The word ‘gamey’ has a meaning in regard to food. But what about table top roleplaying?

I’d suggest the idea that some mechanics is ‘gamey’ is much the same as the concern some folk express in regards to snakes being classed as prone in a game system.

Ie, they don’t imagine snakes can be prone – therefore it’s ‘wrong’ for that to be the case. Further it’s about fiction (their idea of fiction) coming ahead of rules. Rather than rules coming first and fiction should shape itself to conform to the rules. Anything that tries to have rules that the folks fiction will have to conform to…it’s ‘gamey’. The idea of the game mechanics having a strong control over what happens in play…it’s anathema.

25 thoughts on “Gamey

  1. Respecting the fiction as primary is important for many styles of play, like OSR or immersive play.

    Respecting the rules as primary is important for some style of play, like figure chess and character optimization.

    1. It’s not about respecting fiction, since fiction essentially doesn’t exist. It’s simply about not giving any control to the ruleset. Which would be fine if it was a proper rejection – if you don’t want to give power to a particular ruleset then you don’t treat it as if you’re using the ruleset. You don’t have that particular book at the table.

      If one were to think of the ruleset as a player at the table, it’s like listening to that player only when it feels good to do so, but otherwise ignoring their contributions. Why have a player there if you’re going to do that? Then again a lot of DMs do that with their actual players.

      I’d actually say a lot of roleplayers, as much as they wont let a ruleset tell them the fiction, they have never actually played a roleplay game. They’ve done a weird freeform where they cherry pick bits of an RPG book to quote, but they haven’t actually played it.

      1. 1. Is there some particular value to “actually playing a roleplaying game”, rather than roleplaying and using some roleplaying game as a tool, when appropriate?

        2. What do you precisely mean by “the fiction essentially does not exist”?

      2. 1. The value is the rule set, when it can actually speak into your game (without how it speaks being able to be cut off at a whim by the DM), might make you do something different than if you were to do freeform.

        2. The fiction doesn’t exist. Your characters don’t exist. The forge forum had this all the time – someone would say ‘I’m not sure what the characters want’ and people would say ‘the characters don’t exist – it’s a matter of what the players want’. The same goes for all the fiction. It doesn’t exist.

      3. 1. Yes, I agree – often using a ruleset makes certain specific styles of play possible.

        However, a system (in the Forge sense of how the group decides what happens in the fiction) is the important thing, and for many styles of play it is not necessary to codify the system as a set of rules.

        2. The fiction does not exist in flesh and blood, like we do, but that is a banal irrelevancy when it comes to discussing tabletop roleplaying. (It has implication for larp, though.) We can discuss imagined worlds as though they were real. We can have a shared understanding of a fictional world which allows us to discuss causality there and come to conclusions that all of us believe in. (“We” refers to the various groups with whom I have played roleplaying games.) Does this match your experience?

      4. “However, a system (in the Forge sense of how the group decides what happens in the fiction) is the important thing, and for many styles of play it is not necessary to codify the system as a set of rules.”

        Sorry, a group can actually agree that the rule set (to the degree it can) decides what happens in the fiction. If you want to talk about groups who repeatedly reject a written ruleset or pick and choose when they reject it, that’s not the sort of play I’m talking about. It’s not like all gaming has to be like that. The forge didn’t talk about that as if that’s the baseline for all roleplay – or atleast I hope they hadn’t been or they were seriously in error.

        With #2, we can treat a magic show like the magic is real. But when we leave the show at some point we have to treat it as if it was just sleight of hand.

        You’re trying to continually treat the fiction as real – that’s why I said before ‘We’re not playing right now’. I have to wonder if you can actually break out of it (or if you adamantly don’t want to break out of it, which is much the same thing). In the end you don’t talk straight with me, Tommi – I want to talk about sleight of the hand and you keep talking about real magic. There’s a continual patois of referring to magic as real in your comments. Again, it seems like you can’t break out of that (or for some reason refuse to, even though we aren’t playing right now)

      5. 1. Of course the group can choose a written ruleset and then stick to that. I gave examples in my very first post here, and in the post you are responding to, I explicitly discussed how *many* styles of play do not require that, hence leaving plenty of room for all that do. Please read what I write.

        2. As I explicitly wrote in the post you are answering to, yes, the fiction is not real in the flesh-and-blood sense. Please read what I write.

      6. Tommi, I’ve read it. A group who doesn’t want to stick to a ruleset doesn’t have to call things ‘gamey’ in order to do so.

        And you essentially called the level I want to talk at a ‘banal irrelevancy’.

