPG’s that are not D&D and 5th has done a fairly good job of dealing with that as well.

        The Tiamat campaign that they introduced did a very good job of showing that violence isn’t always the solution, and while your party is important, you’re still a fairly insignificant cog within the giant world that is Faerun.

      • JakeS

        A good GM will be able to compensate for very nearly any system flaw short of outright unplayability.

        But the flip side of that is that successful system design cannot be merely “a good GM can un-break it. With a little elbow grease and a lot of thinking on her feet.”

        Best-practice system design should free up the GM’s wetware cycles to craft compelling narratives. It should not require the GM to spend wetware cycles on breaking the system out of the system writers’ unexamined narratives.

        Every gaming group will have its own preferences, and modify the systems it uses accordingly. But surely we can aim a little higher than “not so broken a clever GM can’t fix it.”

    • Charles Batchelor

      A prime example is the gaming group I’m in now (we’re playing D&D 5e) just recently chased a young green dragon away from the area (Yes, 4 3rd levels decided that attacking and killing a green dragon was a good idea and came within 12 HP of pulling it off!) Well sometime in the future, we all know we’ll be seeing him gain, why? because actions have consequences.

    • Lev Lafayette

      I understand where you’re coming from with regards to the role of the GM (although I will differ on “a good GM will never make the characters into gods”, as I have done exactly that in the past – I once started the characters as gods – they inadvertently invented atheism as a result), however and this gets back to a classic saying: “system is important”.

      Where there is in-game logic towards particular outcomes, either the GM has to rewrite the rules or witness game play drift towards the biases in-built to the game system. Sometimes that can make great narrative sense (for example, the relationship between Mythos Knowledge and Sanity in Call of Cthulhu). In other cases, it can simply encourage some fairly unpleasant norms (e.g., character advancement through killing sapient beings and taking their stuff – whilst retaining a morally “good” alignment!).

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Yeah, a good GM can overcome problems in a system if they work hard enough at it, but better to play a good system in the first place. Usain Bolt would still be really fast even without good running shoes, but you don’t see him sprinting across the finish line in clogs.

        • Cay Reet

          If you look at the comic ‘Knights of the Diner Table’ (old by now, I know), you’ll find how a group which only wants the easy, violent solution can work around whatever the GM does to lead them another way. I only say ‘Pavillon.’

  31. Ms. Reality

    This is the most stupid thing I have ever read.

    You need therapy.

  32. Softy

    This was an enjoyable read. Admittedly, I think a lot of these suggestions will rest on the DM: fleshing out the world and creating a complicated context rather than making a clear-cut “Go here, kill the bad guys” string of encounters addresses a lot of these but is mostly out of the hands of an individual player.

    Still, if you want to make a really good campaign, this is the sort of thing you should consider and look out for.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Glad you liked it!

      You’re right that a lot of the solutions boil down to “know this can be a problem, and put in the work to make sure it doesn’t happen.” Developing the setting is a particular benefit.

      I also think there are some systems that facilitate solving these problems better than others. Most of them I already listed in the post.

  33. Tiger Tomcat

    Betcha Oren’s games when and if he DM’s are boring as all get out. I would like to to see what happens if you try to reason with a Orc or Drow war party. Also don’t blame the games put the blame where it really should belong on the DM for not fleshing out the world. And please stop trying to apply your SJW feel good scheiss to WHAT IS SUPPOSE TO BE A FUN DIVERSION.

    • Cay Reet

      If the DM decides the orc or drow party has an interest which can better be served by not immediately trying to kill the PCs, I can easily see that one working. It’s all down to the DM, not to the NPCs.

  34. Clementine

    Hi,

    I really liked your article, it articulated an aspect of my dissatisfaction with the role-playing I’ve experienced. I’ve never run my own rpg, toyed with the idea of it at most but I did just come out of a two year Pathfinder campaign that was probably the most profoundly unsatisfying long term social activity I have ever participated in. Much of the issues came from the GM’s style of play but many of those issues couldn’t have arisen in a system and quest that better accounted for different play styles.
    It’s hard to summarise two years but I would say it felt at times that it was the group against the GM, the GM was using a ready-made quest and was unwilling to deviate from the details of it even when doing so would have massively improved the experience.

    I find it odd that people think the combat aspect is as important as it is (from a quality of experience perspective as opposed to a plot progression one) I never learnt much about my party members when we rolled dice to murder things, the majority of their character was built out of the exchanges between players describing their character’s views on the world, what they value and what they hated. It was unfortunate that so little of the actual game-play seemed to support the development of these characters.

    Anyway, I guess I focussed only on the ‘violence is THE solution’ aspect your articles discussed but it was predominantly the focus of the two year campaign and has left me weirdly jaded about role-playing despite my newness to the genre as a whole.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I’m glad you liked the article, but also sad to hear about your experience with Pathfinder. Roleplaying games are a huge part of my life, so I can related to a bad campaign. I’m impressed you stuck with it so long!

      Just based on what you wrote, I would strongly encourage you to run your own game. Sometimes that’s the only way to play the games we want to play. There are plenty of systems out there that don’t overemphasize combat. Mouse Guard is my personal favorite, but you do have to like being a mouse.

      Good luck on your future games!

  35. Agent Cody Danks

    I agree with several of your points, EXCEPT at your mention of Shadowrun not doing anything to disincentivize murdering security guards. In the Runner’s Companion of Shadowrun’s 4th Edition, one of the main words of advice on keeping Corps off your tail is to not kill anyone during a run, as then they’ll be obligated to hunt you down for the sake of employee morale and company reputation.

    • Tiger Tomcat

      Actually with Shadowrun the lower profile you can keep when doing a run the better, specially when you are doing a merc run cause nothing like pissing off not only the targeted Corp but also the Corp you are working for cause you screwed the pooch.

    • Agent Cody Danks

      Here’s a citation for my point, just in case:

      http://puu.sh/e2pLb/cde4b101cb.JPG

  36. EasyEight

    Btw, you bring up some good points on GM style and world formation. You can make your world as simple or complex as you want, and I enjoy creating backstories and cultures/NPCs to bring the world alive, make it a sandbox world. I always used a behind-the-scenes event system in which things grand and small happen to influence the world the players inhabit. In one Cthulhu campaign I had several people drive the actions of some of the cultist/baddies and pulp villains through side games, that would then end up impacting the main play group. And as a “sandbox” GM the more you know your setting the more you can improv stuff when the players do what they want to do. So when in a loopy turn of events the players ended up in the Dreamlands and decided they wanted to open a coffee shop in the City of Serranian and had to fight the Zombie Queen’s Sky Galleons to wrest control of a coffee growing island in the Fantastic Realms, well, play on!!

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      But what do you do when they want to stop and build a coffee plantation? Have you seen the market value of these beans?

      • Johnny 5071

        My first character for D&D 5th Edition after the full version of the rules were released was Folgerz Valdez, a humble coffee merchant who had been swept into a life of adventure by the events around him during the Rise of Tiamat.

  37. Lizard

    “The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.”

    Thomas Babington Macaulay

    ’nuff said.

  38. morganne

    http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Derkholm-Diana-Wynne-Jones-ebook/dp/B008LUWY5A/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1420376717&sr=1-1&keywords=dark+lord+of+derkholm

    From your post, I think you would greatly enjoy this book. It pokes with a stick the tropes you mentioned to varying degrees and in a fairly hilarious read. This author is one of my favorites mainly for her awesome sense of humor and character development.

