Friday, March 5, 2010

Like Playing Monopoly With Squatters

Or, Irony

I used to live on 5th and B in the East Village, next door to the (now-demolished) 5th street squat.

The squatters' place was bigger than mine, so we hung out there. We played games--darts, 4-square, Monopoly.

"You like Monopoly?"
"Monopoly? I like it ok," I say
"I mean part of it is the irony value y'know? Squatters playing Monopoly."

And then we played Monopoly, and it was fun. And it was extra fun because half of us playing were squatters. So you're a squatter, a thimble, and a real-estate investor. This is semiotically complex. And funny.

Like how KK is a porn actress, and Maude Lebowski, and an opera valkyrie, and a couple of barbarians.

Ok--wait--I'm not gonna use the word "irony" since where I come from it has bad associations with people who wear skinny jeans and listen to music created by white cismen with no testicles. I'm gonna say "distance". The question is the amount of "distance" you usually have from events in the game. I'm not talking about hipster-wolf-mountain-range-t-shirt-irony. I mean the degree to which--no matter how much you like the events in-game aesthetically--you resist totally "immersing" in your character or the story events.

One thing that falls outside the usual discussions of gaming style is the amount of distance any given group or player has towards the game in question--which I think is a shame because I think a giant part of the fun is the distance and, one way or another, I feel like the design of, say, Vampire, D&D-as-marketed-to-adults, D&D-as-marketed-to-kids, Rifts, and Dogs In the Vineyard all imply different levels of distance. Or, perhaps more accurately, the way they're talked about implies different levels of distance.


The way I see it, there are a few basic places where fun comes from in an RPG:

-There's hanging out with your friends--who I hope are creative, hilarious, and interesting people. This is fun but it can be done without the RPG.

-The second thing is telling a story collaboratively. The story-providing duties get divided up in different ways between players, GM, and publisher (if published setting stuff is being used), but the point is the transcript of play will be a story that everybody at the table had at least some input into. This also is fun and also could be done without the RPG. You could just write a story about some medieval people or space people or whatever, email it around for a few weeks or months and then you'd have a story.

-The third thing you're doing is "playing a game" in a more traditional pre-simulatory-wargame, pre-rpg sense--that is, trying to succeed in some arbitrary challenge involving some mix of chance and/or skill, whether that be killing monsters or just turning the plot of the story the way you want it to turn. Like the other two funs, this fun can be done without the RPG--if you play a video game at home by yourself you can have this kind of fun.

-A fourth place fun comes from is the distance between the three sources of fun. And this fun can only be had with a tabletop RPG (or PBEM or other electronic variants).

This fourth place, I suggest, is where a very big proportion of the fun comes from:

Your friend's chihuahua just won first prize in the well-trained-chihuahua-contest but in the game his Cleric can't hit anything to save his life.

And you say "Look at you, Freddie you're a mess."

And Freddie looks down at the chihahua and says to it: "I know, I know. Odin is punishing us for our hubris."

Or say you're a bartender wearing a shirt that says "I'm with stupid" and you're also saying in a wizard voice "It was the height of youthful folly to engage me in such a manner, young Paladin." And then the Paladin says "Whatever" and throws a nacho at you. This is playing the game. The players are something, the rules are something, and the story is something and they clash and don't make any kind of Classical drama and it's all postmodern and shit.

This is--for every player I've seen, and for every player I've heard in an actual-play recording--the typical mode. A racing back and forth between the story-identity and the human identity, plus the drama of simply trying to get shit done against some rules. There are very probably people who don't roll like this, (and some of them are probably reading this) but I have absolutely no first-hand experience of watching or hearing them play.

In this way, you get to have your cake and eat it, too. You get both Lord of the Rings and the Mystery Science Theatering of the Lord of the Rings. In this way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts--it's not just hanging out with your friends plus an adventure story plus the challenge of a game--it's also and largely that fourth thing that only happens when all of them happen together.

