Tuesday, June 19, 2012

(Adam West voice) "Actually, Robin..."

So this book, Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering exists. Moreover, Robin Laws, its author, exists. And designs games.

There is a lot of good in Robin's Laws and much that is worthy of respect. It's presumably based on the kind of playing-different-games-over-and-over-and-over-with-lots-of-different-people kind of experience that few folks outside industry veterans really have. It has many excellent tidbits of wisdom for a volume of its relative slimness.

But, naturally, I'm going to talk about the stuff I don't like. Mostly because the stuff I don't like is the kind of thing that shows up in GM advice a lot. And if it was worth Robin Laws writing this book (which enough people thought it was that it won an Origins award), it is worth talking about the grain of salt it should be swallowed with.

There are two basic things I don't like and one is more practical than the other but I think they are (unfortunately) related.

The less practical one and more annoying one first. It is so familiar and such a cliche you hear it about RPGs from people outside the gaming world all the time. Laws says this:

The vast majority of successful roleplaying games are power fantasies. They give players the chance to play characters vastly more competent than themselves -- or, for that matter, anyone else in the world as we know it. In power fantasy, PCs always have a good chance of vanquisihing foes; in some games, players can even assume that their enemies will be conveniently distributed by threat level. The power fantasy lies at the very heart of the adventure genre, in books and movies as well as games. It offers a generally optimistic view of life,. There's no shame in enjoying this fantasy, and GMs who embrace and understand it tend to keep players longer than those who don't.

This is sloppy thinking and kinda condescending. I, for just one, would way rather be me than a lot of people I've played in an RPG (you could make a decent case that, other than climbing walls and picking locks, I am better at pretty much everything than Blixa the thief) and I know I enjoy my game in a way that is in no sense unique.


maybe many...

maybe most...

maybe the vast majority...

maybe the commercially most important segment...

...of adventure genre fans are in it for the power fantasy, but this analysis fails to account for so many of the essential details of so much of what goes on in a good adventure story that it's harmful to base a philosophy of gaming (or adventure stories in general) on it.

If I was gonna put Robin on the shrink couch the way he has just put all gamers on the shrink couch I'd say he's just internalized the embarrassment people have wanted him to feel all his life about being into nerdy things and so is having trouble seeing them as performing pretty much the same function all creative things do and seeing that as an essentially good and worthwhile thing.

Also, like peeps in or near any creative field, Laws--like so many gamers--has taken the perfectly reasonable and accurate observation that most things in the medium were not designed for people like him and turned that into the understandable (and pretty universal) emotion I kinda don't like a huge segment of this hobby and what they want and then turned that into the unreasonable proposition there must be something fundamentally reptile-brain about the activity itself and I don't feel entirely good about feeling good about it.

Some of the smartest and most creative gamers I know feel this way. They are afraid if they start to admit gaming isn't basically just escapism then they might get a swelled head and start putting on airs, which terrifies them because then they'll be the segment of the gaming population (theoretically) responsible for everything they hate in the hobby. Better to maintain a certain reserve, like Wallace Stevens did about his poems--continuing to sell insurance even after he won the nobel prize, or like some fantastic horror movie director who moans about never having made a "serious" film.

A lot of this may simply be because, being properly reverent of their favorite movies and writers, they haven't realized that art isn't actually serious.

Long story short: No, gaming isn't fundamentally any less ambitious and real than anything else you do for fun, it's just like in any creative endeavor--most stuff is going to suck if we assume the standard is the taste of an individual observer.

The term "fantasy" has (I'm sure I've said this before) two parts: "wish fulfillment" and "inventions". "Wish fulfillment" makes you feel better about yourself (and then, afterwards, possibly much worse--as in coming down from a dream), "inventions" make you think about stuff.

