On Vox Machina and Poor Impulse Control

This post isn’t part of the core Antology, but rather part of my comments on Critical Role. Since it isn’t part of the core Antology, the target audience is also different – I’m targeting fans of Critical Role here, and the language, precision, and tone of the post will reflect that. In fact, the original post was made on Reddit, though I’ve polished it up here.

You can use the sidebar to filter this series of posts out if you’d rather not read about Critical Role here.

This post has major spoilers for the show, up through episode 90. You have been warned.


My core argument is as follows: Vox Machina’s lackadaisical attitude towards danger embodies the modern tabletop RPG.

That is the topic at hand here. NOT Matthew Mercer’s GMing, NOT whether a party which underprepares for disasters should be punished, but the fact that Matt’s GMing and Vox Machina’s (VM’s) way of dealing with threats embody modern tabletop RPG game design. I’m not addressing each “way” individually – you may disagree with my interpretation of how Matt and his players act, and that’s fine. That’s not the substantive point here. I’m talking about what they indicate in the broader sense of how tabletop RPGs have been designed over the years.

Background

First of all, let me establish the play style I’m talking about. During one of the Talks Machina episodes, Travis mentions that he enjoys playing a character that just does whatever is at the forefront of his mind. When Raishan is about to speak to the deceased corpse of Thordak, Travis pipes up out-of-character and asks Liam, “don’t you want to see what happens?” Frequently when the party messes something up they talk about how messing things up made the game more interesting, even if it didn’t help the players “win”. Matthew Mercer more or less only says “I love Dungeons & Dragons” directly to the camera when the group does something ridiculous or risky or otherwise questionable from a safety perspective.

That’s the play style.

Liam and Sam even outright satirize this in-character, commenting about how their planning is bound to go awry and how they just end up improvising all the time. Taliesin plays Percy as someone who is resigned to this fact.

One of the interesting things about this play style is that portions of the fan community see them as “getting away with it.” Whether it is having encounters that aren’t dangerous enough, folks reviving after being downed, or just the fact that the party is never abstractly “punished” in some way, this sense exists of their success as being “cheap” to a portion of the community. And while I cannot psychoanalyze the community as a whole, I do think the implication is clear – somehow something is “wrong” there.

A lot of discussion has been had about whether this portion of the community is bad or not. I ask that discussion to be left at the door. It’s a well-worn argument. What I want to talk about instead is how the modern tabletop RPG actively incentivizes precisely the sort of behavior that Vox Machina engages with.

Powerful Ambition and Poor Impulse Control

The tabletop RPG Fiasco, published in 2009 by Bully Pulpit Games, is billed as being “A game of powerful ambition and poor impulse control”. I think that this is probably the most honest representation of the modern RPG.

No other game quite markets itself this way. Fiasco is an example of a game where you are frankly going to be more delighted if you play the game with both of those aspects in play: be ambitious, be a daredevil, and your game of Fiasco will be that much more fun. However, even if most modern games don’t state it explicitly, they mirror this truth in their mechanics.

Let’s start with three very recently published tabletop RPGs: D&D 4E (2008), Dungeon World (2012), and Numenera (2013). What are the design innovations that each bring to the tabletop RPG world?

One of the subtler things 4E did was it started heroes off as, well, heroes. In 4th Edition a 1st Level character is already someone who can kick ass and take names, and each level only makes them better at this. They can get away with quite a lot that your level 1 D&D character typically cannot because of this bump in power.

Dungeon World highlights the idea of “failing forward” – failed rolls (checks, for D&D fans) always result in something happening that moves the narrative forward – you aren’t supposed to ever have a roll where the end result is just “sorry, you failed, nothing happens”. You can even gain experience points on a failed roll. The game is built around the idea that every character action shapes the world around them.

Numenera (as mentioned here) brings up GM intrusions – I’m oversimplifying the mechanic here, but effectively when a GM creates a complication for players to solve, that is an Intrusion. A player can then spend meta-currency to veto said intrusion. Taken to its most extreme end conclusion, a player faced with a mountain between them and their destination could spend meta-currency and veto the existence of the mountain. They can “get away” with vetoing actual plot elements.

These games all reward players who boldly step up and make the story about themselves. They give players more dissociative agency and characters more associative power (discussed previously here). It follows then that they encourage reckless, less realistic play in the interests of making the game itself fun. You can still die or “lose” in all of them, but the focus isn’t on the potential for failure, but rather the power to circumvent failure in a fun way.

While they don’t incentivize risk-taking as directly as Fiasco does, they make caution less of a prerequisite. Self-preservation is seen as a secondary priority – we see examples in Vox Machina’s handling of Craven Edge, in their sparse research on their enemies, and in Travis suggesting that hearing Raishan out might have been more interesting. Vox Machina is more often locked in the grip of Matt’s story than in tenacious fighting for their own survival…and that’s because this is the focus that modern tabletop RPGs have turned to. 5th Edition stands on the shoulders of giants, and it demonstrably has taken cues from those games’ designs.

