Friday, May 27, 2005

[Polaris] Actual Play

For those interested in reading a play report for a playtest that I did not attend (warts and all) check out this Forge post

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Pushing the Limits of Design

My Iron Game Chef thread: Hundred Flowers

A game about philosophers in warring states China. It is sort of like a board game, but with role-playing instead of dice. It occupies a very strange liminal space.

But I want to play it.

Social Agenda

The Social Mode: Zilchplay, Griefers, and more...

AKA GNS Post #2

Something that comes up a lot in Forge discourse is people thinking that maybe there is a “fourth mode” in addition to Gamism, Narrativism, and Simulationism. Lots of proposals get thrown around, with varying degrees of theoretical usefulness. Here are some that I can think of off the top of my head:

  1. Zilchplay – a style of play which is neutral with respect to the other CAs.
  2. Griefer/Anti-play – where the primary goal is to ruin other people's fun
  3. Social play – where the primary goal is some sort of social interaction between the players, with the game as a medium for that.
  4. Introspection play – where the game is a vehicle for psychological development.
  5. Humor – where the game is a vehicle for making each other laugh like hyenas.

I have another essay in me which is all about how the culture of the Forge reacts to these proposals, and how I think that is indicative of a degree of conservatism. But that's not for today.

For today, I want to talk about the first three, because I think that they all exist, and I think that they are all indicative of the same thing.

Let's talk about Zilchplay first.

The classic Zilchplayer's lament is “I can enjoy playing anything!” Essentially, the argument is that there is a form of play which can be enjoyed regardless of any creative agenda at work, and that the Zilchplayers are doing just this.

I believe them.

Now let's talk about griefers

In terms of grief players, well, we don't have anyone at the Forge claiming to be a grief player, so I can only talk about how they are discussed by others, not how the represent themselves. A grief player (AKA an obstructionist) is someone who is getting their joy out of damaging other people's play – if another player is having less fun, the griefer is having more fun.

I certainly believe that such players exist.

The “social mode” has often been expressed, at least in my head, as “I want to score with the cute chick who play the Elven Ranger.” The point is, the actions taken in game are about furthering, changing, manipulating or destroying social relations between the players themselves, pretty much regardless of what goes on in terms of the shared imagined space.

I have seen this a lot.

The last bit (the part about “regardless of what goes on...”) is really key, I think.

You see, Big Model Theory, particularly the Creative Agenda bit of it and the primacy thereof, is built on the fundamental premise that the main enjoyment that people get out of playing a role-playing game has to do with the game itself – the shared imagined space, what happens in it, and how that is handled socially between the players. Essentially, there is this implicit statement that, when a role-playing game is being played, it is the most important thing going on for the participants in terms of their fun.

This is not necessarily true. One can certainly imagine a player who simply wants to get together with his friends. Since his friends want to play a role-playing game, he'll play it with them, but he's really just interested in the company of his friends. He plays the role-playing game as a form of hanging out, and has no attachment to what happens in the game at all. We all can imagine this guy.

Let me be more specific: We all know this guy. We have all gamed with this guy.
(In my case, a girl, but potato/potato.)

You could, if you wanted to, say that this guy had a CA, and that it was to just play and hang out with friends. But, I think, you'd be wrong to do so. I think that it is more correct to say that this guy doesn't have a creative agenda at all. He really doesn't have anywhere he wants the game to go. He has a social agenda, which is to hang out with friends, but he doesn't really give a fug where the game goes.

Or, if you want to be a stickler for Big Model structure, he does have a creative agenda, but he is simply adopting the creative agenda of the rest of the group. (In this case, in a remarkably passive manner.)

Now let's consider the Zilchplayer (some may say that the zilchplayer is exactly the guy described above, but bear with me). He is interested in playing a role-playing game, so he has a CA, right? Not necessarily. The simple act of playing a role-playing game is, for him, so awesome that he does't really care about the rest. He is essentially doing the same thing that the previous guy was doing, but he is satisfied not by the presence of friends, but by the presence of the role-playing activity. Any role-playing activity.