  39. Kelvix

    i quite likedyour article: clearly no one plays their character and includes the tedious about everyday life. Our heroes never need the toilet and their armour never rusts or even causes drowning. Our heroes never need worry a bout wives or children, mortgages or office politics. This is why we play them, to escape. What is perhaps most fascinating is what our escapism displays about the player: we appear to all want the life of white Privelege, (possible white male) where there are no barriers to success and no need for support (our robes need no laundering and we can carry the contents of a three bedroom house in our bags, from twenty bear carcasses to a fridge, not to mention bolts of fabric, bars of metal, disco balls and an armoury). We could cook a feast for twenty five in seconds needing nothing but ingredients and a campfire (no utensils or plates required). This is our fantasy that we can go anywhere do anything and need rely on no one and there are no barriers to success.

    Most of us have invisible barriers to successand this is our fantasy: that we too can have riches and freedom. That those examples irk are white and male is almost inevitable

  40. Chris Brady

    Maybe you’ve had this five issues in your games, but I’ve never had any of these sorts of incidences outside of what makes sense. After all, in the case of 2, social ties when you have roaming Fantasy Adventurers is difficult in a world where phones and the internet don’t actually exist, and where diseases and disasters could happen and the heroes would never know it happened. Not to mention that traveling takes months, even years to get back. But the moment the PC’s have a ‘base of operations’, they often do get social ties by the way of the inn patrons and workers (for example) that they are operating out of. You’ve all at least heard of stories where players attach themselves to an NPC that the GM had no idea that they would like, right? Happened in my games.

    I would like to address no. 1 separately because the idea that a social movement would have worked with out a leader, a focal point, is both laughable, and frankly, unrealistic. Gandhi didn’t make the Indian Independence movement work, it was his METHODS. If he had been another violent rabble rouser, odds are the movement would have been put down, violently, and we’d never have heard of it, other than as a foot note. Then again, it might have still worked. We don’t really know, do we. In the end, though, most of the major movements in social history had a visible pivot, something, or someone that initiated that change.

    As for 4. Strength is not just physical, it’s mental. And also, in Fantasy (Both medieval and superheroic) worlds in which healing allows one to completely regain their faculties, it’s just as unrealistic to have certain people with the right resources to be crippled for life. But again, it depends on your campaign and play style.

    In the end, this is a short sighted article that assumes that the author’s experience is universal. When it’s not. It’s unique to them.

    • Edward Turner

      Regarding the “Great Man,” issue: nobody’s saying that movements don’t have leaders. The problem is when we say that movements happen because of their leaders, exclusively. When you say the Indian Independence movement might have happened without Ghandi, you are agreeing with the author of the article! Historical context led to a situation when people were willing to fight for independence, and there was a clear opening for a leader and figurehead. Many people could have filled that role; in our world, Ghandi did.

      The problem is when we ignore the context; when we say that Ghandi was the guy who invented the Indian Independence movement, we’re devaluing the many thousands of other people who were involved and the history which led to that moment, all to focus on the single hero figure.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Well put, Ed. You summed it up nicely.

      • Chris Brady

        Are you telling me that ANYONE could have taken Napoleon or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King’s place in history? Really? I call shenanigans and revisionist history. And I repeat, it’s not just the ‘person’ that made these movements unique, it’s the actions that they took that made them memorable. Gandhi, and we all know this, was the first to truly use the ‘Peaceful’ protest to get what he wanted. If he had resorted to violence, he’d be another footnote, and a good chance that India might still be under British rule. Or not. We really don’t know, do we? At the end of the day, though, it’s not WHO they where, it’s WHAT they DID that makes noticeable. One man led, the rest followed.

        (I would like to point out that no gamer actually uses the ‘Great Man of History’ in Role Playing games. Simply because most RPGs are group affairs. You typically have 0-1 GMs, and 3-5 Players. That immediately removes the singular man, or woman, for that matter, as there have been great women in history.)

        The issue with this article is twofold. First, and most grievously, it assumes that we Role Players take these misconceptions and translate them into our daily lives. And frankly, I disagree right there. For example, I’ve never thought that violence has been the only or first choice in any situation, and most of the gamers I know, and some I’ve only peripherally met in various social and online gatherings also have the same experiences. We don’t fistfight or knife each other for that last slice of chicken during dinner. This also leads to my next statement.

        Secondly, it assumes all these are unique to roleplayers, and most of these are actually perpetuated by real life first, and we just take into Role Playing Games. Where did the ‘Great Men of History’ come from? Well, HISTORY. Secondly it also assumes that we cannot differentiate real life from gaming. And I’m sorry if you feel that way, but I’ve been able to tell the difference since I was at least 9 (Maybe not much earlier, I always was a bit of a late bloomer) but I know what’s real and what’s not.

        Finally, as an addendum, I am starting to get mildly annoyed at this sudden habit of using the Internet to shame ourselves about our hobbies, which gaming (and by that I mean from Cards to Boards to table top RPG all the way to Video Games, which I all love, by the by) seems to be fetishizing and shouting from the rooftops for all to see and hear. But not I. I love my hobby, I find it relaxing and fun, and it allows me to socialize in a way that the cesspit that High School was would never have let me done (in fact, it didn’t. Back in the 80’s and 90’s being a Geek/Nerd was not something you joined, like the Jocks or Preppies, or whatever these tribal groups are named now, but were put in, often against your will.) AND I LOVE IT.

        And I want everyone who games to not be ashamed of it. Articles like this do perpetuate the myth that every single gamer, everyone one of you who are reading this, are delusional basement dwelling loners, and likely single. And I disbelieve. I do not think that ANYONE of you are anything close to that stereotype. You are all too literate and frankly considerate to be that badly socialized.

        You are all literate, well-educated, in fact, I believe that everyone here is even better educated, because we use our minds and imaginations, and seek out new information, whereas most of the other non-RPG gamers out there are happy with their delusions and celebrity news. We want to know more, and we seek it out.

        We are Gamers, and we should be proud of it.

      • Edward Turner

        … no. Not anyone could have taken Napoleon or Gandhi or anyone else’s place; nobody is saying that. What we’re saying is that, if these figures didn’t exist, movements may still have taken place. Notable figures are still notable, and I’m not sure where you’re getting the impression that anyone disagrees with that, they just aren’t the sole factor in determining how events play out. Let me be clear: What you are arguing here is, in fact, the point that this article makes!

        As for your twofold issues, for the first, yeah, narratives you see play out time and time again do affect how you see the world. Thinking that playing a violent game makes you violent is an extremely simplistic and hyperbolic example, an argumentum ad absurdum, and you get no points for pointing out that life doesn’t work that way. A more realistic example is thinking about the ways in which games encourage us to think about conflicts in real life; do games encourage us to think that someone who disagrees with us is attacking us? Do they train us to see aggression where it doesn’t belong? Do they encourage us to think of social disagreements as verbal combats which we must win? These are real issues, which I see in many gamers that I know (and recognize in myself), that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

        For the second issue, I would suggest that you are assuming that the article is assuming these are unique issues to roleplaying. It doesn’t say that. It just says that these are issues in this particular media. Sure, some of them stem from larger societal issues, but that hardly invalidates the point that these are troubling narratives. Why would it?

