Monday, April 11, 2016

Why There's No Tabletop RPG Theory

Video games get Bartle Types, we get this guy.

Theory Is Inevitable

Video games make a lot of money, and now even boardgames do. Money means colleges create majors in the thing that makes that money. Those majors require teachers who can explain not just the narrow technical skills underlying specific iterations of the thing, but the principles that broadly apply to any form of the thing. These principles will be written down. So: Theories of games are inevitable.

Tabletop RPGs like D&D don't make a lot of money but they are as essential a part of any theory or practice that covers video games and boardgames as theatre is to the much more lucrative world of film. Film theory ends up saying a lot about performance and thus theatre, likewise, a theory which can't explain tabletop RPGs is not a theory of games.

The theories that will develop to explain games will be used on tabletop games, whether you want them to be or not.

Which is good for theory, because tabletop RPGs punch a hole in the side of any attempt to keep any general idea about games clean and symmetrical. Tabletop RPGs are an important outlier: "In games, you have limited choices--oh wait no you don't", "The rules of the game can't change in the middle--oh wait yes they can". Tabletop RPGs keep theorists of play honest--if your theory can describe what they do, they can describe a lot of what games in general do.

You aren't obligated to care about theory, but...

What does it look like when a field is described by a theory it doesn't care about?

I'm a painter for a living and have been for a long time. I feel fairly confident saying my field is full of artists making art that is then described and evaluated by theories none of these artists care about. And to be honest, it's kinnnnd of a shitshow.

The artists aren't stupid, but what they have to say is largely ignored by decisionmaking moneypeople in favor of gatekeepers who are, if not versed in theory, at least versed in the buzzwords and intellectual niches that theory creates. You essentially cannot productively discuss contemporary art in any public way because nobody even agrees on the terms of the conversation. The public is so shut out of that conversation that a person will stand right in front of a painting and say "I don't know very much about art so I don't know if it's good or not" in a way they never would with a movie or a song. The conversation is, in short, not serving anyone. 

So maybe you don't care about theories of games--but if you play, theories of games care about you. And you might live long enough that this fucks your shit up.
So, here is the question:

Where would tabletop RPG theory come from?

1. Academia

True story:

I've met a bunch of people who teach RPGs at major universities, but this one was different because I did not meet this one (who I'll call The Academic) because they liked my RPG stuff or wanted me to talk to their students.

At some point somewhere I was talking to a clique of Indie gamers--mostly diaspora from the Forge scene (the early capital-I Indie RPG site which would lead to stuff like Fate, Burning Wheel, Apocalypse World, Story, etc)--that the Academic was closely associated with, The Academic asked me to private-message them so we could have a conversation about games in private.

This conversation was over 30,000 words long and at least half were The Academic's--for comparison that's about the length of a 150-page novel. It lasted months.

Then we met up in real life, talked more, had coffee and pizza, then the Academic hugged me and said they loved me. Like platonically, but the actual word "love" was used.

Some bullet points from this conversation:

  • The Academic is upset at how many people in the Indie tabletop RPG scene pretend to be theorists and to have scientific authority while not using any of the genuine tools of social science or being up on any of the theories of games that've actually been tested.
  • The Academic has played with a lot of the Indie gamers and decided they were "terrible players" and decided they didn't seem to actually play games enough or pay attention when they were playing and they acted like they could talk their way into being better designers or players.
  • The Academic had "very strong negative feelings about the Forge and (some of) its offshoots, particularly Story-Games. "
  • When I pointed out specific shitty things that specific major Indie scenesters The Academic was associated with had said, The Academic agreed they were shitty and said, of one of them, "I see ___destroy a lot of potentially interesting conversations with people I'd like to talk to because of how [s/he] communicates" and that they were "not someone I'd invite into any conversation I wanted to stay nuanced or productive."
  • The Academic admitted that they were trying to politely groom said conversation-annihilating scenester into being more useful and added that The Academic's motives for doing this were: "completely self-serving." 
  • The Academic admitted they did not voice these concerns to anyone in the Indie scene because the Academic was considering writing, academically, about the Indie scene and didn't want to burn bridges.
  • "You have no idea what a relief it is to say these things to someone."
The next time I saw The Academic doing anything online, they were back to palling around with-, and helping-, the same Indie gamers they'd complained to me about, endorsing the most bigoted parts of the Indie RPG drama club and saying, in public, the complete opposite of what The Academic had said in private.

The moral of this story? Well there's a lot of them, but one is that every "academic" in tabletop RPG theory is down in the same internet trenches with everyone else--mainly because without the RPG internet there's no connection between academia and the designers or games. If the RPG academics have theories genuinely separate from what you hear on the web, they're refusing to share them and so they don't matter because no designer will ever make anything based on them and no players will take them into account.

2. From Full Time RPG Designers Writing About Theory which I mean Robin Laws.

Most full-time designers are always busy designing and hustling--except Robin Laws, who has time to write theory. Monte Cook, Mike Mearls, Mark Rein-Hagen--they're mostly like Fuck that. Like sometimes Kenneth Hite will talk about a theoretical thing for like 3 minutes on the podcast he has with Laws before getting back to researching the role of the Hohenzolleren family in the manufacture of Bavarian duck-hunting rifles but that's about it. His heart lieth not there.

Laws is an ok start, he accurately identifies the variety of motives for play, but he weirdly believes all tabletop RPG play is escapist and his designs kind of bear out an obsession with the idea that the point of tabletop is copying previously existing story media (GUMSHOE being an obvious example: the game's designed to "make players feel powerful" and is pretty clearly designed around making railroading and "path" adventures easier). Gotham will not last with Robin alone.

So into this mainstream professional theory vacuum have hurled the random internet rubes--that is non- and part-time designers, and oh, how we have hurled.

2. Snark

This review of Superman Vs Batman is great. It's not helpful, useful, or arguably even particularly insightful--it's just well-written. It is written in a delirious ecstasy of hate--and that's what makes it so fun.

"Batman has a motivation and – contrary to what you may have read – it’s a perfectly valid one. He hated Man of Steel. He’s watched it fourteen times and he’s just had enough of it. He’s the only person involved in the whole project, on screen and off, who actually wants to rip the power cord out of the whole franchise."

As a genre, the Ecstatic Hatewatch is not accurate or fair (Batman has not, for example, seen Man of Steel, this sentence, for example: "It’s awful but so is everything" cannot be true). The Ecstatic Hatewatch tries to get by on pure literary talent and the fact that the object of criticism is so vile that a real-world response based on loathing-borne distortion and a real-world response based on even the most nuanced take possible would have no practical difference. i.e. Whether you're reading Nixon's public record or reading Hunter S Thompson's Hatereads of Nixon, the answer is impeach the guy--thus justifying the liberties with reality the Hateread takes.

At the end you do wonder, though: I know why Thompson had to watch Nixon--why did this guy have to watch this movie? And all the other superhero movies and shows he apparently watched and hated?

The answer is so he can write this piece of extended genius snark about it. Topical snark, too--people, ironically, read that review for the same reason people went to see the movie: people already decided Superman and Batman are interesting as subjects so they went and saw Superman vs Batman and they read that piece of writing because it's about that movie everyone's talking about.

And why write it? So people will read it, and pay attention to you and then you can trade that attention for one of the many rewards, tangible and intangible, that you can trade attention for--like money.

While not all Ecstatic Hatereads are this good--it will not have escaped your attention that the RPG internet has this dynamic in motherfucking spades. For example: 7th Sea designer John Wick's recent Ecstatic Hateread of Tomb of Horrors was widely circulated and widely discussed and widely regarded (rightly or wrongly doesn't really matter) as a way to grab attention before his recent Kickstarter, and at least one participant in Something Awful's trolly RPG group has explicitly considered monetizing their Ecstatic Hateread thread, FATAL and Friends:

The snarky Hateread is thus published not to find anything out but for its own sake. Like all snark, it's not useful because its accountability is--when push comes to shove and facts get checked--to its own entertainment value rather than to the truth.