Tales of invention very often are centered around adventure for a great structural reason: Because adventure allows you to see way more of an invented world and how it is put together than psychological drama or a comedy of manners or any other literary genre. This is true for adventure fiction even in worlds that are not invented: crime movies are about all the internal bits of how cities work that you get to explore if you try to subvert the normal day-to-day life it's there to support (this is how banks verify peoples' identities, this is how international shipping works, this is where heroin comes from...), Indiana Jones and James Bond see the world and interact with cultures and animals and machines in it because they land face first in it and then have to run, even Godzilla movies are partially about architecture and how Tokyo is interconnected and about the audience getting to see all of that in action in an intensified way (and notice how much worse Godzilla movies are when they stop being about that, Matthew Broderick). (And notice that the kind of adult who would happily watch a Godzilla movie is often the same adult who would happily watch a documentary about how Tokyo works.)

Adventure is always as much about the world and its contrivances and the complex joinery that holds it together as it is about violence. The same way history and technology and all the other nonfiction things people who are into adventure fiction also typically dig are.

Maybe it's because I paint all day for a living and so exist in a field (unlike game design) that has centuries of people explaining why it's totally worthwhile behind it, but it's pretty obvious to me that a picture I like is no more there to stroke my ego than a meatball is.

If you play basketball, and like it, a big part of that is some chemicals in your brain that genetically know that what you are doing is exercising your muscles and that is good for the organism's survival and so the organism sends you chemicals like "Hey, this is fun, keep doing this! It's exercising me."

Good stories do the same thing: you are exercising your mind. (Tell it like it is, Pollux.) Unfamiliar, exotic propositions and ways of looking at things are pinging around in your brain and that feeling of anticipation is the unconscious feeling of all your neurons firing off trying to figure out where it's all going and make a pattern out of it and try to use what's going on to dream up a way to kill leopards or find fruit or score. Now it may result in insights no more useful to you than the calories in your breakfast, but if you aren't bored, it's because you're exercising the system in a significant way. Art that is genuinely involving makes you smarter.

Now, yes, there are ways to set up aesthetic situations so that they appeal to peoples' egos (like the fancy wine trick where you tell stupid people that wine is expensive and it literally, in their brain, tastes better) but that is, at most, half the story. Your PC is an alternate you, yes, but it is also a tool to explore and help create an adventure--it is your eyes and ears as you watch a story unfold, and a tool to invent with using that framework.

This is not just escapism--this is doing what all creative things do, and saying "The power fantasy lies at the very heart of the adventure genre"--unless the author is only referring to crappy airport novels--is selling Jack Vance and HP Lovecraft seriously motherfucking short along with all the games derived from the kinds of things they wrote. And most schlock fiction is schlock because it takes for granted innovations made by genuinely good fiction: that is, there is something of artistic merit at the bottom of any genre. What lies at the very heart of adventure fiction is invention. Invented things, invented situations, and inventions of language that give those things intellectual and emotional impact.

Now, yeah, crappy airport novels based only on letting people pretend they are someone and somewhere other than who and where they are sell well, and I'm sure many gamers just play paladins so they don't have to think about how they are air conditioner repairmen, but getting to the awesome part of this hobby (like getting to the awesome parts of adventure literature) means understanding and having respect for the part of it that is not that at all.

Now the second thing, which is more practical as a GM and that I think is kinda based on the first thing:

Laws, like many people in the history of GMing advice, treats players--structurally--as problems.

Like: there are these different kinds of gamers and you need to entertain different ones in different ways and they may become bored if this or that and they need to be fed these things and these ones need systems like this, etc.

Now this is understandable for two reasons:

1. Robin's book is a book of GMing advice and advice usually is about solving problems,


2. As a con-game-running RPG pro, Laws may be kinda forced, more than those of us for whom "friendly" play is the norm, to think of players in an assembly-line sense and as people he works for.

However, this point of view has practical effects on his gaming advice (and on gaming advice in general) which makes it less useful than it could be.

The big idea of the book is familiar to probably everybody reading this: there are categories of gamers. For Laws, in keeping with the "you are here to deliver the power fantasy" philosophy, gamers each have different emotions they need to experience, these are:

The Powergamer, who wants an ever-more tricked out PC.

The Butt-Kicker, who wants to vicariously kill shit.

The Tactician, who wants to feel smart.

The Specialist, who wants to feel like a certain kind of character (a ninja, a catgirl, etc).

The Method Actor, who wants to have a chance to act.

The Storyteller, (three guesses), and

The Casual Gamer, who just wants to roll with pals.

