Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Free Lunches

If we're going to spend this much time talking about how to play, the question has to come up again and again - why do we play this silly game in the first place?

The first answer is going to be, "Fun."  We all know the internet and we know that's the knee-jerk answer.  I don't dispute it.  But "fun" applies to a lot of things - there are a lot of ways to have it?  Why this way?  Why this particular game?

Doesn't it seem a strange way to have fun?  After all, there are books that have to be read and reread, much like study, and sheets that need to be filled with details and notes, much like study.  Sheets that get full and complicated and need to be reorganized and painstakingly copied, bound together in notebooks and folders, or collected into computer files to be tagged and edited.  Much like study.  What part of that would you normally associate with "fun"?

Don't say because its enriching and complicated, and therefore involving, because so is the law, chemistry, social history and a host of other subjects, which the gentle reader probably took in school and which were probably did not gazed over in near as much wonder as the papers from this game.  I could be in error, but I don't see it nearly as likely that the reader rushed to his or her Friday study group with the eagerness with which a D&D session is viewed.

Very well, interaction then, with friends and cohorts.  The reader does know, however, that it IS possible to have fun and interaction at the local pub, along with drink, music, attractive members of the opposite species and wet-tshirt contests.  It's also possible to have all this fun without having to select one member of the group to be the Grand Poobah who gets to sit in smug judgement over others.  It's nearly the same dynamic, except that pleasant creatures jump to your orders and bring you foods and liquor for which to slather your brain and inner body with (not to mention pleasantly steeping your liver).

Course, D&D is sort of cheaper.  Chances are, where you'd drop $80-120 at the bar, at worst you'd drop $30 at the local Meyers or Safeway or Piggly Wiggly buying your cheezies and power drinks.  So there's that.

But are we saying that the principal reason D&D is "fun" is because it costs less money?  That seems an absurd justification of there being hundreds of blogs about the game, consisting of thousands of hours of people waxing poetically and somewhat onanistically about this game.  Hm.  I don't know.  Seems a bit weak.

So maybe "fun" isn't really the right definition.  People do pretty much everything in their off hours for merely fun.  People eat pizza pockets for fun.  One assumes on some level that if you're talking about something you choose to do in a special way, its because it provides a sort of fun that isn't available with three and a half minutes and a microwave.  So what is it?

I have a theory ... but it is just a theory, mind.  It considers that, given that there are tens of thousands of ways to have fun, and that many of these ways are both cheap and include interacting with other human beings, that this game offers to a select few something they can't get anywhere else.

The chance to be an asshole.

Oh, I don't mean the way your boss is an asshole.  I don't mean lording your superiority over other people ... though of course there are people in the game who ARE assholes like your boss, and who do lord their superiority.  I mean an entirely different sort of asshole.  I mean the sort that doesn't give a rat's ass what anyone else thinks.  I mean the really superior bastard or bitch who - whether he or she is saving the princess or smacking her around - just really doesn't give a shit about right and wrong.  Right is whatever I happen to do with my sword that gets me out of this situation, and wrong happens when I fuck it up.  And there ain't no Mrs. Grundy around to tell me what's so and what ain't.

A couple weeks ago some guy with a nick on one of the passive aggressive forums had the nick 'tanstaafl.'  For those of you who are not familiar with Robert A. Heinlein, this was his personal code for get off your ass and do the thing yourself.  It stands for There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.

In this day and age, it really takes a special sort of person to stand proud and slap people with those words.  Heinlein got away with it in his personal life by having lived in a time when many, many people believed it.  This isn't true anymore.  I don't know about the rest of you - it could come from being embedded in the corporate sector, like a reporter in a war zone - but I can't move ten feet without banging into a charity of some sort or other.  I can't turn on talk radio without being subjected to another sob story from someone who happens to come from one of a thousand social backgrounds - geographical, religious, political, academic, sexual - and the list goes on and on.  The message is clear.  These people have not got a free lunch, and they need one.

I am, fundamentally, a liberal.  I don't believe so much in a free lunch as a shared lunch, rationally organized by a disinterested government in a benign and generous manner.  To me, charity and sympathy aren't so much a plague on the culture as a result of those who are suffering, but as a result of the opportunities given to those prepared to exploit the suffering.