3. The Stuff That Calls Itself Theory...

Translation: "Coherent"="Good Hippie Indie Game"
"IGT"="Game By Satanic Devil Minion Others"

If you google "rpg theory" Indie RPG scenester stuff comes up--the Forge and its predecessors and spawn sprawl across the threshold of any idea of "RPG theory" like plague corpses across a doorway.

The meeting grounds for dissaffected soon-to-be Indie theorists were a product of the early internet--fans of things getting connected to other fans of things, realizing they have experiences in common, sharing for the first time, finding goals, collaborating for the first time.

A lot of the earliest web discussion about games was like the web discussion about everything else: snark--i.e. psychotics using anonymity to shit on people for liking Picard more than Kirk or Kirk more than Picard. Sites like The Forge and rec. art.whatever that came up with the Threefold Model were Circles of Seriousness partially (and only partially successfully) designed to wall off their discussions from the snark brigade.

The actual theories devised in these places aren't that important today (though the games are and whatever else you don't like about them you can say: they seem to like them), but the way these social conglomerates dealt with the theories very much is.

Ron Edwards' popular GNS theory is an object lesson, there's a lot to say about what's wrong with the GNS but let's stick with the biggest bullet wounds:
  • Vincent Baker--the most successful postForge designer--has disavowed it.  He's said it was valuable for helping to develop the idea of Narrativism as a goal some players had (the idea that some people's main goal was to have a satisfyingly 3-part-dramalike in-game story emerge from the game--an idea that had eluded the authors of the earlier Threefold Model) but that's all.
  • So has (lowkey) pretty much everyone else. Although people still use the lingo, every single other proponent of it (besides Ron Edwards, the guy who invented it) I've seen talk about GNS in the last decade goes "Well ok, it was wrong but it helped me personally" or just starts trolling whoever brought it up (ie: Snark).  If there's anyone who still believes it besides Ron Edwards and can answer questions about it I have never seen them anywhere on the internet (feel free to speak up in the comments if you know something I don't).
  • It has no objective diagnostics or repeatibility. The theory describes 3 kinds of Creative Agendas in games-- "Gamist" "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" and Edwards claims a game could only pursue one Agenda during any given instance of play. Edwards can't describe any diagnostic that another human who wasn't Ron could use to tell which of the three Agendas play was moving toward, or how to measure if it was "only" pursuing that one agenda or whether different people were having different kinds of fun reinforced simultaneously in contravention of the theory.
  • It fails the basic requirements of a scientific theory. A scientific theory should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it--Edwards can't do that.
The failure of the tabletop RPG theory that was nearly synonymous with tabletop RPG theory to make sense, much less be a theory, is kind of a drag but in itself it's no worse than the drawbacks of Laws' ideas. The real problem is the culture that it implied and engendered, because it affects how everyone in tabletop RPGs views the word "theory".

While Laws is a professional mixing mostly with professionals--in private, at conventions, etc, staying out of the internet foam and fracas that is going to produce the generation of game designers that will eventually replace him--the Indie theorists were- and are- deep in it, and this was-, and still is-, disastrous. 

People have dumb ideas on the internet all the time. The specific and exceptional (exceptional, i.e.--not shared by any other clique of RPG designers and fans anywhere ever) problem with this dumb idea is a result of four specific characteristics of the theory:
  • A) It pretends to be science.
  • B) It isn't.
  • C) It was popular with a relatively close-knit clique of people.
  • D) These people with whom the theory is popular went on to design and critique games and become influential members of the Indie RPG scene.
There is no other idea about RPGs that shares all of these characteristics simultaneously. The ideas held by the D&D 3.5-obsessives at The Gaming Den, for instance, have maybe A and B and arguably C going for them but no hint of D. C is pretty rare in itself--the level of tight-knitness the postForge displays is pretty much unheard-of outside people all working at the same company. 

(Incidentally: the postForge Indies constantly deny being a clique or having a common culture despite the fact that a quick look at the roster for like the Metatopia con or who is Patreoning who confirms that none of the major scene designers or talkers are more than a single degree of Bacon away from any of the others and looking at the credits for their games shows most of them work together all the time. Vincent Baker--as in so many things--is an exception  to this general state of denial. He's like Yeah we know and influence each other and are conflict-averse hippies.)

It's important to note that--especially now--not all or even most of the talk of the postForge was about the theory and many people probably never believed it.  The vital part is: the quality of the discussion in the clique was so bad that for over a decade nobody in that clique ever pointed out that the theory made no sense and there's no accountability for being completely wrong. 

To do game theory, you have to do science, and to do science, when someone goes "So what's the evidence?" you can't go: "Sorry, kids came home! Nice talking to you!" "Clearly there are a lot of opinions here! Let's sink this thread for now!" "This isn't a courtroom, I don't need evidence!" "Hey I like your books, man, relax!" "Listen I like D&D, I'm not attacking D&D." or any of the other inane deflections you get every time you ask most of the major Indie theorists about the real-world basis of any of their ideas.

(When I said this culture has been disastrous I mean it--theory aside, folks from this scene have fallen for every hoax that trolling and paranoia could cook up. Mail I got from A Very Very Major Game Designer after the post 5th edition D&D harassment campaign that raged through the Indie scene: 

Basically, I keep getting 'Zak hates gays and women' and when I ask for proof, people suddenly shut the fuck up...I've had people cite the blog post you linked to, and when I pressed them to actually read it they were like, "Oh, well, I was told he said something nasty, maybe not." It's been eye opening for a few people.

...but--even more tellingly--the ones who don't fall for these hoaxes and don't buy these conspiracy theories don't call for any accountability on the part of the ones who do--and keep Patreoning and Kickstarting them.)

A good theory does not have to answer every person that challenges it (like: if someone is an MRA, nothing compels you to talk to them), but it does have to answer every question that challenges it (theory can articulate what its assumptions are), detached from the asker. Indie theory is peddled by people who use their right to not do the first thing to avoid their responsibility to do the second thing. Except Vincent Baker--but unless he's in a really good mood, he doesn't actually point out to his friends(/customers) that he actually totally disagrees with them--and to some degree he's monetized even hearing what his game ideas are, via Patreon, and will explicitly say talking theory is a form of advertisement for his stuff--so not much real public discussion can come out of it.

Also, if you don't know tabletop RPGs--isn't it weird how easy it is to point out specific names? The scene is that small.

In the end, the postForge's life as a theory factory was the victim of its own desire to produce self-supported Indie-darling designers and its success doing so. In a scene whose talkative core is 2-3000 people, the demands of selling shit are incompatible with the demands of calling people on their shit, and decent theory requires that second thing.

In other words, the postForge has all the usual problems of Commodified Dissent, especially...

4. Smarm 

But RPGs are always small--why was the Forge/post-Forge/Story Games/ Indie/Theoryhead scene particularly bad? As The Academic said "...somehow the Forge particularly bugs me because they are simultaneously disgustingly insular/ignorant and want to be treated as important and meaningful by others."

The Indies did not master anything to do with games. What they did master was a language of seriousness.

