Monday, May 30, 2005

Gamism and the New Sort of Games

AKA GNS post #3

This is a longish one, and it is bound to both piss a lot of people off and get a lot of people saying "no, Ben, you just don't understand Narrativism." I am sort of looking forward to this, in a perverse way.

But enough with the bullshitting. Two links and then let's get on with the writing.

(Though do check the date on that second thread. A year is a long time.)

There is a ton of talk, in the circles I run in (read: the Forge) about writing "games for people." The idea is to write a game that isn't targeted at gamers, that anyone can pick up and and play and enjoy. This has, of course, been the goal of tons of game companies throughout all time, and with a few exceptions (basic D&D) has failed, often in a drastic and dramatic manner. It doesn't mean that something won't succeed somewhere down the line, but it does mean that this is clearly a difficult thing. Those that go go to a war already fighting, a battlefield strewn with the corpses of those that have gone before them.

The really insightful thing that has come out of Forge discussion of this issue is that we cannot simply look at how to repackage role-playing games so that they appeal to a wider audience. Packaging will only go so far. It doesn't matter too much if you sell your game as a "role-playing game" or an "interactive shared story-telling experience" if the content is the same. If we are really serious about the mass-market role-playing game, we need to find new ways of playing games (and, by corollary, designing games and writing games) which are easier, more intuitive, more compelling, and more fun.

And, you know, we're working on it. My own Polaris and Tim's The Mountain Witch come to mind as steps in that direction (note: steps in that direction, not the final destination. Polaris, for what it is worth, is still mostly for gamers.) In my opinion, this sort of system design is going to be a slow, hard, long crawl towards something brilliant. I can feel where we are going -- I can look at a text and say "that's going the right direction --" but I can't see yet what the final shape of the thing will be. I don't know if anyone can. We are fumbling in the dark, but we've discovered a thread, a road.

(see Ron's post in this thread for a great summary-from-a-year-ago. What's happened in the last year? It should really be another post but, in short: The Mountain Witch is published, 3 short games about the Human Heart moves into a publication phase, Under the Bed design kicks up a notch. Those are the highlights, I think. Let me know if I missed anything.)

It's an exciting time to be a game designer, that's for certain.

Anyway, that's all background for the main point of this essay.

When talking about new ways to play, and ways to appeal to ordinary people, something that comes up a lot is, of course, GNS. Particularly, there is a lot of talk about the culture that surrounds largely simulationist supporting systems, and how it is essentially a fundamentally geekish culture -- by which I am not necessarily talking about computer programmers but about people who really want all the science in Star Wars to make sense, and will get into long arguments about it for recreational purposes.

Let me be clear: I love this shit. I find the entire series of comics I just linked to hilarious. My favorite article written for Daedalus was Neel Krishnaswami's superlative Causality and Choice: Getting rid of the {TECH}. I have a degree in physics, and I bitched to no end about the stupid thermodynamics of the Matrix to anyone who cared to listen. But this is a decidedly fringe, undergroundish, and definitely geeky activity. There is no way in hell that an ordinary person is going to care about this shit. This is fine, this is cool, and I like it this way.

And, to be frank, any role-playing game which tries to claim that the system is the physics of the world, and really live up to that, or any game which models everything on a meticulous point buy system, or some such thing, is really pretty much in this category of activity. No matter how much they get repackaged, rebranded, or redesigned, they are simply not going to appeal to the mainstream.

It should be pretty clear, though, that if we are talking about a broad-reach, mainstream appeal game, this is not going to be it. Ordinary people like science fiction, and ordinary people like fantasy, but ordinary people do not like knowing the cargo capacity of a star destroyer. This isn't about genre. This is about how we play the games.

The mode which gets thrown out there as an antidote to the Simulationist-by-habit tradition is Narrativism, which given the population of the Forge surprises about negative one people. And, in its own way, they are correct about that. People like stories -- they like telling them, and they like being told them. They do this naturally, in a way that most people don't naturally geek out about the physics of city/planets. It follows that they would prefer Narrativist play over most Simulationist play. And, frankly, I think that they are right about that.

