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We Need to Move Beyond Punishment Play in LARP and Tabletop

UPDATE: There’s been a lot of discussion on social media about this post, and I’ve been reading it, and I do want to admit that this article was written right after a long discussion with someone and probably should not have been so emotional. I don’t mean to say that all older players are like this, nor do I mean to say that all conflict in gaming is bad or that no actions should ever have consequences. I was trying to address a very specific type of play – where one player/GM decides they can do whatever they want to another with impunity, there is no discussion about it with the player in question, and the rules/organization supports it – but I ended up writing a thing that was a bit too broad. 

I’m also showing my age, because when I said “Old School” I meant “3.5, Nero, and OWBN,” and a lot of the folks coming in to the comments thought I meant “First Edition.” I have no experience with gaming before the 3.5 era, so I shouldn’t speak to it and didn’t mean to. This is also my bad.

I believe in living with my mistakes, so here’s the article, still unedited.

 

There’s two schools of thought when it comes to playing games with our imagination: The old school and the new school. In the olden days, the days of thousands of sourcebooks and mechanics and tables for every action, the philosophy of how to run a collaborative storytelling game, like a LARP or a tabletop RPG, was an antagonistic one. The idea was always that the players would be working against those who were running the game. The players would do their best to break the game in any way possible to hoard personal power, and the GMs and Storytellers would do their absolute best to find ways to punish the players and torture their characters. This is the school of thought of many of today’s roleplayers, and its one they cling to very dearly, because it’s the world they grew up in.

It is also, of course, bullshit.

This mentality led, for years, to a style of play that was not only unwelcoming, but actively excluding to new players. As the DMs of the world looked as hard as they could for ways to punish their players’ ideas, the players would pass this toxic mentality on to anyone new who dared to sit at their table. You didn’t understand a rule? Didn’t read the background of your race carefully enough? Welp, now I’m going to take something away from you because I can. It’s an alpha geek, hyper masculine style of play that was the only style of play for a long time.

Nowadays, of course, things are different. Narrative and collaborative storytelling are gaining more and more traction. Nordic LARPs are bringing in thousands of players across the country. Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition includes ways to collaborate with your fellow players, and games like FATE are entirely about telling a story together. But every now and then, a Bastion of the Old Way rears their head and begins talking about how much better it supposedly was, back in the day. So let’s talk about that.

Games can absolutely be about character conflict. That is one of the driving forces behind telling a good story. But two characters who are going to be in conflict should absolutely understand that conflict going into it. There are players who love the absolute darkness and despair of the World of Darkness, for example, but not everyone wants to play that game and it should be made very clear to them in advance what kind of game and themes they’re going to be getting themselves into.

I’ve seen a lot of complaints recently about collaborative storytelling and emotional check-ins “breaking the immersion” of a game. This is not true, factually. In every single game of the Old School variety, you are constantly breaking immersion by throwing chops, pulling cards, rolling dice and saying “I do this.” It does not break your flow in the slightest to ask another player if they’d be ok with you screaming in their face for half an hour, or murdering their character outright for a simple misunderstanding.

What these Old School players are really holding onto is not consistency, or immersion. They’re holding on to power. They don’t want to have to ask if they can, because then they might get told no. But gaming is not, I repeat, not, a power fantasy. Gaming is an opportunity for you and your friends to tell a really good story. A good story is not one that is told when one player dictates all of the action because a slip of paper says they’re more powerful.

Let go. Work with other players. I guarantee you’ll still have fun, and you might find yourself less angry when you stop trying to win.

Patrick Lowry
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28 thoughts on “We Need to Move Beyond Punishment Play in LARP and Tabletop

  1. I agree very much on the notion that checking in is not total immersion breaking, being uncomfortable is. And Great as you point out we used to do it all the time. Not sure we were so immersed back then though.
    In the Nordic school there is a lot of empasis made on the pre- and postlarp. How do we prepare for the experience and how do we coop afterwards. This Work done before and after helps create an enviorment where you can feel more confident on what you can do. Which makes you feel much more empowered.

    I do believe you generalize to much when you say gaming is not a Power fantasy. Games is about following rules to often achieve a winstate, often Leading to a Power fantasy.
    Larps can also still be a player versus organizer, but today the organizer/GM are more Focus on making the player feel Powerful instead of beating the player.
    Playing up the player to live out a Power fantasy.