Now Laws readily admits most player defy easy categorization and that overlap is possible, but the problem for me is that, even as elementary particles, these categories are at worst caricatures, and at best descriptions of some actual extant people who nevertheless suck and are a drag on your game and the first law of good game mastering should be: Do not play with anyone who matches the descriptions here.

He doesn't show what's going on in the players' heads here as creative or inventive or expressive, just as wells of emotional need. In the most literal sense: negative (there to take stuff) and not positive (there to give stuff and make stuff).

Every player's heart goes pitpat when they hear about a shiny new ability they can have--but if you have a player doing that just because it will make the person in their imagined fantasy life have more superpowers and therefore that will make them feel more awesome than they are and there is no (conscious or otherwise) element of "Wow, if I can do flying ninja kicks for triple damage, that means we're going to be expected to have a crazy new kind of Big Trouble In Little China adventure where flying triple damage ninja kicks are necessary to survive!" then that person needs to get away from your table, go away from all other game tables, and go where they belong: onto a forum on the internet where they can sit down and complain about their fictional impotence full time.

I think a good book of GM advice needs to remember that players are not just an audience (though they are that) but also a resource:

I don't have a Power Gamer who just wants to trick out his or her PC, I have a Power Gamer who sees tricking out the PC as the key to getting to play the game a whole new way with whole new tools every few levels and that's neat, I don't have a Butt Kicker who just wants to kill shit, I have a Butt Kicker with charismatic, expressionistic, totally metal bloodthirst and heedless doorkicking that you wouldn't trade for 100 Klaus Kinskis because of the energy she adds to the game, I don't have a Tactician who wants to feel smart, I have a tactician who actually is tactically creative like any chess player and enjoys exercising that ability and getting better at it because it's a useful way to be able to think, I don't have a Specialist who wants to feel like a special snowflake, I have a Specialist who extends her imagination to the world described and can appreciate it because she responds to it like she's really in it and thereby notices stuff nobody else would, I don't have a Method Actor who wants to hog the spotlight in the scene, I have a Method Actor who can create a scene out of some half-assed random encounter by deciding it's important and engaging it and so make it engaging for everybody else, I don't have a Storyteller who wants to warp the game to fit some story arc, I have a Storyteller who is able to show everybody else playing where the story is in what looks like a chaotic mess, and I don't have a Casual Gamer whose detachment makes her just sit there bored with what everybody else is doing, I have a Casual Gamer whose detachment makes her really fucking funny.

And that's the half of designing an adventure and running it that's neglected all too often in GM advice, from Robin's Laws (feed the animals on time!) to GNS theory (keep the animals separate!) to DMGs (remember you're the boss of the animals!): the players and you and the game have been assembled to have a kind of fun that is more than the sum of its parts. And the GM and the game product are not the only positive coefficients. While convention GMing all day may have turned some RPG pros into machines capable of receiving, reading and rewarding a player in minutes flat unaided, what most of us need is a way to use what the players bring to the table to help each other have fun.

Design your adventure so the Power Gamer tells the Butt Kicker why they want the thingy and the Butt Kicker gets the Tactician to make a plan to get the thingy so she'll have something to hit and the Tactician asks the Specialist to reconnoiter the thingy and the Specialist gets in there and notices the owner and tells the Method Actor to distract the owner of the thingy with weird drama and the Storyteller volunteers to run right past while they're talking and the Butt-Kicker is fighting because dying would still be pretty cool if it was in the name of getting the thingy and the Casual Gamer is like Seriously you guys are freaking the fuck out about this thingy and it's funny, have a beer and let's fucking do this thing.

And you can't help them do that if you are condescending to the whole business. You are not just escaping and helping them escape, you are making. Making what? Making fun--which is the best thing there is to make. It is human existence's most important activity and you just do all the things you are "escaping" from in order to support it. As well you should.



Woomungus said...

Best thing I've read in ages :D

Seth S. said...

this is great, i wish i had more of a chance to play right now

Nagora said...