        It’s your opinion that I’m not reading what you write. Maybe you’re right somehow. But if you think you can’t be wrong then you’re starting to troll, Tommi. Have some doubt that maybe there’s something here you’re not getting or don’t leave comments that treat it that you could only be right – there is no discussion in assuming you could only be right.

      7. I got quite frustrated about you not addressing my points; I guess the feeling was mutual. This affected the tone of the text. I stand by the points.

        On “gamey”, I already offered to use another terminology. I think you already used “disassociated”, so maybe let us stick to that?

        You claim that the observation that game entities are not as real as physical entities is not trivial. Demonstrate this: What are the interesting things that you can deduce from there? Be explicit. I hope I will learn something.

        Your arguments are, as far as I see, based on some stronger claim than that. Both of the following would be sufficient, but I think they are too strong and can easily be refuted, so you probably are thinking something weaker: “Contrafactual thinking does not work.” or “Making deductions about fictional thinking is wrong.” (Stronger and weaker in the sense of how big the claim is, not in the sense of how believable the supporting arguments are.)

      8. “Demonstrate this:”

        No thanks. As far as I’m aware you’re making a claim, not myself. Your claim is you can talk about the magic in the magic show being real and it’ll never actually cause a problem. As if talking about things that don’t exist as if they exist would never cause a problem. I think most people would take it you’re making a claim there.

        People do claim judo often enough – someone will insist it’s not that they are claiming there is a teapot orbiting the sun but that others are claiming it’s not there and they have to prove their claim. Judo flip! Now it’s the other guy doing the claim!

        So in the end I disagree – I think you’re making a claim here and are the one to demonstrate it.

      9. “Your claim is you can talk about the magic in the magic show being real and it’ll never actually cause a problem.”

        I have not claimed this. Again, please do not attribute strawman arguments to me. Otherwise, if you do think I have claimed this, then quote where I have done so.

      10. Yes you have “The fiction does not exist in flesh and blood, like we do, but that is a banal irrelevancy when it comes to discussing tabletop roleplaying.”

        You’ve said it’s a banal irrelevancy. Ie, it doesn’t matter. Ie, it’ll never actually cause a problem.

        If I’m not understanding you there, Tommi, then we can’t talk anyway. Just basic stuff like that is somehow not actually understood the same way between us.

      11. Thank you for providing an actual quote. I take it back and restate what I was trying to say.

        We can take a hypothetical real world situation – what if you met your childhood friend; what would you talk about? What if Russia invaded Estonia to “liberate” the Russian-speaking part of the population; how would Nato and Eu react? What if there was fire on the first floor of the building where I am now; what would I do when the fire alarm starts ringing?

        All of these questions concern flesh-and-blood reality, but we can treat them in precisely the same way we treat questions about sneaking past giant sloths in dungeons.

        But I guess this is not point. I guess your point is the observation that the fiction is contingent on what we, as a group, agree on and imagine. This is the nature of the tabletop roleplaying medium and what makes it unique.

        From here, you want to make some claims about why respecting the fiction is invalid, I guess. So: Why is it invalid to play roleplaying games so that one respects the fiction as an important constraint on the play? Or if I have misunderstood your claim, then tell what I have wrong.

    2. Actually it occurs to me that choosing a ruleset that requires the sort of fiction I want to make is respecting the fiction more than trying to both use a ruleset but somehow make fiction come first anyway.

      1. What, or what kind of, ruleset would you use for the following?

        1. A game of macgyvering solutions from a limited set of tools and equipment, where we in particular want to test whether the players are clever enough to do that.

        2. A game of politics and negotiation, where we in particular want to see how good negotiators and diplomats the players are? We would want to there be characters who are individually powerful or weak, some with and some without military power and economic influence and so on. We want assassinations and warfare to also be on table, as well as sabotage (of any kind they think is a good idea), trading etc. and players can try to plan and execute those by themselves or leave them off to underlings. Diplomacy in the spirit of Clausewitz.

        3. A game of puzzle dungeon crawling (an example would be Tomb of horrors) where there is a deadly dungeon with traps, hints and rewards, and where it is up to players to figure out which elements are relevant and useful, which are deadly, and so on. The dungeon has a logic that more or less makes sense and figuring such things out, figuring out where secret doors are, how to activate them, etc. is what we are testing the players on.