(Note to those whose self-image is caught up with the invented word "simulationism:" I am not saying that your preferred sort of play is less valid or less fun or that you need to change your playstyle. I am simply saying that it is less likely to appeal to Joe-on-the-street. kthnksbye.)

But prescribing Dr. Ron's Brand Narrativist Pills* as the one true solution to cracking the mainstream problem is not a good idea, because it is ignoring the big elephant in the room of GNS theory -- Gamism. People like doing more activities than just telling compelling stories. And, yes, people are capable of being very caught up in the fraught struggles of fictional characters, but there is something else that they are almost universally more interested in -- other people, especially their family and friends. People love getting insight into other people's capabilities and guts. We love just getting in there and mucking around.

(* To be absolutely motherfucking clear, Ron does not hold the Narrativism is the one true way of anything, including the one true way of reaching a mainstream audience with gaming, and he is quite public about it. I'm talking about other people's reactions to his writings, rather than his writings themselves.)

And my claim is that Gamism can do that better than Narrativism. To show it, I'm going to have to talk a lot about Narrativism, which is much more well-explored theoretically.

(And, hey, guys who commented in my "which essay" thread, check this out: When I say "Gamism" you have to divorce it entirely from any idea of "tweaking your 13th level battledroid to the max." This isn't about system weight, levels, or anything like that. There are any number of highly Gamist, highly fun, very mechanically light systems.)

In some very old conversations with Vincent, which have been sadly partly eaten by his comment-eating bug, we talked extensively about what makes a protagonist, which has been an important and much-discussed topic on the Forge since the misty days of yore.

In short, a protagonist (and I'm talking here about Narrativist play) is a character who has to make a difficult decision, under pressure, and abide by the consequences. This is pretty much a summary from here so just go read that.

(This is all still about Narrativism) A really important point about this, and one that is apparently (apropos of my "Topics and GNS" thread) still a little contentious, is that this is a fictional character making a fictional decision about a fictional situation with fictional consequences. You are, in some ways, making the decision for the character, but there is a degree of separation -- you are free, for instance, to make what you see as a "bad decision" and see what happens. There is a safety net, because it isn't you who is the protagonist, it is the character.

Both Gamism and Narrativism have this strong emphasis on player-choice. Both of them have moments where everyone in the room gasps, looks at one player, and is thinking "Oh my god! What is he going to do?" Those moments are precisely the moments where protagonist activity is happening. That's the choice that Vincent is talking about.

To be personal for a second: I live for these moments.

But Gamism and Narrativism have a key different, here. Gamism, to be frank, has no safety net, no (or at least much less) fictional remove from the choices that you make and their consequences. If you, the player, make a bad choice or are unlucky then you, the player, will suffer the consequences (albeit in a limited game context.) Let me make this very clear: In a Narrativist context, your character is a protagonist. In a Gamist context, you are the protagonist.

I could connect the dots about what I think that that sort of experience is more likely to appeal to the mainstream, but I think I can safely leave that as an exercise to the reader.


Blogger Matt Wilson said...

Sorry man, but I'm going to have to disappoint you with my total agreement.

Storytelling + Competition = you are win teh victory!

12:46 AM  
Blogger Ron Edwards said...

Hi folks,

This thread is closed.


12:54 AM  
Blogger J. Andrew said...

HAH, just kidding, the above was totally me (Andy K). Someone used this gag over at RPGNet and I laughed my balls off, and have been waiting for the opportunity to use it since.


ps- Sorry to derail the conversation, I'm a jerk. Carry on.

12:56 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

For future reference, please don't impersonate other people here, even for a joke.

At this point, we can call "no harm, no foul" but let's just nip this thing in the bud before it gets out of hand.

It's kind of like the wild west out here in blogland, isn't it.


1:14 AM  
Blogger WiredNavi said...

Awesome ideas there. I think you've hit the nail on the head about why I tend to want to push Gamist priority in games I'm in even though I think I'm mostly a Narr-oriented player - because of the sense of _me_ being the protagonist. (This is explicitly why I like high-immersion Gamist games like boffer LARPs - lots and lots of protagonism dumped on my head as directly as possible).

1:26 AM  
Blogger thickenergy said...