Well, by a bizarre coincidence I posted something on my blog about Laws and, in particular, the joys of playing with what I called casual gamers. I don't know if how you presented casual gamers as detached is from Laws' book or not but for me the casual gamers tend to be the ones there for fun and don't give a monkey's about systems and rules. IME they tend to get more immersed than even the "method actors" because they don't even think about it as a performance.

Anyway, just thought I'd stand up for casual gamers a bit.

Jesse said...

I wish someone had been insightful enough to say this 15 years ago. This knowledge is good for games and good for people. Spread the word!

Also if you ever want to regale us with player stories, specifically tales of Kimberly Kane's profoundly metal bloodlust, I think the world would be better for that too. I miss The Axe!

Unknown said...

Motion has been seconded, all for...Motion carries.

Jeremy Murphy said...

Heh, I played in an online game last night - first session. One of my players said "I head out to my parent's farm." I asked him "how far away from town is it?"

There was a long pause and he replied, "I don't know..." So I said "Then make it up.." It took him another long pause to say "about 20 minutes walk". And all I could think was "NOW you're getting it. We're in this together."

Super essay, though. Really interesting stuff.

X the Owl said...

Zak, I mean this in a very friendly and sincere way-it's not an attempt to start an argument.

You're incorrect about The Big Model/GNS (at least as articulated by Ron Edwards in the 10 years since the first two essays). It is not a player categorization theory. At all. I'll give you thread references if you want, but I think I have a better suggestion. Ron Edwards answers e-mail, is happy to talk about his theories if you're actually interested (and you do seem to be, given that you've written a goodly amount about him) and is also planning to start a new forum in the near future, so why not just ask him?

I'd be pretty surprised if he doesn't agree with a great deal of what you've written here.

Zak Sabbath said...

Since nobody seems to agree on what GNS is you do not know whether I am wrong.

But you, categorically and provably, are wrong:

I emailed him and he didn't answer. Ages ago. (Entire text was something inoffensive like: "I have some questions about GNS, shoot me an answer if you want to talk").

But anyway I have had _lots_ of conversations with _lots_ of people about GNS and it basically comes down to things I don't agree with in all vintages and all eras so far as I can tell and I am not going to talk about it with anybody but him if he ever decides to answer my email since everyone has a totally different idea of what it is.

If you insist on telling me you know something about, please please read the conversation about GNS in the comments with Gregor and Alex and Trashcan here:


before making me say all that stuff all over again.

If you know a magic spell to make him talk, welcome to it.

Roger G-S said...

Yeah, I agree with the analysis - can sum it up maybe as "we need to stop writing rules and giving advice that is designed to coddle bad players or route around bad playing."

DaveL said...

Engaging the player into helping make the story is key....

Zak Sabbath said...

...or assume _wanting to do stuff_ is "bad playing".

DaveL said...

Holy crap, Zak-man, you are awesome. You hit the nail on the thumb, again! Thanks for taking the time to tutor us on the Ways of Gaming Awesomeness.

X the Owl said...

Know the thread you're talking about, read it. I think some folks whiffed, but it's pretty hard to talk about this stuff without a context in which knowing/understanding would have value to you. So I'm not going to try to do better.

I'm not an evangelist. As I said, I'm pretty sure (based on other writings that I can refer you to if you like) you and he substantially agree on lots of the stuff you say above, and I thought that might interest you to know. You did get a shout out on his website last year, with the words "More sense here than in a 100 other RPG sites." Maybe it's worth another shot, I dunno.

If you want a better reference on creative agenda here's a thread that helped lock it down for me. The way you describe your group sounds a lot like how Levi describes his group. http://indie-rpgs.com/archive/index.php?topic=20679.15

Zak Sabbath said...

Hey, I'm totally willing to talk to him but at a certain point there's an effort-to-input thing that is exhausting. Every GNs discussion is:

Z: "Ok, it doesn't make sense"
Someone: "Well, but..."
(9 years later)
Someone: "Ok, I guess you're right but, still, it helped me when I was but a wee gamer."
z: "Great, can I sleep now?"

Not gonna go through that again unless it's with the Final Boss himself, since he probably has a better handle on it, having made it up.

huth said...

If you know a magic spell to make him talk, welcome to it.

I could ask him next game. I, uh, don't recall exactly what was said last time GNS came up, but there was probably some rolling of eyes.

