Saturday, September 19, 2015

(Thought Eater) How People Choose Games

Two new entries for the Thought Eater DIY RPG Essay Tournament.

Here's how it works: thesea re not by me--they're by a pair of anonymous DIY RPG folks who were both assigned to write about: Why do people choose games or certain editions of a game? for the contest.

Anybody reading is eligible to vote for which one you like best and voting will be cut off once all the votes for all the first round Thought Eater essays are up...

First One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CHOOSE1" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Here are things I want a game to do:

Provide a sense of danger. Establish physical laws severe enough that the players can plausibly die even if I softball the difficulty.

Provide scope for material progress. Establish economic laws that allow the players opportunity to advance in wealth and power without me explicitly having to give it to them. 

Provide for the differentiation of PCs. Allow different mechanical ways for the players to interact with the first two systems. Characters fight differently and they become more powerful in different ways. They have different skills and different weaknesses.

The first two things take some of the burden off me as a DM. They make it easier to challenge the players and they make it easier to motivate them. The third thing takes some of the burden off my players. It limits their options and makes it easier for them to decide what to do next. It also means they don’t have to invent an interesting character from scratch.

I still have to put some thought into challenging and motivating the players, and they still have to put some thought into their actions. But having game rules lowers the difficulty of those things to the point where they are enjoyable instead of frustrating.

Now here are things I don’t want a game to do, but that I have gleaned other people appreciate:

Provide a setting. I already have more settings in my head than I know what to do with.

Provide for the emergence of a coherent, emotionally satisfying narrative. I don’t take games seriously enough for this to work. No matter how distraught the pixie queen is about the obliteration of her culture by the goblin invaders I’m not going to be able to care about it in a tabletop game context. (I guess that what I crave is the narrative of motion. I want to imagine the interactions of elements, but I don’t care about the drama or the intrigue. I want an action movie, not a period piece.)

Model social interaction. I can improvise this in a way that everyone at the table will agree is fairly plausible. I don’t need rules for it. Note that the same is not true of combat.

Incentivize roleplaying. I don’t care if people roleplay or not.

The first list is fairly characteristic of things that OSR games do. The second list is fairly characteristic of things storygames do. This is clearly the most important political debate of our time.

What they all have in common, however, is that they make it possible for you to achieve a particular aesthetic goal without you having to put in the kind of backbreaking labour that is usually associated with the achievement of aesthetic goals. You want to fight a terrible ogre, or you want to explore a fantastic realm, or you want to simulate the heartbreaking trauma of losing a child. Game rules make it possible for you to spontaneously generate these experiences. You lose some quality, in that procedurally generated works of art are, at our present level of technology, generally less good than bespoke ones, and you lose specificity, in that you can’t control exactly what kind of experience you get. But it’s much easier and much less time-consuming than painting or writing or filming or composing would be.

When you design a system for a tabletop game, you make two assumptions. The first is that the kind of aesthetic goal your system is designed to achieve is a valid one. The second is that people can’t achieve it on their own, or at least not easily, and so they need the assistance of a system.

Everyone has a different internal sense of what aesthetic goals are valid, and everyone is better at some things than they are at others. This determines what you do and don’t want from a game.

The experience I want from a game involves greed, violence, breathtaking stupidity, the exploration of ancient tombs, cool monster designs and really horrible shit happening to people for no reason. I’m good at improvisation, setting design and on-the-fly characterization. I’m bad at balancing combat mechanics, finding goals for my players that they are actually interested in pursuing and figuring out what the right level of difficulty is. I don’t want in-depth roleplaying (I won’t object to it happening but I’ll never pursue it), power fantasies or serious emotional growth.

The systems I get the most use out of are the ones that do things I want but am bad at. For me this is providing a sense of danger. My games are very improvised. I’m always concerned with making sure that they players have complete freedom to do anything they want, and this comes with a corresponding loss of danger as I invent stuff that wasn’t already in the script. The reason for this is that if your players decide they’re going to venture off the edge of the map it is kind of cheating to put an immortal dragon, or a straight-up invisible wall there. I can’t spontaneously kill people at a whim. But I want spontaneous death to be a possibility, so I need it to be encoded in the game rules. When the players all fuck up and contract mummy rot I need to be able to point to the manual entry for mummies and say “That was always going to happen, I didn’t just invent it to fuck with you”. Rules, for me, are most useful as something to blame.

The systems I get the second most use out of are the ones that do things I want but am good at. I can design my own villages. It’s all on stilts and the mayor’s a toad. Boom. But I still have a use for a random village generator from time to time, if only just because not everything can be on stilts. And sometimes when you’re good at something you can extract more use out of a system than someone who is bad at the thing. It becomes a sort of skill magnifier. So setting design and tables of personality quirks are still useful to me, even though I don’t strictly speaking need them.