Hey Ben,

"In a Narrativist context, your character is a protagonist. In a Gamist context, you are the protagonist."

I agree that this is true in the context of the rules and mechanics and their employment. But I also think that you the player are a protagonist in Narrativism in the realm of Story Now and Premise addressment. And not in a "Step on Up" sense of "can I impress my fellow players".

Raw, dirty Narrativism (in Sorcerer, for example) taps into who you are as a person. The human issues are being held up and compared to who you are and what you believe. They are reflections of the participants, like it or not. This is the realm of Narrativistic protagonism.

Beyond success or failure of the character, there is a part of yourself at stake. The events of play, the issues involved, the decisions you make, and how they play out all say something about who you are. They also have the possibility to maybe alter who you are to a degree.

You said it yourself in your post:

"Both Gamism and Narrativism have this strong emphasis on player-choice. Both of them have moments where everyone in the room gasps, looks at one player, and is thinking "Oh my god! What is he going to do?" Those moments are precisely the moments where protagonist activity is happening. That's the choice that Vincent is talking about."

I think this is where Gamism and Narrativism are mirror images of each other. So, just to sum up, Narrativism makes the player the protagonist, as opposed to the character, every bit as much as Gamism does.

As far as Gamism being better for introducing the mainstream to gaming, well, I dunno. I think that more of the mainstream is used to the Gamist aspect of playing games. Just about every boardgame, card game, etc. is built on Gamist priorities. But I think there is a large section of the mainstream that just isn't comfortable with that kind of competition. Those people might be better served by the Narrativist approach.


p.s. - I love you too, Ben.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

It should be pretty clear, though, that if we are talking about a broad-reach, mainstream appeal game, this is not going to be it. Ordinary people like science fiction, and ordinary people like fantasy, but ordinary people do not like knowing the cargo capacity of a star destroyer. This isn't about genre. This is about how we play the games.

Right on. Hence, Science Fiction, The RPG, my current project. It's foreseeable that the cargo capacity of a shipping technology could matter - Cheap Shipping vs. Commercial Independence vs. The New Walmart Order - but it's the exploration of its relevance with regard to social issues that makes it matter.

It should also be pointed out that George Lucas sure doesn't know the cargo capacity of a Star Destroyer. If it suddenly matters, he'll make up a number.

When I was a kid, I was always disappointed in dramatic designers when they would say something like "We needed a wide-open place for them to fight, so we decided the ship should have a cargo bay." But that's why it's there, really. The key is to make it satisfy both requirements: they need a wide-open place to fight and it has to be a plausible cargo bay that actually takes up a certain, plausible volume in the ship. Otherwise, the seams show and you lose willing suspension of disbelief.


but OK, OK, shucks, you got me. I'll finish Under the Bed and we'll get to play at GenCon. Mountain Witch will be finished this year, but it's not yet. You'll have to talk to Tim about projected completion.

9:00 AM  
Blogger Joshua A.C. Newman said...

... You know, I'm thinking about the character- vs. you-as-protagonist, and I'm remembering something here: the most fun I've ever had RPing is when I've forgotten that I'm not living and breathing in a basement, but rather on some alien world and acting heroically.

Getting really into a character (in every sense) is very, very satisfying to me. I'm not into Vicky Vance the way I've been into characters from when I was a teenager, and I don't think it's because we don't share a gender. I think it's because of the rather forcible remove that the PTA rules give you. It's easier to fall into your character in Dogs in the Vineyard, for instance. But still, that total immersion is something I really miss.

That's part of what I'm trying to get with the Sci Fi rules. I want to make the rules so that they tell you what's going on and let you totally play your dude while everyone else gives you the facts about the world.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Matthijs said...

You what? Gamism has no safety net, while Narrativism does?

In Gamism you can say "I screwed up", and it means you played a game wrong. So you suck at playing a game. In Narrativism you can say "I screwed up", and it means you weren't able to face a personally-relevant, emotionally-laden issue.

"Oh my god! What is he going to do?" In a Gamist game, you're going to roll bones or apply tactics, and you might fail and feel a bit stupid. In a Narrativist game, you're going to apply moral, emotional and social judgement, and the results will be complex, unpredictable and possibly hard to face.

