Tuesday, May 24, 2011

D&D Kayfabe

There is an important lesson that RPG players of any stripe can learn from the “sport” of professional wrestling. Before I make my central point, allow me to share some of the similarities that wrestling and tabletop roleplaying share. Wrestling, like roleplaying games, is often very silly. The storylines are over-the-top, the violence is sometimes cartoonish, and the outcomes of the matches don't really matter. At its best, though, wrestling (and gaming) is a lot of fun for both the performers and the audience, who all experience many of the same kinds of emotional highs and lows associated with a legitimate sporting event.

The key to making all of these unbelievable parts come together into a cohesive, entertaining whole in wrestling is a concept called kayfabe. The word itself dates back to the secret trade language of carnival workers; It is basically a pig latin way of saying “fake.” The simplest definition would be to say that kayfabe is about suspending disbelief, but it goes farther than that. Years ago, before wrestlers openly admitted that wrestling was predetermined, they used to protect this secret jealously, and not just with their words. Two wrestlers who hated each other on-screen would be careful never to be seen together in public, lest it spoil the illusion. Many wrestlers tried to live their in-ring gimmicks as much as possible, going as far as faking an accent or speaking in a different voice in front of strangers. Wrestling fans, often the butt of a great many jokes, would rally in defense whenever others called their favorite sport fake.

With the exception of the very young or not very intelligent, no one really thought that wrestling was legit, not if they watched it with any regularity. The wrestlers, I imagine, knew that the fans were on to them as well. How could they not? So, what was the point of closely guarding the secret if everyone knew? Why “keep kayfabe” when no one really believed it? The reason, I believe, was that kayfabe is a huge part of what makes wrestling fun. Even in this modern era, where kayfabe is by and large dead, wrestlers and wrestling fans still play along as though they have no idea that what they're watching is a predetermined spectacle. A wrestling fan will assure you that “of course it's fake, but so are sci-fi TV shows, so what?” Put him in the audience, though, and he'll scream for the good guys and boo all the bad guys. This is where D&D players can learn a lesson for their own favorite pass time.

There has been a lot of talk lately, especially among the “Old School Renaissance”, praising the open-ended, or sandbox campaign. The strength of this style of play is that, by not planning out every little detail in advance, the GM leaves himself room to adapt to what the players want to do. If I'm the GM and I bother to stat out and describe every square inch of the Tower of Ill Repute, I'm going to be up a creek (and annoyed) if the players make a beeline around the place and head straight to some forest I haven't had time to even map.

In order for this kind of campaign to work, the people on both sides of the table have to suspend disbelief that the world is a bigger, more detailed place than it actually is, and the GM has to play along while actually making a bunch of it up on the spot. That's D&D kayfabe. Like wrestling fans, the players know that the GM couldn't possibly have created all of this beforehand. He might have some very detailed notes but at least some of the time he's just pulling things out of thin air. The GM has a similar responsibility to maintain the illusion of a complete and living world. If either side breaks kayfabe, it hurts the fun.

That doesn't mean that the GM should never let his guard down and pause the game to say “Hey, guys, I didn't think of that. Give me a few minutes to figure out what's going on.” That kind of thing is fine when it's appropriate to the pace of the game or when it results in a more fair or entertaining outcome. In my opinion, though, the GM should never admit that he hasn't thought up the big, plot-affecting decisions. To do so cheapens the whole experience for everyone involved. It would be like the Rock getting on camera right before a match and telling the crowd “me and Steve Austin, I mean Steve Williams, are going to go plan out the finish of this match. We'll be back in a few minutes to pretend to fight. Get ready to cheer, because I'm going to be playing the good guy...if you smell what I'm cooking!”

Kayfabe isn't just needed for open-ended adventures, either. The opposite of the sandbox campaign is the railroad campaign. In this style, the players' actions are limited to places and events that the GM has carefully planned in advance. The advantage of the railroad style is that, within the constrains of what the GM has developed, there is usually a lot of detail. If you can guarantee that the players are heading to the Tower of Ill Repute, you can spend all your prep time describing the place in novel-like minutia.

A railroad works best when the players maintain D&D kayfabe and willingly bite onto the GM's adventure hooks, while the GM must give the players at least the illusion of free choice. For example, if the PCs are given a choice between two different paths in the dungeon, it breaks kayfabe and kills the fun if you clue them in to the fact that they'll face an ogre no matter what route they take. It's better to keep the untraveled road a mystery than spoil the illusion.

Here's an example of breaking kayfabe from my own gaming experiences:
Between regular campaigns, a friend of one of my players thought to try his hand at GMing. As one of those guys who is almost always behind the screen, I jumped at the chance to roll up a character and actually play for a change. We sat down, jotted down some stats, and within a few hours were ready to start playing.

The adventure was set in a small town in which several citizens had gone missing. Suspecting foul play, we searched around the town for clues. The disappearances, it turned out, correlated with the nights of the full moon. Further research turned up a witness who saw a large wolf lurking about one of the victim's farms shortly before his disappearance. The answer was obvious: someone in town was a werewolf!

Maybe it was because I hadn't gotten to play very often, but I was really enjoying this adventure. We identified three likely suspects, based on clues we'd gathered at the scenes of the crimes. Before we could make our accusation, however, we had to be sure that we had the right man. The wrong decision would mean personal trouble for us, as each suspect had powerful, vengeful allies. Even if we did manage to find the guilty party on the first try, we knew we'd likely face a fight against a desperate, cornered lycanthrope.

The players decided to take a break and resume the game after dinner. A bunch of us piled into a car and headed to a nearby McDonalds. We were all excited, discussing our next course of action while we gobbled down fries. What if we pinpointed the wrong person and the werewolf escaped? We hastily assembled a plan B in which we would trick all three suspects into gathering together in one location. Perhaps, if we were clever, we could bluff the monster into revealing itself. It was a dangerous plan because we'd be putting two innocents in potential harm's way.

At some point during all this planning the GM, motivated by guilt or a sense of camaraderie with me as a fellow referee, leaned over and quietly told me a secret. “You know what's crazy?” the GM asked, “I haven't even decided myself who the werewolf is. I'm just making it up.” With that one little revelation, that one breaking of D&D kayfabe, the GM killed my emotional investment in his game.

As cliched and hastily created as the whole adventure was, I probably could have figured out that he was making most of this up as he went along. In retrospect, the clues he left for us were mostly based on what we expected to find where we expected to find it. It was all very flimsy and unrealistic. At the time, though, I didn't notice. I didn't notice because I was having fun. I was riding high on the emotions of a good game and playing along with the reality of the story this GM had created. By violating his end of the suspension of disbelief, by breaking kayfabe, the GM took me completely out of the adventure. From that point on, I was just going through the motions.

We didn't even have to implement our plan B. When we visited the very first suspect, we found his front door curiously ajar. Entering his house, we found the bodies of several victims half-eaten in his basement. In other words, we found the werewolf on the very first try. Surprise, surprise.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not trying to suggest that D&D players should go along like sheep with whatever adventure the GM has cooked up, even if they aren't enjoying themselves. Nor am I saying that GMs should pretend as though they have reams and reams of notes, maps, and plans when they clearly don't. What I'm trying to do is define the unspoken contract between players and referees that allows us to turn down the volume on the logical parts of our brains just a bit so that the more emotional parts, the parts that I think carry a lot of the fun, can be heard from. I think it's useful to give this concept a name, and I think that kayfabe is as good a name as any.

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