        I have a serious, deeply serious question I would like you to ask yourself: Why do you think this article is trying to shame you? Because I don’t think it is. I’m not the author, maybe I’m way off base, but it seems to me that Oren loves this hobby, and because of this, wants people to think critically about it. Where is the suggestion that people shouldn’t be proud of being gamers? And I mean literally, can you quote a passage in the text which says anything of the sort? Because “If we really care about roleplaying games, we have to acknowledge their flaws in order to improve” is not an attack.

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Just wanted to say, you make my day Ed. But have you considered that maybe my gushing about how RPGs take us on marvelous adventures with friends was actually code for how much I hate RPGs? You can never be sure!

      • Lev Lafayette

        (Reply to Chris)

        >Are you telling me that ANYONE could have taken Napoleon or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King’s place in history?

        Not anyone, but someone. MLK, Gandhi, and Napoleon were all people who put their particular stamp on a historical situation and they were more products of that history than they were contributors, despite their impressive personal contributions. One could mention how Fred Shuttlesworth, Rosa Parks, Angela Davis, or even Malcolm X could have put a different twist on MLK. Or how Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Jawaharlal Nehru, or Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan would have been alternatives to Gandhi… And I’m sure you know of those who could have been alternatives to Napoleon.

        The point is, from a trivial reading of history there is a tendency only to remember a couple of names, rather than the dozens that could have just as easily been in their stead, and with a concentration on the individual concerned, rather than the social conditions that created the situation in the first place.

  41. Aaron

    Oren Ashkenazi, why are you not engaging in dialogue the detractors of your article?

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Well, first of all, look how many of them their are. I’d be here all day.

      Second, I’ve said what I needed to say on this topic. If I didn’t convince them, that’s their business. If someone posts a genuinely interesting question, like this one, then I’ll respond.

      I’m much more likely to respond to the positive posts because who doesn’t like being told they wrote a cool thing?

      • Chris Brady

        But it also means you’re closed to any possibility of learning something. Criticism isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it can help improve your thoughts. By not wanting to engage into anyone who has a different viewpoint seems awfully short sided and self-destructive.

    • Edward Turner

      Aaron, why do you feel that Oren needs to be engaging in dialogue with anyone? Nobody has a special right to a conversation.Nobody is entitled to a response.

      (It doesn’t help that a great many detractors amount to little more than “This isn’t true because it doesn’t apply to every single RPG out there!”, “This is stupid because I like the way my games work!”, or “This suggests that narrative tools can influence the narratives they create (and I don’t believe that, for some reason?)!”, all of which have been dealt with in the thread thus far.)

      • Oren Ashkenazi

        Something about the post calling me a stupid hippie was putting me off too, but I can’t quite figure out what it is.

      • Bertramn

        Ed, why do you feel that Aaron has a need to justify his feelings that lead him to the need of Oren engaging in dialogue?

        Nobody has a special privilege to hear a justification for anything from anyone.

      • Chris Brady

        Because that’s how a discussion is engaged? And by not, the author is claiming that everything in his post is objective fact and anyone saying otherwise is not worth listening to?

      • Edward Turner

        Bertramn: Haha, fair point.

        Chris Brady: Hyperbolic point. That’s how a discussion is engaged… in an Internet comment thread. By not doing so, the author is claiming that he believes in the things he posted and that Internet comment threads aren’t effective media for thoughtful discussion.

        Which, let’s be honest, they really aren’t.

  42. Iman Azol

    Violence can solve every problem. If you disagree, I will punch you in the face until you agree, or punch me back until I stop.

    Simplistic, yes.

    Violence is not the ideal solution to every problem, but enough violence will always be a solution.

    You must be a very boring person to game with. Is there anything in life that gives you joy?

    • Cay Reet

      Yes, violence solves all of your problems … until someone stronger comes around and solves the problem you pose to him with violence.

  43. everloss

    I’m disappointed. I came here with the express purpose of being outraged by someone expressing their opinion on something and I wasn’t outraged at all. I didn’t even feel like I was being personally attacked. What is the internet coming to?

    I don’t really disagree with any of the points you make. I just kind of feel that they’re unnecessary guidelines for anyone over the age of 16. Maybe I have too much faith in humanity, went to a decent high school, or am simply going by my own experiences, but then again, aren’t we all?

    I also don’t see what any of these really have to do with “social justice,” because, to me (and I only speak for myself), maturity seems to be the driving factor behind all of the points you’ve made. Which goes with my previous paragraph.

    This is the first I’ve heard of your blog, or of you for that matter, so I obviously have no preconceived notions going into this. Just next time, be sure to use stronger language, poor grammar, and a vile tone, so I know that I’m supposed to be offended, okay?

    Oh! One question, though. When you say that, “The problem arises when the game focuses exclusively on their actions, as if nothing else matters. You see this more in roleplaying games than in other stories because nearly everything is told from the PC’s perspective.” What exactly do you mean? And by that, what ‘I’ mean is that in an RPG session, going into what the villagers, or NPCs or a kingdom’s political ambitions means very little time to actually play. Novels and TV shows can do this (and still, they very rarely do) because they have the time and figurative space to do so.

    Once again, I think this goes back to maturity of the players and game masters; NPCs should always have motivations and backstory, which may or may not be made known to the players through play.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey man, if you’ve never had to play with anyone who had these problems, then good on ya. You’ve been more fortunate than I. All the same, I’ll try to be more incoherent in my next post. “Rabble rabble rabble-hate all games-rabble rabble.” I’m sure you can find something like that if you check my older articles.

      As for your actual question, I don’t believe that you have to choose between spotlighting your PCs and giving some some development to the rest of the world.

      It’s been my experience that you can do a lot with some dialog to the PCs, having the PCs witness important events, a short cutaway, etc. This works especially well if it’s ties directly into a PC’s story. If you want a PC to understand the Orc tribe, make their brother an Orc sympathizer. Or even do something cheesy like have an Orc save their life after a really bad die failure.

      Stuff like that. I’m not advocating for an entire session of NPCs spouting exposition, aint no one got time for that.

  44. Alby

    I must admit that you make valid points… However they are aimed wholly at the wrong issue… To say that Role playing games prepuate these myths is the same as blaming the sword for the soldiers work. A sword is a weapon… But without an individual to wield it it’s merely a non- sentient chunk of metal, it has no intent to kill… Hell it has no intent at all… And that’s the issue all of these “systemic issues” aren’t systemic. They stem from people. In my favorite campaigns we relied on diplomacy far more than we relied on violence, all our characters were for all intents and purposes real people with real families. The world we were living in was living and breathing and we as players were nothing more than people who exist in it. Were we powerful people? Yes were we “great wo/men?” hell no. Because the living breathing npc’s with backstory, family, likes, and dislikes who we stood beside were just as powerful as we were…. The only real “systemic issue” you pointed out was #4 it’s a very big part of rpg’s… But again an issue that can be fixed if people are good role player’s.

    • Cay Reet

      A sword is a tool, but a violent one. It has no use in a non-violent way. Unlike, for instance, a scythe, which can be used to kill or to harvest wheat. The whole ‘the weapon is not deadly, the wielder is’ is a nice instrument to stop any kind of discussion about the usefulness of weapons. If you make something which is only fit to kill and injure, you bring something into the world with the purpose of someone using it to do just that. You bring it into the world, because you know someone will use it like that.

      If your campaign was completely different, then good for you! But the systemic problems are inherent in many (but not all) RPG systems and in a lot of those which are popular and spread far (like D&D).