Once a language of seriousness was established to talk about bad theories of games and sometimes good ideas for actually making and distributing games, that same language spread all over the online RPG scene and was used for discussions aspiring to all kinds of seriousness:
  • Activist. We're gonna set goals having to do with making games and changing the game community and we're gonna achieve them!
  • Financial. We're gonna give you the straight dope on how to get your games out there!
  • Creative. We're gonna take games seriously as art and push the boundaries of what the form can do!
  • Intellectual. Every observation about games, no matter how unconsciously taste-based or ass-pulled is couched as if it were part of a vast project of Expanding The Design Vocabulary!
  • Moral. The fact that everyone reading you agrees with your white middle-class moderate-left political preferences in every way should not stop you from reminding them what they are every day! And announcing that your super-conservative game design promotes them!
  • Interpersonal. "Well I just think it's interesting that while some of us are attempting to communicate legitimate criticism, some of us are…" (passive aggression passive aggression passive aggression)
This language was about using platitudes to claim moral high ground--and it worked. Boring other gamers kept them away from anything called Theory for years--as well as all their other high-minded discussions. They just said "Well I ain't worried about theory an' issues of expression an' representatin' I'm worried about killin' orcs waaaa hoooo!" and crawled off across the low ground to have their low fun.
Here's some theory about game-mastering from Burning Wheel designer Luke Crane:
All of the games talk about fun and fairness, enjoyment and entertainment, but then they break that cycle by granting one member of the group power over all of the other members of the group. It's classic power dynamics. Once you have roles of power and powerless, even the most reasonable and compassionate people slide into abuse. [source]
So: All game-mastering by definition always leads to abuse. An adult with a job said that.

Now--and this is in no way a joke, I mean this--the only appropriate response to this is that everyone who reads it tries to get in touch with Luke Crane's friends and they very gently ask Luke if he's feeling okay and if he might want to seek out professional help.

In case you think Luke's grown out of this, here's a more recent one:

I see this behavior of women being stripped of their ability to make decisions in every single D&D game I play. I can point to examples in five different groups all playing the same edition of the same module over a span of roughly four years. That's roughly 33 players, of different ages and backgrounds. [source]

According to this paragon of Indie-RPG design fame every single time he sits down to play D&D he watches women being abused and he's done nothing about it for years. And this is from a dude who plays D&D all the fucking time. Often followed by positively gleeful actual-play reports.

Why doesn't anyone in Luke's game group do anything about this? Haven't they heard of feminism? And why in god's name do they keep playing? If the women in our group were treated like that they'd be slitting throats.

Again: the only appropriate response to that is Luke (and possibly his whole group) go to therapy. There is no other.

But, of course, this is not the response of serious folk reading Luke. Why isn't anyone losing their shit about this urgent weird abuse situation? Because nobody takes it seriously--despite constantly performing the offices of seriousness.

Luke is showing how seriously he takes the responsibilities of DMing and everyone else is Listening To Him Share His Perspective. There is tremendous reverence for the fact that a member of the clique is speaking, but none for the content of the message. 

And the Theory here is left to be extracted from...
  • Luke says the very role of game master in D&D causes abuse
  • Luke says abuse is bad
  • Luke says he sees women abused every time he plays D&D
  • Luke says he likes D&D and its a good game and well-designed
Any attempts at clarification from Luke fail--because he and his ilk aren't really trafficking in seriousness, they're trafficking in smarm.

Thanks, Guy Trying To Explain Why His Marvel Game That Was Out When The Avengers Was The Most Popular Movie In History Completely Failed

This article by Tom Scocca on smarm is really good. It's so good, in fact, and so relevant to what has replaced genuine discussion of ideas in RPGs that I am gonna put lots of quotes from it in italics for y'all.

First of all, what's smarm?

Over time, it has become clear that anti-negativity is a worldview of its own, a particular mode of thinking and argument, no matter how evasively or vapidly it chooses to express itself. For a guiding principle of 21st century literary criticism, BuzzFeed's Fitzgerald turned to the moral and intellectual teachings of Walt Disney, in the movie Bambi: "If you can't say something nice, don't say nothing at all."
The line is uttered by Thumper, Bambi's young bunny companion, but its attribution is more complicated than that—Thumper's mother is making him recite a rule handed down by his father, by way of admonishing her son for unkindness. It is scolding, couched as an appeal to goodness, in the name of an absent authority.

Smarm's like and unlike snark.

Snark is, roughly, flinging a jokey insult instead of a full-blown and rational critique. (Here's me being snarky.)

Smarm is, roughly, couching your side of the argument as non-argument.

Although Scocca's article contrasts the two, it goes without saying, neither snark nor smarm are rational critique. They're rhetorical techniques. Snark is both marketing and entertainment. Smarm is just marketing.

What is smarm, exactly? Smarm is a kind of performance—an assumption of the forms of seriousness, of virtue, of constructiveness, without the substance. Smarm is concerned with appropriateness and with tone. Smarm disapproves.

A person who snarks (about an important thing, not a bard--fuck bards) and then refuses to answer questions which would turn that snark into rational argument is just being a jerk. You might say the same of the smarmer but the smarmer has a more difficult dilemma: their original smarmy position is a refutation of the whole idea of argument.

The evasion of disputes is a defining tactic of smarm...Debate begins where the important parts of the debate have ended.
You can ask me to go from the snarky "Bards suck" to "Ok why?" and I don't have to give anything up to then answer your question.

It's harder to go from the smarmy "I am unwilling to have a fight with someone who isn't in my weight class" to "Ok, prove the contention you just made that you're smarter than whoever you're talking to and then go back to the discussion we were just having about the claim you made" because answering either would drag the answerer down into having a conversation. Since the douche had just recruited some phantom authority (some magical IQ test in the sky, one presumes, that somehow would rate him higher than me) as being opposed to it, even having a conversation would be admitting they were just now wrong.

Like every other mode, snark can sometimes be done badly or to bad purposes. 
Smarm, on the other hand, is never a force for good. A civilization that speaks in smarm is a civilization that has lost its ability to talk about purposes at all. It is a civilization that says "Don't Be Evil," rather than making sure it does not do evil.
Or, as we say around here "Don't be a dick"...while pasting over wildly divergent definitions of "dick".

For people reading this (or the ones who talk anyway) it's a reflection of a wider reality: what holds this "community" together is discussing similarities and differences on the internet. However, what holds all of humanity as of 2016 together is: a self-loathing about discussing things on the internet. 

We think of your-, my-, their- argument as a good and noble thing with a pedigree going back to classic civilization and philosophy. We think of an internet argument is some kind of desperate polyp that eats your soul.

The purpose of RPG smarm is usually to evoke the spectre of the second connotation.

Snark wants to be read as worth reading because it's So Fucking Clever and Smarm wants to be read as worth reading because The Stakes Are Impossibly High but in the end, the snarky Hatereader and the smarmy Scoldreader issue from the same process: A thing that would not normally have been consumed was consumed because someone hoped not to enjoy it but to get something out of complaining about it.

The object of the complaint--Warhammer or Exalted or Kingdom Death or first edition D&D or fourth edition D&D or LotFP or any other hated game--often together with the people who made and enjoy it--are Nixon, Trump, Hitler. They don't deserve what humans owe one another: Fact-checking, innocent-until-proven-guilty, research, evidence, paper trails, caveats, caution, care. The target is undeserving because it has been pre-judged by an authority the writer hopes will issue not from anything written in the piece that'd hold up when players are asked or when a blind taste-test is performed or when compared to sales figures or in a courtroom or in a peer-reviewed journal or even from just watching a video of people playing but from the number of plusses or re-shares or Yes. Thisses. it gets.

You can watch snark open smoothly into smarm like a blossoming hateflower as forum moderator Paul Matijevic waxes nostalgic about the douchey misogynistic Something Awful threads he participated in:

Oh thank thee, noble Potatocubed. If what you want is explanations of ideas about how games actually work, the snarky "Chill about elfgames, bro" is exactly the same kind of useless as the smarmy "A lot to think about here but let's agree to disagree, thanks for a great discussion".

4. Anonymous Reviewing Schmucks Doing Thankless Work

I love these people and we all should: they buy a new game or game thing, they sit down in front of it and read it all the way through and try hard to do what the snarky and smarmy don't: provide facts, give evidence, admit when personal bias might be in their way, do the work, tell people, respond to questions, criticize. Then they put it up on the internet, get a few hits, move on to the next one. Almost none of the people who do this well are known as game designers even on the indie level. Their work is googled constantly ("carcosa rpg review")--but their names are known only to the folks on their forums or blogs.

