Thursday, December 13, 2012

Communities Suck At Describing Games They Don't Play

Once upon a time, Vincent Baker, author of many independent games, wrote this about The Forge, the gaming community that spawned many of the fans of his games....

Vincent Baker Nov 11, 2012 - Public

We can argue about what the crucial failure of rpg design at the Forge was, but the crucial failure of rpg design at the Forge was the abandonment of concrete imagery as the medium and product of play.

(And then I wrote this:)

Zak SmithNov 11, 2012 (edited)

As I understand it, the Forge succeeded at many things for the people who were into it but failed at:
1. Being correct all the time about all kinds of games it talked about (which it didn't need to be because the people involved weren't actually making all kinds of games)
2. Promoting a culture open to all kinds of games and gamers (which it didn't need to be because those other gamers picked up the slack themselves)
In other words, the Forge served its constituency fairly well, it just failed to have much coherent to offer the rest of us and thus be an expansionist force.

And the weird thing about that thing I wrote is the little "+8" next to it.

I don't often get "+8" when I am talking in a place where everyone's favorite game is my least favorite. But I'm not here to Forgebash strictly on the strength of a handful of people agreeing with me.

Because what I'm thinking is that this is not really just a weakness of the Forge, it's a weakness of every single RPG community:

They are really good at analyzing the kinds of games their members want to play and they totally fucking suck at analyzing games their members do not want to play.

(Likewise people suck at describing the function of art they don't want to look at. I would've turned the word "suck" into a link to that gamerconservative blog that attacked Hyun Tae Kim but they don't deserve the traffic.)

Everyone there has either never played the hated game, or played it, disliked the experience, and moved away from it and is eager to tell everyone all about that all the time.

And while their criticisms may be valid, in a game (as in anything) you are always trading some inconveniences for some reward and it is that reward that you will have a hard time understanding or appreciating the value of if you don't like the game.

You know, like they say: a cynic is someone who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Example: me.

Despite having it described to me many times and read the book and heard AP reports, I have no real clue what the payoff of playing Dogs In The Vineyard is really supposed to be, really. Like whatever emotions it appeals to are ones I don't have. I can't judge it except in terms of the cost, not the value. It's not my kinda thing. People insisting it is universally good have thus far been inarticulate on that score. Not their fault. They are trying to describe the color blue to a blind person.

(And from what I've read it seems its author is ok with that. Which is good. Some people don't get why anyone wouldn't want to play their game. Those people suck.)

Although it's not my D&D of choice, I play and have enjoyed playing 4e, but I freely admit (and this thread demonstrates) I have no fucking clue (or had no fucking clue) what the average internet-talking 4e fan considered the strengths of that system.

I have a great friend here in LA who's decided 4e is his favorite D&D. I still don't know why, but I know that for whatever alchemy goes into his brain when he is putting together an adventure it is the one that meshes best with his internal list of "wanna deal withs" and "don't wanna deal withs". I'd have to get far deeper into his brain than I ever have to figure it out.

Or I could just play and enjoy it, which I do. P.S. Darren when are you running a game?

Etc etc.

What would make me suck even more is if I tried to describe it without knowing that I had no idea what I was talking about or without even having played it or after only having played it with a bunch of psychotic jerks that I hated.

If that sounds like a fun thing to read, you can read it pretty much anywhere on the gaming internet: just go to a forum devoted to any game and then look for them talking about the opposite of that game.

This goes for every other RPG community.

And if you belong to that community, and trust the taste of the people there because you have played and talked together, and want to find out about a game or an idea outside that community's wheelhouse, what do you do?

Try to find someone who likes that game and have them make their best argument.

And if you are outside a thing and have an idea about it. Find someone inside and ask them.

The costs (all the reasons the people in your Vampire group don't play Cthulhu instead) are always easy to find.

The value, though, that's a thing you may have to go outside your comfort zone to get.


maasenstodt said...

That's useful. Thanks.

Jeremy said...

Thank you. I've loved Hyun Tae Kim's work for fucking years and had no damn clue the artists name. Now I know and I am better for it.

"h4773r" said...

Bravo Zak, I will direct people to this post when I feel they are not quite getting it and I want them to know that that's okay.
Thanks for the reminder!

Unknown said...

So we all... you included as you note... have biases. So this means that all critique "sucks." Do I have that right? Nobody anywhere at any time ever can create any sort of criticism that has any sort of validity whatsoever?