      The concentration on ‘great people’ and the idea that only person X can save the world puts everyone else into a position of uselessness. Why do the NPCs of that village need the heroes? Well, because they’re NPCs and not heroes themselves. But they have lived there for generations, so how have past generations dealt with the regular goblin problem? Perhaps they once had a treaty which wasn’t honoured any longer, but we’ll never find out, because violence is the best solution and everyone knows (especially that guy down at the pub) that you can’t talk to goblins. Oh, but squishing them is fun, of course.

      I think this article is something especially fledgling DMs should read and understand, because an experienced DM probably has come up with counters for most of those problems already. But that doesn’t mean the article is useless.

  45. Rowan WalkingWolf

    Spot on! I love this article, and have devoted so much of my life to bringing up these topics with fellow nerds. I’ve been intending to write a zine or essay for some time about just these issues, and I’ll certainly be referencing your piece here when I finally get around to publishing it.

    Two topics I’d add to your five that deeply irk me are these: 1. the Tolkienesque racism that pervades fantasy rpgs/fiction (e.g.: all Orcs are evil, all Elves are woodland archers, all Dwarves are alcoholic miners with beards and Scottish accents, etc.), and 2. the extreme pro-civilization & anti-indigenous propaganda that is omnipresent in fantasy gaming (i.e., the idea that all tribal peoples are evil, all goblinoids, kobolds, etc. are savages, thus equating hunter-gatherers in real life to hideous monsters, and so on). You briefly mentioned both these issues, but I’m looking forward to fleshing them out.

    Anyway, from a fellow critical gamer, cheers!

  46. Ahi

    I’ve played a lot of RPGs in the early 90s, have since written my own, and still occasionally meet up with buddies for a night of gaming.

    And I loved this article. I’m honesty surprised that anyone can take offense at it. Agree or disagree, being thoughtful about choices in your life (even entertainment choices) is never a bad a thing.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Nah man, clearly I have an agenda and either hate roleplaying games or have never played roleplaying games.

      But seriously, glad you liked the article, especially from a designers perspective.

  47. Widener

    You’re way off, and you have an agenda.

    You’re basically advocating for a deep simulationist play style, which is your personal preference, fine, but by the article title and prosecutorial tone you’re condemning all other modes of play. You have to know SOME theory, right? You do understand that people play games for different reasons (vertical power and challenges, character simulation, genre physics modeling, narrative and emergent story play, etc.), and that games try to effectively orient themselves to facilitate a certain blend of these goals, right? And that people aren’t WRONG for the way they have fun gaming. A person who likes to powergame and tweak character builds is just as valid as the person who likes to barter in plot points above character immersion, etc.

    Because you’ve just passed judgment on any non-simulationist player by insinuating they’re hopelessly violent colonialist, racist oppressors. It’s an ABSURD notion, but what makes it irresponsible is that you cloak your play preference propaganda in social justice topics, by painful stretches of interpretation (really? killing fantasy evil monsters makes me racist? having lots of hit points will make me seek out conflict in real life?), in what? some attempt to shame D&D players? Really really wretched.

    Look, I love simulationist games as much as the next guy, but who says you need a complex fleshed out world? Do you know how huge story gaming is right now? The last ten years has been the rise of narrativism, of emergent story, of mechanics that empower players to twist and invent the world on the fly. But your solidly grounded geopolitical dream of PCs who never travel so as not to subjugate goblins is the high water mark?

    And what’s wrong about violence in fantasy entertainment in the first place? I’m assuming your movie, book, and video game collection is free of conflict? Are you a moralist, are you trying to neuter entertainment of violence? I liked it better back in the early-‘80s when people in my Catholic school were telling me not to play the devil’s game. At least they were misguidedly concerned about my soul.

    Remember, I’m not judging you for the way you game. I’m saying it’s horrible for you to foist your preferences on everyone else by stating that their way of playing standard fantasy tropes are DESTRUCTIVE. Objectively destructive, is what you’re saying. Harmful. You’re equating them will allegations of systemic racism and genocide. (I can’t believe I had to type that just now.) Yes, historical fantasy and pulp tropes via Tolkien and Howard and the like have leaned on racist “otherness.” But have you cracked open a gaming book lately? Try D&D5. Half the heroes are POC, the women are empowered and fully clothed, there are elderly characters to combat ageism, and there’s a whole paragraph promoting LGBT characters. So now you’re going to champion equal rights for monsters? How far down the matrix of oppression must we go? It’s not that those topics aren’t important, it’s that they’re SO important that alleging them here betray all sane proportion do an injustice to real world problems. It’s gross because you use it as a cheap exercise.

    Besides, games aren’t beholden to provide a moralist practice arena for real life. We can play characters we aren’t in real life. Why are you trying to make gaming an expression or reflection of the real? Seriously, it’s twenty years too late to be posturing some simulationist superiority agenda. The hobby is more inclusive now. As a result, game design has flourished.

    Equating simulationism with morally superior play is a new tactic, I’ve not heard this one before. You’re creative. But don’t you see that by using this ploy, you’re actually EXCLUDING your fellow gamers? “Game like me or you’re a genocidal madman.” Wow, that escalated quickly!

    Your point #4 is antiquated. Haven’t you noticed the staggering amount of games that are out there? We’re 15 years into the PDF era. Because almost ALL games today have social mechanics of some sort, even the fantasy ones. Are you saying they don’t, or they should have more? Isn’t that up to gamers to employ? But again, who cares if my players want to negotiate humanely with the sadly misunderstood orc tribe? They aren’t wrong for wanting to slay them if I present them as cardboard evil, if that’s what’s fun for us.

    Hey, maybe you’ve had the displeasure of gaming with some groups that you didn’t like, but own up to human agency. The games usually aren’t the problem (unless their design is at odds with its own goals). So why are you proclaiming that RPGs themselves are perpetuating these destructive myths? Take a step back. You just admonished the gaming world for daring to have their characters TRAVEL. For real. Do you wish you could take that back? You just chided us for wanting high health because it’ll encourage us to seek adversity, and in real life bad things are always plain bad. Excuse me? Why are you even suggesting that our play at the table is likely to reflect on negative behavior in our real lives?

    I’m going to thumbnail your points so you can hear how they sound to someone who isn’t privileging a simulationist style or conflating fantasy for real life.

    #1. Playing powerful heroes will give you a savior complex. You shouldn’t be powerful. NPCs should be just as important. If you play someone who powerfully contributes to the game world, you run the risk of marginalizing smaller NPCs, or committing racism against elves and goblins and such.
    #2. Games don’t have enough social mechanics, or you play them incorrectly. You should always build relationships. Your character shouldn’t travel because then he can’t be around relationships.
    #3. You shouldn’t go exploring. When you explore, you disrupt indigenous people and monsters and end up oppressing them. Killing monsters is bad because they have their own cultures, and you’re committing genocide on orcs.
    #4. Gaining more power makes you falsely believe that you should strive to experience adversity in real life to become more powerful. But traumatic things are always bad and you should avoid them and not become a powerful hero.
    #5. Violent games are bad because they teach that violence is the only solution, and you’ll become more violent and never escape the cycle of violence.

    In the context of RPGs, this is Onion-level comedy (the old dead white men graphic, come on). Are you willing to debate this within a context of game theory and design? Had you prefaced it all by saying “this is how I like to game” or “here are some great tips for simulationist gamers who want to introduce new elements” I wouldn’t have an issue with it. But if you say my players are racist because they like killing evil monsters, and that responsible gamers who don’t want to destroy our hobby have to play socially conscious games of realistic sociological dynamics, then I’m going make you defend your points.

