Differences Between Writers Running TTRPGs vs. Other People Running TTRPGs?

Apropos my last post about being critical of D&D Twitch games: my wife opined that the character group’s extremely diverse background is mirrored by computer RPGs like Dragon Age and Mass Effect. Even though there is considerable racism in the setting in both games, it never throws back on the player character. Like, you can drag your Krogan around everywhere, and no one in Mass Effect will shut their doors as you approach, even though in dialog with the character, they’re likely to rattle on about the discrimination they face. So, she thinks that this contributes to the willingness of GMs to tolerate high-diverse groups without consequence.

I think this is likely true. The circle has closed, particularly for D&D, from influencing how computer role-playing games run to being influenced by CRPGs. Now it’s an ongoing loop, I think, with the two feeding on each other. The game I run, Cypher System, is clearly influenced by CPRGs.

So, the basis of my criticism likely arises from how I think of my settings as a writer and the built-in differences between computer and tabletop role-playing games. I look at a game like Mass Effect, and I understand why they create this wildly diverse cast – to enable the player to explore the different elements of the setting with convenience and some depth within the confines of a quite linear story. (For while you can do the NPCs missions without any particular order, they are designed to be modular, with none of them affecting the other stories, though having a small effect on the endgame.)

For a writer of stories and not a CRPG, it’s crude to ignore the group’s diversity. If the setting has discrimination, and almost all D&D settings are chock full of discrimination if you follow the flavor text much less read the setting-based novels, then that’s part of the reason to choose that kind of character, right? If you’re playing a drow in Forgotten Realms, why on earth wouldn’t you expect people to be absolutely terrified of your character, given that all drow in FR is demon-spider worshipping murderers and slavers? That’s what the Forgotten Realms is.

It also ignores the difference between a CRPG and a TTRPG. It would be prohibitive in time and money to create scenarios that are keyed to whatever NPC you’re dragging around for every scene. So, sure, if you’re dragging around your Krogan in Mass Effect, in a lot of places, the response could well be for people to board up their shops or run away – or at least notice that you’ve got a hulking killing machine in your party.

However, a human GM doesn’t have a write forty different scripts for every scenario to represent the setting’s diversity. Most of them are off-the-cuff, so they can keep in mind that most people are, in fact, utterly terrified of drow or Krogan or whatever. They can just say that people say things like “tieflings aren’t wanted around here,” have people mistake them for demons and flee for their lives, or whatever. It’s the point of having a human GM – we’re Turing compliant, we don’t run on scripts but can generate free-form content! Otherwise, yeah, we should all just be playing CPRGs.

At some point, I might like to run a Twitch-based TTRPG with writers and see if there’s an actual difference in how we manage RPG content relative to other Twitch streamers. Maybe in the post-covid world, when I go around and talk to human beings, again!

2 thoughts on “Differences Between Writers Running TTRPGs vs. Other People Running TTRPGs?”

  1. It’s been a while since I read your previous post, but I think that the general point is ‘it’s weird that there are so many multi-racial groups and that they don’t face judgement for that despite that it should be uncommon in the setting.’ I agree that some of it is, as you say, impacted by CRPGs, but I think some of it is also based on what players (generally) want.

    I think that a lot of players want to play something unique and different/find humans boring in a setting that has other things. Or they choose their race based on mechanical benefits rather than based on what the roleplaying effects of choosing that race are. But they don’t really *want* to face consequences for playing their race. They’ll be happy about good things, like a plotline where elves reach out to them cause their an elf or something, but they don’t want to face negative things.

    I think this extends beyond the race issue as well to just the idea that a lot of players don’t like facing negative results of their choices. Which is…not good.

    So, as a gamemaster in that situation, one has to determine if they want to portray a world with consequences and potentially lose players, or if they want to cater to what their group wants. I think you’d choose the former, while I tend to want to choose somewhere in between.

    That said, I was really excited by the title of this post and expected more a ‘how being a writer affects game mastering’ than a ‘how CRPGs affect players/gamemasters.’ But that’s okay.

    1. I don’t know that gamers know what they want from a game, but I do know that the media that almost all gamers prefer has practically no resemblance to D&D games – even when it’s in the same genre.

      It’s unarguable, I think, that the most currently influential fantasy work is Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire. Gamers don’t find that boring. But any efforts to run a game with the thematic consistency found not just in GoT but pretty much any enduring fantasy franchise is very hard.

      So, I don’t think that groups go, “Let’s explore the thematic elements of playing this wildly diverse cast in a world that is jam-packed with bigotry.” I think they go, “This picture looks cool, I want to do that.” I think this generally happens in isolation, too. Each player, independent of the other players and GM, makes the kind of character they want to play, freely using whatever options the game allows. I think that’s how you get these wildly diverse casts… accidentally.

      (And, yeah, for some players, it’s rules-motivated. If you want to play a sorcerer, you’re probably going to pick a race that’s good at that. Ditto, everything else. I would argue this is a good reason not to have differences between fantasy races. Would the world truly end if a dwarf was a highly-skilled wizard? It’s absolutely, positively part of the reason it’s next to impossible to get thematic integrity with a party.)

      Indeed, most players don’t like any negative consequences to haunt their play. Almost all role-playing games are power fantasies! I’m not going to say that’s bad, per se. If you’re having fun, knock yourself out. On a personal level, on both sides of the screen, that’s not my favorite style of play though I understand it.

      I will say that I think that a game’s unwillingness to have reasonable consequences for PCs is a sword that cuts both ways. Not only do most games avoid negative consequences for PCs but also good consequences. Taking Critical Role as an example, after years of play, the group’s characters are still, y’know, mercenaries. They take a job, do it, move on. They’re not embedded in the communities they serve, they have no positions of social importance, they’re not dukes or grand wizards of their guild or whatever. They’re still just the dogsbodies of more powerful characters without significant agency.

      (Significantly, no edition of D&D has come with large-scale battle rules. The idea that the players might at some point be fighting army-vs-army – despite being a staple of fantasy media outside of RPGs – has no role in the game. This is true of everything large scale. Want to run a kingdom? Or a business? Going back to the diversity of the party, it’s fake. Sure, you’re playing a tortle or whatever, but you’re probably doing the *same thing* as every other D&D group and doing it in, mainly, the same way! That’s not diversity!)

      Anyway, I think the “lack of consequences” runs both ways.

      (Were I to opine why, and this is probably apropos the whole “consequences” thing, with many GMs, whenever the players are part of something “bigger” than themselves, the GM *almost always* destroys that thing to motivate the characters. So, if you have a house, it’s probably gonna get burned down. Your character gets a spouse? An orc is gonna kill them, so you’re “motivated” to get that orc. So, the players don’t do that. In most games, it’s best to be a rootless, family-free mercenary. On a personal level, I try to let players have things like families and friends so they’re fairly protected. I tell my players this so they feel freer to seek out friends and loved ones in the game.)

      I’m not sure how being a writer affects my GMing! I’ve been writing longer than GMing. I’ve never known anything else! 😉

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