Posts Tagged ‘gamer baggage’



July 18, 2010

I just listened to a really great, and frustrating podcast. The frustrating part was that the questions put forward by the hosts really reflected a couple of long standing problems in the hobby and got in the way of the interview they were doing. I’m not so much interested in talking about the podcast as much as the two issues I saw.

Justifying the Rules

Tabletop roleplaying is the only gaming hobby I know of, where gamers regularly demand that the rules be justified before trying them. “Oh yeah? Tell me WHY I should play by the rules you give me, huh?!? HUH?!?”

And, I know that 95% of the games in the hobby have had pretty crappy design and most people don’t trust rules to work in the first place. And I know when you don’t have an organized method to consistently people to play the same game, there’s a level of fear that anything might knock down the house of cards that forms “working play”.

But still. You kinda have to look at folks and go, “Look, do you want to play or not? If you do, let’s try it the way the rules say, if not, let’s just go play something else.”

The Personal Experience

When you listen to music, when you see a painting, when you watch a movie or play, read a book, there’s a personal experience you have with the media – it causes feelings, directs thoughts, etc. Games are the same way – they affect you as you play them.

Part of that is to experience that, to think about it, to digest it. I mean, you can just casually enjoy it and not think about it, but if your friend asks you about the subject, you’ll give an answer based on your experience of it. If you enjoy writing, speaking, making podcasts, etc. on the subject, you probably are going to do more thinking and analysis about play.

A lot of tabletop roleplayers tend to be not so good at this task.

I’m thinking there’s two things that create that- a lot of game books, advice, “common knowledge” that is both untrue and sets up a culture of divorcing oneself from one’s own personal experiences, and second, when there’s dysfunctional gaming experiences, group pressure to edit one’s understanding of one’s experiences, and again, divorce from critical thought about them.

Notice that, though the interview, they’re effectively asking him to make an interpretation on the experience of the game… after having played quite a bit themselves.

If you read some of the comments you can see the same issues reflected again. Instead of asking, “Wait, you guys played the game, why are you asking these questions?”, they’re asking, “Why is Jared dodging the questions?”

Such a long way to go.


An example in broken Social Contract

June 28, 2010

Today’s Penny Arcade gives a funny, but accurate example of someone breaking social contract.

I talk a lot about people needing to buy in to playing the same game, and you can see where this kind of thing would be the opposite of that.

Consider that these are vastly different games:

1) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, set in this world, where we’ll beat Tiamat at the end of the campaign!”
2) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, set in this world, and we go find our own direction/do what we want.”
3) “We’re playing a campaign of D&D, and maybe we end up in different settings.”
4) “We’re playing a campaign in D&D, but maybe there’s a switcheroo and we end up in Gamma World or Paranoia!”

If everyone agreed to any ONE of these understandings, consider that comic again and think of whether that kind of hijinks would even happen.

Then, consider, if people are coming to play without a common understanding, is the problem really the Deck of Many Things, Wish Spells, or whatever in-game fiction or mechanic? (See also: “I develop gunpowder in your fantasy game!”, “My knight of the round table is a Ninja from the Far East!”, etc.)

Design vs. Culture

Modern rpg design tends to deal with this in two ways. Either:

a) High levels of specificity – in terms of design, setting, color, etc. The game does one thing explicitly, or;
b) Expectation of Social Contract – leave it unremarked and hope the group has enough social contract understanding to work it out.

You could see most of the “how do we work with this game?” conversations online, being broadly under these two categories with a common issue of, “Does your group have a functioning social contract and are you playing the same game?”



June 14, 2010

“Your game is broken because I went out of my way to break it and then I broke it”

If you were trying to play chess, and your opponent deliberately tried to lose, would they be breaking the rules? There’s a certain social contract that goes with any game, including roleplaying games- it’s the goal or point of the game.

I was just reminded of this thing gamers do:

A: “Here’s this game I made about telling stories of tragedy.”
B: “But if you use the rules like this, this, and this, then someone could play the game and totally avoid having tragedy, therefore your game is broken!”

In the broadest sense, you could consider the overall goal/point of a game (“Chess: Checkmate their king, protect your own”) as the founding directive rule to any game.

Naturally this goes back to the usual issues of assuming all games being all things and general poor reading skills people do, but still, it’s really interesting the way in which folks act as if a game is supposed to somehow keep working when you’re not playing by the rules.

“Your game is broken because it doesn’t play itself for me!”

In a similar vein, I’ve also been reminded of people who look at a game, then complain about the part of the game that’s designed to exercise/challenge certain skill sets as the focus of play. That is:

A: “Here’s this game where players take turns adding imaginary bits to create a great story!”
B: “But the rules don’t MAKE the other players like what you contribute! It’s broken!”

“Chess doesn’t have rules that MAKE me make good tactical choices! It’s broken!”

Both of these things come back to not just understanding that games do specific things, but also a core aspect of social contract and buy-in:

Game design has no obligation to cater to people who don’t buy into the premise of the game.

Although you might be interested in Chessboxing, chess has no obligation to meet the expectations of boxers, and boxing has no obligation to meet the expectation of chess players – these are two games that do very different things.

In the same sense, as gamers, we have no obligation to the player(s) who don’t want to play the game we’re playing- if we agreed to play chess and then you start complaining that there’s not enough punching… guess who’s being out of line here?

Likewise, if you’re complaining that “only people who can think strategically can win at chess!” guess how much sympathy you’re likely to get?