        4. A restricted environment, e.g. dungeon, with plenty of strange things to manipulate – pits of acid, lava rivers, levers that open or close passages, tunnels filled with water or deadly gases, teleporting rooms, various traps, green slime that converts everything organic into more of it, mold that feeds on heat or withers in its presence, pools that cause fairly arbitrary magical effects when you drink from them, and so forth. Various fantastic elements. We do not want to menu of strangeness to be restricted. There are also monsters with fantastic abilities (move by teleportation only when you do not look at them, turn to stone if exposed to blood, move slowly but are impervous to damage, petrify when they see you, etc.). We want to test the players on how they can navigate this environment and use these elements against each other, and sometimes avoid some elements completely.

        5. A game of exploring the unknown. The players are moving in a dungeon or wilderness or space station, trying to find particular things. We want to test how well they figure out and use the nature of the environment (it seems to be symmetric, or there are rivers flowing down from the mountains and often swamps around rivers, there are ventilation ducts to all places where one assumes there would be lots of people, etc.) and whether they find what they are looking for. If they want a map or a flowchart or whatever, that is up to them to do. Additional difficulty is provided by limited resources, be they food, torches, breathable air, or something else.

        6. All of the above, with players having some choice on what kind of challenges to engage in, but often having several of the above linked together in a single challenge that tests the players on multiple levels.

      2. 1. I’ve said the following on reddit and a poster got upset – no ones doing anything clever. People can suggest a plan, but the DM has no clue if that’d work in a real life situation. The DM is just subjectively waving through what ‘sounds good’. Which is fine, as long as you don’t start treating it as if you’re actually figuring anything out.

        In other words it’s not ruleset specific – it’s basically freeform.

        In fact pretty much everything else you’ve described doesn’t describe mechanical qualities you want, it’s all a reference to freeform. You don’t seem to want a ruleset at all.

  2. I want a specific style of play. If you can provide a ruleset that supports this style of play, then I would be delighted to test and see if it actually does. It is always nice to get new innovative rulesets. The state of the art is the OSR movement, but maybe you can improve on that.

    And, yes, there is actual cleverness, and no, there is no need for GM fiat.

    A. Referee had prepared a dungeon. In one room there was a statue with three faces, two of which were looking at doors. The third was looking at a wall. I suggested we look for a secret door there, and there it was. We could have missed it. This was an instance of player cleverness.
    B. A carnivorous giant sloth was approaching the location where player characters were. They hid, it did not notice them, and was standing on the edge of a chasm and distracted by apes on the other side. Player characters approached sneakily and pushed it down the chasm. This was an instance of player cleverness – they could have tried killing it in combat, but it was quite dangerous, and this approach happened to work quite well, and if they had left it alive, it would have been a persistent threat.

    GM fiat:
    A. The dungeon had been written ahead of time. The standard rules and methods for searching for secret doors were used and we searched in the right place. There was no GM fiat in play.
    B. The giant sloth appeared as a random encounter, using the usual procedure for random encounters. It had to squeeze through and break stuff while approaching, so it was obvious it would be heard. Players decided their characters would hide. Their hiding spot was quite good and as a referee I suggested quite small chances for the sloth to see them. Players accepted them as reasonable and it did not notice them. Sneaking behind and pushing it down were resolved in the same manner; I suggested a difficulty level for the actions based on the fiction and players accepted my suggestions as plausible and then we rolled dice to see what happened. The reaction of the apes to the sloth was handled in a standard way (reaction rolls). There was no GM fiat here.

    Also, please note that “freeform” is a highly diverse bunch of things. There is play focused on fictional challenges and realism, as above, which might be more or less freeform. There is play focused on playing relationships and immersion, as in Roolipemanifesti and Tšernobyl, rakastettuni by Juhana Petterson; for design philosophy, see here: . Then there is the kind of play where the GM improvises interesting action and character drama based on player input; codified by Fate, Dungeon world and other such games, but completely doable freeform (I’ve done it several times.). All these three are completely different also in the Forge sense of system, while all of them can be played freeform.

    1. The DM put a secret door in that wall. That’s DM fiat. What if the DM had put in a three faced statue, it happened to look at two doors but there was no secret door – the DM just thought the statue seemed cool. There was nothing to it being there? Well then you’d be wrong to think there was a secret door there.

      I’ve had adventure league play where the DM themselves could not understand the puzzle room – and I gave an answer and it was correct by what was written in the module, while the DM STILL didn’t get the puzzles description. Because I could second guess what the writer was going for (and I know D&D tropes)

      At best this means I know D&D trivia. Am I actually clever? Would this actually apply to real life somehow? Mythbusters would actually test hollywood ideas/fiction to see if it’d work in real life. A lot of it was arrant garbage. Some of it was actually plausible.

