Thursday, February 25, 2010

Getting Around The Uncertainty Principle

"(Some Game) is the worst game because, sooner or later, (Some Awful Thing) always happens."

"No way, I've been playing (Some Game) since (Some Year) and (The Awful Thing) has never happened. What are you talking about?"

"Look at the (Rule Distinctive To the Game)--it always leads to (Some Awful Thing), the only reason for it is (Some Dumb Reason)."

"That's not true, (Distinctive Rule) leads to (Distinctive Awesome Result)!"

"Shuh! I've never seen it!"



This is the essential form of nearly all arguments about RPGs on-line and in publications, from D&D Edition Wars, to stuff on blogs, to arguments over GNS theory.

The problem here is, the actual thing usually at the heart of the discussion--the ding an sich as the Germans would say, the "thing-in-itself"--the thing that is being evaluated, is not the published rules of a game, or the economic success of a game, or the influence of a game, or even a person's subjective response to reading the rules--it's how actual sessions of play turn out.

And we have very little shared data on that, because--outside conventions, which are an unusual and exceptional case where the normal social rules of gaming don't necessarily apply--we don't usually watch groups of total strangers play RPGs. We can't say: "Look, see? See what Jed just did right there when he tackled the Snot Goblin? That's what I'm talking about! That's why Shared Narration with an Unfocused Universal Table Resolution System, with Low-Metagame and Nonstandard Fortune Mechanics always leads to Biscuitfiddle-Rundlegrumper-Style-Play!"

When arguing about RPGs on-line or in a publication (real-life is a whole other thing and is not what I'm talking about), generally, both parties have seen the same rules and can make common reference to the rules, and that's it--that's the end of the shared experience they can refer to.

I was going to say this is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen the script, but really, arguing about RPGs without direct reference to actual play events is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen whatever How To Write Your Screenplay book the screenwriter read before s/he wrote the movie.


For example:

Without going into my actual thoughts on Ron Edwards' GNS theory (that's a whole other kettle of fish), I've read the essays about GNS theory several times (the theory is basically that there are three types of gaming goals and that bad game experiences are--often or usually, not sure which--the result of gamers trying to play a game whose goals don't match their own) and I always get hung up here in the last part of Edwards' introductory essay:

I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. Ask for a character background, and he resists, or if he gives you one, he never makes use of it or responds to cues about it. Ask for actions - he hunkers down and does nothing unless there's a totally unambiguous lead to follow or a foe to fight. His universal responses include "My guy doesn't want to," and, "I say nothing."

I have not, in over twenty years of role-playing, ever seen such a person have a good time role-playing. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play. They prepare characters or settings, organize groups, and are bitterly disappointed with each fizzled attempt. They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines.

These role-players are GNS casualties. They have never perceived the range of role-playing goals and designs, and they frequently commit the fallacies of synecdoche about "correct role-playing." Discussions with them wander the empty byways of realism, genre, completeness, roll-playing vs. role-playing, and balance. They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. They thought that "show up with a character" was sufficient prep, or thought that this new game with its new setting was going to solve all their problems forever. They are simultaneously devoted to and miserable in their hobby.

My goal in developing RPG theory and writing this document is to help people avoid this fate.

I don't know these guys. I believe that the author of this essay has met these guys, or people he believes are these guy (he has no motive to lie about it) but I can't genuinely say whether I believe these guys "are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough" or whether these guys even actually are the bizarre sad-sacks they appear to him to be because I have not studied the case.

I would like to make sure we're talking about the same phenomenon before discussing what may have caused that phenomenon.

(Note: I am aware that the author of the GNS essays and his allies do attempt to document games in order to help them talk about games and design new ones, I'm just using this as an example of a time where it'd help to have that kind of document.)

Now I am totally ok with arguing about how RPGs should be or could be. Whether you call that "theory" or "arguing with somebody about games" is irrelevant. What I'm saying is: when making sweeping statements about RPGs, it helps to refer to specific, recorded instances of play.