How about instead we note the truism that people have biases, and tell them to try to understand that fact, and suggest that they apply some critical thinking to what they read? Yes, I agree 100% with you that you ought to get the second opinion of a person who disagrees with the criticism in question. That's a key part of critical thinking, to understand both sides of an argument. But that doesn't mean ignoring the criticisms. Look at the argument from multiple angles, and make your own decision.

To be clear about my bias, for those unaware, I was (other than Ron Edwards) the most prolific poster to the Forge. So take the following with a grain of salt; I'm sure you would have anyway: the Forge did a better job of providing a standard of critique than your average internet RPG site.

No, not perfect, far from it. But the signal to noise ratio there tended to be very high.

The point is that if we decide that bias makes any criticism "suck" you are saying that there's no reason to even attempt to raise the bar on constructive criticism. I think that's simply an untenable standpoint.

If I've overstated your viewpoint, or have otherwise misunderstood, please correct me. I don't want to engage in identity politics here (or anywhere). Because that's completely counter to critical thinking.

Zak Sabbath said...

You completely failed to read the post.

#1: I am talking not about the critical faculties of individuals but _communities_. A given person at the Forge may have been great at analyzing some game the Forge didn't play, but as a whole it sucked _hard_ which is probably why it seemed to go for YEARS without noticing some desperately obvious things it was missing about unForgey games. That is the madness of crowds there.

#2 Please.
"And while their criticisms may be valid, in a game (as in anything) you are always trading some inconveniences for some reward and it is that reward that you will have a hard time understanding or appreciating the value of if you don't like the game."

Unknown said...

If your only point is simply that one ought to seek out other sites than the ones that one frequents, to find out if there are other viewpoints on a game in question, again, I can only agree with you.

But you're making it seem like no community can have a standard high enough to make their criticisms valid as an aggregate ("as a whole") where they are criticizing games that that aren't their thing. You say that they all suck at this. And, while again I agree that nobody can provide 100% perfect criticism, they can provide a place where the criticisms are more likely to be reasonable. And that's exactly what the Forge did.

Maybe you simply have a far higher standard of discourse, such that no site has yet matched it as a whole. But I'd like to think that mine is relatively high, and that we did, in fact try to enforce such a quality of discourse on the Forge. We may have to agree to disagree on that subject.

But I think we can agree that it's worth trying to have a high bar set for the quality of criticism? As long as people understand that, I'm good. People will decide for themselves what's good enough.

Zak Sabbath said...

I think the bar should be high.

If you think the bar at the Forge for understanding games that weren't the kind the Forge produced were "high" then your idea of high is desperately low.


Periodically someone will come and try to argue otherwise and after a looooooong back-and-forth they _inevitably_ walk away going "Well it may not have been right but it helped me at the _time_ is all"

And we go "Well good, that's all it needed to do."

If you would like to try to do better, I would welcome it. Prove me wrong.

Unknown said...

We've agreed on the important part, vis a vis the main subject of this blog post. "Was the Forge good enough in this aspect?" should probably start with a new post, I'd think, if you want to pursue it. If so, please link it here so I can find the new thread (or contact me in some other way). I read your blog occasionally, but not enough to catch every post you put up.

Zak Sabbath said...

I said what I said long ago and I think it'd be kind of weird to do a whole new post just to invite you to keep talking about it.


1. If you do not already know the myriad ways in which the Forge failed to serve nonForge gamers, ask.

2. If you want to see what has already been said on the subject, this is probably the most cogent representation of the case I've ever made:

Do read all the comments. One or two people do already take the proForgeAsUnderstandingNonForgeGames POV and fail to do so.

Viktor said...

The answer for any person who "doesn't quite get" any game, is that in almost all circumstances, that's OK. I would say the only time it's not OK (off the top of my head) are instances of wilfully pernicious not getting it, and learned helplessness (i.e. rejection without any effort to appreciate). But still, sometimes you can't event ask people to put effort into appreciation ("Look; I've said I had a really hard week; now is not the time to ask me to understand how ultra-kewl your narrative examination of 16th century Dutch Weevil colonial expansion is... I just wanna find some monster and hit it with my axe")

Viktor said...

My comment was directed at "h4773r", but posting latency being what it is. And the lack of comment editing being what it is. Etc.

Unknown said...