    The big problem with Power fantasy, which is also happens in MMOs is that you Will always be on a relative Power level to the rest, so only one can be the best. So if everyone is aiming for a Power fantasy, most Will end up dissapointed. We Look at movies and think, I wanna be Harry Potter or Hermionie Granger, but if everyone in the books was just like them it would be a bland and boring story.

    So we try to design experiences as you point out with collaboration of story telling, we agree on a goal to reach together. So if that is achieved everybody wins.

    When I was part of designing College of Wizardry, we tried to design it to have space for different play style and culture. It is a big Castle and we designed so different areas had different kinds of interaction and focus.

    Common rooms for high school drama, classroom for study and fun debates, dungeon for fighting evil and the Forest for exploring magical creatures and so on. the corridors for Teen Romance.

    So you could always Go to a New place to get a different experience. Steering towards the Kind of play you were looking for at the time.

    Making the design. Empower player choice and decisions is highly recommendable.

  2. This article doesn’t describe any culture, school of thought, or design principles built into a system that I am familiar with (in 30 years of gaming). What it describes is the fact that every now and then the person running a game is an asshole. The article doesn’t describe ‘old school gaming’ in the slightest – it’s a pure straw man argument. The silly thing is that the new school it describes is no more a new style of play than the old school it describes is an old style.

  3. While the game does not have to be antagonistic, as in gamers vs GM, it should not be a bunch of people sitting around playing “let’s tell a story” (which is a different game).
    Narrative and collaborative storytelling can be fun for some people, I find it boring.
    When I run games, I create the world, in as much detail as possible. I create hurdles for the players to overcome, puzzles for them to figure out, which is not being adversarial, it is creating drama. Drama, after all, is the point.

  4. Mh, I have a really big bone to pick with the concept that this is an “old guard” versus “new guard” sort of thesis statement. I have been playing tabletop role playing games since the late 80’s, taught by my father and his friends how to play and GM D&D, GURPS, Hackmaster, and of course our favorite Shadowrun. Now I am not saying that this sort of toxic behavior didn’t exist, I had played in con games where I saw this. But I still see it on the online communities with very young and relatively new people. What this comes down to is play styles, expectations, and of course the communal social contract.

    Some people are looking for a shared story where stats on paper are largely irrelevant and almost everything is resolved through role play. Others will look to bend, twist, and sometimes all together break rules to try and -win- the game. Its very important that people have a conversation at the beginning of every new campaign about expectations and goals.

    Now, I think this problem is more of a relative nuisance now more than when it would occur in the 70’s, 80’s and early 90’s and that was due to the fact that if you found a gaming group in your city, it might very well be the only one. The hobby was very marginalized and if you found anyone who was willing to play it, most likely you would put up with anything just to be able to play. Well, thats not really the case anymore, with the advent of things like /r/lfg and roll20 you can play with people that not only like to role play, but like to role play the system and style you enjoy.

    Keep in mind that very rarely is someone playing something wrong, it just not be your thing this is why myself and every other seasoned and well versed GM will praise the effectiveness of a session 0. A session 0 not only gives players a chance to make synergistic characters with the campaign but its a great time for players and GMs alike to discuss things like what optional rules will and won’t be allowed. What topics and motifs are off limits, what sort of game is people looking for. Now remember its completely possible for Bill the Barbarian who only likes to play murder hobo to have a great and enjoyable game with Terry the Thief who never looks at their stats and would just as soon spend all their screen time role playing. The GM needs to make sure everyone gets their moment to shine in what it is they want to do, and a session 0 is instrumental.

    But this whole “old guard” vs. “new guard” mentality is complete crap.

  5. We really need to move beyond general stereotyping, because this article is causing much eye roll among the original designers of D&D

  6. I think you have it reversed.

    When Dave Arneson, my friend, created the game, it was not RULES mechanics, but the suspension of disbelief, description, and applied logic.

    When Gary Gygax joined in later, it seems he was of the rules rules rules mind set…

    So technically OLD OLD School is being rediscovered.

    Now as a player, starting out this order of how it goes seems to fit, and as you learn more the more you learn the GM is to be trusted, is part of the scene, and not the enemy.

