The Power of Saying No

The New York Red Box group has two ongoing old-school campaigns: Eric‘s Glantri and my White Sandbox. Just as the presence of two professional baseball teams in NYC gives rise to the enjoyable rivalry of the Subway Series, the different approaches of these two campaigns create one of the productive tensions within our group.

I’d estimate that about a third of us play regularly or semi-regularly in both campaigns, with the remaining two-thirds being players in only one or the other. This largely boils down to whether people are available on weeknights for Glantri, on weekends for White Sandbox, or enjoy the luxury of having time for both.

But even if the division within our player base is basically due to factors extrinsic to the game, all of us enjoy having two mirror-image campaigns so that we can better understand the way things go in this one by comparing it to the way they do it over there.  As Naked Samurai memorably expressed:

Most of the Glantri campaign believes the White Box campaign goes like this. The session starts in a magic item bazaar, where they pick up stray magic items with the metric assloads of gold they are carrying in bulldozers. After lapping up a few Staffs of Striking and a Long Sword of Sharpness +4 or two, they wander around a valley until they seduce a few werebears, who sire their children. Then they enslave, like, a few tribes of gnomes to take care of their griffon mounts and tiny giraffes. After threatening several giant kings, who aren’t worth their time, they bump into a couple demons from the depths of hell, who they vanquish within half a round. Then they discuss, philosophically, why death has no meaning, as they stroll back home.

Not bad for fourth level characters.

Is this just the grumblings of players who should be content that they survived an adventure in Glantri, and even came away with a single silver spoon as treasure? No, there are indeed measurable differences that underlie the distinction N.S. is making here.

As in chaos theory, many of the biggest separations  in how the campaigns have evolved come from their original conditions. The Glantri campaign has always started new PCs at first level, while characters enter the White Sandbox at third level (following my decision to use Gygax’s house rules). At that link Cyclopeatron notes that “Gygax’s house rules are interesting because most of them make characters stronger”, but even the pre-house-ruled systems Eric and I each use differ in this regard; spells like hold person are much more potent in OD&D than their counterparts in Moldvay/Cook B/X.

But other differences suggest a divergence in play styles. James’ analysis of XPs earned in each campaign suggests that the rate of advancement per session of adventure is eight times faster in the White Sandbox than in Glantri. The fact that the bulk of these experience points come from gold means that we do indeed have adventures structured around the logistical difficulties in moving metric ass-tons of coin – one of the few kinds of difficulty that Glantrian players are not regularly exposed to. Back when we were grinding through the upper levels of the Caverns of Thracia, I made a conscious decision to increase the treasure levels (to a rough guideline of 4 gp for every 1 combat XP, suggested by Alexander Macris in a comment here at the Mule way back when) and have been playing out the implications ever since.

I’ve been saying recently that the White Sandbox is an exploration of the improv principle “always say yes”, while Glantri is a demonstration of the power of saying no. You could perhaps map this onto the distinction between paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy,” and ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty.”

Let me be clear that I’m not painting Eric as a joyless denier, or saying that the only reason to play in Glantri is a masochistic enjoyment of difficulty for its own sake. Experiences are fun because they balance both of these extremes; awesomeness is produced by the tension between them, and I can personally attest that the Glantri campaign is a reliable source of awesome fun. I’m interested in seeing Glantri as an example of the power of saying no because I need to harness that power for my own play, which has a tendency to go too far in the other direction.

Here are the things I think saying no contributes to a RPG experience, especially in a long-form campaign:

  • The satisfaction of overcoming opposition. Players in the White Sandbox really are worried about death losing its sting; even as raise dead becomes a more common event in the campaign, they want the possibility of the ultimate, character-sheet-shredding NO. (Spiritual mishaps are one way we’re hoping to balance these). The more often a character’s desires are denied, the more thrilling it becomes when they finally succeed. Heroes with a surplus of Staffs of Striking can be hard to challenge, whereas in Glantri, as Naked Samurai said earlier in the thread quoted above, “we need to actually be, you know, resourceful, to make it down the river.”
  • Maintenance of a consistent reality. Gene Wolfe turned me on to Chesterton’s Father Brown mysteries, many of which have a structure in which the priest-hero does things that seem really shocking and the mystery is why this is actually moral and necessary. There’s a great one where Father Brown sees this young man watching raindrops on a tavern window, and subsequently abducts him and ties him to a tree out in the rain. “I could see that you were on the verge of a grave theological error,” our hero explains. “I knew that you were thinking that the course the raindrops took was a product of your own mind, and took it upon myself to demonstrate that there is a reality upon which your desire not to be tied to a tree has no bearing.” Saying no to things that violate the fictional reality is necessary not only for believability and immersion, but also player agency. The world needs to work in predictable ways for people to be able to plan the likely consequences of their actions; we base our game-world expectations on our common experiences of the real one, in which stubbed toes reliably refute solipsism. The higher power level in the White Sandbox makes this harder because each magical effect the characters can produce gets us further away from the world in which we know what is and isn’t possible.
  • Lines and veils. I realized how much I’ve internalized the New York Red Box’s coolness policy about what kind of things shouldn’t be brought into a game at all, and which other things should be alluded to instead of shown, when I recently participated in a game that wasn’t played in a public space. All of a sudden I was dropping f-bombs left and right, liberated from self-censorship and able to speak all the things I normally say no to.
  • Maintaining the campaign’s tone. This is one Eric struggles with; having given up on a kind of saying no that looks like hard work means that my campaign automatically assumes the gonzo tone you get when nothing is forbidden. Wanting to do a different kind of game would mean having to say no to dissonances and mis-steps.