As relatively scrupulous as they are, theory is unlikely to come from them because, for one, many of them just don't temperamentally seem into it, but more seriously because they don't have much data to work with. A reviewer is talking about a book that they might not ever use, or one they've used once, or one they will play with for a few months, love, review well, and then notice a gaping flaw in long after. So even though there are reviewers who say useful, interesting and insightful things, it's in a limited context and isn't really tested or stretched out into theories--at least the way it's usually done.

5. "Let's Read..."s And Old Things

This is a lot like reviewing, but with one difference: the things they're looking at are old. Pull something off the shelf, decide to care, go through it--often more thoroughly and slowly than a reviewer, as there's no commercial urgency. Likewise, due to the lack of commercial urgency, the work can be even more thankless.

The Let's Reader however, does always have some data to work with--even if it isn't as various or clean as what the researcher would want. We don't know anything about how the new horror game we just read interacts with the world, but we know that Vampire: The Masquerade attracted a great many women to the hobby even though it had sexy lady pictures in it, we know a lot of people played it despite rules the designer found regrettable. Likewise, we know RIFTS was wildly popular despite....everything about RIFTS. We know Tb was less popular than Burning Wheel despite being the same in a jillion ways. We know that OD&D was, despite early skepticism, played and used. We know people really like advantage/disadvantage. We know universal tables have fallen from favor. We know DC Adventures--a generic late trad crunch disaster--was much more popular than the nearly identically packaged Marvel Heroic--a generic late Indie/postForge roll-to-see-who-talks disaster. We know Warhammer managed to be successful despite being almost D&D with different art and one cool subsystem in a market choked with things that could be described that way. We know some of the published classes in Dragon made it into the game and some didn't. We can now read these things and their claims and at least start to judge them in terms of whether they did what they set out to do or whether they did a better thing or a worse thing.

Jon Peterson's look at early D&D--Playing At The World--shows how this approach can sometimes sprout into theory. In between tracking down where all the stuff in D&D appeared there, it meanders into why various things in RPG history happened.

Here's Jon summarizing his discovery of the first "edition war":

The difference can be attributed to the opposing philosophies of board wargames and miniature wargames. Miniature wargaming was more artisanal, less prefabricated; more demanding, less commercially viable. To the avid miniature wargamer, board gaming must have appeared crude, aesthetically dull and confining in the rigidity of its rules; to the unrepentant board wargamer, miniature gaming looked expensive, labor-intensive and contentious in its latitude toward system. Not all players want to have to design a game in order to play it, but for creative gamers, miniature wargames inspired new heights of craftsmanship and sophistication. 

It looks like advocates of focus, clarity, reliability and (a resulting) popularizability have been divided from advocates of flexibility, customizability and eccentricity since literally before the hobby started.

He also uncovers some data on the familiar-to-videogame-theorists issue of whether addictivity is good in games:

A second pioneer recognized that Gygax and Arneson had created “a new order of game,” one so addictive that another early commentator fears “it’s worse than heroin.”

What makes these observations of theoretical importance is that we all have the data provided by the intervening years to analyze at least parts of these claims.

Likewise the interview with David Wesely--author of the first Braunsteins way in the prehistory of RPGs--has more real theory in it than all these other Theory From The Closet interviews put together, because we know how this story turned out.

Obviously the Old School blogs do a lot of this because they require, by definition, people reading old stuff, but the culture's skepticism about the whole idea of theory means even when it produces genuinely interesting theory, it often pretends it hasn't. Which is ironic because the mere requirement of talking about games that've been tried out on millions of people rather than eight white beardstaches at a con means the OSR has actually done a fuckton of theory. It's just called "advice" instead.

Ok so the point is

There's no rule that says you have to throw down with your A-game or fuck off but until some people are willing to do that, ideas among moneypeople about what tabletop RPGs do will be slowly colonized by echoes of whatever somebody's saying Skyrim did to their lab monkeys. Plus the usual circular bullshit everyone is used to. The dreaded Online Argument is the level that the theory of games is at and only you can do anything about it.

So you can listen to that for the next 15 years and whatever it does to games, or you can start developing some ways to reward signal and discourage noise. Even when the noise likes the same game you do.

If you don't vote, you can't complain later.


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Adamantyr said...

My random thoughts after chewing through this excellent post... (Took awhile because I read all the linked articles, great stuff!)

- There is no perfect RPG system that magically makes all your players (including the GM) have fun. There never will be, because people make the game fun, not the rules. Don't play with unfun people.

- Academics are nuts. Seriously... they are so removed from the practical world. My particular field (computer science/software) has some real crazies who think that programming should be done entirely on paper and with mathematical formula.

One aspect of academia is the politics too. The reason they have private and public faces is they keep the real stuff private so they can publish papers with original theory. And you're right, whatever they DO decide is irrelevant. Most of the time those academic publications aren't even available to the public anyway.

- I'm pleased that most of the full time RPG designers are out making stuff and not concerned about trying to explain it. As for Robin Laws, the first game I ever read by him was GURPS Fantasy II, a game that reads more like an anthropology text on hunter/gatherer cultures. With overpowered monsters and deadly magic to boot. Yeah, that's real fun Robin.

- I've played Burning Wheel before, it was okay. Given the game kind of encourages you to "power-play" and take control of the narrative, it's ironic that Luke is critical of it. Also disturbed that he mentions observing abuse of women and not doing anything about it. I'd never tolerate that at a table, either as a GM or a player.

- Smarm sucks. Don't do it. Snark is fine, just don't be a dick. Also, Google's company motto "Don't be Evil" is the dumbest thing ever. At least Microsoft's early motto "A computer on every desk in every home" had a practical goal.

- I enjoyed Jeff Rients threefold system, it does suck he didn't explore it further and make a more concrete theory. There's definitely something there...

- Part of me (probably because of my age) feels like people trying to create theories aren't relevant... but it is true that if we want to see good games released, we can't let THEM decide what makes a good game. I've not bought any mainstream computer/video games for years as a result of marketing driving design there.

After getting a windfall selling some stuff on eBay, the first thing I used the money on was Maze of the Blue Medusa. Worth every penny. :)

Zak Sabbath said...

Further reading:

Chris Mata said...

Great post man.

Jeff Heikkinen said...

What always got me about the Something Awful thread about your comment on Kimberly's math skills is that THEY were the ones who not only brought up the idea that the dice notation was confusing, but seemed to be specifically saying it was confusing TO WOMEN AND MINORITIES. Which (a) is sexist and racist as fuck, and (b) makes the complaint about you not only dishonest, but hypocritical as well.

Dada Dan Akiko said...

Can I have a shirt with "zak is not cool either"?

Edanna said...

Very interesting post. Cheers

David Larkins said...

Lots of great food for thought here. A couple morsels that present themselves right away:

- I think the idea that there is some sort of system/theory design that can _guarantee_ a "good time" regardless of the group is a type of reaction against the extreme subjectivity of RPGs. RPGs are the most subjective of all forms of entertainment. Imagine if every time you wanted to watch The Avengers, it was directed by a different person and starred different actors. Imagine if every time you put on a favorite album, it was played with different instruments. And that these changes depended on where and with whom you were experiencing this media. This is the level of subjectivity we're dealing with in RPGs, and I think that makes some people deeply uncomfortable. Personally, I love that facet of RPGs--indeed, it's probably what's currently holding my interest the most. (I do get that it can also be very frustrating, as I think we all have stories of people who have been turned off of RPGs because they gamed with the wrong sort of group for them.)

- I respect Laws' work, and am always interested to hear his take on things, but I think he's going in the wrong direction in trying to force RPGs to emulate other forms of media (mystery stories, procedural TV dramas, etc.). RPGs are a Thing Unto Themselves and I think it's the unique elements that make them different from other forms of entertainment that should be highlighted and emphasized. Plus, he seems to think that "less dice-rolling with fewer types of dice" is the way to go in system design (caveat: I haven't looked at Feng Shui 2 yet), and where's the fun in that?