  7. Dunno what miserable campaigns you played in, mate, but I’ve played since ‘AD&D’ first appeared in the UK, and I have NEVER played in any antagonistic type of game as you describe.

  8. You know, my opinion really doesn’t matter because I am a casual player these days, and I don’t really care how players are playing the game today. But, I want to weigh in with my one valueless copper piece because I think that this article is bullshit and has a limited view of what was really going on back in the early days of role-playing.

    I was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons at the age of 13 in 1981. I don’t remember any of the DM shenanigans you describe. The game for us was about generating story, collaborating to slay the dragon and rescue the princess from certain death. The rules were minimal because you were expected to fill in everything with your imagination and judgment. The way the game was structured back then was not for the purpose of giving the DM a blank check to mess with your character. There were rules that kept the apparent omnipotence of the DM in check.

    I knew of only one DM who ever arbitrarily screwed over a player and that was a DM who decided that my enchanter’s nose should grow just because his girlfriend wanted to see it happen. It wasn’t a power trip.

    You have the old school way of play completely wrong. That is not how we played after school when I was 13-15. We were there sharing in heroism and slaying monsters for their treasure. We weren’t opposed to the DM. We were grateful to the DM for the opportunities he provided us to pretend we were great for a few hours. I’d like to see you provide concrete examples of this style of play because I never encountered it, nor did I ever provide that style of play as a DM.

  9. I’m not sure what personal trauma the author suffered to come up with the idea that the only way rpgs used to be played was confrontational, but something surely must have caused this break with reality.

    In the real world, outside of the author’s delusions, early GMs were more often seen as neutral referees, presenting challenges for the players. No, they weren’t active collaborators with the players to tell a story. However, they weren’t trying to “punish or torture” anyone, or in competition with the players, either. Mr. Lowry seems to have some trouble understanding the difference between giving players an obstacle to challenge them, as opposed to being confrontational with them. He also seems to suffer from the delusion that collaborative storytelling is the only method of storytelling. Apparently, he isn’t able to grasp that the interaction of the characters with the setting and the npcs as they overcome the challenges actually leads to the development of a story. In other words, the story grows organically from the play of the game, rather than the play of the game growing from the story.

    The author is also blatantly confused in regards to timelines. The idea of players breaking the system to hoard power didn’t enter into rpgs on a significant scale until the min/maxing and power-creep of 3rd edition and Pathfinder. If Mr. Lowry actually understood what old-school gaming was, he’d realize that the type of power hoarding he describes wasn’t even possible in the earliest systems, because there was very little character customization built into the systems. A 3rd level Human ranger in 1st edition AD&D is essentially the same as every other 3rd level Human ranger, with minor exceptions for attributes. What made a character unique was how he or she was role-played, the background the player gave the character, etc. None of this came from the system or any hoarding of power. For someone who supposedly extols storytelling, it is surprising that Mr. Lowry fails to grasp this.

    Despite Mr. Lowry’s arbitrary and nonsensical hypothesis that old-school GMs looked for ways to punish players, this was the exception, not the rule. Just because a group isn’t playing Magic Tea Party doesn’t mean they are screaming in each other’s faces for half an hour or murdering each other’s characters over simple misunderstandings. It is a shame the author obviously spent a lot of time playing in bad games with bad players and bad GMs. It is even more of a shame that he would disingenuously pretend that this was the norm, or comment on old-school play when he obviously doesn’t have a clue what it is.

    For the overwhelming majority of old-school players, we do not need to move beyond punishment play, because we were never involved in punishment play. We don’t need to stop trying to win, because we never were trying to win. We can continue with quests, challenges, puzzles, npc interaction and all of the other things that go into actual storytelling. Maybe someday Mr. Lowry can catch up to us.

  10. Gaming is not the same as story telling. Gaming is not everyone working together, gaming is conflict and loss and victory. Read a book if you want just a story, when I LARP or tabletop if there isn’t a potential lose condition then there’s no win condition either. LARPing and tabletop “gaming” is an amalgamation of storytelling AND gaming not just a thematic adventure that you can’t lose. There are different styles of gaming and not all are for everyone, but the most difficult are always the most rewarding. This isn’t an enlightened article by someone embracing new gaming methods over old, this is someone who wants their participation trophy.