My argument is such – there are many sorts of players who are satisfied by social conditions, without regard to the contents of the game. These players might be said to have a “social agenda,” to match a “creative agenda” or a “technical agenda.” The basic, assumed social agenda of Forge theory is “I have fun with the game / everyone has fun with the game,” which is a reasonable basic assumption, but not necessarily true in every case.

And, in some cases, social agenda takes priority of creative agenda – the creative agenda is essentially changed and adjusted to whatever, given the other player's and their own preferences, will support the social agenda. These are not creative agenda because they are not about creativity or the creative act of a role-playing game at all. The are agenda for play without being creative agenda.

This can happen in positive ways, such as the player who just wants everyone to have fun, regardless of what they are doing. This can happen in neutral ways, such as the guy who wants to impress his girlfriend or the player who just wants to play, regardless. This can happen in negative ways, when role-playing is a tool for manipulating others or where the goal is to make other people upset and angry.

It is a fascinating, complicated topic, which I'd love to talk about more.

And I'm convinced that it is not a new form of creative agenda at all, but an entirely different sort of animal.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Tyler Durden Rant

From Judd's livejournal by way of RPGnet.

Posted in its entireity 'cause it doesn't hurt to read it twice.

You are not your boxed sets. You're dick is not as big as the shelves your books are on. You are not going to get a Ph.D in Geekhood for knowing the Anthropology of the Forgotten Realms.

Fuck longitude and lattitude(unless it is a game about exploration). Fuck scale on maps(unless it is a game about cartography). Fuck weather tables(unless it is a game about the randomness of weather and chaos theory). Fuck a novel sized reading list to get started to play(unless it is a game about reading and writing). Fuck bad short stories(unless it is a game about frustrated writers). Fuck lineage charts (unless it is a game about family).

I say, give me a setting that stirs my blood.

I say, give me a world that infers and inspires with only as many words as it needs to do so.

I say, stop reading your game books and start playing with 'em.

I say, if you want to write a novel, write a NOVEL, not a game setting.

I see a world where the game books are worn with use and the forums are choked with actual play posts. You find geeks at rest stops, frantically feeding change into vending machines to get to Vincent Baker's newest game within.

I see a world where our assumptions about games are pushed to the brink until a definition of what an RPG is becomes an impossibility.

If I felt that needed a mission statement for TAO Games, this would be it.

P.S. Although fuck bad fiction even if it is a game about bad writers. I don't need to read it myself to know how bad it is.

Loving the Minimax

There has been so much rabid discussion elsewhere in the past few days that I have been ignoring my poor little old blog here. In light of the somewhat controversial stuff that's been going on elsewhere, I'm going to present what I think might be the least contentious of my three upcoming essays.

Or, to clarify, I think this will be the most contentious to ordinary gamers, but the least contentious to theorists, by which I mean not people educated in any particular school of thought, but rather simply those that have thought for any great length of time about the play of a role-playing game.

Loving the Minimax

Game theory is the mathematical theory of the actions of wholly self-interested people, which it is superbly good at predicting. Another branch of game theory, altruistic game theory, looks at the actions of actual real people, but it perhaps less superbly good at predicting those, because mushy things like emotions, style, and other people's feelings are harder to gauge on a value scale.

However, give a person a problem which can be expressed in terms of hard numbers, and proper information about what is valuable, and they will behave pretty much in the way that game theory predicts that they would. All humans do this, a process that game theory calls the minimax. The minimax is so named because a person will try to expend them minimum amount of effort to get the maximum benefit out of the situation.

Minimax, and its vulgar versions minmax or minmaxer, has a meaning in role-playing circles, too. The 2nd edition AD&D Player's Handbook discusses this in terms that we will all find familiar, although it does not explicitly use the term.

(My quest to find a good reference for the term in a commonly used RPG book failed. I know it is out there. Feel free to quote in the comments.)