On point 1, I think I've heard most of the criticisms, not just here, but in many places. And I only have concerns with some of them. There was definitely an extent to which we admitted that the majority of the folks there weren't trying to cater to everybody in RPGs.

On the second point, the link is interesting in that your representations of the Forge arguments aren't like any I ever saw supported on the Forge by the "community." I mean I don't doubt that somebody who had some association with the Forge made the assertions that you're mentioning at the top. But:

1. One of the main thrusts of the Forge was to assert that play style preference is not something that makes any sense to criticize. It was almost a mantra over there for us to say something like, "Well, OK, you don't like that sort of game, but is that the same as saying that others shouldn't, or that it's necessarily bad? Think again."

2. The assumption that RPGs are a social game was something we talked about a lot, and it was precisely to say that rules do not help or hinder the social situation, and that you had to have a functional social situation in order for the game to be fun. Game rules only made the game more or less fun to the extent that they help you achieve your creative goals.

Ron's simple test for social compatibility was this: would you go see a movie with these people? If not, then you should think about why before playing a RPG with them. Ron also uses a basketball analogy that looks pretty exactly like your soccer analogy. I don't recall a lot of dissent on this point, if at all. Nobody was saying "We need rules to fix the social situation!" Put another way, people were making precisely your point on the Forge, loud and clear.

(more points coming below...)

Unknown said...

3. Having multiple goals at the table is what Ron labeled "Inchoherent" play, which might sound negative, but is really no more negative than saying that a light bulb puts out inchoherent light (as opposed to a laser, which puts out coherent light). It was the observation of many folks that incoherent play tended to end up with problems because of the incoherency (even where otherwise well adjusted socially), but that this wasn't a necessary outcome.

Another mantra we had was "if you're having fun, you're doing it right." Many of us see value in more focused games, but the general conclusion was't that this was the only way to have fun. Just that it might be something to look at in your design.

Is there less need for coherency in a group that has good communication and social skills? Well, I'd say that, in fact, it's the only way that an incoherent game will work. So, yes. Does that mean that people who play games that have more support for communication of focus are dunderheads? No, I've seen brilliant people who prefer games like Dogs in the Vinyard. Mostly just a matter of taste, and how much support you like from your game.

What it certainly does NOT lead to is a dumbing down of the player base. Do some people play 4E in part because it takes less negotiation? Yes, indeed. That's just a preference. Or that's the sort of conclusion we came up with regularly on the Forge.

4. I should point out that a lot of opinions on many of these subjects were not monolithic. Take OSR, for example. Ron has always said that old versions of D&D have some serious advantages to them, and that the OSR is really focusing on getting at those advantages. He's very much a proponent in his own way (he did a recent podcast on the subject). I, on the other hand, am a lot more critical of old-school games (though I have always agreed that there are some parts of early gaming that are as rock solid as any other sort of RPG play). I don't recall the community as a whole ever coming down on one side of this or another. In fact a lot of people settled in on a decision on this one well after many of us had left it. What we had at the Forge was a lot of well-reasoned debate on related subjects.

5. On the specific point of "Flags" this is just a technique that anyone can use in any game. And I would actually agree with you that it can be over-used. Some folks like the comfortable-ness of having them around, but not all. On a related subject, that of pre-setting stakes for instance, I've long been against this, as I feel it takes away suspense. I think that a lot of the need for flags and stake-setting is an over-reaction from players who have had bad experiences with other games. Though, again, if they're having fun, then maybe it's right for them. Not right for me, however. I will admit that I was probably in the minority on this one, but it wasn't like my voice was drowned out by ravening hoi polloi or something.

Unknown said...

6. Ron's theory has never been that different people have only one preference. His theory says that there are different potential goals, and some people might have a preference for one over the other, but some people may like every style. I myself, like each mode in some measure. That was never controversial on the Forge. People came to the Forge under the mistaken impression that this was the case occasionally, but we straightened them out in short order.

It is precisely the theory that a focused rule-set can create expectations that says that you can have a person who usually likes one sort of play have fun with another sort of play with a game that supports it. Which isn't, again, to say that they can't have more than one sort of fun in the same game.

Your only disagreement here, really, seems to be the frequency with which people may have problem play with D&D. You find it to be unheard of, others find it commonplace.

7. In conclusion I don't see much of what you're saying as being at all controversial with Forge theory. A lot of it seems just to be a statement of your preferences, a subject on which you touch on frequently and clearly (from what I've read). Which is fine, it just doesn't say much about the quality of discourse at the Forge.