X the Owl said...

I've noticed some apparent frustration (attempt at ironic understatement). That's why I started my first post the way I did. As long as you're cool with me stealing your good ideas, I can swallow mild annoyance when I think you're wrong.

Zak Sabbath said...

If you think I'm wrong and don't say it you are taking and not giving.

huth said...

Are you going to do a comparison + contrast with the same section of the 3e DMG2? :P

X the Owl said...

OK-then, I can amend it to on this specific issue.

Zak Sabbath said...

too tired

Mel said...

Wonderful post, Zak. Thanks. You could generalize it to many activities. There's the farmer who loves to grow things and learn from the environment and it's variety, and there are the folks who see agricultural in terms of commodities and efficiencies. Who's the "better" farmer? ...of course even asking that question only makes sense to folks in the second category.

DHBoggs said...

Excellent post Zak. Point one has always annoyed me for its apologetic condescension and inaacuracy and point two is exactly the sort of reductionist, labelism that anthropologist so often conflict with psychologists over because both of the circular reasoning behind it and the easy slide into bigotry which assigned overmeaning given to such subjective categorizations promotes.

gdbackus said...

TOtally rowdy again sir. Is good to see articulation of the value in-and-of itself, not needing to second guess the reason why something is enjoyable

Matt Wilson said...

RPGing is like anything else. Are you having fun? Great. Do some people look down on how you have fun? Tell them to pound sand.

Anonymous said...

Very good article.

I tried to put some thoughts to paper a while back on the topic of GMing advice. Basically it boiled down to something similar:

1) Let the players play the way they like, and trust that they will bring something good to the gaming table.
2) Don't play with dicks.
3) Don't be a dick when GMing.
4) If there is a problem, talk about it and solve the problem.

Simon Tsevelev said...

And there's another cool part of Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering - I don't remember the exact quote now, but it went something like "And if my book doesn't help you make your game sessions better, forget about my book and roll the way you like!"
It's not like I'm trying to say "Hey, you're wrong, there are absolutely no bad parts in this book BECAUSE IT'S SO AWESOME!", just agreing that there's a lot of good stuff and much that is worthy of respect, and that it still isn't perfect and covering all and every aspect of roleplaying.

Black Vulmea said...

Well written and thoughtful.

I'm not a fan of Mr Laws' advice for running swashbuckling games, either.

Unknown said...

In the book Laws also overstates how mutually supportive the players often are, and ignores how adversarial a group at a table may be for out of game reasons. Members of the same group do not automatically want each other to succeed.

Jack said...

This was worth saying and lines up exactly with the way DnD seems to work.

More than half of it always comes from the players. I have no idea how I'd design a game if I wasn't running under the assumption that all the players are awesome, and thank god I don't have to.

Gregor Vuga said...

This one is a keeper.

As for GNS...sigh, I know we've exhausted each other on this front. It's not about the categorization of players, like X said (and like I said). But it did involve a certain amount of "separating the animals" in its original inception - but not to control the players at all. "You're a gamist" or "that guy is a narrativist" were never valid statements in GNS.

It is also indeed something that's very hard to talk about abstractly, because the terms don't have the same meaning as in casual language or typical gamer jargon and so on.

Suffice to say it was very very important as a groundwork to get out of the mire of 90's gaming standards. These days its main value is in the realizations about trust, communication, different kinds of fulfillment and opening the doors to experimentation.

Instead of looking back at its early theory days, the message of the Forge as its forums are consigned to the archives of history is this:
(a) you can make your own games and content (+here's how to do it without bankrupting yourself)
(b) look at games, carefully and attentively, look at actual play, look how things happen and for which reasons, look what the players are responsible for, and what the rules are responsible for, what works and what does't work for different groups, play different games, learn, experiment

Both of which are very much what Zak is doing with his blog most of the time, from DIY publishing to playing BW and posting insightful observations about it.
Also, I agree about Laws. I think he has a specific understanding of gaming and he overextends that to apply to all gaming. Which is an error we're all prone to, all the time. We can't be other people after all. Our own experience, our gaming is the lens through which we interpret the hobby.

huth said...

is selling Jack Vance and HP Lovecraft seriously motherfucking short along with all the games derived from the kinds of things they wrote.