  11. Dear Mr.Lowry,

    What idiots have you played with?
    I have been playing D&D since 1980, I was taught by my late mother.
    We never had this trouble and I rarely had this problem in my long gaming life.
    I find your article troublesome and not really accurate at all.
    You imply the negative as the norm we must break from.. which neither I, nor my some 30 friends [I shared your article on facebook] sorry, 38.. have ever seen…
    Maybe you need to step back and take a broader look around.

    • yes your 38 friends represent every single gamer and clearly you have with that large sampling of the population seen every type of gaming.. count yourself lucky this hasnt happened to you and save the outrage for facebook political posts, im sure trumps done something in the last hour or so for you to have genuine outrage about

  12. I’m not sure what trauma you’ve endured at the gaming table, but whatever point you hoped to make with this article has gotten lost in a poorly written diatribe that is misguided and misinformed. If my words make you angry, you should stop and consider how your words have angered legions of “old school” gamers whom you have viciously attacked. I would like to say that your article is being discussed in the many message boards in which I participate, or that it started a potentially positive discussion, but I can’t; all you have done with this article is draw a line in the sand with your way on one side and no one who respects you or what you have said on the other.

    This “power gaming” or “punishment play” to which you refer does not in any way represent old school gaming, at best it occurred in tournament play and with very specific DM styles. In old school gaming, good DMs were referees–did PCs sometimes die? absolutely, that doesn’t make them or their entire generation killer DMs. There has been a progression towards more story based gaming, which may well be your preference, but that doesn’t give you the right to tell anyone that they are having fun wrong.

    In the future, if you would like to be taken seriously, please do a little research and present your points and arguments in a compare and contrast format, it will prevent you from coming across so poorly and might actually start a healthy discussion instead of being a Patrick Lowry slam session.

    • yeah no need to be a dick buddy.. i know its the internet.. if you have something constructive to say that might help. then say it.. if you just want to shout abuse at a stranger take it on the arches

      its cute because you got offended that maybe some one was talking about you.. but i have news for you he was not talking about YOU.. most of us dont talk about YOU nor do we care about YOU.. this might come as a surprise to you but there are 7.4 billion people in the world.. that means there are roughly seven billion three hundred ninety-nine million nine hundred ninety-nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine people in the world that ARE NOT YOU.. and its possible that just maybe the author was referring to some of THOSE people and NOT you.. its not just possible, its more than likely..

      so in the future if you want to be taken seriously dont get offended at things that having nothing to do with you and dont open your mouth and prove to people you are an asshole. its amazing how your life will improve

  13. so fighting the monsters the DM sent out was bad? because we werent telling a story? im lost.. i really dont understand what you mean.. there are a lot of ways to play a game but one where everyone and the dm are all on the same side sounds kinda boring.. its you against the game and the game is represented by the GM but then he tells the story and you add to it with your own actions/reactions. I think maybe maybe you are on to something but need to think it out more.. a part two to this article might be in order

  14. The author is indeed too young to talk about truly “old school” gaming. I started playing in the 80’s, and my friends and I were always on the same “team”, no matter who was the DM.

    But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. Go to gaming conventions and watch the tabletop games. Go to your local game store and watch groups of friends. You’re going to see a lot of this stuff going around, and it’s mostly from gamers who cut their teeth on the super min-max twinkiness of things like the book of weeaboo fightan magic. It’s a turn off for a lot of people, and it’s causing people to leave the hobby and stopping new players from joining in.

    Sure, the author’s timelines are wonky. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a very real issue with gaming culture in general of people, usually males (although I see plenty of women doing it too), trying to “win” by dominating anyone else at the table, treating them like the competition. And competition is fine, so long as it’s the context of a friendly game. More and more I’m seeing people treat it like life and death. No fun allowed. That’s just sad.

  15. I had tabletop RPG with different GMs I found out that Character that has the power to rule the game is not all that it’s crack up to be, and that it kills the character, so I used the basic of one of the games a GM told us about in the Seven sea RPG tabletop, what would the character you made do in the scene of event they are in. Well it actively made it more fun to see how the character can be, and I start to make background for the characters I play.