Mujadaddy said...

"Where would tabletop RPG theory come from?"

Is this an actual question? If it is, then the answer is staggeringly obvious. There is only one possible place this theory can develop: at the table.

You wrote around 7000 words about why certain other people aren't qualified to theorize in this arena, but I'm not sure you explicitly made the point.

How about a car analogy? Running an RPG is like being a race car driver, and the players are your pit crew. You can work with your pit crew before the race to establish lines of communication and how you plan on the unexpected. You can get limited feedback during the race from them. After the race, you can tear down the entire fucking car and rebuild it completely differently.

But nobody can tell you how to drive the car while the race is running. That's your job.

@David Larkins: 'he seems to think that "less dice-rolling with fewer types of dice" is the way to go in system design' -- I happen to agree with this, to a point: get the damn system out of the way and let us play.

David Larkins said...

@Mujadaddy: I agree to a point as well; my favorite systems are those that fade into the background until they're needed. I just feel like he goes too far (as with Gumshoe's use of a single d6 and auto-successes on Investigative skills).

Mujadaddy said...

^ ouch, ONE d6? Yeah, too far :) :)

Zak Sabbath said...

"You wrote around 7000 words about why certain other people aren't qualified to theorize in this arena, but I'm not sure you explicitly made the point."

Then you should re-read it because you must've just skimmed instead of read.

All the people I describe likely play--and all of them are "qualified" to create a theory.

It's 101-level obvious to point out people need to play, I didn't even bother pointing out such a simple thing.

The question isn't who's qualified it's a question of who has, actually produced things that are or that approach theory or a way of interacting with other people that might be expected to do so.

Mujadaddy said...

That's different, then: "Who has?" is a totally different topic than "Who would?"

I would say that there is in fact no such field in existence.

Sure, there's an INDUSTRY, and we're all peripheral to it as consumers of the products (books, maps, minis, or just blog posts). Some people in this industry are doing good work (and I'd include you in that).

But someone's going to have to write a book about Theory for there to be such a field. And the book is going to have to be influential, guiding thought and establishing a common point from which we begin discussion. The closest thing we have to a central thesis right now is the original set of AD&D books, and the Theory in those is sparse indeed.

One of your points (regarding the Art World) was that "nobody even agrees on the terms of the conversation". You're looking for Gaming Theory, but this is more properly The Philosophy and Social Theory of Immersive Dialogues. Take away the genre trappings, and all we're doing is sharing our thoughts, making them real, and exploring that reality. To butcher the quote, "The point of Game Mastering is to hold up a mirror to Nature."

The problem with writing about Game Mastering is that it is an Art. And reading about Art Theory is like reading about sex.

Zak Sabbath said...

No: It's possible to do good Art Theory. Susan Sontag does, for instance.

It's just the guiding lights in the field have done wrong.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

a) "In games, you have limited choices--oh wait no you don't"

Don't you? Roll 1d3: (1) I respectfully disagree (2) I don't think so (3) I'm no longer buying that bullshit

b) "people, ironically, read that review for the same reason people went to see the movie"

Thank you for asking. I went to see BvS because I liked "Man of Steel". I read the review because BvS felt disjointed and I'm not sure why.

c) "A scientific theory should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it."

It should be able to describe an experiment which could TEST it. Roll 1d6: (1 to 6) Karl Popper is full of shit.

SIDENOTE) (I'm a devote reader of Mr. Edwards. I find his texts fascinating, but more often than not I have not a clue of what he's talking about. I blame it to his abtruse terminology. Looking forward for some volunteer to translate his writings from Ron-glish to plain English.)

d) "The failure of the tabletop RPG theory that was nearly synonymous with tabletop RPG theory to make sense"

Call me dumb if you want to, but I can't understand this phrase.

DISCLAIMER) the author of the previous lines claims to have Asperguer's Syndrome, which is (roll 1d3): (1) true (2) false (3) irrelevant to this blog.

Zak Sabbath said...

a) Whatever you're saying here is too vague.

b) I meant "Most people". It was not a catalogue of all possiblemotives which are infinite.

c) The important thing about a "test" is it must be possible to describe results (even fictional ones) which would "disprove". Thus the most important word is "disprove"

d) Oh well.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

a) You were saying that in a tabletop RPG I, as a player, have unlimited choices. I don't believe you. Going by my experience it's not true.

b) OK.

c) I know where you come from (when I was young I used to be a big Scientific Method nerd). Back in the 20th century Karl Popper pulled this criteria out of his ass because he (rightfully) hated bogus sciences like psychoanalisis and marxism. It catched within the scientific community and became a widespread meme and Popper won fortune & glory. But I'm sure you already knew this.

Maybe you don't know that such criteria happens to be wrong at many levels. On a nutshell: true science like physics and evolutionary biology can't always fullfill it. Roll 1d3 for an example:

(1) Newton's "universal" Law of Attraction would have been immediately disproved because the orbits of Mercury and Saturn (i.e. two out of the six known planets, no less!) were not following it.
(2) the existence of the particle of Higgs is a scientific hypotesis which no experiment can disprove.
(3) theory of evolution is so big and complex that no single experiment can disprove the whole of it.

It's not fair asking Mr. Eds for something that even established science doesn't provide.

d) Yeah, but what does it mean, please!?

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"Where's the fun in that?"

I hate gambling. Further information:

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"It's 101-level obvious to point out people need to play, I didn't even bother pointing out such a simple thing."

Not so obvious. Roll 1d3.

(1) You don't need to be a guinea pig in order to study guinea pigs.
(2) As a former Catholic, I enjoy a better perspective of the Church from the outside.
(3) As a former Catholic, I've never read anything worth about Catholicism written by the hand of a believer.

Zak Sabbath said...

a) your experience is not relevant unless you've experienced all instances of RPG play. You haven't. So long as there is at least one RPG with unlimited (or, more properly: infinite) options, the statement is sound.

c) You're wrong. It is 100% fair. And there are many results you could describe that could disprove all 3 of those theories. Like say Galactus showed up tomorrow and did space magic and showed how he used it to make dinosaurs turn into birds.

Edwards can't even do that.

d) GNS makes no sense. GNS is, in many places, synonymous with "rpg theory"

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Zak Sabbath said...

Just because it isn't true about other fields you can name doesn't mean it's not obviously true in this one.

Zak Sabbath said...

i don't know what the point of this comment is supposed to be

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

I take back my comment. I owe you an explanation.

(A) I can't access Google+ from my home computer
(B) Luke Crane's quotes seemingly made sense at first glance.

Since then:

(A) I've worked around technical issues
(B) I've got the whole picture

Thus, I'm not longer supporting what Luke Crane said.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

a) Indeed, there was that one game in which we the players have virtually infinite options. (It was about planning and comitting a caper in today's Paris.) So, I know by experience that "in at least one RPG play, players had infinite options". I was there.

It's still not true that "in *every* RPG play, players have infinite options". Indeed, most of them were built on Hobson's choice: take it or leave it.

c) Coming next.

d) Ooh, tricky. Now I get it. Thanks!

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

c) about: GNS

If you believe GNS is wrong, you should either keep asking Mr. Edwards for proofs -and as far as he fails to provide any proof supporting his theory, you can dismiss it with no second though- or make up an alternative hipothesis of your own.

For example, this guy did it:

He disagreed with Bartle Types, made a theory of his own, and proved it through a survey. I love him!

c) about: Galactus (& Bizarro World too)

"Like say Galactus showed up tomorrow and did space magic and showed how he used it to make dinosaurs turn into birds."

(It would be somewhat out of character, wouldn't it? Whatever.) Finding out that a super-human entity turned dinosaurs into birds, or an alien black monolith turned apes into humans, wouldn't disprove evolution. A scientific theory can not be disproved by a single exception.