    • Bertramn

      Hear, hear!

      The contrast between the passively/actively aggressive tone of the article,
      and the presentation of furious comments as somehow coming out of nowhere, or not being justified at all, is extreme.

    • Sean

      I think you’re completely correct.

      As to the author’s agenda? It’s a simple click-bait title witch a bunch of terrible arguments set forth for the sole purpose of driving drama traffic.

    • GRamone

      This is one of the most cogent, well-written replies on here and I can’t help notice it’s one of the few the author decided not to answer.

  48. meonthissite

    This was very well written, too bad most RPGs don’t actually take the time to write this well or we’d have a very different gaming market. Some MMO’s have changed a bit over the years because they’ve discovered a growing movement of players that require a better quality of writing when it comes to the stories of their characters, but for the most part this still plagues even the MMO market.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      One phenomena that I’ve noticed recently is RPGs that talk a good game, but don’t really follow through in the rules. A lot of these games are very well written in their fluff material, like Dungeon World if you want a recent example, but the rules don’t support the prose.

  49. Liz

    I… disagree with almost EVERYthing on this list. And I have played SO many different role-playing games it’s not even funny. I have never run into anything like this, and I can’t help but think the author has only played D&D 2nd edition (which even minorly explores issues like that) or just had a terrible DM (or ST, depending on what your genre is).

    The point is, there are literally. Hundreds of RPs out there. There are independent games, and big budget games. There are games where you play angels and demons, where you can decide to play good or evil, even if your general class is decidedly good, or inherently evil. You are putting too serious a point on a game that is, essentially, a big world of make believe. By writing this article, you are pushing the point that we should be offended by something that is, in its inherent nature, innocent. I am kind of disappointed in you as well.

  50. Joe Velociraptor

    Others have cut down most of these points already quite well, and in general it just sounds to me like the author needs to find some decent gaming groups. There are plenty of folks out there who can take any system and play a game with socially responsible characters who solve problems diplomatically, respect the multiple viewpoints of many parties, and work to affect change through broader social efforts. It’s just a matter of experience.

    I could watch a few Michael Bay movies and then claim that all movies perpetuated the awful things I saw in his films… or I could watch different films, expand my perceptions, and not whine because the first thing I saw had problems.

  51. Cobra CAO

    Seems like the author is getting a lot of flak on this one. I’ll admit, I found myself going back and forth while reading it. The key points at the the 30’000 foot level I can agree with. I also think its unfair that it is assumed Oren simply did not play with the right groups.

    I saw several posts that even classic D&D does not suffer these issues. Oren makes an excellent point that 90% of the rules are based around the combat system. This would support his conclusion. That being said, when I sit down to play some D&D, its simply because I want to play a hero, release some stress by bashing in some baddies, and have my character become more powerful.

    However, this does NOT mean that a good GM does not work to expand the minor details – give the characters friends and family, give the carpenter personality. Give the Orcs personality! We are talking about a species that does have the capacity to work in a social environment and build complicated structures (like weapons). It is simply wrong to assume that they do not have their own motivations and feelings.

    D&D even went so far to show this by producing the Gazeteer “Orcs of Thar”. In this rule book we learn about the social goings of various demi-human races. It even included a war game between factions over resources and land. If a race can build and organize an army, understand resources and chains of supply, then it most certainly can develop friendships.

    We the players, should learn, that the blood released on the field of battle can have unseen repercussions. Why did the party go into a corporate office guns blazing? They could have climbed in covertly. Perhaps, on their way out they learn that one of those security guards 9 yr old son/daughter was just coming in to visit….

    Oren, thanks for the foods of thought. These may not be ideas that require immediate or obvious actions, but they are things a good DM/GM should at least be aware of. I’m not planning on adding Orc families to my dungeon crawls, but I will keep all of these ideas at the back of my mind while creating new scenarios. I suggest readers at least consider the points….

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Thanks for the response, but how did you get 30,000 feet up? Isn’t it cold up there?

      “We the players, should learn, that the blood released on the field of battle can have unseen repercussions.” This and the paragraph after it is perfect. I’m not against fight scenes and action, I just don’t like it when they happen in a vacuum.

  52. Terrence Nolan

    If any one is applying RPG themes to reality they need some serious therapy. The author is writing about a non issue really. RPGs are a form of entertainment and should not be looked as a social context beyond that. Really journalist can we actually focus on more important issues like economy for frigiing sake, then how my made up character blasting a made up creature race to smithereens is linked to me spreading my cultures propensity for violence. My god

    • Lev Lafayette

      Everyone applies the themes and narratives of their culture to their reality, whether it is literature, mythology, religion, films, theatre, music, and even RPGs, whether consciously or unconsciously.

      Aesthetic products inspire and invoke, we form attachments to them, we see idealised versions of our own reality expressed through the fantastic. If it didn’t do this, it wouldn’t be the least bit interesting. Hence, cultural criticism of what those themes and narratives represent.

  53. MrGameDude

    Should post this article at rpgnet, the mods there will make you their queen. Games are for fun. I don’t give a crap about the warm-fuzziness of the social lessons.

  54. voxmagi

    I kind of wonder if you’ve missed the key point of fantasy and other RPGs…they represent not a normative system of resolution for artificial problems…but a deliberately unrealistic and simplistic opportunity for gratification via means that, fairly obviously, don’t work in real life. That IS their selling point…and is the larger part of their attractiveness to players.

    I’m not opposed to widening the range of games available for play…actually all for it…but market dynamic being what it is, I just don’t see a lot of value or desirability in near conflict free, hyper realistic, moral quandary free games. They might make a nice niche, but that’s what they’ll be…a niche. To borrow an old gamer trope…there are no wizards or warriors lining up with pockets full of change to buy the new game “Everyday working stiff” or “Really nice people who are nice to each other”.

    Unrealistic sells, and it doesn’t teach unrealistic expectations…because it represents a flight from realism, a tacit acknowledgement that the unreal is understood to be a vehicle for fantasy and escape. No more, no less.

    • Cay Reet

      I think you have not read many modern fantasy books which spend a lot of time creating societies beyond ‘orc evil, human good, elf mage’, because people find that boring by now. A lot of people read fantasy, because it’s a way to see behind society and look at its concept – whether they still hold up, once you project them on a race of elves or sentient octopusses. Sometimes it makes you think about your reality.

  55. Rhandolph

    Has the author done any role playing? And if so was it with 12 year old boys? The points may apply to some individuals but not many players. It is a game not reality, to be realistic in the way it seems the author would want the adventure (if that is the right word) should be set in a commune and the challenge for the players how to combat social prejudice in a medieval society and produce gluten free bread using 14th century techniques.

    Characters start at low levels and just because they can become important and change the world (appartently by violence) does not mean they see history the same way. They dont believe Henry V had a +1 broadsword and rode a griffin into battle. It is a game. A game often played in a few hours so there is no time to learn the life history of the bar keeper.

    Plus there are all manner of roleplaying systems. Call of Cthulhu for instance sees characters who are teachers, scientists, detectives etc uncovering ancient horrors, horrors that are often not overcome by violence but team work and investigation.
    Others are violent but lisome people like action films, some like mysteries, games are the same. Players are creative and intelligent, you do role players a disservice by suggesting they will think violence solves problems in real life. Next time I personally go out and find a dragon terrorizing a village I will certainly consider mediation first. Oh wait, that would be fantasy again. Silly me.