I think, to be honest, that you're muddling things up by making generalizations about the CA's. It's fairly clear that you're talking about some specific aspects of Gamism and Narrativism, not the CA's as a whole.

(Note: I'm not saying anything about whether G or N or S would make games more accessible to the mainstream.)

4:30 PM  
Blogger Vincent Baker said...

Sure, I'll be "Narrativism rules" guy.

My deal with Gamism is maybe kind of short-sighted and dumb, but I haven't been talked out of it yet. It's: if I'm going to play a game, why wouldn't I just, y'know, play a game? I like games. What would Gamist roleplaying give me that Gamist game-playing doesn't? What extra thing does it have that makes it worth all that extra outlay?

You can't really ask the same question about Narrativism, see, like "what would Narrativist roleplaying give me that Narrativist [unknown] doesn't?" Only roleplaying (that I know of) can fulfill the ol' Story Now urge, while roleplaying is just one of many possible available ways to Step On Up. To my view, one with poor returns on investment.

So there.

(As to what'd capture the broader market: Personally, I wrote a game about teenage Mormon gunslingers. Whatever game's going to reach the broad audience, that ain't.)

5:47 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Dave: Yeah, I was thinking about Boffer LARP culture when I wrote it.

Chris: I'm sorry, I just don't buy that "a part of you" is necessarily at stake. Part of the basic joy of Narrativist games is the ability to make moral choices for someone else -- the ability to do things that you would never do in real life, that you wouldn't even want to do in real life, just to explore what the consequences are. This is because you the player are not held as accountable for your character's choices.

Consequently, in Gamism, you the player are held accountable for your character's choices, almost by definition.

J -- Character getting-into (we need a better name that "immersion" for that shit) is a great topic, but it isn't exactly what I'm addressing here. I want to write about it, but I need to develop my thoughts a lot, so it might be a while. Let's talk about it next we meet.

Matthijs -- Is it okay if I address your concern in terms of my "topic" vocabulary I introduced elseblog? I assume yes. If no, please ask again.

In short, you're missing some of my point in a big way. If you fail to address premise in narrativist play, the game failed. It sucked. You didn't answer the topic at all.

So, in a successful narrativist game, you are scot-free.

Whereas, in Gamism, you the player succeeding and failing is the topic itself. You can fail in a successful Gamist game. What is on the table is your worth as a player.

Player success and failure just isn't on the table in good Narrativism. Which is how it should be.

Vincent -- You are more being the "Gamism sucks" guy than the "Narrativism rules" guy, but that's cool. To some degree, I think that your question (why Gamism? Why an RPG?) is an excellent, excellent one, but I also think it is pretty unrelated to this post. Can I spin it off into a new thing?

Thanks all for comments--

11:14 AM  
Blogger Valamir said...

I'm not sure I buy the idea that during Narrativist play you get to hide behind your character. That's the key reason why I can't buy into your GNS Topics no matter how much the part of my that loves symmetry likes the parallel logic of them.

There is no hiding in real narrativism. IMO if you don't learn a little something about yourself...if you don't learn a little something about the people you're playing with...then you really aren't playing Narrativist.

At the risk of really sounding confusing...I'd say at that point you're just "simulating narrativism". Meaning you know what its supposed to look like, you know what kind of output is typical and you go through the right motions to produce something that others would likely say "that looks Nar". But if you aren't personally making yourself vulnerable to the judgement of other players...then IMO its really pretty weak Nar at best.

I think its much easier to hide in Gamism by turning your character into a mere pawn.So I'm with Matthjis on that one.

As to Vincent's comment about Gamist RPGs...I really like Gamist RPGs, but he's spot on, I like them in the same way that I really like Gamist Games.

Given a choice between a poorly realized gamist RPGs and a tight little nail biting Euro Game like El Grande or Ra or Puerto Rico...I'm going to get my Gamist fix with the Euro Game every time.

Which to come back to your core position that I do completely agree with.

The way to make games more mainstream is definitely to tap into that Gamist streak. I've said before that the key to making an RPG more mainstream is to make it more like a board game.