And this is because scientific theories are not absolutely true, just mostly true. (Disgression: an absolutely true scientific statement that the Moon is closer to Earth than the Sun- is not a scientific theory but a scientific fact.) Thus, Bizarro World wouldn't disprove the scientific hypotesis that planets are spherical.

Do you wanna discuss evolution further? Tell me and I'll do some research. Or you can try again (roll 1d3):

(1) [edited] Newton's Gravity Law wasn't dismissed until Einstein, in spite there have been at least two known exceptions to it (the orbits of Mercury & Saturn).
(2) [edited] the existence of the particle of Higgs used to be a scientific hypotesis which no experiment could have disproved.
(3) [new!] the existence of intelligent lifeforms outside the Solar System can't be disproved.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Well worded. Since it's not true in other fields, I'll suspend my judgement about it being true in this one field. Maybe it's true, maybe not. If you feel like arguing that "people need to play", you are welcome - not that I specially care. But: I won't take it as "obvious" without any proof.

Zak Sabbath said...

"If you believe GNS is wrong, you should either keep asking Mr. Edwards for proofs
and as far as he fails to provide any proof supporting his theory, you can dismiss it with no second though
That is, of course, exactly what I did.

Your second iteration of (c)

" A scientific theory can not be disproved by a single exception. "

It can absolutely be disproved if (like GNS) the theory itself claims to have no exceptions.

GNS claims _it is impossible to_ x.

Find x and it's disproven.

This has been done many times. It is disproven.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

c) about: GNS

"That is, of course, exactly what I did." Lack of any favorable evidence: this is an strong argument against GNS. Well done! (The whole "should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it" bullshit wasn't barely an argument.)

c) about: Galactus... or whatever

Quote from your original post:

"A scientific theory should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it--Edwards can't do that."

Quote from your latest reply:

"It [a scientific theory] can absolutely be disproved if (like GNS) the theory itself claims to have no exceptions. (...) This [finding exceptions to GNS?] has been done many times. It [GNS theory??] is disproven."

Are you arguing with yourself???

Zak Sabbath said...

C) " (The whole "should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it" bullshit wasn't barely an argument.)"

No, it is an argument--you are lying or stupid. Scientific theories can describe experimental results which can disprove them.

You offered objections, but these turned out to be false (in each case it would be easy to describe a result in an experiment which would prove those ideas false) and you failed to address this.

c) I am not arguing with myself, I am describing different properties of scientific theories.

You may be having a comprehension or processing problem.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"Scientific theories can describe experimental results which can disprove them." - This is a dogma I used to believe ages ago.

"You offered objections" - Yes, I offered three objections.

"but these turned out to be false" - Not so fast! Zak claimed them to be false, but every one of my objections is valid.

"it would be easy to describe a result in an experiment which would prove those ideas false" - I call this a bluff.

What if Galactus showed up? - It wouldn't make a difference, because every rule has exceptions.

(As an aside: pulling a deus-ex-machina-from-outer-space out of your ass doesn't qualify as a scientific experiment anywhere. You weren't even trying, were you?)

"you failed to address this" - I offered you to either discuss it further -- or pick another objection out of three. I'm still waiting for an answer.

"You may be having a comprehension or processing problem." - Totally. I don't get the meaning of [Zak Sabbath April 26, 2016 at 2:36 AM] reply.

"It [a scientific theory] can absolutely be disproved if [...] the theory itself claims to have no exceptions."

Every rule has exceptions, doesn't matter if the rule itself admits it or not.

"you are lying or stupid"

No, I'm not. Lying is not worth the effort. I'm echoing the words of other people smarter or meaner than myself.

"Lakatos merely insisted -and Popper was in no position to question its relevance- that in the history of actual science such neat and decisive falsifications never in fact occur. Nor could they, Lakatos argued. Popper had said that Marxism, Freudianism, astrology, etc., are pseudo-sciences, because their central propositions are "unfalsifiable": that is, consistent with every report of an actual or possible observation. But then, Lakatos pointed out, Newtonian physics too is unfalsifiable in that sense; and so is every other typical scientific theory."


See also pages 64 [PDF-77] to 68 [PDF-81] from:

Zak Sabbath said...

"it would be easy to describe a result in an experiment which would prove those ideas false" - I call this a bluff.

What if Galactus showed up? - It wouldn't make a difference, because every rule has exceptions.

(As an aside: pulling a deus-ex-machina-from-outer-space out of your ass doesn't qualify as a scientific experiment anywhere. You weren't even trying, were you?)

Of course this is not a bluff.

If we took the theory of evolution and go "Ok, if Galactus appeared and took us through time how every species was created by him immediately by snapping his fingers, that would disprove evolution"

I'd be


a thing that could happen

which would prove evolution wrong

And your nonsensical objection" It wouldn't make a difference, because every rule has exceptions."

Doesn't apply because here we'd have Galactus responsible for _all_ species. So it'd not be an
"exception" it'd be _the only case ever observed_.

Edwards _can't even do that_ --like he can't even describe his parameters for describing games well enough to describe ANY event which would disprove them.

"It [a scientific theory] can absolutely be disproved if [...] the theory itself claims to have no exceptions."

Every rule has exceptions, doesn't matter if the rule itself admits it or not.

Unless you're talking at the quantum level, this makes no sense and isn't science.

You can describe _how much of the world would have to match the description_ in order to call it valid.

Like if dropped objects on earth go up and up forever half the time, there's something wrong with our theory of gravity. That's a description of a result which would create a problem for gravity.

Again: Edwards can't even do that. He can't describe what observation he's trying to make and he can't describe how often it'd have to be true to be a rule.

Simply citing philosophers who dispute falsification generally (and dont' all agree) doesn't make your argument--you're ignoring the relevant fact in this case:

All real scientific theories (all of it)

can describe

a result which would fall outside the predictions made by that theory

Ron can't.

The most fucked up part is you AREN"T EVEN invested in Ron's theory.

You just thought (inaccurately) that you saw a reference to the idea falsifiability that had been disputed by later thinkers and so decided to accuse me of intellectual dishonesty. Which, of course, is insane.

Zak Sabbath said...

Part of you confusion may be when I say "an experiment" I mean the WHOLE experiment as an event--including the result.

If you take "experiment" to mean only the design of the experiment without a result, you may make the mistake of pointing out some science can't yet describe the technologies necessary to test all of their fine points.

Zak Sabbath said...

I've already described an event that could disprove evolution, let's demolish your other dumb ideas:

(1) Newton's "universal" Law of Attraction would have been immediately disproved because the orbits of Mercury and Saturn (i.e. two out of the six known planets, no less!) were not following it.

And if we observed ALL other objects not following it--it'd be disproved.

(2) the existence of the particle of Higgs is a scientific hypotesis which no experiment can disprove.

No, there's just a difficulty in describing MEANS to disprove it.

It's easy to describe an EVENT which would disprove it. For example: if all the math problems that it supposedly solves turned out to be solved by something else (like Galactus or tiny kangaroos) then the current conception of that particle would be wrong.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Let me focus into the essentials first:

"The most fucked up part is you AREN"T EVEN invested in Ron's theory."

Was I supposed TO BE? To be entirely honest, I'm slightly invested *against* Ron's. (Why? Since in the past I've tried to make sense of GNS & failed at it, it would be a relief finding out that GNS doesn't make sense at all.)

What bugs me is the part when you said

[A] "A scientific theory should be able to describe an experiment which could disprove it."

"so decided to accuse me of intellectual dishonesty" - it triggers my suspices when some theory is rejected because of obscure methodological issues. Whatever, suspicing is not accusing.

"you saw a reference to the idea falsifiability" - I totally assumed you were into the "falsifiability" bandwagon, I'm very sorry if I got it wrong.

But, if you ignore Popper's doctrine, then this raises two questions:

1st) What's exactly the difference between Popperism and [A]?