To pick a nit, Lovecraft (and Vance, via the DERPG) are covered in:

p. 9 "A few games offer fantasies of powerlessness, in which a PC can expect to be buffeted about by a hostile world dominated by unbeatable enemies. Horror games, especially Call of Cthulhu, come to mind here."

huth said...

Also, no con-games.

Zak Sabbath said...

I read that part and it's still painfully inaccurate. It sets up the fiction as still being primarily "getting to pretend to experience what the main character does" and it's dumb. There is no nit to pick here--it is a profoundly ill-conceived and shallow piece of literary analysis.

Zak Sabbath said...

Huth, what are you on about?

Axel Castilla said...

I agree with most of the essay here, and about the shallowness of paternalistic, anthropological and psychoanalytic judgements on fantasy, for instance. It doesn't need to be just escapism.
Also, I think that the overly mechanistic-systematic approach of the book isn't the best in many situations, like the case of categorization of players: most RPGamers I know couldn't fit in such artificial models.

Not saying that it's a bad book, but it could have been different in a number of sections.

Axel Castilla said...

Good thoughts there. I also dislike _defining_ genres as their own parodies . . .

huth said...

I'm just not sure where you're going from Robin thinks people like gaming to pretend to be not-themselves to Robin is un-ambitious about doing things w/ gaming. Reading that particular part into the tone, which I will concede displays a less positive and cynical take on people as a whole than you tend to, doesn't correlate.

huth said...

Doesn't run con-games.

Zak Sabbath said...

who? Robin Laws? ever? Ok. then it's based on playing a lot. I hope?

Zak Sabbath said...

"Robin is un-ambitious about doing things w/ gaming."

I never said that. My essay refers to what he said (as advice) in his book of advice, not what he does. I do not know what he does.

Please do not interpolate things and argue with the thing you yourself have interpolated.

huth said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
huth said...

Yeah. Now, I don't really know the group dynamics before the people I play with now showed up, so it's possible they were in a more consumerist mode than the current group.

huth said...

No, gaming isn't fundamentally any less ambitious and real than anything else you do for fun,

Implying that the interpreted statement which you are responding to is gaming is fundamentally less ambitious and real

Zak Sabbath said...

The first statement I quote from him is incorrect and the gaming advice in the second section is poor or incomplete.

I don't know (as usual) whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with that or what you're talking about.

huth said...

I don't know (as usual) whether you are agreeing or disagreeing with that or what you're talking about.

Imagine KK puts out a book called "Kim's Kane-Sword" or whatever about playing a psycho barbarian and some dude posts a thing online extrapolating an interior monologue, for this person you know yourself, about revealing insecurities about being a porn star based on the tone of a paragraph.

Zak Sabbath said...

You lost me all over again.


1. The first statement I quote from him is incorrect and

2.the gaming advice in the second section is poor or (at best) woefully incomplete.

Please state whether you disagree with either of those statements (by number, if possible) then present an argument against it using typed words.

huth said...

The two are connected. You're switching from "Here's one book, and what I think about it" to extrapolating an inner monologue for someone without correlating it with the giant oozing piles of stuff which might affect your impression of the tone being taken and the conclusion, derived partially from the tone, that this person sees players as consumers of invention instead of co-inventors.

Whether you think this is a problem with GM advice as a whole I couldn't give a shit about. (Who reads it anyway?) You're imagining a bizarro-world version of someone based on two paragraphs trying to get GMs to think whether they want to kill their PCs a lot.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think you are assuming I am attributing all this to some evil version of Robin Laws that is different than the good Robin Laws that you know.

What I am actually saying is that either Robin has some inconsistent thinking on this subject
he didn't manage to get all the conscious stuff about how he operates as a GM out onto the paper and some of that is important.
(or both)

Also: I still do not know if you are disagreeing with proposition 1 or proposition 2.

huth said...

Or, to invert the statement, the GM advice you're looking for might actually be in a completely different part of the book.

Zak Sabbath said...

Whether or not that is true (and if they are, quote them), the statements quoted at the beginning are still inaccurate.

huth said...