      A GM waving through your action as ‘correct’ could be advocating for what would be, in real life terms, arrant garbage.

      And that’s okay if you accept it as being as much. But if you feel you’re genuinely clever because your friend of ten years is the DM and gave your answer the affirmative…there’s probably a bit of bias in the whole system them. GM fiat.

      But again, I am talking about the sleight of hand in play here – where as you continually refer to the fiction as real or the cleverness as real. Ie, always referring to the magic as real. We’re not playing right now.

      1. The GM has, in this style of play, two roles which they keep separate: The role as a designer and the role as a referee. Design happens before play starts and involves considerations like “is this an interesting world to play in and is there something for the players to do”. Sometimes the GM takes the referee hat between sessions and expands the campaign world. This is similar to designing a board game or a computer game or a level for them. As a referee, during play and often between sessions as well, the GM adjudicates with no fiat.

        There are also many good technique for minimizing arbitrariness and one’s biases in the design phase; thinking in terms of fiction is one and using material designed by others is another.

        In your example, you demonstrate cleverness, since you could solve a puzzle your game master could not have solved. Though being tested on trivia sounds very boring. It is probably not a very difficult task to figure out that a puzzle in mainstream D&D game might test you on D&D trivia, but without having been there, I can not tell.

        I repeat myself: There is no need for GM fiat, though many groups do use it.

        This process gives as good results as the group can manage, which is better than what a single person can do, and better than any rpg rules set I have seen thus far, in terms of plausibility. If the group consists of people whose life experience is watching movies and who have little education, than that is the level in that group. If the players and the referee have relevant life experience and knowledge, than the level will be higher. But regardless of the level, it will lead to the group members learning more, since they will be exposed to the ideas of others and will have to think about how likely different outcomes would be.

        Hence: Play with clever and interesting people to get a better game. Also, play with different people.

        Also, I am referring to real-life cleverness and I am not claiming that the fictional is real.

      2. “As a referee, during play and often between sessions as well, the GM adjudicates with no fiat.”

        Then we just plain disagree on that fundamental level.

      3. Interesting! Let us see if we disagree about the underlying issues or about the way words are used, only.

        First comment is that, in this style of play, the group makes decisions; the referee has equal role but often more knowledge. In the examples above the referee suggest the resolution method, but the players also do this. “How about we use 4 flasks of alchemist’s fire and the zombie dies?” (Context: Open place, broad daylight, plenty of time, slow zombie, so there is little uncertainty.) All players agreed, I agreed, it happened.

        So: There is group fiat rather than GM fiat, if either.

        Second comment is that we probably disagree about the meaning of “fiat”, here. For me fiat needs arbitrariness. A principled decision is not fiat.
        For the sloth, using D&D 5 rules, I would consider how difficult it would be for an average person (strength 10, no proficiency bonus) to manage pushing down a giant sloth on the edge; difficulty 20 sounds reasonable, since getting it to budge requires a lot. (I have a picture of the creature and other such info to base this decision on.) Advantage because it is looking away and distracted. Someone else might make another judgement; then we would discuss and come to a conclusion about what is most reasonable, or if we cannot agree, roll a die about whose idea to use (this is very rare) and we’ll discuss the subject before next session. This is a principled decision that can be argued and refuted, and everyone knows this is how the decisions are made; hence, not fiat.

        How do you understand fiat?

      4. You’ve made some statements about it not being GM fiat being used. I disagree on them.

        I can’t say I’m really interested in a format where you present ‘how it is’ like an advertisement then rather than being asked how it is, I’m asked how I understand it. Like I’ve just an understanding, where as you speak ‘how it is’.

        There’s no charitable doubt here, just advertising.

        Show some room for doubt on your claims and I’ll go on (trying to show some room for doubt on my claims as well). Otherwise I’m leaving it at the statement that I don’t agree.

      5. I give my own arguments, you give yours, and then we learn by scrutinizing them. If you disagree with my reasoning, you point out where the flaws are, and I do the same with whatever you write. This process causes us to learn more about the subject.

        Of course my “how it is” is “how I think it is”. Of course asking for your understanding is asking “how you think it is”. I want to know what you think so I can learn from there, if there is anything to learn from. The discussion will not move forward in a productive way unless you reveal your reasoning.

      6. I am actively asking for your take and expressing interest in understanding it. This implies that I could be wrong, because why would I ask otherwise? If this is not sufficient for you, then we are done, here.

        I want to learn about roleplaying games. I do not particularly care whether I am wrong or not in the process.

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