And where are those?

Thanks to the internet, fucking everywhere.

The first unedited actual play recording I ever heard was this podcast of the Cthulhu adventure Horror on the Orient Express.

What immediately struck me was how bizarre it was to be listening to it at all--if you really think about it, it's extremely rare to find yourself observing people you don't know casually sitting in their own homes hanging out for days on end.

You hear what this one thinks is funny, you hear what that one thinks is offensive, you hear what this one assumes everybody knows, you hear all the assumptions of a social context (a real one, not a fictional one) that isn't yours at all--which is surprising.

And this isn't just overhearing something for 10 minutes in a restaurant--the recording goes on for 20-some hours--the artificiality imposed by their knowledge of being recorded melts away fairly quickly and what's left seems like a fairly honest document of how these people roll.

Unless you're a private detective or a certain kind of lawyer or a very dedicated peeping tom, its unlike anything you've heard a thing like this before, because 99% of the time you're set up to eavesdrop on other people's lives (on TV, usually) it's fictionalized or framed in such a way as to entertain you. Not here.

The second thing that struck me is they were very likable people.

The third thing that struck me is that they play in a completely different way than I would have--a way that would've bored and frustrated me, in many cases. And one which, if accurately described in words, would have led me to believe these people were not my kind of people at all. (They do a lot of shopping, and role-play through meals with very detailed descriptions of what they ate, and nothing ever happens during the meals.)

The fourth thing that struck me was they seemed to be having a lot of fun.

The fifth thing that struck me was, had I been there, as a player or GM, the game would almost certainly've been totally different, because--in a Heisenberg-uncertainty-principle-type-way--you being there makes everybody nice with a brain (and these people are nice and have very big brains) try to alter the social contract (perhaps unconsciously) to fit your play style.


Point being here, the actual play recordings that are now becoming available on the web are, really, the very first time there's actually been lots of data (that both sides of an argument can refer to) to back up one side or another in arguments about what does or doesn't equal fun in RPGs. All the sales figures, surveys, and hearsay anecdotes are nothing compared to this.

Some notes:

-If you go to the WoTC site you can hear the Robot Chicken guys play D&D 4 and you can also click somewhere else and hear the Wil Wheaton + web cartoonists crew play the same system with the exact same DM. The games are different in every way. Does system matter? Does DM matter? There's some data right there.

-If you go to (the same site that has the Horror on the Orient Express recordings) there are recordings of that group playing Keep on the Borderlands using D&D 1. It is completely different in every way from how anyone I know would've played, but it actually sounds remarkably like the Robot Chicken people playing D&D 4.

-Same module, different edition. Same group, different module. Different group, same system, different genre--how do these things affect play style? Now you can do side-by-side comparisons.

-I've heard people describe games as "a really intense session of...." generally not meaning intense just as in "exciting", but intense as in "psychologically difficult but possibly cathartic" for the player. I have never ever had anything remotely like this happen in a game (and am not sure I'd find it at all interesting or fun) and I'm not sure how it would work--if someone who is into this kind of gaming can point me to an actual play recording that they feel fits the bill, I'd be glad to listen.

-Marketing--WoTC puts up (mostly unedited) actual play recordings--does anybody else? If not, they should.

-Retro clones? For things like battle mechanics--watching or hearing an actual play recording is infinitely clearer than reading the mechanics in a book and comparing them to other retro-clones to see which you like best. Get on that.

-Academics? Need to write a paper for your sociology class? Start listening to actual play recordings. "This paper is based on a survey of over a hundred recordings of..."

-"You would like _____, you should try it!" Nobody has enough time to try every game in the world. Listening to some people play it, however, this is something we maybe have time to do.

-GMing advice? A recording's worth a thousand words. I would LOOOOOVE to hear side-by-side recordings of (say) James Raggi, James Mal, and Jeff Rients all running the same module for their respective groups.