2nd) Where the requisite [A] came from? It strucks me as an arbitrary criterion. You could as well be claiming:

[C] A scientific theory should be fostering feminism
[D] A scientific theory should contain at least one pie chart
[E] A scientific theory should involve the use of telescopes
[F] A scientific theory should be expressed as a mathematical equation, etc.

(As a footnote: I know why Popper embraced falsifiability because he published an entire treatise -which must have been cited like one million times- explaining his reasons.)

"when I say "an experiment" I mean the WHOLE experiment as an event" - I'll ponder on this and come back later. Ditto about the rest of your replies.

Zak Sabbath said...

" suspicing is not accusing."

Read back through your replies. You specifically accuse me of bullshitting and you should not have. You should apologize.

1)Popperism (and its critique) _imply_ 2 things I do not: that the scientists must be able to describe a _technical_ mechanism for carrying out an experiment and that this experiment, if it gets a specific result _one_ time (ie the "exception") time would disprove the hole.

I simply say that a scientific theory must be able to _relate an example of a result that would prove it to not be true_ . A different and wider claim.

2. If it "strikes you as arbitrary" you haven't really thought about it. Literal question: can you think of a single scientific theory where there's NO event or series of events which would prove that theory was wrong? You can't, because the test of the kind of science we're discussing is to make accurate predictions. Catastrophically repeating wrong predictions disproves theories.

It's a simple axiom derived from the definition of science itself. I personally first ran into it in Stephen Jay Gould.

Quit thinking about Popper and start thinking how crap a scientific theory is if it is so vague can't describe ANY result which falls outside that theory's predictions. Or, perhaps more specifically in GNS' case: can't describe the borders of which observations would fall inside GNS and which outside GNS.

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

"You should apologize."

Holy shit, I believed I was being subtle! I apologize, then.

"Quit thinking about Popper."

I was enjoying the discussion thus far, but I assumed you were advocating for some sort of Popperism. Since you are not, then my original objections are pointless and I have no option left but taking them back.

Zak Sabbath said...

oh good

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

Sorry for beating again this dead horse of a thread, but...

a) "So long as there is at least one RPG with unlimited (or, more properly: infinite) options..." [Zak Sabbath April 19, 2016 at 1:54 AM]

I recently realized that "infinite" can't be conflated with "unlimited". If I ask you "let's pick a pair number greater than 2", your valid choices are both INFINITE and LIMITED. you can't answer 2, 5, "pyramid", "strawberry" or "green".

In an RPG it happens the same: a D&D_Basic cleric can turn a zombie and a D&D_Basic thief can backstab it, but not the other way. Your PC's range of actions can be INFINITE (depending on the whim of the DM) but there's always a limit.

If there's at least one RPG with unlimited options out there, please make me know which one. Cause I'd like to try a Tom Bombadil-like dwarf PC who can control undead and talk with animals, plus he can fly, turn invisible, and shoot laser beams from his eyes, plus he pisses beer and poops cakes, plus at level 2 he automatically gets a mecha, at level 3 he gets an starship and at level 5 he evolves into Cthulhu.

Zak Sabbath said...

That is why i wrote '(more properly, infinite)'

Andrew Franke said...

Game theory has been around as a science for decades. Role playing theory has as well, just not the kind you are looking for. These government and corporate manuals are designed to predict given a certain algorithm how the other side will react etc. The governments of many nations have been spending billions of dollars on these simulations and exercises for years.

Many of them helped them can now be found in print for incredible sums of money but have interesting conflict resolution mechanics.

Zak Sabbath said...

yes, as you say: not the kind i'm looking for.

and the mechanics are probably interesting (esp for wargamers b/c of the scale)

anonimous, emperador en el exilio said...

OK -- I'm glad we agree about this point.

Radio said...

Luke Crane...

and every single one of his friends (who Luke doesn't and can't ever represent)...

need psychiatric care?

How did you ever reach that conclusion based on what Luke said in barely a paragraph?

Zak Sabbath said...

1. I didn't say that, I said Luke needs psychiatric care and his friends should be the ones who help make that happen. And I said possibly other people in his game group need psychiatric care as well.

2. I can reach that conclusion easily, there is no other possible conclusion:

a) Crane said all game-mastering leads to abuse.--an irrational conclusion. This is an irrational belief, like believing that the government is trying to mind control you using microwaves.


b) Luke said he sits idly by and watches women abused at his game table.

So either:

-he is lying on the internet about one of these things--which would be an insane and harmful thing to do. Thus: psychiatric care is required.


-he believes A ( the belief of a delusionally insane person) and permits B (the act of a callous and insane person).

If there's some other option, please say what it is.

Unknown said...

Okay, I've been thinking about this all morning and have a question. Zak, in your opinion, did the RPG theorizing that came out of the Forge contribute in a meaningful way to the development of the various games that were connected to that site? Honest question, not trolling.


Zak Sabbath said...

First, Tor:
No need to a little dance around asking a question about what I said.
You have a question, I have to answer.
If I am going to make pronouncements about what's true and what's false, then I need to be able to answer questions about it. Anything less would be falling into exactly the same trap the Forge et al did: interpreting any response other than "Yes, I agree".
Now: the theorizing at the Forge undoubtedly helped make the games connects to it (and Story Games and the descendants of it on Google+ and in the indie scene) what they are.
However then you have to consider what they are, which is not much.
Some things to consider:
-That scene wildly disproportionately produces games that nobody plays (even the people who write them) which reproduce the same flaws over and over and don't ever lead to any greater development even on the part of hte designer. Forge theory doesn't just get to take credit that there were apparently thousands of people who wanted to play a very crunchy dragon soap opera novel simulator in Burning Wheel, it also has to take the blame for giving people a map with so many unmarked blind alleys.
-Even the more well-known Forge games tend to be simply popular games rewritten for gamers with the Forge crowd's delicate sensibilities, rather than things which are useful to anybody else (whereas like the innovations in Pendragon are something anybody could use for a variety of ends).
-AW (the most popular system), may have actually been _delayed_ by several years by Forge theory because it's basically a FATElike plus a degrees-of-success system that succeeded mostly by ignoring postForge orthodoxy and being very Tradlike except in how easy it is to do what you want.

Zak Sabbath said...

tl;dr Yes and Roger Ailes contributed in a meaningful way to the modern Republican party.

Which doesn't make anything about Roger Ailes good.

Unknown said...

Hey Zak,

Thanks for the reply.

So I'm pretty sure that was crystal clear, but just in case: what you're saying is that yes, Forge theory did lead to the development of Forge games and their descendants, but the point is essentially moot because nobody plays those games much anyway, largely because they're not any good.

Furthermore (and now I'm referencing your original blog post and not your answer to my question), trad games like D&D are successful because they are developed outside of a theoretical context in an atmosphere of actual play, where the designers make changes to the game in response to real life issues they experience during the course of actually playing the game itself.

If that's your position, I think I can speak to it (politely!), but I want to be sure I understand first (and I'm leaving aside the Vincent Baker bits for now as I think they're peripheral, but I do want to get back to them).



Zak Sabbath said...

No Tor, you've completely misunderstood and should read both the article and my response to you more carefully.

Please release yourself from any weird baggage you're carrying around and read the words I typed and only respond to statements I made that you can actually quote--not some assumed context.
what you're saying is that yes, Forge theory did lead to the development of Forge games and their descendants, but the point is essentially moot because nobody plays those games much anyway, largely because they're not any good.


I am not 3. I said something intelligent, not something stupid.

What I am saying is that:
-It got in the way of some useful games being created.
-It lead to the creation of a large number of games whose "goodness" or "badness" I am not at all about evaluating but which objectively, have failed to find an audience _even within the cohort of people who would like those games_ . That is, whether or not they are "good"--they are not serving the purpose their creators wanted them to, and thus point to a defect in their theory.
-It has lead to a WHOLE SEPARATE group of games which are popular and _have_ found an audience but whose appeal appears to be ceilinged and to not have produced useful innovation that goes outside that cohort's concerns.
As for trad games being "successful"--I would never make that claim without defining "success".