    Also the GM are from Old School but I’d might of been lucky with the GMs, cause the GMs always tell new player that if they character does anything stupid the character gets punish, that cause the GMs kept track of how the characters acts.

  16. Ah GM vs. players… This was how D&D co-creator Gary Gygax ran his games, apparently. And even back in 1974 or so people complained. (I wasn’t there, but I’ve read about it, and there are recollections from people who played in his games at cons.) There were storyteller-oriented campaigns even then, though… I think the “adversarial GM” is probably much more rare than when I started gaming in the 80s as a kid. And even when I started playing D&D at 9 yrs old in 1980, I thought “killer DMs” who tried to trip up players were dicks.

  17. I don’t mean to make broad sweeping assumptions about other game groups, but have you considered the possibility that your friends are all just jerks?

    Maybe find better friends.

  18. Interestingly enough, I think you’re describing the maturity level of your gaming group more than the time frame that they exist in. I’ve played D&D since 2nd ed (1989), WoD LARPed in the mid-late 90s, played my share of 3.0, 3.5, etc. D&D and more.
    The power struggles you’re describing were more of a function of my own (or my gaming buddies) maturity level and the system we used than it was a function of the era. I would say that D&D 2nd or 5th ed is more collaborative than D&D 3.X era – fewer rules means more story, less rules lawyering. The Larp group I was in had a variety of ages (middle school through post college) and the more mature folks focused on collaborative story where the less focused on disrupting the story / demonstrating agency.
    Of course, then comes the bitter pill – as we get older and can tell a much richer story with our friends, we lose time to jobs, kids & life in general…

  19. Seeing your update makes me feel better about your rant. Within the parameters that you give in your update, my experiences with 3.0 and later D&D, and a lot of overheard discussions on why quite a few of my friends had quit NERO LARP in anger/disgust, your opinions are more valid to me. You don’t need my validation, but there it is.

    I agree that the rule book heavy powercreep that seems like it began in earnest with 3rd edition has, for all its myriad of options, narrowed the game significantly. A friend of mine who, for fun, made up a dwarven wizard to play at a one-off Con game was lambasted by others at the table for making a “useless” character because it was made the “wrong” way. That kind of attitude and behavior has no place at a gaming table where people should be playing for fun. Not even at a one-off Con game.

    Too much focus is put on “winning” which seems to imply using the rules to the point of abuse to try to guarantee an optimal outcome. The game company, with its apparent desire to maximize revenue by selling as many $50 hardback books as possible (which, admittedly, is a reasonable corporate viewpoint), tosses aside the concept of fun for the concept of more and more OPTIONS, many of which aren’t very well thought out (or so it seems to me) and increase the power creep and the oneupmanship of “My character can kick your character’s butt!” Meh, feh, and fie on that stupidity. I’ll happily take my simpler rules system that makes the game more fun than what feels like working hard in the applied statistics field for no pay.

    And as far as the Rules Lawyers who insist that they can act with impunity because the rules don’t say they can’t? Well, unfortunately there have always been those, and always will be. It frustrates me that the more rules they add to try to cover every situation, the more the instances of abuse and misuse occur. Again, I prefer the original old school of “There’s no suggestion for how to handle this situation, so I better come up with something reasonable and be consistent with it so it won’t bite me on the butt later.”

    And to finish it up, I am sorry that you and your friends have experienced frustration with the jerky side of gaming. I hope you can find a group or rules set that you enjoy much more. If you were local to me, I’d invite you to at least watch one of my games and see what you liked. Best of luck!

  20. What I see is a classical problem related to Bartles Taxonomy, from which is derived the 4 gamer types; Killer, Explorer, Achiever and Socializer. It feels like your gaming experience has been dominated by Killers, which is something that tends to happen, while you would rather play a Socializer. This is as much a personality conflict as a power conflict. One should be fixed. The other shouldn’t be.

    Power gaming, power conflicts – that sort of thing, should be addressed. It’s people holding onto more than their fair share. They get more of the DM’s time, more rewards and more control. It’s not fair.

    Just a fine line away from that is the Killer. This player likes to dominate and it’s greatly based on personality. Asking them NOT to play a killer, because you don’t like it, is pretty much the same as asking you to PLAY a killer. It’s not your thing. In each case you are asking someone to change their personality and that isn’t fair. Toning it down, not dominating all the time, that’s a fair request.