Did everyone come away from the Forge able to enumerate these principles well, or even agreeing? No, of course not. There are even a few vocal persons who have it all wrong, and who thereby give the Forge a bad name (though I'm not implying that the person with whom you debated was such a person). All I can do is point back to the actual posts at the Forge to indicate what was really doing on at the time.

Could we have done a better job at communicating these ideas? Well the subject matter is sometimes not all that straightforward. And I feel that we did a pretty good job under the circumstances. What I find happening a lot recently is people going back and re-asserting mis-conceptions about Forge theory, which is easier now that said community no longer exists. I've been making a lot of corrections of late.

Zak Sabbath said...

1. That was not a topic of debate. Everyone already knows that or at least I've heard it a million times.

2. Ok. But then why GNS?

3. ". It was the observation of many folks that incoherent play tended to end up with problems because of the incoherency (even where otherwise well adjusted socially), but that this wasn't a necessary outcome. "

Well then this particular nuance has _never_ been very well advertised. That might be considered a "failure" of the forge or maybe not. Hard to say.

4. You do not need to point that out (as you did not need to point out thing (1). I do not think in caricatures and you do not have to make pre-emptive statements to make sure I don't do it.

5. Flags? What? Huh? Not essential to anyone's argument.

6. You misinterpret me. I have no dumb stereotyped ideas about what the Forge thought about D&D.

I thought this:

The 3 metagame goals given were about as useful to understanding games as Earth Air Fire and Water were to understanding chemistry and were poorly defined and still are (in the PR sense if no other way at this point).

"Incoherent" play is very often an engine of fun. A feature, not a bug. SO often that any decent theory of gaming should probably talk about it and how to do it. A lot.

7. This is just a summary so there's nothing to respond to.


There's more but I feel like we should clear up what we're already talking about before we move on.

Zak Sabbath said...

To simplify:
The Forge did a great job of describing the pitfalls of incoherent play.

It sucked at describing the awesomeness of it.

Which was my whole point.

Unknown said...

All of the points I brought up were in response to things you seemed to be saying in the post you linked. Sorry again if I've read anything in.

If your contention is solely that the Forge as a community overall didn't espouse your point of view a, then guilty as charged. I can't see how that represents a failure of standards of discourse at the site. Many people who were D&D players (as just one example system) came to the site, learned things, and left to go on to have better D&D games.

Mine, for one. Been running D&D all day for the kids, both of whom were home sick today.

Zak Sabbath said...

You seem to be avoiding the issue and retreating into generalities and then (for some reason I can't fathom) bringing everything back to D&D.

This isn't about D&D specifically.

It's about:
Communities are bad at analyzing games (playstyles, here) that are not in their wheelhouse.

The Forge was good for people who did not have fun when play was "incoherent". It was good at describing that experience and devising ways to avoid it.

It was bad at being able to say anything to the many many people and games for whom "incoherence" was a virtue. It sucked at analyzing that or describing how that worked.

Unknown said...

I'm just using D&D as an example (as I stated), as it's a game that you know a lot about, and I'm assuming it counts as one of the games that you're counting as not in the Forge's "wheelhouse."

I agree on the subject matter, whether the Forge did a good job of analyzing such games. You pointed out in your linked post several points that you assumed were Forge theory about such games, and how they're wrong. I pointed out how, in fact, those points were not Forge theory, and how Forge theory in gross terms agrees with many of your own points of view. It did, in fact, discuss things like how incoherent play worked, when it did.

Espousing other methods of play is not equal to denigrating or subtracting from incoherent play. Yes, some people came to such play with negative emotions and railed against such play. But the Forge was the place where we said, "Know what... that's just baggage, and often about unrelated stuff. So let's look at such play rationally, and understand that it isn't automatically bad."

That being just one message amongst a ton of others, it's possible that it wasn't what everyone took away. And, too, some people just found that they preferred more coherent play. So it would be surprising if they didn't champion their preferences, in a similar way to how you champion your own here.

Did the Forge toot the horn of incoherent play and extol it's virtues? No, not much. Did the Forge give such play a fair shake, and promote rational discussion about it? Yes, absolutely.

Zak Sabbath said...

I get your point.