(-side note: our show will be edited down, because it's meant to be a show, so it doesn't exactly fit the 'raw data' bill that I'm describing here. Nevertheless, I may get some long stretches up one day for scientific purposes.)

-Fun? Fun is the goal. And you can hear fun. A recording can end an argument about whether something can be fun.


  1. Great post. This cuts right to the heart of all the social contract / my fun vs. your fun wankery.

    Also, AP casts sell games. Almost all the games I've purchased over the last 2 years are ones I've heard either reviewed or played on podcasts.

    The Wheaton/PVP 4e shows were a total blast to listen to- more fun than I've ever had actually playing 4e myself, but more to the point, they proved that IT IS POSSIBLE to have fun playing 4e. Whenever someone claims "you can't roleplay in 4e" I point them to those casts. I didn't know about the Robot Chicken ones, I'm gonna check those out now, thanks for the tip.

  2. If only there was someone out there who would do some kind of TV show of their game sessions!


    "Uncertainty principle" is a good way of putting it. There was a brief bit of a teacup storm a few months ago when someone reviewed an adventure without having played it, and the author threw all his toys out of the pram, saying that such a product can't be reviewed unless it's played.

    I was thinking about this, and I came to the conclusion that the act of playing the game changes it (there's your uncertainty principle), and a review based on that is no longer a review of the original product, but something else that the GM and players have created, using that product. It might still be useful data, as your post explains, but it's something different to a review of an adventure book.

    I never weighed in on that original debate, so there it is now, as it seems appropriate.


    GMing advice? A recording's worth a thousand words. I would LOOOOOVE to hear side-by-side recordings of (say) James Raggi, James Mal, and Jeff Rients all running the same module for their respective groups.

    I would love to hear/see this. I would love to play in it (although perhaps not Raggi, as he'd probably make me cry) even more.

  3. I would argue that we still have very sparse data about gaming habits, it's simply that we are for the first time getting some data that can be worked with. I've yet to see from anyone including the GNS folks decent metrics for measuring behavior.

    I'm personally interested in this idea of the "GNS casualties." I've met one player in my 20 years of gaming who I think fell into this category but I can't be sure. I'd be curious to read more about his definitions of this behavior.

  4. Sounds like SOMEBODY has been thinking a lot about recorded play sessions...

    I have a friend who taped a few of our sessions but he never shared the tapes-- just said they were "crazy."

    I have had an "intense" session or two & I like to think I've ran a couple. In one notable case I played in, the creepy cell phones were the most memorable & frightening part. Go figure.

  5. Excellent post.

    Let me add something of my own. In thinking about Ron Edwards' description of the people he calls GNS Casualties, I would suggest that these people may be some of the players with extremely active imaginations and simply very poor social skills. I've met people like this, and they seem to be drawn to gaming like a moth to a flame. I would say that once you get past the clumsy outer interactive shell, they become great gamers. From what I have seen, they aren't playing games to be miserable. They are playing them to fuel their imagination.

  6. Lachlann--

    Sounds right, BUT, to be fair, I feel like the issue of whether the "casualty" is a "causualty" is so important to Edwards' whole gaming theory that you pretty much have to unpack the whole thing before making a judgment.

    In other words--what's going on with this casualty guy is a WHOOOOOLE other post.

  7. Another great post -- you're on a roll, aren't you?

    I take your point about arguments without specific examples, but...conversely, why bother using specific examples to make general statements? Don't they really only apply to their specific contexts?

    I mean, your point about the differences between two groups playing the same edition with the same DM etc. only highlights this fact, doesn't it? If we're all really so different, how can I learn anything from watching some other group play this or that system or adventure? Maybe they're having a lousy time playing an adventure that my group would go crazy for; maybe 4th ed. would be a disaster for my group, regardless of Wheaton & Co.'s experience.

    I guess I'm just playing devil's advocate here; I've only watched a few recorded play sessions, and I can't say I found them very stimulating (maybe I should follow your link and see what else is out there).