I don't think the Distance affects the ability of the game events to be genuinely interesting. Kimberly's character is called Lady Smashalot. That doesn't stop her from getting scared when her character fucks up or getting worried when she doesn't know what to do or being engaged enough in the weird things happening in the game world to find them interesting as a fiction.

In my experience, (that is--in my experience. In my own personal experience. In the experiences that I myself have personally had) the more tension you can create around the distance between the universe of the game world and the universe of the people sitting around the table playing the game eating double-stuff Oreos--the more fun you have. The game world is a serious place full of life, death, terror and various forms of spectacularness--and it is navigated by people in apartments with jobs who roll dice. This is not necessarily a bug.

People who read this blog may have noticed it has a split personality--the monsters and other features of the campaign world are written with the finicky hand of someone who wants to get his imagined universe juuust right stylistically while the actual play reports are more like fuck it let's roll some dice and smash stuff. I feel like there's no real contradiction there. The more carefully detailed and imagined the game world is, the more fun it is to watch drunk strippers (for example) negotiate it and watch it try to negotiate with them. That's why everyone who loves Tolkien has so much fun making fun of Tolkien and that's why Call of Cthulhu can be both the scariest and funniest game anyone ever played.

When I play, there's absolutely no way to eliminate this distance--RPGs are so inherently social for me that I am always hyperaware of the unreality of the in-game situation in a way that I'm not with a good book or a good movie.

There are probably styles of playing where the whole point is to collapse this distance so that the players are absorbed in the way they are in a more traditional fiction medium, but I don't think I'm so constituted that this would work for me. So: as long as that distance is there I figure "Why not use it?"

In terms of my awareness of what's going on in the game as a player my mind is constantly racing in a loop from "Oh wow, the Temple of Demogorgon is carved from the ice of solidified tears!" to wanting Mandy to hurry up and pass the fucking Raisinets. I enjoy this racing. And I suspect that when a lot of people say they don't purposefully want to inject heavy "relevant" themes into their games it's not necessarily because they play to escape reality, but because--like me--when they play they never escape reality, and so any "theme" always remains at a distance. Injecting a theme which one was genuinely conflicted about into this style of play would be, in some way--for this kind of player--trivializing it.

So--for the player who's got distance--when you put together the elf's story you aren't designing the whole experience, you're designing one pole of it--the simple backboard you're bouncing off of. If the typical dungeoncrawl seems devoid of "human complexity", it's because many people who play this kind of game assume the "human complexity" is automatically at the table. The genre tropes and problem-solving situations throw the real people into relief.

Like Plato said, "You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation."

If you keep your distance then you'll notice that, say, Sasha Grey, the D&D player, hates losing and gets actually real-life sulky when the dice don't roll her way and that this (among other things) probably tells you a lot about how Sasha Grey ended up being Sasha Grey. And you can make a joke about it. And then you can use it to mess with her character in the next scene and she can point it out and make fun of you and back and forth and back and forth and then some complicated fun happens.

The game world is a thing full of images that most of the players at the table probably consider exciting and evocative--but the game is about the difference between those things and real life.

For me, creating a game world or plot events is less like building a sculpture and more like designing a playground. Yes, you want to bring your creativity to bear in that small world of jungle gyms and slides and animals-on-springs, but you have to remember that the fun isn't just going to come from what you make but from what happens when real world contemporary people with sneakers and jeans use it and are on it and are contrasted with it and slide down it. Like the architects say "A building doesn't have to be a perfect thing to see, it has to be a perfect thing to see people in."

For the immersive player--the real player of roles, (and for certain non-gamers) who might (might) assume that any gamer wants to be or explore the role they take on, then of course dungeoncrawling would suggest that all you want is to pretend to be a guy who shoots fireballs or (perhaps more worryingly) "explore" what it would be like to be able to shoot fireballs.