    • Cay Reet

      But do you believe that if Henry had been a Henrietta, history would have been the same? Because that would be less attached to reality than thinking he had a huge sword and rode a griffin.

      Yes, there are different systems and the author also names those which do it a lot better, but a lot of people do play RPGs the ‘old-fashioned’ way where nothing else but XP and loot matter much.

      And when you find a dragon terrorizing a village, then first you should find out where it lives (to later get its hoard as loot) and if it’s alone. Because if you just slay it and move on, it’s brood partner might actually burn that village down in retaliation.

  56. SisterChelsea

    From the laundry list of problems, sounds to me like you shouldn’t be blaming the games, but the Storyteller/Game master running them.

  57. Darius West

    Oren, I straight up accuse you of stereotyping RPGs and the RPG experience based upon a puerile adolescent experience of the hobby. Did you play D&D once when you were a kid, Oren, and think that is all the hobby represents ? Did you simply assume that because your GM ran things a certain way that all GMs ran things the same way ? Did you assume that because the system you used didn’t much account for healing rates and integrated social relations that nobody uses them ? Do you assume that a pack of murderous orcish rapists need to have their social expectations understood within a cultural relativist framework, wherein their bad behavior is seen less as specific to their species and more as a cry for help from individuals in a brutalizing social milieu ? Face it Orern, you can’t stereotype the hobby this way, it’s extremely prejudiced and you come across as a frustrated joke of a “Social Justice Warrior” who is looking for things to attack in the name of self-richeousness, not the greater good.

    • Jerry

      Darius, I straight up accuse you to have knee-jerk and overblown reactions to any critiques of a hobby you enjoy based upon puerile adolescent defensiveness. Were you bullied once for playing D&D as a kid, Darius, and think that it represents all critiques of the hobby? Did you simply assume because one person teased you that all people who disagree are also bullies? Did you assume that because some people dislike certain game systems that they don’t like any gaming?
      Face it Darirus, you can’t stereotype critiques of a hobby this way, it’s extremely narrow minded and you come across as a frustrated joke of a “Old Rules Gamer” who is looking to attack in the name of self-righteousness, not the greater good.

  58. shakil

    You are so full of crap.

  59. shakil

    The stuff you are talking about does not matter you are over thinking simple stuff and applying shit where you shouldn’t.

  60. Toddy Shelfungus

    While I understand some of the objections to the article, some need to remember that a milieu is more “real” if it is Internally Consistant, and no more Suspension of Disbelief, subject to fun.
    What I mean if you can use aspects of real life to broaden the types of colors and brushes.
    (1). Greatman- This wouldn’t be so bad if a player could use some thing like a profession proficiency/skill to form local working group, units. Something like a 1st fighter who has discovered that the thorp they have just entered is having brigand issues, so gathers home-bound locals and trains them up to guard or watch units allowing the settlement a bonus against dealling “random encounters” the settlement would suffer.
    Each class having the ability to use their Class or Skill proficiency to assist in driving off or help resist damage that could occur while the party is out attempting to deal with the brigand base.
    Doing this would actually help players to pay attention to locals as their activities would to some extent require the player to discover what the locals want to do and getting in front to lead the way. the fact is those greatmen are leaders one way or another. Even if some cases it is to “lead” an enemy into a weaker situation.
    (2). Social Ties- if social “combat” or PCs being able to play the “Great Game” social ties would become more important. protecting social assets, local contacts, supporting groups. This is closely related to (1). Great Men because the true great men Play the great game one way or anothers.
    (3). Explorer Fallacy- I have to disagree with this as a fallacy, the problem as represented in Dungeons and Dragons 1st ed. the terrain catagory “uninhabited” had nothing to do with not having any humans or creatures living there. It is did mean that the persons living there had no social connection to the explorer. no towns, villages, or other groups that bother to trade or travel beyond their woods, and fields.
    Orcs bad, this is a magical world.. in my version some races have a suppression of negative or positive reinforcement in some percent of their population. a race where 30% have difficulty conceiving of certain levels of pleasure motavating others. the resorting to using pain becomes much more common.
    (4). What doesn’t kill you- this is an issue of Critical Hits whether HPs, Ability Loss, or even Social Damage, but there would need to be some way of “keeping score” in dealing with such damage.
    (5). Violence is the Ultimate Solution. Well I once read the statement, ‘violence settled Carthage most effectivly’. While the cycle of violence is fully true, only half the truth is concidered. The ability to project a threat of Force rather than the use, is a principle that suppresses Predators.

    • Cay Reet

      Good comment on the whole, but one point about 5:

      “The ability to project a threat of force rather than the use is a principle that suppresses predators.” It’s also a principle that can create a horrible arms race, like the one during the Cold War when both the US and Russia wanted to have the bigger and better weapons. And it doesn’t do that much against predators, because those don’t come on the field as an army, they sneak into the camp and make their kills at night (like Grendel and his mother, if you’re familiar with Beowulf).

      In most cases, a combination between ‘our armies are equals,’ ‘we have trade agreements that would be off in case of war,’ and ‘we’d lose our diplomatic status with a host of other countries who might have alliances with the othe side’ keep wars from happening.

  61. Chris

    2. Social Ties Don’t Matter

    Pendragon? Ars Magica? WoD? Runequest? — all RPGs which have social elements as a major part of their expected gameplay.

    2/10 – did not do the research.

    • Factual Imperialist

      The article is full of misinformation and poor research to be fair.

  62. Eyeball

    This article feels like you’ve had merely a passing experience with RPGs. There were already errors in point number one, so I stopped there. Here are some:

    1. Single-man theory is just how history is usually taught, it’s incredibly difficult, especially in large settings, to detail absolutely everything about a particular period or event, unless you want an entire course on just that one thing. Such research in particulars and the “whole picture” is the thing, eventually, for dissertations and specialization. Generalities is the goal of basic knowledge. Also, Chairman Mao wasn’t white, and Moctezuma II wasn’t either.

    2. PCs are not necessarily the center of the story, merely players within the story. Thus the name “player character”. They are merely one of the pieces of a large world. If not, that’s the fault of a lazy GM. Ravenloft in D&D, for example, is a world filled with super-powered “single men” and women who drive entirely the action of a particular region. You’d be completely incompetent if you overrode that basic arrangement of that world.

    3. No examination of NPCs (villagers, etc.)? Who have you been playing with or what kinds of games have you been running? When I run my campaigns, I detail EVERY story of every person involved, and yes, sometimes some of those people the players never even talk to. It’s all part of a giant tapestry. That’s kind of the point of a role-playing world. Without this aspect it lacks interest, depth, and is barely entertaining. What have you been playing, Hero Quest?

    You eventually comment that these things are critical to proper playing/GMing, but then the question is why did you write about it in the first place if you knew the answer yourself? ANY good GM or PC knows RPGing has to be that way for it to be truly enjoyable. A good, basic dungeon crawl is fine now and then, but it still needs a story behind it where the PCs are interwoven into the plot, or even separate from a larger story, whatever. Why are you criticizing something you essentially verify later? After that section, I had no reason for reading the rest and commenting on it, as it’s sure to be full of silliness.

