A Way Out

December 19, 2009

ETA: I’ve started to develop a tool to help groups coordinate play: The Same Page Tool.

It’s really easy to reliably have fun role-playing…when you ignore the 30-odd years of “common wisdom” in the hobby, and instead, embrace the idea of how games have worked throughout history throughout the world.

See The Roots of the Big Problems for context.

A Common Ground

Games work on a very simple principle- a group of people agree to a set of common rules.

Much of the problems in the hobby are rooted in failing this fundamental concept.

Imagine if you sat down with your friends to play “Cards”… one of you is playing Poker, another is playing Hearts, and the last person is playing Go Fish.

You’re all playing cards, right?

It’s not going to work.  No one is going to get the game they want.  The problem is that no one agreed to a common set of rules and no one is organized with each other.  The common group activity that makes anything a game, doesn’t exist.

You don’t see this with cards because everyone understands you have to be playing the same game for it to work.

But you see that in roleplaying all the time.

“OH GOD POWERGAMERS.”  Wait.  That’s like going, “OH GOD GO FISH” at a Poker table.  It’s a discussion that shouldn’t even have to happen- someone wants a different game – why are they playing this game with you?  If you agreed on the game, there shouldn’t be problems with people trying to do different things than what was agreed to.

But for roleplaying, the key problem is a majority of the rules sets aren’t actually games.  They give you rules to put scores to characters, resolve some fictional events but no larger picture.  It’s like having numbers, faces and suits on cards- useful tools, but doesn’t actually organize what makes the game.  What are the roles of the players?  What is the goal of play?  What is the intended play experience?

Start with a game that has rules that do ONE THING.

Just like every other type of game in the history of humanity, this has been a proven method.

A game that explains what players can and cannot do, what the goal of play is – whether it’s beat up monsters and get treasure or tell a tragedy of pride and downfall.  How do you create scenes?  What kind of conflict makes sense?  What do players DO with their characters?

Complete and focused rules become a meeting point for a common set of understanding.   It also means that players can decide right here, and right now, if they want to play this game or not.

Most of your “problem players” are just people who want to play a different game and are either under the illusion that you were playing a different game to begin with, or that different games could be mixed.

This is why you see so much talk about the process of “forming a group”- it’s a process of trial and error trying to find people who want the same game as you.   As 30 plus years of the hobby have shown, it’s about as efficient as buying lotto tickets as a serious investment method.  Instead of recognizing the fundamental issue, the hobby has tried to dress it up, “Oh, roleplaying is difficult, only special people can master its intricacies…”

Let’s Agree to This

Now for the second part.  If you’ve clarified what the game is, and how it works, the other part of this is the social agreement about playing.

Games work because the people playing want to play this game.  Implicit in this agreement is that we’re all actually interested in this game, we want it to work, we want it to be fun.  It’s really easy because we’re all working together to make it happen.

If my friends are playing Poker and I want to play Hearts, I have two choices:  Play Poker and get whatever I get from it, or play with them another time when my mood and their game matches.

What isn’t a functional choice is for me to play half-assed, or worse, sabotage the game.  It’s also not ok for me to suddenly start trying to play Hearts in the middle of their game.  That’s me breaking the agreement to play the game in the first place.

On the flip side, if I was told we’re going to play Hearts and suddenly we’re playing Poker, the agreement about what game we’re playing got broken going the other way.

At the core of both of these behaviors is a lack of trust.

I don’t trust you enough to tell you how I feel about what I find fun” and “I don’t trust you enough to tell you the truth to make your own decisions about what you find fun”.

That’s a terrible place from which to try to build any activity of fun.  For it all being “just a game” that’s a lot of distrust and dishonesty.

If you can’t honestly talk about the game, something is wrong.

Fun is reliably had when people are doing what they want to do- not because they’re tolerating it to please their friends, not because they’re secretly hoping for another activity, not because someone else is trying to “show” or “convince” them.

You cannot make anyone, including yourself, like something they do not like.

When people make that agreement and put in effort to make things work and don’t receive the expected play experience, whether the result of clarity, a lack of communication, miscommunication, or out and out misrepresentation – they get frustrated.  With time, that becomes resentment.  (This is also true of relationships, personal, professional, romantic)

Human nature is such that we operate on the assumption of an implicit agreement- a social contract, whether or not we actually sat down and discussed things.  Regardless whether the group sat down and started “trying to play cards”, or actually agreed to a set of terms, when those expectations are broken, the feeling is betrayal, and eventually, complete distrust with repeated violations of those expectations.

Trying to hide the rules, not talk about the issue, or lying about how people feel or how the game works doesn’t fix the problem – at that point it feels like betrayal because it is.

The initial agreement can only be held if people can honestly talk about how they feel the expectations are, or are not, being met.  Hence the need for a clear, complete set of rules.

Reasonable Expectation of Commitment

Part of agreeing to any activity is an idea of how much you’re committing to it.  Are we playing 6 sessions?  I can think about my work and personal life and schedule to make that happen.  I can gauge my own interest and see if I’m willing to commit that.

Establish and agree to a set time period.

“Indefinitely”, “Forever” and “Unstated” are not terms people can make meaningful decisions about.  These especially don’t work when the social expectation is that participation is equivalent to friendship and non-participation is non-friendship.  People get busy, people’s moods change.   The timeline can be exact or flexible- “3 months” is meaningful, “6-8 sessions” works.  “A campaign” or “A story arc” is not. (This is also assuming your game doesn’t have an in-built endgame mechanic.)

Again, as I spoke about above, you have to give an idea to make a meaningful expectation for people to make decisions and negotiate with.

The Formula:

  1. Use a complete set of rules that do one thing.
  2. Honest agreement about those rules.
  3. Establish and agree to a set time period
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