But I don't think they realize that, if you play with a lot of distance--the distance is the content of the game. You're not pretending to be an elf because you want to be an elf, you're pretending to be an elf because you're an insurance adjuster and the back-and-forth between being an insurance adjuster and an elf is interesting and funny. The insurance adjuster is automatically complicated because he's real--the elf can be, but doesn't have to be. That's what's interesting--the constant juxtaposition of worlds. One full of quirks and logistics and ordinary people, and one made of nothing but genretastic invention.

Immersive and theme-heavy gamers, or gamers who like a story that is heavily shaped in advance, have a different idea of where the fun and complication is going to come from than I do. They look at the sand castle (the story, the world it takes place in) and go "Why is it just a sand castle? Why not have a big dome over here and a helipad over here and rocket jets on the side and an opera pit and--come to think of it, why is it a castle? Why not a parliament building?" Whereas somebody like me would say--the sand castle isn't really the end product--the product is the fun in trying to make a castle out of something as chaotic as sand.


thekelvingreen said...

I can't find the "applause" button.

A GM said...

Thoughtful and well-written post, Zak. Thanks. :)

Michael McClung said...

Hi Zac-

This post made me want to leave a more detailed comment than is my normal style. Please forgive :)

I personally can't help but think about story, because of my background as a fantasy writer, but I certainly don't want to railroad my players. I think for me and for them, the 'playground' setting isn't enough, though certainly none of them want to stage a play, either. The best middle ground I can come up with is sort of a playground cum scavenger hunt. Some of the items may well not be found, and that's okay, but at least they have a general sense of purpose and an overall goal to work towards.

As for 'distance' I think any healthy group of adults will find it inserting itself into the game from time to time, and that's no bad thing. The danger of distance, to my mind, is when you have different players who have different tolerances for it's manifestations. One player's amusing, fun night of playing and ragging on their friends could well be the person sitting next to them's grand escape constantly spoiled by snark. Ultimately that works itself out, but there can be a lot of ill will in the meantime.

My two cents :)

Tim Snider said...

Godammitsomuch, I love these types of posts. Well spoken Zac. Huzzah!

/throws a nacho

brink. said...

"You get both Lord of the Rings and the Mystery Science Theatering of the Lord of the Rings."

In over two decades of gaming, i've never heard my experiences described as accurately as this.


James Maliszewski said...

Very well said. Awesome.

Leopardi said...

Very eloquently summed up, that hits the nail on the head for me. I'm looking forward to seeing it in practice in "I Hit It With My Axe".

squidman said...

This is probably the best article on gaming, ever.

Adam Dickstein said...

Chuck Full O' Righteous. post ever.

Trey said...

A very cogent summary of the way I think most people play.

Chris said...

So you're a squatter, a thimble, and a real-estate investor. This is semiotically complex. And funny.

This turn of phrase is truth and love.

"Zak Smith made tender, passionate love to our hobby, and..." (etc.)

Anonymous said...

"That's why everyone who loves Tolkien has so much fun making fun of Tolkien"

Actually, not everyone. Although there's enough place for fun in Tolkien (like the hobbits who're funny little fatsoes, and, basically, pretty much everyone in Hobbit - including the wizard and the dragon). If playing around those falls under cathegory of "making fun of Tolkien", then yeah, sure, that's always fun.

Unknown said...

You just made my day. This is *exactly* why I enjoy the game so much and I never realized it before. It's like I couldn't see my own darn nose on my own darn face. Thanks for holding up the mirror. Frakking awesome!

Dr Rotwang said...

Hang on, mister -- I'm supposed to be the funny, eloquent, insightful one. I call foul! Dogpile on the porn guy!

What I really mean is: Yes. Yes to all of this.

(Word Verification: "braing". BRA-ING (v.) from "to bra". Hey, Louie, let's go braing tonight.)

OtspIII said...