The only systems I don’t use are ones that do things I don’t want. I don’t give bonus XP for roleplaying because I don’t care about it.

This is not the only reason people choose to play certain games. People choose games because it’s what they’re used to, because their friends were doing it, because they already knew the rules or because they think it will make them cool. But it’s the reason the kind of person who still has her old notepad full of scribbled continents from high school and who drags her friends into it when they aren’t really interested and who writes essays on D&D theory for Zak Smith’s blogging competition chooses games. They’re obsessed with emulating a specific aesthetic experience and they want a system that reconciles this with their existing skills.

Now there is something I haven’t accounted for here, which is: games create their own audience. You don’t always have an idea of what you want and go in search of a game that will allow you to do it. Just as often, probably more, you will play a game, have an experience, develop the desire to seek out more of it. Games can plant an idea in your head. If I’d never started reading Zak and co. I wouldn’t be chasing after this particular aesthetic experience and I wouldn’t be looking for games that dovetail with my skills in order to create it. How I think this works is, you play a game, you see something in it that you like and that the creator didn’t necessarily intend, you go away and try to create a better, purer version of that thing. Gygax didn’t intend to create a kind of ultraviolent medieval comedy. He was emulating Tolkien, who is the opposite of that. But the potential for ultraviolent medieval comedy is built into his work and modern OSR games are about extracting that and distilling it to its essence until whoops, murderhobos. And obviously what happens then is that someone plays modern OSR games and sees something in them that the designers of those games did not anticipate and goes on to create some entirely third thing.

Your sense of what is a valid aesthetic goal comes from a whole complex of biological and environmental factors, including your ability to understand what other people think is a valid aesthetic goal. So when you look at other people’s art and see that they had different aesthetic goals to the ones you currently have, the interaction between your weird psychological quirks and theirs results in a kind of hybridized third thing that you then have to go and create for yourself because it doesn’t actually exist anywhere but your head. Which is where we get new art from. I have now explained all creativity ever, anywhere, and no-one ever has to think about it ever again. You’re welcome.

Second One

If you like this one better, send an email with the Subject "CHOOSE2" to zakzsmith AT hawt mayle or vote on Google +. Don't put anything else in the email, I won't read it.

Why do we choose the games we choose?

At first, the answer is a lot easier than it seems: genre. Style. Tropes, if you will. No matter how many times we say that system matters, there are many people that will play ANY game with “Star Wars” written on the cover, no matter if it uses d6s, a d20 or lots of weird dice. There are those who would prefer westerns, Arthurian myth, superheroes, and so on. Dungeons and Dragons is a genre unto itself, and every new editions will have lots of fans, no matter how good or bad it is.

In many cases, it is really choosing a book by its cover.

The real question, though, is why do we KEEP playing the games we play after knowing many different games?

“Personal preference” is a poor explanation. We don’t choose games like we choose flavors of ice cream. Nor can one say some game is simply better than others. The best comparison, I reckon, is that sticking with a game is somewhat like having a friend. No, really. Think about it.

First thing, you must have some common interests. I mentioned genre, but there are also specificities inside each genre. Maybe you’re really into resource management, and your friend prefers to talk about how the situations affects his feelings. Maybe you like swords, shield and polearms while she is all about personalities and hidden agendas. Maybe you want things to be simple, fast and straightforward, while he wants precision, nuance and detail. Maybe you’re into gritty realism, while she thinks realism has no function but to limit the vast horizons of possibilities.

Second, you usually must have some friends in common. Maybe they introduce you, or you introduce them. This makes all the difference in the world. With games, most often than not you need a group of people to agree upon this choice. It is very common to play a game that is good enough but not your favorite, provided your friends like it. Just like hanging out whith the friends of your friends, really.

Finally, you start to build memories and thrust. You know how your friend will behave in most situations, you know he is always fun to be around, you know if she is always reliable and predictable and if she might surprise you in a good way. And if he did something to disappoint, sometimes you will remember it for a while.

There are quite a few gamers that will treat games like friends, too. They will defend their favorite games as if attacking them was a personal offense, and will be eager to speak highly of them at any opportunity. But convincing someone that your friend is a good person will not make them befriend him, either. All you can do is introduce them, maybe mention some common interests, and see how it goes.

For all of us, there is a time in our lives when we are most likely to make new friends. It is the same with games, really. Some us will read new games every year, but some of us will be happy enough to keep playing the same game over and over, because we have already found something to like. There is nothing wrong with either approach, really. Some people have many friends, some people have few very good friends, some people have both.

Just keep in mind that you’re never too old to make new friends if you want to.

1 comment:

Johann said...

Another great round. I'm impressed by the quality of the essays. Rock on!