One thing I think is important is that saying no isn’t just something the DM does. That’s been the way it’s traditionally conceptualized, and in the above I’ve been focusing on Eric because as Glantri’s DM he’s the easiest way to personify that campaign. But in fact I’m the one who censors my own language when I play in Glantri, and I can’t think of any times I’ve needed to police the lines and veils policy in White Sandbox because respecting that is a communal effort.

This is crucial for me because I tend to get the power of saying no mixed up with having all the power and needing to be in control. When I’m DMing for kids and they come up with some totally unexpected idea, I often observe that my first impulse is to say no. On further reflection I realize that there’s no good reason to do so; in this context there’s no real game balance to be maintained, no consistent tone to be respected. I’m just reflexively saying no because I’m afraid that opening up to player input will cause things to spiral out of control and fall apart, with the implied fallacy that I’m the only important one who is capable of holding it together.

Saying no is one of the DM’s jobs, and in the afterschool class it’s a job I get paid for despite not doing it very well. Being disciplined about defining where the power of no holds sway is important, because it makes improvisation joyful by providing something to strive against. But doing this can be a collective part of playing, and sometimes relinquishing control to the players lets them enjoy the power of saying no.

In the White Sandbox, James gets a lot of enjoyment out of his character Arnold Littleworth, d/b/a Zolobachai of the Nine Visions, because he’s decided never to memorize any useful spells whatsoever. Even in a campaign where endless tiny giraffes could be his for the taking, he’s created his own gratuitous difficulty in order to make the one time that a useless spell saves the day a triumph over adversity. Sure, that adversity is imaginary and self-imposed, but what in D&D isn’t?

6 Responses to “The Power of Saying No”

  1. May 17, 2011 at 5:07 pm

    James, was it in this thread that you laid out your approach to Arnold’s anti-power-creepness, and if so do you still have that stuff you deleted?

  2. May 17, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Yes to the first clause, no to the second.

    It’s a topic I’ve been kicking around a little bit off-and-on, and will probably revisit when the Green Lantern movie drops, since it plays into a pet theory of mine on this topic.

    The short version, though, is that to the best of my recollection, none of our success in the White Sandbox has been due to force of arms (whether magic swords or attack spells). That stuff helps us survive, but it hasn’t brought us victory. Victory doesn’t come from sheer force, but from creativity: figuring out a clever exploit and jumping on it.

    Sometimes the creative process is the painstaking result of endless pages of forum-wrangling or endless hours of at-the-table niggling and debate. But it’s also often just dumb luck of bumping into some strange new phenomenon, piecing it together with some other phenomenon we know about, and then racing ahead before the DM can figure out a way to close the loophole we’ve just created.

    But this is definitely one of those Y(DM)MV type situations, because there are simply far more loopholes of this sort in Thracia game than in the Glantri one, due to the different philosophies you mentioned.

  3. May 18, 2011 at 1:26 am

    Wonderful post, thanks.

    My natural first reaction is to say no, but consciously working against that has allowed for some really cool player-driven stuff to happen at our table.

    I think one thing that has helped is giving myself some freedom to revisit rulings- to say yes for now, but maybe no later– because it’s so hard to foresee long-term consequences in the heat of the moment.

  4. May 18, 2011 at 5:23 am

    Yes, allowing yourself to be wrong is important! Maybe one reason I say yes more easily than no these days is that so many of the no decisions are final, whereas you can always take back ill-considered generosity.

  5. 5 Naked Sam
    May 18, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    I hope I didn’t rub things the wrong way with my comments. The noirish, weatherbeaten, muddy nature of the Glantri campaign is thrilling, but does make me look wistfully over at the comprehensive powers the White Boxers sometimes seem to have. It’s wonderful that the game systems are able to supply a range of different approaches and all credibly done.

    The Power of No, it seems to me, is really a powerful, necessary thing. First, for supporting and enhancing the challenge of the game. Rewards are less rewarding and stories less compelling (whether generated from play, internally, or not) if they come too easily. The trick for a good DM is whether the agon comes from battle between the player and the DM or if it seems to sprout from the campaign world itself in a mimetic fashion. There is a discipline involved in not giving too much but then allowing the characters enough joy in success, not to mention the prospects of future success against increasing obstacles.

    Another powerful reason to say NO is to improve a player’s game abilities. Naturally with your afterschool group, this is less important, but with grown adults, this can be an overlooked part of gaming, although I suppose this might eventually just be “getting players accustomed to a particular DMing style.”

  6. May 18, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Not at all, Naked Sam. I was originally just going to post your description because I was so tickled by it (but then felt compelled to blather on about it like I do). Another advantage of our mirror-image campaigns is that we can admire our reflections in them!

    I’m also interested by richardjohnguy’s contribution of the idea of agon; as always it’s nice when I throw out a half-baked idea that catches the attention of someone who actually knows what they’re talking about and can bake it fully. I agree that a key to my enjoyment of a RPG is the feeling that I’m struggling against a fantasy world through my character, not trying to game the DM’s psychology to figure out what I’m supposed to be doing and what actions will be rewarded or punished. There is player skill to the latter, but not of a kind I’m eager to pursue.

    Agree that “the deaths will continue until play improves” is an awesome example of the power of no. It cracks me up when I play old-school D&D at conventions and have other players be like “wow you’re such a capable dungeoneer, mapper, etc.” and chuckle to myself: apparently the the level of player-skill that impresses softies elsewhere is just barely enough to be a liability to the survival-minded members of your party in Glantri!

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Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2011

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