What this boils down to for me is, if we are doing what I try to do in the post, which is analyze a community as an aggregate, is:

What do we consider the "products" of that community as in "what did it produce?"

Your answer's going to be different than mine.

You are judging "were there fair minded people there"? I'm sure the answer is "yes"

I am surveying the post-Forge landscape and looking at the products that even someone so unForgey as I can see.

Here's what I judge it by, which is by no means encyclopedic but it's what I got:

-The GNS essays
-the current Big Model
-Story-Games (a "result" if not a product of the Forge)
-The parts of Burning Wheel and Dogs ITV etc where the authors briefly discuss _other_ games
-Every conversation I've had with anyone who I knew was an author of a Forgey indie game other than Vincent Baker and Cam Banks
-Threads on the Forge I've seen linked to about games I know where people say cuh-rayzy things and no one challenges them
-Podcasts by people who were inspired by Forge stuff
-People who talk to me on line and try to explain Forge theory

...and in all these places I see understanding of the goals and tools of nonForgey play severely lacking.

Unknown said...

Fair enough, Zak.

I could go into more details, but I understand your point about what you've seen. I've found some of the OSR community (as another familiar example) to be fairly ranty, as well. But there are also definitely voices in there that are quite rational about their POVs, and who it makes a lot of sense for me to listen to.

Because in the end I don't want to have come to my own conclusions without having really understood the arguments being made by the other side. I need folks like you who are critical of the sorts of games I like if I'm ever going to really move forward. I hope that others reading this take the same attitude, to question their own assumptions, as often as is practical.

Zak Sabbath said...

Some of the OSR is ranty?

That's exactly my point.

The OSR _sucks_ at describing games it doesn't want to play.

Why? Because it's an RPG community.

And that is a universal characteristic of all RPG communities.

Unknown said...

Well my point was that some of it is not ranty, and worth listening to. OK, sure, if you mean that it takes effort... sometimes a lot of effort... to find the good stuff, then I agree. But I think the effort is worthwhile, and the negative opinions of these communities are worth understanding.

Zak Sabbath said...

Point is, you won't get a good idea of what not (whatever) games' real strengths are unless you step outside of (whatever) community.

Zak Sabbath said...

Here is a typical example of what I consider the legacy of the Forge:

Anonymous said...

Sounds about right, a couple of very well designed games and boundless superiority by proxy.

Of course, this is mostly happening in the context of expanding that culture of play to various non-english-speaking countries where it doesn't really exist much, and so includes a lot of people of a very particular stripe; those people who've been playing x (where x is the big generic roleplaying game of their language) because they wanted something else and that was the only game in town.

This is from a particular subculture of "I love some parts of this game enough to get over the fact that I've come to hate the rest of it", finally getting a chance to let some of that hate out!

They have a community (which they've just left), of dissatisfied, sometimes in denial roleplayers. These exist all over the world, but they don't exist as much as these people think they do, but that's the problem with denial!

Of course, that's all from outside the community, and even the country!

Zak Sabbath said...

I'm not following.

I mean, I get that the total dickhead in that link is speaking from anger about The Dark Eye being the only game in town German RPG wise but I don't really get what you're trying to say about that.

Anonymous said...

Just what I said really, I mean there's this weird thing about the forge's influence, that there have been loads of people who've been having kind of crap ok-ish games, who get the opportunity to play something that suites them better, and let out all the repressed judgement about how crap their previous games really were, compared to what they wanted to play.

If they could just directly talk to the other people who have been having crap games and making the best of it, without hitting the people in between who really like the games they are playing, everyone would be a lot happier.

The snag, like I say though, is that those people are sort of part of the same community, there's no neat lines to separate the "dissatisfied but making the best of it" from the "actually pretty satisfied".

So that's all really!

Celebrim said...

I think that this may be a rather generic problem communities have. You and I have an amazing amount in common. We are also amazingly different. Where we have an amazing amount in common, I think we understand each other very well. Where we are amazingly different, I doubt we understand each other at all and certainly would be incapable of describing accurately the community each of us belong to.

Zak Sabbath said...

I disagree. There are many great examples of times when outside criticism is better than internal criticism. The problem is: a game is not a painting--you have to actually _play all the way through it_ to get the experience (which takes hours) and you have to _have lots of different kinds of people play all the way through it_ to be able to make a definitive statement about what input x results in.
This isn't true with a huge variety of experiences, because they demand less time and have less variable outputs.