Are we talking popular? Popular as RPGs go? (totally different thing) Fun for me personally? Achieving the designers goals?

D&D and other trad games are not necessarily "successful" on any of these scales without qualification.

And if they _are_ it isn't because actual play adjustments are (in the abstract) better than theory.

Theory can be great and helpful, its just the Forge did it wrong and failed

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

(reposting this so it shows up as a reply in the right place)

Hey Zak,

Whoa. I don't know what I said, but I didn't deserve that response.

Okay, let me try again. I did read your article. I read it twice. I read it because it was interesting and made me think. I also read your reply several times. My response was an honest, good faith attempt to understand what you were saying.

I don't think it's a leap to read in the words, "That scene wildly disproportionately produces games that nobody plays (even the people who write them) which reproduce the same flaws over and over and don't ever lead to any greater development even on the part of hte designer" as a commentary on the badness of those games.

And you're right: "successful" is a loose term. What I meant with "successful" was "fun to play," or, possibly, "achieves the goals it sets out to achieve."

Ah, man, I thought this was a conversation and now it feels like fight.



Zak Sabbath said...

I don't know what I said, but I didn't deserve that response.
You are not responding to any words I posted but rather some perceived tone.

Never do that, it wastes time.

I didn't personally attack you, I didn't call you names, I didn't libel you, I didn't harass you, I just pointed out you made mistakes, which I am duty-bound to do if I want to claim to want to have a conversation: tell you when you misread the text.

If you respond to imagined tone rather than actual statements made that you can quote, you will never be able to have a discussion with people who disagree with you and will wind up with untested ideas that probably make no sense.

So no more of that, please.
Also reassuring me about intentions i irrelevant and wastes time. Regardless of your intentions I must always respond fully to your questions and clarify what I say.

Whether its' a "conversation" or a
"fight" is irrelevant. I must always give the same responses and must address all your concerns or else I have no business saying what I think in public.

If you want to be polite and be nice and caring and thoughtful, the most polite thing you can do is only talk about your concerns about the substance of the discussion, not worry about social niceties. I'm busy and so it is as _impolite_ to hide your real concerns (which I must address) inside them.

The nicest, most polite, most respectful most ingratiating, most friendly thing to do is just say what your ideas and questions are without apologies or rhetoric. You will get an answer.

As to substance:

I don't think it's a leap to read in the word
It is a tremendous and terrible leap.

I only said

...not anything you assumed. That's why I typed the words I did, not other, dumber, worse words.

As to "fun to play" or "achieves the goals they set out to achieve" there's a number of complexities there/

"Fun to play" includes all games, unless you mean "fun to play for everyone" in which case it includes no games.

"Fun to play" requires the identification of an audience for whom it is probably not only "fun to play" but _more fun than them just hanging out with each other_ or at least more fun in an interestingl;y different way.

"Achieves goals it sets out to achieve" is again fraught for many reasons, the first of which being it's often unrelated to "fun to play".

It also is the axis by which a lot of bad-faith criticism is made, where the _advertising_ of the game is evaluated in terms of user experience rather than what the game actually offers and what the designer wants.
More to the point here, when discussing whether someone's _theory of games_ is accurate or good, the obviously most important data is the ability of the person with the theory to create games that match their intentions.

We can assume in the case of the Forge indies these usually include being played willingly by people other than the designer and people in their game group and even by people other than volunteer playtesters.

Unknown said...

Hey Zak,

Okay, fair enough. Here's what I got, then.

- you say the Forge did the theory wrong. I disagree. Concretely, the Forge put into words the thing that I and a lot of other folks had been searching for for a long time and had not been finding: namely, the idea that the creation of meaningful narrative during the course of actual play as the point of play was a valid and possible play style. In the 11 years of gaming I did prior to 2000, I never saw this idea pop up, not once, not like that. And I haven't seen it expressed as succinctly anywhere else since.

- The Forge put this idea into words, and then created a roadmap for how to make it happen. For me and a lot of others, if the reason you wanted to play RPGs in 2000 was what I said above (create narrative through the course of play), then this was A Very Big Deal. Like, I can't express how big of a deal it was. It was like handing a man lost in a desert a drink of water.

- You don't get to write off the Vincent Baker/Forge connection that easily. In the Apocalypse World "Immediate Game Influences" he's explicit about what games and what rules led to the creation of AW. Other than a nod to Ars Magica, it reads like a Forge honor roll an ends with "The entire game design follows from "Narrativism: Story Now" by Ron Edwards. And, I've played AW, and I've played a number of the games on his list, and I can confirm the connection personally.

- There IS still a vibrant culture of people playing games built on Forge theory. I attended the packed Big Bad Con in Walnut Creek a few weeks ago and most of the games on the roster could trace their lineage straight back to Forge designs. I played 8 games over the weekend, and with the exception of a FATE variation, every one was just one or two steps removed from it's Forge forebears.

- And finally, reassuring you about my intentions in my earlier emails was my way of coming forward with my hands up saying I wanted to engage civilly: I intended to be polite, you assured me it was not being received as such, I got the message, and am ready to move on.



Unknown said...

Ah, shoot. I keep posting these things in the wrong place. If you want I can delete and repost as a reply to your post.


Zak Sabbath said...

Ron Edwards was right when he took the pre-existing threefold model and said "hey there's nowhere in here for people who want to use RPGs to make stories like 3 act dramas in other media"

And Stalin was right when he said "sometimes quantity has a quality all its own".

It doesn't mean Stalin "Did governing right" any more than the Forge "did theory right". Because you're ignoring ALLLLLL the other things that they did wrong attached to that which I wrote about in my OP which you seem to weirdly assure me you've read, yet somehow seem to have skipped.

Neither the anecdote that you played some indie games nor that you received the one sentence Ron Edwards started with before talking gaming into a churning morass of increasingly inane implications of that sentence address anything I've said directly.
The idea that there are a lot of confused people who say "I found Forge theory (or astrology, or objectivism, or phrenology)" personally helpful is not in doubt.

When you say that, I believe you. It doesn't mean it's good science.

And Vincent Will indeed personally point out how much he owes to the many people who form his customer base. He does it over and over and over.

I still maintain (like many SG vets) AW is the most Trad design he's made.

Zak Sabbath said...

tl;dr Flat earth theory makes some people happy. It doesn't mean it's a good theory.

Unknown said...

Ah, fuck me. So I went back and started at the top and re-read the entire damn article, word for word, and I'll be damned if not only do I agree with it pretty much word for word, but you managed to predict pretty much everything I would offer as a counter before I even wrote it, from smarm to playing the Vincent Baker card.

Fuck. Will you accept an apology?

There is one thing I will double down on, though: if 'all' the Forge did was develop the idea of narrativism (which is more than making RPGs like 3-act dramas) and lead to the creation of a number of games and a play style that supported this, that's still a lot.

But yes, to everything else. And yes, when I wrote my previous posts I was unclear on most of what you were saying.



Zak Sabbath said...

No need for an apology, Tor.

What you did was (mostly) what a person should do:

When you see something you disagree with, you ask for clarification, then respond to the answer with why you think your own ideas are right instead. Then evaluate everything and make sure you're right.

There's no shame in proving yourself capable of understanding something you didn't before.

Unless we assume a world where nothing ever needs to be said because all is clear to begin with, this is to be expected. this is what a healthy conversation about games looks like

Anonymous said...

A psychotic person can't address his own psychosis; a Psychoanalyst can (without being psychotic.) Some areas of knowledge need distance, some areas don't (and maybe some areas are equally theorized about from within than from outside, and maybe some are equally impossible to grasp from within as from outside.)