In both cases, it’s people ignoring the premise of the game and complaining when it fulfills exactly what was advertised.

It’s pretty sad how many conversations get mired in this: from design, to play, to the GM asking for help how to deal with a “problem player”.

Game design is getting really damn good about being consistent in purpose and design, and being clear about telling players what the game is about.

I wonder how long it will take for folks to start catching up.


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

The Roots of the Big Problems

December 15, 2009

Some historical context on the big problems rife in the roleplaying hobby, both in regards to design as well as play culture.

Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was the breakout game that started roleplaying as a widespread hobby. Two features of D&D would later become problematic for the hobby, primarily in misuse and with the loss of historical context.

Incomplete Texts

Games as products, include rules to teach you how to play the game.

Roleplaying would start off quite differently -the original 1974 D&D books actually were descriptive of games people were already playing- it was assumed those buying the game were probably already playing some version of it- so the rules were more like cliffnotes rather than full instruction manuals.

New people ended up cobbling together “D&D” based on how they guessed these rules worked and whatever the local folks agreed upon. In context, this makes sense. Out of context, you have people arguing about “the right way” to play something that lacks core rule to begin with.

This would also lead to roleplaying games, in general, simply lacking full rules on how to play. Not only would this make it harder for a new person to pick up a game and learn from the book, this also means that the effect of “Many games under the same name” continues to happen over and over.

(ETA: Relevant Grognardia Quote from Gygax: “…there is so much variation between the way the game is played… there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.”)

Wargaming Roots

D&D was based off miniatures wargaming, and such, was focused on a lot of things specific to wargaming- combat, movement, encumberance, etc.

What would become a problem later on, was that 99% of roleplaying games would copy these features whether or not it made sense for the game concept.

Tied into the issue of Incomplete Texts, is that the context or reasons for design decisions would be lost over time, yet people still copying them over and over, with less and less understanding what purpose it served (which is basically the opposite of design). Seeing enough of this, many players (and designers!) would come to conclusion that ALL rules were shitty, and mostly worthless and not worth thinking about.

“We’re all playing the same game!”

So you had all these folks playing different games, under the same name. Somewhere, that context was lost. And those people were trying to play together.

Later editions of D&D and most roleplaying games that followed, attempted to cater to ALL of these groups, at the same time.

To “solve” the issue of gamers with mutually exclusive goals trying to play together, there’s a ton of advice in everything from the game texts to magazines and newsletters either a) trying a variety of tricks to try to keep up interest and minimize conflict or b) convince everyone involved that one method is better than all others, primarily by laying claim to “real roleplaying”, and in both cases, with a lot of shame and identity calls as the basis of proof.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
a) A hobby with the general design philosophy that design actually doesn’t matter nor does complete communication of how to play
b) A group of enthusiasts with no means of communicating what they want to do together, and a lot of shaming when that goes wrong


White Wolf Games

White Wolf games were a breakout success hitting the second wave of mainstream push, primarily by cashing in on goth and neo-pagan kitsch. Like D&D, two aspects of White Wolf’s games would become very problematic from a social contract aspect and influence most game groups, one way or another.


White Wolf games promoted a style of play in which the GM ushers the players’ characters through a pre-written story. The problem is that the GM is supposed to do this without the players ever realizing that their choices are limited or non-existent- in fact, contrary to what the rules state (“Players control the characters”) – hence the “illusion”.

Illusionism’s method is deceit and social manipulation. The GM can (and should!) lie, cheat, ignore the rules whenever necessary to produce a good story. These things were not just promoted as acceptable, but signs of a “Master Storyteller”.

Even still, it’s very hard to play to a script you’ve never read, and it’s also very hard to get people to do things without knowing you’re pushing them towards doing so. When’s the last time your unrequited crush read your mind and asked you out on a date? Or that annoying person suddenly stopped being annoying without you saying anything?

Illusionism is a fairly unreliable method of play, yet has become a common standard for most roleplaying games.

Identity & Esteem

The constant calls to esteem worked well as a marketing tool- it served to push the WW games’ branding away from Dungeons and Dragons, and also to bring over gamers from other rpgs in the hopes that this time, the game would deliver on fun story which wasn’t working out with other games.

Of course, these games carried over the problems from before, including not-really-design and wargame bits (the cries about Power Players and Munchkins still remain) except now also you had Illusionism. Which worked very rarely, if at all.

Instead of questioning the design or the theory behind that (after all, there was stacks of books saying it worked), people got frustrated and began pointing fingers and shaming. Later books would have telling phrases like, “The rules exist to prevent bitterness between the players”, which kind of tells you how far it went for some.

The Impossible Social Contract

When you have a core game philosophy that works on “I want you to do things without me communicating them to you” and “I can lie and use social pressure to get there”, there’s not really any basis on which you can build a functional social contract.

Games work because people agree to play by a set of rules. If the rules are unknowable, or, that one person is lying about that agreement, you have no basis on which to negotiate the game or even agree to anything in actuality.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
c) An atmosphere in which deceit and social manipulation are expected, destroying any sensible space to form trust
d) A culture in which play cannot be analyzed – the methodology of the party line is correct- any errors must be with those around you

I’m pointing these things out as things to be overcome. The typical issues that are bemoaned, “I can’t find people to play with”, “Problem players”, “How do I get my players to do this?” basically grow out of these things.

Next: A Way Out.

ETA: The Forge has it’s articles back online – A Hard Look at D&D is worth checking out. If you happen across any of the OD&D “Little Brown Books” online, you may wish to look at those especially.