Lethality and Old School Revival

There is a flavor of the D&D-esque game called Old School Revival (OSR for short). I don’t dive too deeply into what it is here, and if the reader is interested then there are very long-winded explanations that they can explore at their leisure, as well as future posts on this blog which will explore it.

I bring it up here only to highlight some differences in assumption from how the cast of Critical Role plays. In the OSR mindset, your characters are supposed to die if the player lacks skill, because the world is a harsh and unforgiving place. Hit dice are lower, so you’ve objectively got fewer resources to work with. The thief/rogue’s skillset is often completely geared toward combat avoidance – sneak attack is an afterthought, not a primary feature. In Dungeon Crawl Classics (DCC), for example, the expectation is that you begin with four characters you control, and you see who survives for you to play for the rest of the campaign.

The theme of player ingenuity rather than character ingenuity is a common thread in these games. If you look at the campaign modules for OSR games or even the 1st edition & 2nd edition D&D games which OSR is based off of, you see a lot of traps and puzzles that are absolutely ludicrous, and which few in-world characters could reasonably be expected to solve. In Tales of the Yawning Portal and Tomb of Annihilation’s design, we even see OSR principles working in 5E!*

In general, the increased lethality in OSR ends up having a psychological impact on the player. It forces certain play styles from the player and the GM. To provide a contrast, in modern tabletop RPGs, there is an expectation that combat will be “fair”, while OSR assumes that players won’t even necessarily be trying to fight – they will work to avoid combat unless they are certain they can win. This is a fundamental shift. It enforces the random, organic, and cautious way that OSR games play out, and it gets in your head after a while because self-preservation becomes something visceral in a way that is rarely emulated in modern tabletop RPGs. How many of us only expect to die if we do something catastrophically stupid rather than merely lacking prudence? How many of us see death as punishment? In OSR, both of those expectations are upended. I suspect that the fans who want Vox Machina’s capers to have more stakes would appreciate the mindset of an OSR game.

Incidentally, this is why OSR finds itself culturally inclined toward creative but unrealistic puzzles, more grotesque and unpredictable enemies, and more “save or die” spells. All of those supplement this flavor of the game.**

Back to Topic

It’s a fair assertion to say that Matt runs the game in a more forgiving manner than, say, Gygax would. You can even objectively count the encounters he runs compared to those in published modules and therefore see that Critical Role is easier than what you should expect when running the game as per the expectations of its designers. However, it may be both more kind and more insightful to note that Matt embraces failures as an opportunity for humor and narrative drama rather than using them as cautionary moments for his players.***

Matt’s game embodies all the values that the modern tabletop RPG audience has come to value. You can be whimsical, or feel truly heroic, or make an awful choice and just get to enjoy the outcome rather than be terrified about dying or losing your freedom or what-have-you. Those latter points are the stereotype of what occurs in OSR games (we’ll be exploring whether those stereotypes hold water in-depth here on Antology in later posts), and admittedly those are elements of the game which we might rationally be turned off by, for all that some of the community loves those elements.

Vox Machina welcomes the freedom to be crazy. The rules, the guides online for how to GM, and the majority of the show’s fans all encourage the sort of zany storytelling that Vox Machina has mastered. Both Matt and his players embody this type of play – a type of play that has enough merit that most modern RPGs are shifting towards this direction.

In conclusion, my belief is that designers are increasingly making games that contain mechanics and elements encouraging and enabling play in the same style as Vox Machina, while not explicitly requiring anyone to play like them. They knew that this sort of play might occur, and they took steps to make systems that would incentivize it. When we focus only on Vox Machina in a vacuum, the entire conversation is only about whether “your fun is wrong” or not…and that is perhaps something unsurprising when it comes to fans of the show. I wanted to dive deeper into that, and see if I could dig up something deeper.

If this post encourages you to look beyond Vox Machina and D&D 5e, at RPG design and at how other gamers play, then I’ve made the impact I wanted to make. 🙂


Footnotes

*5th Edition is definitely able to emulate Old-School play and high-lethality play. I’m not trying to make a case that it is cut-and-dry a modern tabletop RPG that only adheres to modern tabletop RPG values.

**Because the audience of this post is primarily targeted at Critical Role fans, I take some liberties in presenting the dichotomy of OSR and modern games to make an already lengthy post more digestible. The dichotomy is a good place to start, but a poor place to end up: when examined it becomes evident that this dichotomy isn’t useful in the broader world of game design. Heck, it isn’t even terribly useful to talking about the gaming audience, when you really start to unpack what folks expect out of D&D and why. However, examining that with satisfactory depth and therefore length would have caused much of the target audience to tune out.

***It is worth noting that Matt’s resurrection rules objectively make that particular part of the game harder than the game as run by the Rules As Written (RAW).


Works Cited

Mercer, Matthew. Geek & Sundry. “Critical Role.” Burbank, California.

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