I really like most of this, but I don't quite line up on the bit you said about theme. I actually feel like the distance is what makes the theme work; you get to fuck around with something serious in a lighthearted and consequence-contained manner, but then the next day when you're taking a shower or falling asleep or whatever you get to take what you did and turn it around in your mind. For me, the best lighthearted stories are the ones with just a tiny trace of haunting resonance to a more rich and depressing issue. Not enough that you even really notice them while you're playing or reading through the story, but just enough that they nag at you subtly afterward.

I think that this is what distance does really well for RPGs: letting you make choices and explore themes non-seriously, so that you can build up a stronger understanding of them without stress. It does trivialize it a bit, but it does so temporarily and in a way that lets you comfortably get your hooks into it and really start grappling with it.

Harlo said...

Great post BUT let's talk about this porn big lebeowski. Because I am confused. The plot of the film hinges around porn- it seems hard to make a parody porn of something already so enmeshed in it.

David Larkins said...

Another "hear, hear."

The more carefully detailed and imagined the game world is, the more fun it is to watch drunk strippers (for example) negotiate it and watch it try to negotiate with them.

For what it's worth, this reminded me somehow of the old cartooning trick of making background elements super-detailed while making things the reader is supposed to focus on/identify with incredibly basic (Tintin comics being an archetypal example).

Unknown said...

@ Dr-Rotwang - I have to disagree with your interpretation of the word verification.

(Word Verification: "braing". BRA-ING (v.) from "to bra". Hey, Louie, let's go braing tonight.)

Zak just braing it to the table and served it up. Dip your chips in and throw them at the wizard.

AGCIAS said...

Vivat! Thank you, Zac.

Iglesias said...

Brilliant post.

Zak Sabbath said...

hey, everybody likes story--and your description sounds remarkably like certain sandboxes i've run with "plot seeds". there's a balance, is my point.

as for the amount of "distance", i feel like that's a social feeling-out thing. a group consciously or unconsciously figures out what the mean level of distance is. the better the players know each other the better this works. i have never personally seen it fail, but that's me.

I see your point. I personally have nothing against having a campaign world with "issues"--i just don't think it's a requirement. All interesting fictional things probably are associated in one way or another with some fairly heavy ideas, whether or not that's obvious at first.

haven't seen it.

OtspIII said...

"All interesting fictional things probably are associated in one way or another with some fairly heavy ideas, whether or not that's obvious at first."

I very much agree with this. Even without trying, you're going to hit certain themes, ideas, and dilemmas within the game. I think being that for the DM to be conscious of them and use them to keep the game engaging is a very good thing. . .but as long as the DM is good at other very good things it's no big deal if they don't care about themes.

Also, if anything I'd say that keeping it from being too blatantly obvious is more desirable than being heavy-fisted with it. Explicit "HEY, HEY YOU. I'M DOING ART AT YOU, SO PREPARE TO HAVE YOUR LIFE FUCKING ENRICHED" never really gets good results.

Anonymous said...

"Ok--wait--I'm not gonna use the word "irony" since where I come from it has bad associations with people who wear skinny jeans and listen to music created by men with no testicles"

You win sir. I haven't finished the post, but I had to stop to congratulate you on that alone.

SirAllen said...

Wonderful piece Zak. Thanks again.

Unknown said...

Re: Distance

LARP being way too fucking close and far away at the same time.

Close -- because the players want to directly emulate their representations in the game by completely assuming their identities.

Far Away -- because to everyone else you still look like a douche wearing face paint and carrying a NERF weapon.

At least that's my interpretation of what you're saying.

Unknown said...

Well said.

Mike David Jr. said...

A great post, Zak. Some of my best roleplaying memories are as much the interaction with the players as the actions of the character.

Actually, reading your actual play reports just goes to prove that people are the same all over. Mandy, Kimberly and the gang would fit in with the way many of my friends play RPGs real easy.

And Kimberly looks fabulous as Maude Lebowski ;)

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Sure, whatever. When's the TV show coming out?

Zak Sabbath said...

Don't know yet. This month, they tell me.

MHK said...