    So what do you do? I’m not sure. Sometimes a gaming group doesn’t work. Maybe you’ve got a bunch of socializers and a killer DM. It’s hard to write and run games out of your type. More importantly, it’s not fun to do that. I’ve abandoned a few groups when I found out I did not fit. That’s really hard to do. Getting a good mix of people, who trust each other, makes for a good game but it’s hard to do and predicting it is even harder.

    I’ve spent the last year writing Aalutan’s Nexus, a set of LARP rules and I intend to deal with a large number of people, far more than you see at a gaming table. The benefit of LARP is like-players can cluster together and do their thing and I’m trying to make that possible. Killers on the front line killing, Explorers wandering around. Socializers at the back talking. Achievers trying to get the mission done.

    I ran into huge resistance when I introduced non-combat rules for Tavern Events. The Killers didn’t like them at all and refused to attend the playtest for those rules. That’s frustrating but Killers tend to be the most aggressive and are often the frontrunners for a new system. Socializers may come in if they see that it’s safe for their style of play. So in this case, I need to keep pushing the non-combat rules but keep them in the background.

    My biggest non-punishment system was XP. Everyone gets the same XP (level) as everyone else. When you come play, you are the same level as the longest playing Character there. If you only play once every few months and if you never miss an event, you are the same level. I’ve heard some complaints but there are SO many people getting on board with the idea that I’m pretty sure it’s going to stick. There are many other rewards for attending, that I’ve added, to reward attendance. You can’t get loot or gold unless you attend and I added a special “glory” point system that can temporarily boost abilities and you get 1 point per game you attend. Specifically Glory was an attendance reward.

    I also introduced a no-punishments for being late policy. This went hand-in-hand with a start-on-time rule.

    Not punishing players who don’t read the rules is hard. There is always an element of punishing yourself because you don’t know the rules. But at least I can work on the attitude of reminding people who don’t know the rules. As a writer for many years, the rulebook is carefully formatted for people who don’t want to read it. There is a 30 page rules section, then 370 pages of classes/races/heritages/spells. You don’t need to know that stuff, just the “rules”.

    I’m still working on a 1-2 page system summary. A DM’s screen but for new people.

  21. This article is totally inaccurate. If anything it is new DMs (who don’t know what they are doing wrong) who are running shoddy games, have a mentality of DM vs players, and it is the experienced DMs who run games that allow players immersion and the joy of building and developing their characters, all while crafting multiple overlapping story arcs and adventure arcs.

    This isn’t old school vs new school, this is experienced DMs vs amateurs who don’t know what they are doing wrong.

  22. Ironically, I’ve seen “new” style players use that claim of “cooperative” play to punish people. I had someone in a LARP screw over my character using metagaming. I accepted their half-hearted apology that they just got caught up in the scene and said I wouldn’t ask for any OOC action, but warned them there would be IC results for shoving my character into a situation that could have gotten the character killed. And promptly used a massive amount of non-mechanical methods to try and kill their character.

    It was a high drama piece of role-playing, using carefully collected IC information to blackmail key characters, lots of careful plotting and methodical planning. Everyone had a blast trying to put it together, becaue it was forcing us to be creative in a way straight “I overwhelm you with mechanics and XP” never did. Only for us to put weeks of planning into action and have it derailed by said metagamer complaining about us being “mean” and “overly antagonsitc.” The guy who was happy to play high conflict when he could win was suddenly a champion of “no PC conflict unless every buys in head of time.”

    End result? I lost a lot of my taste for gaming. The issue isn’t “play style.” It never has been. It’s about acknowledging that everyone gets to have fun and that sometimes, you may need to sacrifice a little so others can have fun.

  23. Well.. I appreciate the Edit, but 3.5 is definitely not old school as many still play it, and it’s entirely untrue that there is anything in this edition (or any prior) that encouraged a players vs DM mindset…
    I really don’t know where you got that impression.
    Must have been quite a conversation you had.

  24. Author, you clearly don’t know nearly enough about roleplaying games to issue such blanket condemnations of other games, gamers, and playstyles. Your experience doesn’t justify your arrogance.

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