  63. Factual Imperialist

    Congratulations on being part of a narrow minded gaming group. I have never had these pop up, granted we have creative gms. Violence has never been the ultimate answer in my games, there are always rival groups who take the quest that we didn’t and have their name flung out. Sometimes we are just soldiers or mercenaries doing the wet work for some nation. At the end of the day this article is meant to change a hobby for thousands because a few dozen are unhappy that their escapist hobby isn’t politically correct. If you want politically correct in a game of elves, orcs, and dwarves, you are in the wrong hobby.

    Really sick of these SJW’s poisoning wells, one person said they wouldn’t play DnD because half-orcs force the players to acknowledge rape. I then told her she clearly didn’t read their description as in the edition we were playing it lists a number of ways it happens, all of which weren’t rape. When I pointed it out she had a look of shame on her face and I told her it was fine just read the actual details. That is the sense that I get from this “my individual experience must mean everyone experiences the same thing”.

    Also you will find that violence does not cause conflict but that conflict causes violence in the vast majority of the time.

  64. 'mantha

    Thoughtful article on how worlds can be fleshed out and given extra dimensions. But my word, there are some very sensitive people around, aren’t there? In connection with which, how on earth can anyone parse the utterly awesome-sounding phrase Social Justice Warrior as an insult? Social Justice Bard now, that I could understand.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Hey, the Social Justice Bard is a legit class now thanks to 5th Edition

      But you’re right that it doesn’t make much sense as an insult. It’s sort of like insulting someone by calling them a Civil Rights Activist.

  65. Alan Kellogg

    There is one other factor here, we’re lazy. Putting forth the effort to make things interesting is something we’d rather not face. Then you have our obsession for always being calm and cool. “No excitement please we’re adults.”

    And heaven forbid we ever play a role

    No, RPGs have to be played a certain way, and any other way is vile heresy. Think outside the box and you are fit only for dismemberment by those tiny little plastic swords used to impale olives.

    This has nothing to do with rules, this has far more to do with why you do things a certain way, and such is our lust for the proper way we do all we can to ignore any possibility there could be better ways.

  66. Jason Weiser

    Oren,
    I have been a RPGer for 30 years, and a wargamer for 33 years. One did lead to the other. I’ve eaten a lot of dirt along the way, metaphorically speaking and I am also the proud possessor of a BA in History. I have a lot of miles, so to speak, in the hobby.

    1. Single Man Theory – As another poster put it, it is the way History is taught. I can’t undo that, as it makes the subject matter a lot easier to wrap one’s head around. Yes, as a student of history becomes more skilled, he realizes it took a lot of actors, but sometimes, simplifications exist for a reason.

    2. People play RPGs to be heroes. Simple, QED, or at least to tell a story where they are a protagonist. To tell them they have to play second fiddle to the NPCs because of misplaced guilt over out of game social issues? That to me is dictating the fun of others, and that won’t fly at my table.

    3. Some NPCs get more screen time than others. The refugee NPC in Twilight 2000 (A game I played a lot) who is passed by the PCs convoy isn’t going to be interacted with much. A warlord who is exacting “taxes” that include the daughters of a local town that just hired the PCs to get them back, that’s important…this of course leads us to later points, that rest assured, I will get to. Sure, why is he doing this? That’s important, but only in the sense of doing the warlord right as an NPC. No, I don’ t want a cardboard villain, but really, considering what he’s probably up to, can’t say my players would care much.

    4. One of the best campaigns I ever ran of Traveller was a Scout based campaign, and yes, the players did their level best (it was on the eve of the 5th Frontier War) to encourage the natives to back the Imperium, Did bad things happen? Yes, touched off a civil war in fact..but, the players played it straight, did a lot of good, and explored much of this world. Those players fought like demons when the Zhodani sent mercs to back the other side in the civil war.

    5. You want to game out mental illness/PTSD? Um…no thanks. Seen it for real myself. Sure, it happens, and yes, I have run NPCs with it, but I am not going to make PCs randomly deal with it….this leads us to 6.

    6. Your stance on in-game violence, while laudable from a moral standpoint (not a big fan of it in my games either when it is not required, but when it is required….) is a little like trying to put a moral stance in the funny pages. It’s not conducive to player enjoyment, again, there are times when a big stick and a quiet word works better than a quiet word alone. Doesn’t mean you have to use the big stick. Having it is handy, but sitting there trying to understand the Orcs or be Picard? You are going to lose players, and fast.

    Oren, you strike me as an earnest, and probably nice guy, but I could not run a successful game your way. I don’t play 40K because I don’t like war for the hell of it, but I do play games where the choices are starker. There, there may be good reasons the NPC is trying to kill you, but asking him to consider alternative conflict resolution methods in the midst of him emptying his ACR magazine at you is probably not going to work. He could also care less whether or not you know he got a promotion at work. He is a lethal obstacle to your players, and as such, he’s going to kill your PC, QED.

  67. Simon Reilly

    The author of this essay has overlooked the fact that role playing games are supposed to be a form of escapism and in most cases should be harmless fun. They become pernicous when the makers attempt to construct an alternative “reality”. A prime example of this is Dungeons and Dragons, where the roleplayer is introduced to a fantasy scenario with its own system of ethics and metaphysics: it even has an afterlife and gods that one can serve. Next to these features the problems author raises pall into insignificance (at by my own experience).

  68. WilliamRLBaker

    I’ve never seen so a long winded method of saying nothing, One example of that being.

    I’ve played a few pen and papers in my time, and I can’t count on my fingers the times I’ve won the game or found the treasure by not using violence.
    Another example is explorers…..Its not limited to western myths its silly to believe that every single civilization of sufficient power hasn’t committed resources to explorations, colonies…etc

  69. Krssven

    I had a GM that ran Vampire the Masquerade like it was some sort of gospel RPG, perfection in book form. In addition, his mentality was that no confrontation between PCs and antagonists could be ended diplomatically – whether a confrontation between high-rank werewolves or enemy elders, the bad guys always paid some lip service then readied themselves for combat. So essentially he was following #5 like it was a rule.

    The same chap also would deliberately throw spanners into the works of all plans made by PCs anywhere ever. He seemed to see derailing PC plans as a given, so much so that we took to making ‘real’ plans behind his back and tricking him into thinking what out true plans were. This was tricky, as you might expect. Later I was running a game, and after a successful plan laid out by the PCs actually worked, one of the players said he was astounded that a plan laid out by a player character had actually come off without a hitch.

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      Yeah, some GMs see PC plans as something to be defeated, which is of course a terrible way to go. It’s especially strange in Vampire, considering how that game is supposed to be all about plotting.

      • Krssven

        There was plotting in his Vampire games, but only at his discretion. When it came to important plot events, fights were the outcome 9 times out of 10. In the werewolf example, we really really didn’t want to fight them. We weren’t there to fight. The situations was more of a fact-finding mission to the local rank 5 Garou. But in the GM’s mind, he was setting up a fight. The talking would happen and then the werewolves would try to kill us. They lost, primarily thanks to obscene discipline use (good old Ravnos fortitude), but we left that session puzzled as to why it even happened.