This is what I've been looking for, for a very long time: Someone to put into words what "the distance" actually is and what it means. Thank you. From the deepest pit of my oddly-shaped blood-pumping organ.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Several groups have discussed "What makes RPGs fun" in contrast to other activities, but I think this is the first place I've really seen it captured well. Kudos.

Matthew Slepin said...

What I really like about this post is that it opens a an giant bloody area of thought that I had not really been able to conceptualize.

Damn. You have too many talents.

Elliot Wilen said...

Dunno if there's a way to do a trackback from livejournal, so I'll mention here that I've referenced this post over on my blog, here.

darren e said...

This is certainly something I think about from time to time, and I think there's a very specific reason a certain stereotypical crowd tends toward RPGs more that other groups. It's the layers of complexity, interaction, and adaptability that make RPGs and hyper-complex boardgames the escapist social fuck-offery of choice for the uber nerd.

This distance is a major factor in that...

The more ADD leaning nerds tend to prefer playing often mono or two dimensional characters that they can hyper-focus on. They may miss a lot of what the GM is scheming, but they love to hone in on what they can do to further the party's goals... often completely independently of what the rest of the party may be plotting, but still usually in concert. These are the ones who usually pull of surreal moments of brilliance (intentionally or now) that often leads to much rejoicing or uproarious laughter from everyone else present.

These people tend to bore easily at other pursuits in life, but when they have so many layers of complexity and stimuli coming at them, that it tends to wash away all external influences letting them really enjoy their game. Specially when called on to act out 'their turn', even if they were counting popcorn on the ceiling while drooling on themselves and jabbing a fork in their own eye, they usually snap immediately back to focusing on the game and are gung ho. It no longer matters who they are or what is happening around them in reality, all that matters it what they are doing in the game RIGHT NOW. This tends to make for very amusing moments of distance between the game reality and their default one.

The other archetypical gamer nerd tends far more toward the OCD. Though they get a lot of satisfaction from playing, these people are generally the ones who love to create and run the worlds their friends get to play in. Even while playing they always catch themselves scheming on how to run their own game and relate their player moments to how they would like to GM their own worlds. During the course of the game they try to deconstruct what their GM has in store for them around the next corner and consider the actions and strengths of their teammates instead of just focusing on their own. While GMing they love the minutia and play up every tension they can with their players. They like to see what everyone else at the table comes up with to tackle the obstacles they spent so much time scheming up.

All this time shifting the focus to the bigger picture causes the disconnect from the mundane default world to the in game existence. Though for them disbelief is never truly suspended, there's enough going on to shut out most of the normal world and really have fun with their game. But even in the midst of that, these players are the one's who are most aware of the distance and tend to casually point it out when everyone else is super immersed, leading to much laughter.

And on that note, it's happy hour...

Anonymous said...

Yess! You found it for me. Thank you. Now I get it (hug)

Unknown said...

About the distance part, and since you seem to like good books, and play D&D with pornstars... I highly, highly, very much and in an incredibly hapy way recommend you "Eros, the Bittersweet" by Anne Carsson.

Right now, reading this Blog, I seem to remember her. Except she's talking about love and Sappho and her poetry, the lesbian greek poet from... Lesbos.

Thanks for a great read.

John Evans said...

That's all great, but it only works if you play with people you really trust and are comfortable with.

Zak Sabbath said...


You are incorrect. (Since you made a categorical statement about how games work "It only works if..." then you will always and inevitably be incorrect, as there will always be exceptions.)

I played a charity game with a bunch of people I neither knew nor trusted and played no different than I usually do and it worked just fine. I'm sure other people who do con games will tell you the same.

If you include the word "usually" you might be right, but there's no way to prove it.

mistermarkfitz said...

Gah! Just wrote a long post of praise for this. It was eaten. Suffice to say: this is the best kind of lightbulb moment, illuminating my gaming for me in a way that will make me forever grateful. Thanks Zak.