Make the rules more like a board game: "Do this, shuffle that, go there" period

Make the size more like a board game: Not counting wargames only a grognard could love most Euro Games clock in at a dozen pages or less and old school Parker Brothers style games at less than that.

Make the components more like a board game: Yes that means the game should come with plastic miniatures representing each of the 6 pregenerated characters you get to play and some fashion of board (perhaps a Relationship Map diagram) to move them around.

And make the play more like a board game: Every good board game has an "Objective of Play" which can be expressed in at most 2-3 sentences which includes noting what the end conditions are and a notion of the sort of play that will get you there. Not too many RPGs do that.

Combine those elements together AND figure out how to actually make it an RPG rather than a board game like the old Hero Quest or Talisman) and I think you'll have a game with a legitimate shot at being mainstream.

If you can do this without resorting to elves and dwarves, even better.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Matthijs said...

Ralph, sounds good... but haven't people already tried that approach? What you describe sounds a lot like one of the D&D intro sets.

2:32 AM  
Blogger Valamir said...

Well, I didn't say it was a guarenteed sure fire bet. But D&D has 2 strikes going for it which is why I don't consider its efforts to be very representative.

1) Its D&D. Everyone who doesn't already think D&D is for basement dwelling losers with bad already a gamer or has been.

D&D is just popular enough that non gamers have heard of it...and usually not in a positive way. Slap a D&D label on a game sold to gamers and you generate sales. Slap a D&D label on a game presented to the mainstream (IMO) and you get upturned noses and disdain.

Now if you go far enough back into the history of D&D when you had the Basic, Expert, Companion Box Sets (early 80s or so)...then you actually see where this approach is very effective (at least until the geek loser stereotype of D&D combined with the hate of the Christrian Right and the poor business choices of TSR to doom it). But for a brief shining moment of RPG history you could buy D&D in most major American Department stores in the game aisle right next to Monopoly and Clue.

2) D&D is elves and Dwarves. With the tremondous success of the LotR movies bringing Elves and Dwarves to the mainstream this MAY not be as big as a death knell as it once was. But for most people...elves and dwarves aren't going to cut it.

That's my theory anyway.

4:58 AM  
Blogger Matthijs said...

(Ben, smack me if this is going off topic too much...)

Ralph: Don't you think many people see "role-playing" as synonymous with "D&D"? If so, and if the mainstream turns up its nose at D&D - how are you ever going to get them to play RPG's without fooling them into thinking they're not playing rpg's?

5:13 PM  
Blogger Valamir said...

Well that's the $50,000 question, right?

But compare and contrast Runebound with Settlers of Candimar. Both would be considered by most TTRPGers to be board games with a thin RPG veneer, but one can easily imagine a game like them being designed to be more firmly in the RPG camp with the board game elements being the veneer (Ron Edwards experimental game Black Fire comes to mind as an example of this possibility).

Runebound is a gamers game. Its got elves and dwarves and while it has some really cool mechanics ideas they are all coming from a very traditional (albiet streamlined) wargamey heritage. I don't have any direct numbers to support me here, but prowling around various board game review sites and levels of traffic at same it appears to me to be only modestly successful (by euro board game standards) and fairly heavily criticised for its rules (by euro board game players).

Contrast this to Settlers of Candimar where there are no elves and dwarves no killing bizarre geeky monsters (IIRC there is some hunting of wolves and bears for hides) and the mechanics are very clearly drawn from a Euro Game heritage rather than a wargame heritage. Its still very competitive, but the type of gamey thinking one has to do to be successful at it is quite different. This game seems to have been pretty well received by the Euro Game community (which is MUCH larger than the RPG community at this point).

Euro Games aren't exactly "main stream" either, but they're certainly closer than most RPGs are. Many of the Euro Games are also pretty well targeted towards a more mainstream "party game" kind of audience...which means they can serve as something of a gateway: Party Game ---> intro level Euro Game ---> Advanced level Euro Game ---> RPG designed with Euro Game sensibilities.

As I said, that's my theory. what extent its desireable to have the RPG hobby expand in a more mainstream direction is another question entirely.

10:33 PM  

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