        We had a GM in an old Star Wars game loudly tell us about the small garrison of stormtroopers our rebel pilots were sneaking into. Maybe 15 men total. We planned carefully, knowing the troopers would be spread out – some on watch, some patrolling, maybe some getting R&R. So we climbed a wall, dropped down, turned a corner into 10+ stormtroopers. My friend summed it up: ‘Really?! More than two-thirds of the entire force just happened to be over here, near this wall, ready for us, after no failed skill checks??’ This GM viewed player plans as things to be opposed – whichever wall we chose, the stormtroopers would’ve been on the other side

        • Oren Ashkenazi

          Hehe. I wonder if that was because the GM in question read over the Vampire rules, saw that 95% of them were about combat, and just assumed that’s what the story should be about too?

  70. Anon Adderlan

    Are these tropes problematic? Yep! But should they be avoided in RPGs?

    The way to avoid problematic things becoming actual problems is not by eliminating them, but by having the self-awareness to spot how they’re problematic, and understanding the difference between fantasy and reality. Because without that, ANY trope can become a problem.

    So go ahead and play your violent übermensch loners and go conquer a dark continent. Because unless you’re playing BECAUSE you’re already an actual Nazi, you’ll be OK. People are complicated, and trying to simplify them through tropes does at least as much harm as the tropes themselves.

  71. 3Comrades

    I feel like there are lots of problems in DnD and roleplay systems but the biggest is race.

    1) That we call different species whose own biology dictates at least part of their culture Races at all is a big problem, especially since they are never alien enough from each other in story to be treated like different species and are always written as different cultures. The idea that humans are written to be variable and anything while the others are treated as unique while still discussing the issue as race including racism and you have a problem. The idea that most everything considers Half children to be half human, never even recognizing other pairings also feels a bit like how people discuss race in comparison to majorities vs minorities, often treating the later like they don’t exist.

    2) Too much Tolkein prejudice. I love the idea of Dwarves, but Tolkein openly made them to be a Jewish stereotype and it is still there everytime I pick up any rpg that mentions dwarves. Even art still follows old anti-semetic stereotypes and it’s cringeworthy. Tolkein used a lot of coloring to say White Good/Black bad, including having the only human non-white people be on the villains side, hake Uruk-hai meaning Black. But he didn’t stop there. The orcs are described with dark skin, and he himself compared them to “mongols” and irredeemably evil. He describes even evil humans as dark skinned and then a list of negatives, as if connected. He attached dark skin and swarthy complexions as being bad looking and most people that looked that way were evil. Look at Drow, Duergar, the evil versions of their counterpart races inexplicably being darker skinned despite living underground. On the otherhand, the usually non-evil svirfneblin are lighter because without that prejudice logic dictates the underground race will be have lighter skin.

    3) I think others have mentioned it, but the idea of race being tied at birth to a to morality is absurd and frankly racist as hell. Orcs being the evil savages incapable of deeper motives because it would ruin the character’s murderfest is bad story and racist. Morality isn’t a natural feature. And while one culture or another can esteem immoral practices, treating it as a biological feature is…racist. Nevermind that when they do make the “one good drow” they so incredibly hate their own kind, it is just really really racist and something that just has to stop. Add in that all the other “races” are treated as homogeneous despite that making absolutely no sense.

    Sexism is much less so except in their matriarchies, but I will always be sour that Drow are evil Matriarchs instead of Gnolls…which would make sense. Hyenas are one of the few mammals with their females bigger than males and are well known to bully and even kill their male packmates. They are vicious and highly aggressive. Why aren’t Gnolls evil Matriarchs?

    • Cay Reet

      I want an evil matriach Gnoll now.

      I’ve never understood why any subterranean race would be dark-skinned, because dark skin happens as a protection from sunlight. A race which lives almost exclusively underground and never had any long-lasting above-ground settlements should be pale, even paler than your regular fair-skinned human. They should be needing outrageous amounts of sunblocker when they come into the overworld (and sunglasses … imagine the money you could make when they decide to go to war with some human settlement).

      Half children can happen between most races (although biology would probably be a little difficult in case of orc/dwarf mixtures or suchlike). And humans should have a strict set of ‘cans’ and ‘can’ts’ as well. Or other races shouldn’t be limited much more than humans are.

      And I don’t really understand why the occasional ‘good [add evil race our your choice here]’ has to hate or despise their brethren. I mean, pity them, perhaps, or wish to educate them on their mistakes. But why the outright hate?

      I want Orc diplomats and cooks. I want dwarven scholars. I want goblin healers. I want that Gnoll Matriarch, too, but for other reasons. I want a drow who writes touching poetry about flowers between missions.

  72. Bronze Dog

    I’m working on a GM Credo like The Angry GM’s right now, and some of mine hope to address some of these:

    “Charisma will never be the dumpstat.” Social ties will matter in my games, and in my Changeling chronicle in particular, there will be ways to influence intelligent fae with flattery, fast talk, or deception. Additionally, player characters will need to maintain good relations with the freehold and the mortals of Buena Vista.

    “There will always be a non-violent solution. (But it won’t necessarily be obvious.)” I won’t be doling out XP based on how much players kill. Finding alternatives to violence will usually come with greater reward.

    “The world isn’t about just the PCs.” There are NPCs putting in hard work, too, even if it’s not as glamorous.

  73. Mark

    A lot of these setting are lawless low population setting. Does setting up friends and family that you only meet once make any sense. The adventurers are professional “soldiers” so they see the value of complementary skills. Some ancient areas had developed societies and some had brutal warrior cults who rigorously resisted intrusion such as the Sentinelese in India and many African tribes- no nice diplomacy would work. Are goblins etc. a human race with official rights or like wolves. Summary justice in lawless times was rather common like ancient Japan.

    • 3Comrades

      I think your very precise example is the issue. Definitely Violence is sometimes the answer, but treating it like it is always the answer is unrealistic. Sentinelese have a special island that is very clear no one is allowed to go to, if you go to the island you are looking for a fight. If Goblins are like wolves then they don’t have clothes or weapons, unlike hardly any goblin I’ve ever seen. They are like boars. No one is saying you can’t protect yourself from a boar but why do you think they keep treasure?

      And Summary justice was common 150 years ago in the United States. Doesn’t mean diplomacy never came up or everyone just murdered each other as soon as a disagreement came up. Sometimes? Sure but it wasn’t all the time. Portraying it that way not only is a flanderization of history, but perpetuating these ideas.

      As far as soldiers and lack of families- they are mercenaries who don’t work for anyone, most people in that situation return home often, or have a base near home. It’s commonly held true that soldiers get homesick and Need to return home. Mercenaries on their own dime will return a whole lot more often than “Leave” for professional soldiers. Think the beginning of samurai who organized in families or Gunslingers who worked in one area and got married returning home most nights. Even professional criminals almost always work close to home.

      • Cay Reet

        “And Summary justice was common 150 years ago in the United States.” On the other hand, half of the old Scandinavian sagas are about people suing each other for a variety of reasons. The Vikings actually had a very complicated law system.

        And, yes, mercenaries, soldiers, or professional criminals will usually be bound to a certain area – and not just for social questions. It’s also a question of knowing safe places, the territory (know your surrounding is a basic rule of The Art of War), having a base, or having reliably contacts.

  74. Oren Ashkenazi

    Editor’s Note: I’ve deleted the most recent comment on this thread for a racist attack on native peoples. That clearly violates our comments policy.

  75. Forrest

    This isn’t sparking intense defensiveness in me: I’m seeing more as a report of “I’ve (the author) seen that these things exist at times and here is my (the author’s) view on some things to do about them.” The article is a relaying of data about the author’s thoughts and experiences, not an attack on persons, their experience, their ways.

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