Too often players become obsessed with "good" stats. These players immediately give up on a character if he doesn't have a majority of above-average scores. There are even those who feel a character is hopeless if he does not have at least one ability of 17 or higher! Needless to say, these players would never consider playing a character with an ability score of 6 or 7.

In truth, Rath's survivability has a lot less to do with his ability scores than with your desire to role-play him.

From this we see that someone who, confronted with an RPG character creation system (or, by implication, any RPG system or subsystem), attempts to manipulate the system to their best advantage is, by implication, a bad player. Good players, by contrast, make characters without regard to their abilities, power levels, or systematic effects at all.

Can we all agree that the afformentioned “bad player” is pretty much what is being talked about when most RPG players talk about “minmaxers?” If not, say so, but you won't like the rest of this essay if you disagree with that.

Aside: I'd like to, for the purposes of this essay and maybe the future as well, to segregate minimaxer, powergamer, and munchkin into seperate terms. When I talk about a minimaxer, I am talking about a player who is maximizing their power as a player. When I am talking about a powergamer, I am talking about someone who likes playing powerful characters and power fantasies (such a player might be drawn into Amber, Nobilis, World of Darkness, or other games where you play powerful figures.) When I am talking about a munchkin, I am talking about someone who causes disfunction at the table.

That said, let's examine some things about the AD&D statement, and the general cultural attitude of gaming when it comes to the minimax.

First, we need to understand what I consider the fundamental building block of all RPG theory – the players sitting around the table (yes, I include the GM when I say “players”) are humans, playing a game inside a normal human social context.

Secondly, as I said above, humans will tend to maximize there benefit, given a sufficiently simple system.

Thirdly, in terms of most RPGs, player enjoyment of the game, in terms of effectiveness in contributing to play and admiration of their peers, is directly related to character power. (One can imagine a game, such as Universalis or many others, where this is not the case, but I'm not talking about those games.)

Combine these three things, and what do you get?

A mess.

Any sane human being, in the absence of serious social conditioning, confronted with a recreational activity, will attempt to enjoy it. If the main route to participation and enjoyment is through a reasonably simple mathematical system, they will use the minimax. This is just sensible human behavior.

And yet RPG players, when confronted with the same situation, often do not, or are ashamed of their engagement and try to cover it up. Why is this?

Let's work on the basic assumption that RPG players, at least the ones we are discussing, are sane. If they are not following their natural course of minimax behavior, it is because they have strong social pressures. Like, say, those in the above paragraph.

The message here, basically, is “if you want to participate in the game to its fullest extent, you are cheating and deserve to be socially ostracized for it.” Such a message is certainly strong enough to account for the fear, hatred, and disgust reactions that many gamers reserve for “minmaxers.”

Except, of course, that a taboo does not exist in absence of the activity it prevents, it merely drives it underground. Fear of social punishment for minimaxing simply rewards those who can come up with paper-thin justifications for their player-power, from “it's in-character” to “I got the GM's permission” to “I rolled it! Really guys!”

(Alternatively, it encourages people to ignore the rules entirely and draw their player-power strictly from the social bonds between themselves and the GM.)

So what we have left is a culture of gamers who really want to participate fully in their games, but feel that they cannot participate for fear of being ostracized for it, so mask and cover up that participation in various methods.

Does this strike anyone as healthy or fun?

The minimax is predictable human behavior. As game designers and as game players, I want to see us develop play-styles and rules-sets which take that into account as a good thing, which take the natural impulses of people and make them into whatever art we want to make together. Fortunately, there is already a great head-start on this (Dogs in the Vineyard, Riddle of Steel, and PrimeTime Adventures are three I can think of. Dead Inside looks good, but I haven't read it yet.)

The minimax is in all of us. Let's love it and use it rather than hating it and fearing it.

P.S. The last line of that AD&D 2nd ed quote is particularly wrong. Ever tried to get in a fight with an orc if your Con is 7?

Edit: Oops, I forgot to link to the post that inspired this: A Look at Powergaming by Jay Loomis.