I think you are assuming I am attributing all this to some evil version of Robin Laws that is different than the good Robin Laws that you know.

It's the 'And other GMing advice...' or the 'Other people in or near creative fields...' that makes me suspicious.

Also: I still do not know if you are disagreeing with proposition 1 or proposition 2.

I clicked "Both (see comments)."

he didn't manage to get all the conscious stuff about how he operates as a GM out onto the paper and some of that is important.

Who doesn't? But what did get out ended up in the rules sections of the books, and thus you'll probably miss them if you're just looking for GMing advice (which is why get all apoplectic when people quote p. 192 of ToC and not p. 10).

Zak Sabbath said...

First bit: Be suspicious elsewhere. I deal only in correct and incorrect.

Second bit: Proposition 1 is a statement of fact. He said a thing. That thing is wrong. If you disagree with it, provide evidence to support your conclusion.

Third bit: I don't see what that has to do with anything

huth said...

First bit: Be suspicious elsewhere. I deal only in correct and incorrect.

Then who are these smart gamers? What did they say which led you to think that they shy away from thinking of themselves as more-than-fantasy? Who else describes players as problems? Why is the intent here separated from the 'putting on airs' segment to which 'narrativist' (cough) branded games/designers are usually placed?

Second bit: Proposition 1 is a statement of fact. He said a thing. That thing is wrong. If you disagree with it, provide evidence to support your conclusion.

So where do you derive 'unambitious' from 'power fantasy'?

Third bit: I don't see what that has to do with anything

GM advice is an amorphous catchall of pep talk, mostly troubleshooting, and designer intent which can more functionally be distributed either as asides throughout the book, game-objects/toys, or rules themselves. People complain about linearity and potential railroading in a game which specifically gives players toys to make up new clues, ignoring how that contextualizes the GM advice knowing that the GM has to contend with the interaction of this toy with everything else?

Zak Sabbath said...

First bit:
completely lost me again.

Second bit:
A "power fantasy"--translated by me into "power wish fulfillment"-- is but one of many things an adventure story can do, and an easy thing to do at that. Therefore: aiming for one easy thing instead of other things. I call this "unambitious" but MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY am using this word to express the notion that "power fantasy" is a poor descriptor for the main activity in this very creative medium.

Third bit:
again, you totally lost me


to re-simplify.

The first statement Laws made is simply wrong.

If you think it;s right we can talk about that until we have a conclusion and then move on to all this other stuff.

huth said...


First bit:
completely lost me again.

I suspect you are Incorrect in your categorization of opinions, reading a connection or similarity in opinions which may appear to be there from comparing GM advice or blog posts at a distance but which is actually pretty divergent if you got all these dudes talking in a bar.

Third bit:
again, you totally lost me

Rules and game-objects that tell the players to invent portions of the world, whether implicit (the rpg medium and character behaviour) or explicit (the antiquarian expanded Preparedness special ability and clues on ToC p. 10 or 'directed scenes' in Fear Itself or the entirety of hillfolk) move characters from one part of the 'co-audience' to 'co-inventor' spectrum, making the GM's job of providing stuff that tweaks the player's interests to the PCs easier (in some cases, possibly irrelevant) since they just make it directly or it enters the world as a logical consequence of their invention. Whether you also need a section that says "Deputize your players," I don't know.

huth said...


A "power fantasy"--translated by me into "power wish fulfillment"-- is but one of many things an adventure story can do, and an easy thing to do at that. Therefore: aiming for one easy thing instead of other things. I call this "unambitious" but MUCH MORE IMPORTANTLY am using this word to express the notion that "power fantasy" is a poor descriptor for the main activity in this very creative medium.

I think you're reading the intent Incorrectly due to two things. One, seeing it as a pejorative or condescension when it's not. Two, not contextualizing the word 'power fantasy' in relation to the rest of the book. You're reading power fantasy in such a way as to exclude the alternative focus you talk about, when I think it's explicitly included.