    But my main concern, as always, isn't trying to convince you or anybody else (examples or no) whether this or that system or adventure is better, but trying to improve the experience for myself and my (unique) players.

    And I'm just not sure how watching recordings would be more useful than (say) simply reading your (always stimulating) blog.

  8. nextautumn--
    i see your point, but let's say:

    - someone's trying to convince you to play a game that you don;t think you'll like--if they can link to an actual play recording that sounds fun, well then they've made a pretty good case

    -or they're a game designer and want to see whether a certain kind of mechanic encourages a certian kind of play

    -or they just hear some asshat make a sweeping generalization that x ALWAYS leads to y and just want to shut that person up--if they find a counter example, they;ve won.

  9. "-or they just hear some asshat make a sweeping generalization that x ALWAYS leads to y and just want to shut that person up--if they find a counter example, they;ve won."


  10. I have learning disability or hearing problem or something. I absolutely hate podcasts, audio books, listening to talk radio, even talkin on the phone come to think of it. Anytime I'm hearing but not seeing person talkin, I can't focus/listen.

    To find out if I like a game, I play it.

    Arguing over games is it's own activity, I do it cause debating, trolling, flaming, whatever is fun. Don't do it to make a point, that's pointless. Also, "evidence" of the nature you mention isn't worth much cause whatever someone claims it proves I will claim it proves just the opposite and we can argue up one meta-level for awhile then go home believing exactly what we believed when we started. In other words arguing online is all about boosting one's preconceptions and almost never about changing minds. [see what I did there?]

  11. Am I the only one who can't find the "Keep on the borderlands" podcast ?

  12. This is the reason I can't get my wife to play D&D. Some jerks ruined the game for her in High School and she thinks her experience will be the same regardless of whethere its a new group or a new dm or a different rule set. :-/

  13. Recordings rule, "Actual Play Reports" drool. I've had people confess to me that they hated a game that was reported to be a success, but shut the hell up to either toe the line for their scene or not embarrass a friend. The AP Report is a cultural ritual designed to conspicuously demonstrate how awesome your games are and isn't very trustworthy. People lie about that stuff all the time. It's a little better when you have multiple players chime in, but in the end it's a form of specialized nerdlit.

    Unfortunately, play podcasts and videos are fucking tiresome. I prefer to sit and take notes at live games at conventions when I can manage it (though I haven't done that in a while - other things on my mind).

    A lot of theory assumes that gamers are totally mindblind, so anything that isn't written down will lead to problems. Some of these guys write out big explicit contracts defining what will and won't happen in the game, what the game is about, etc. This is not design in reaction to "turtled" gamers. This is design *by* turtled gamers.

    Plus, I really wish gamers would stop simultaneously trying to make definitive statements about the hobby and cowering in ever more narrow comfort zones. Some aspects of roleplaying and playing particular games are acquired tastes, and may involve discomfort, anger and other transitory annoying states. People who have no tolerance for these states can't develop informed opinions.

  14. Can I point you to some cutting hilarity from last year over at Wired?

    Also, GNS theory is bullshit, it's done far more harm to RPG discussion/evaluation than good, hell, even the author of it has moved on and (partially) rejected it, but you still see the vague and obnoxious language of it bandied about everywhere.

  15. I have so been wanting to record our games, but I don't think everyone is completely comfortable with the idea.

    Before I got back into rpgs I spent a ton of time playing music and recording, so I have access to all the good equipment but having just recently become a father twice, very little time to game, let alone set up said equipment.

    I have been talking to some of my friends, the ones who also play music and game about the idea of combining the two. Jamming and storytelling.

    Not sure when it will actually come to fruition, but I can see some pretty awesome gaming sessions coming out of combining spoken word, freestyle jamming and epic storytelling.