First of all, the the medium itself gives you a power—or rather, lack of powerlessness—which Real Life (cough) withholds, the lack of aggressive continuing consequences. You walk away from the game. That alone means that there is a feeling of power, often regardless of the rest of the game's contents, given in that people can do what they want without real restraints aside from the group's implied or explicated consensus. Even the 'powerlessness fantasies' which are probably closer descriptions of how the OSR 'ideal' (cough) plays out are still about Doing Stuff You Want To Try in a space which Isn't Going To Kill You Personally For It. It will kill your character, but whatever. So the power starts with enter a space where you start anticipating dealing with things you feel more into dealing with.

The player motivation you (personally as Zak) seem to feel is, as you've admitted and demonstrated, highly tactical. Funny goblin choices aside, you hit most of the notes for the tactician stereotype on display as a player, at least in much of your self-description on the blog and the stuff you tend to like as more valuable parts of designing game stuff. To this no-doubt inaccurate caricature of Zakliness, the medium of the game itself delivers the power to grapple with complicated situations with lots of moving parts operating with different levels of knowledge and expected behaviour without feeling like you have to rob an armoured car every Saturday. More specifically in the game. the ability to inspect and change the joinery of complex setting machinery is, in this case, the tactical power the fantasy involves.

huth said...


If you're going to compare this with hamlet's hit points or whatever contemporary GM advice for hillfolk is on robin's blog, I think it would become clear that second half of the power fantasy definition—for RPGs GMs at least—is about providing the hope for thing you want to think about, creating a tension in which you notice difference (hey i want a thing, i don't have it; what is this thing, i poke it) and then acting on it in an optimistic direction. This is why this comes after the emotional kick chart, which is about describing different definitions of what power actually means to people. What is power? What, specifically, are the salient points they are trying have power over and interact with to get what they want?

pg 8 "In a power fantasy, PCs always have a good chance of vanquishing their foes;"

In Vampire, this means 'win whatever weird cliquey victory you win by calling the harpy a bitch or whatever.' In D&D this means that you kill enough monsters and get enough treasure you get a chance to kill Orcus or whoever. In Doom of the Jaredites, you can explore all the hexes. In Dying Earth, you can outscheme the schemer who schemed you into this place originally. In investigative games, that means it'll end up like an episode of Law and Order and not like First 48.

'Foes' here is shorthand—a more evocative shorthand I probably wouldn't have used—for elements you have to resolve before getting what you want (unanswered questions, monsters still alive, internal emotional strife), so that you notice the difference and thus the feeling (or fantasy) of power is something you're conscious of (and thus enjoying), even if it's just the possibility of grappling with it.

I gotta stop editing this and get food. Hit me up on G+ if you wanna talk.

(capchas: Nexorta, UrgyCe)

Zak Sabbath said...

Yes, I understand your description of "fantasy" and it is wrong. I can see how it might match Robin's words here and it is still wrong. It is incorrect. The pleasure is not thinking about how to rob a bank with freedom from having to actually rob the bank, the pleasure is from thinking about how to rob a bank because it exercises a real muscle in the brain you will actually use in real life.

Maybe not to rob a bank (no more than you play soccer only so you can kick balls into nets).
The "fantasy" is not the point. It;s the exercise.

Also: I have never read much else by Robin so your assumptions about hamlet or the blog i don't read or whatever is irrelevant.

Marten said...

With some of these GM advices I really wonder if they have any real experience with anything besides the classical DnD, Vampire and Shadowrun-ilk. I mean CoC or Paranoia REALLY aren't about power-fantasy, are they? I prefer my players to feel empowered after overcoming overwhelming odds that actually were overwhelming and didn't just look like it...

With regards to the player archetypes described I really have to agree with Zak. It's caricature and rather one-dimensional to classify players that way and it disregards the importance of player agency and group-dynamics to make a game work. I feel that a game really works well as an RPG when half of the session is filled with just fireside-chat and/or banter amongst the players while I as the GM lean back and enjoy the show.

huth said...

I mean CoC or Paranoia REALLY aren't about power-fantasy, are they?

p. 9, paragraph 2: "A few games offer fantasies of powerlessness, in which a PC can expect to be buffeted about by a hostile world dominated by unbeatable enemies. Horror games, especially Call of Cthulhu, come to mind here."

although cf. jrients