  16. Ok it has nothing to do with the post subject but i just have say that.

    I found you blog today, not more than 2 hours ago. I'm a veteran RPG players and i'm a very open and liberal person when it comes to sexuality but i've never had any contact with the porn industry or porn stars outside watching and appreciating their work.

    Putting that out of the way i need to say that you blog was both mind blowing and mind liberating to me. By reading some of your posts i got myself thinking about those things so alien and distant to me. You have some good articles there about dming, some were helpful to me in some ways (as i'm dming my first Pathfinder campaign that i could say is the first serious campaign i DM) but what i find most interesting are those articles where you talk about you, yours players and your lives.

    Call me a narrow-minded idiot but i never tought porn stars played D&D, this sort of awakes me up to the fact that you are not obsessed people which the life incompases only sex, nor you are unsophisticated and incapable to understand a game of D&D, you are as much inteligent, sophisticate and interesting as everybody else.

    Yes, here i am, a person with extremely libertarian mindset, a person heavily influence spiritually by thelema, a religion that even has sacred prostitution and sexual magick and thinking about the past i couldn't really think about porn stars as more than objetcs in a way. Now i would like to thank you. This blog transcends a gaming blog to me, by this small window to your lives and to you hobbies you are helping me opening my mind, destroy that idiotic prejudice and in some way be a better gamer, a better libertarian activist, a better psychologist (as this in what i'm studying to) and even a better human being.

  17. Zac, I have to say how much I admire the breadth of your knowledge, as well and your ability to write. If I live a good life, when I die can I come back as you? (g)

  18. Firstly - to "NCboAHUawvmvR5oCvPlJ_hnSmw--" who's having some trouble finding the KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS audio file, I may be wrong, but believe it's been moved to a section that's only accessible to paying users at YOG-SOTHOTH.COM

    Secondly, Ron Edwards himself provides video and audio gameplay examples for his game/essay/categorization of Cold War Spy stories ESPIONE here:

    A great deal of explanatory material is here, tho not a lot of evidence of a number of gamers actually purchasing the product. This brings me to the last thing I wanted to say.

    Thirdly, and this is a hard one to 'fess up to because this kind of a statement tends to bring the FORGE styled trolls out in droves to smirk and mock my inability to understand the depth of their love for oh-to-Hell-with-it EVERY time I seem to hear Mr Edwards talk about his own materials (great examples in the podcast here: , my lasting experience of the event has been an incredible waft of condescension for anyone who might not "understand his genius and thereby not want to play the way he does". As good as some of his ideas are (and he has some GREAT ideas), he comes across as an Arnold's "Arnold", and I've found that sort of stuff very unpleasant.

  19. As a story gamer, I hereby apologize to everyone for every fucking emo condescending douchebag who told you that your game, and everything you know about gaming, is wrong because it doesn't move narrative control around, or have social resolution mechanics, or whatever issue they pulled out of their ass.

    I apologize to you.

    For my part, I am a case of a GNS casualty. My experience of D&D 2 in college was playing several months with a group of very LARP-y, SCA types who would go on long, uninteresting arguments about what would really happen if you cast Lightning Bolt on a man in steel armor, or the benefits and drawbacks of the suit of ring mail the GM was building. These guys were simulationist gamers, and I was a narrative gamer, and I left the hobby for a decade thinking that that was what RPG *was*.

    Actual play podcasts brought me back, and I am happy that you found them, for exactly the reasons that you wrote: it makes intangible details, which are frustrating to communicate, solid and real. It gives arguments common evidence that people can refer to.

    I listened to Yog-Sothoth and RPGMP3, then sought out the local NYC gamer groups, and found myself in a game of Dogs In The Vineyard. It was wonderful. I played a damaged ex-slave who kept falling in love with women who hurt him, and wept when violence and demoniac influence tore them away. I am not a fan of the powerful GM in a game system, but I know that the majority of gamers play in rules systems like that, and find quality time with their friends. That game represents their hard-won leisure, time away from their wives and kids, and no one has the right to make them feel immature of stupid for the way they play.