Exploitation is such a clear and easy thing in D&D.  Kill the exploiter.  Disregard the exploited.  Be utterly, unaccountably selfish and aggressively ambitious.  Wallow in it.  Keep accounts and charts in order to measure the degree of one's own personal achievements, and fuck all the creatures who died to make those achievements remarkable and plentiful.  There ain't no free lunch for anyone ... there's just the trough I've built with my sword, my fireball spell and my incessant willingness to kill without mercy.

But as I say, its just a theory.  There might be something to the argument that D&D is really only gambling with an ersatz stake in the form of a emotionally identified quanta taking the place of an actual pile of money.  But that's a post for another day.


Anonymous said...

What started as a response became a blog post of my own. Thanks Alexis:


Lord Gwydion said...

Quite a while back, Noisms of Monsters and Manuals posted about how, in an indie RPG sense, D&D is "about" Ambition. What he said then is in accord with your theory.

However, James C.'s post (which led me here since it was higher on my blog feed) seems about right. As a life-long nerd, I've actually usually enjoyed studying. I still do a lot of study just for the simple fact that it gives me pleasure (and sometimes can be useful to know as a DM or player).

And while D&D has become more mainstream (slightly anyway), look at the editions that are more popular - 3E/PF, 4E - they require a lot less thinking/study, since everything's supposedly there in the books for you.

I'd contend that the nerds who just enjoy study tend to be the same ones who enjoy this little game of ours.

But again, this is not even a theory, just a hypothesis of mine that could stand to be tested.

Anonymous said...

In Gestalt Therapy psychological theory we refer to Retroflection -- those things we do to ourselves that we wish to do to others. Also the things we wish others to do to us that we instead do to ourselves.

Our dreams are grand retroflections, an expression of our greatest Wishes -- and often Fears.

I see the Roleplaying Game as a Grand Waking Retroflection akin to the Dream. Which makes it something more between Art and Game and, indeed, Therapeutic.

Dave said...

I think, for me, it fills that urge to explore that we're all born with, but that most of us lose due to intense socialization. As a DM/GM who homebrews universes, I don't see myself as creating said universes as much as discovering them... things bubble up at odd times, and they click into place, either expanding or changing the initial concept and letting me explore as much, no... MORE than my players do. For example, I just learned last week that what I thought had dragged refugees from the Spinward Marches to a completely different galaxy in my Star Clans campaign in fact had nothing to do with their transportation. I found out when I woke up one morning that the ancient dying race of Melashravishim were not at all what I'd first imagined, but are in fact, like Clarke's Overlords from Childhood's End... if they'd refused their duty. I play because reading the stories of the golden age of science fiction isn't enough... there are worlds no published author has described, and I'm finding them myself!

Alexis said...

That said, Reverend, there's a strong argument to be found in the process of freeing oneself from guilt. That was, after all, the goal of Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll, however the final analysis - the simple fact is that we are in our ordinary, humdrum daily lives both oppressed and frustrated. The pejorative word 'asshole' aside, the players have the opportunity in their characters to assume the roles of their own personal Mr. Hydes.

Therapeutic, indeed.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

I think you've got a reasonable theory here. Some people definitely play to push boundaries that they couldn't in real life. I think what other commentators have said about exploration and ambition make a lot of sense.

But the thing is, I really don't know. I'm almost always the dungeon master. I can barely stand playing, and I can't say I know why people come to my games. It seems like you're usually dungeon master too, as is almost everyone with a gaming blog.

What I want to know, is why do we almost never hear directly from the players? They're the majority. We have an entire blogosphere made up of a small fraction of the total population of RPG players in the world, and yet we claim to speak for all of it.

There are so many different theories about what players like and why the like it. Maybe a way to settle it would be to actually ask them. I've told all my players to write essays of a few hundred words about why they play the game, which I then plan to post on my blog. I don't expect all of them to do it, but the ones who don't I plan to talk to and report what they say.

Dungeon masters have a lot of good theories about the game. But to back any of them up, we need some kind of data. I'd like you to ask your players to read your post, respond to it, and for you to report back what they say. Until then, I have no reason to take this theory seriously.

Alexis said...

Ozzie, you're like that soul at the medical convention saying, "Everyone here is a doctor. How come we never hear from any patients? They're the majority. We have an entire medical profession made up of a small fraction of the total population of people who are able to get sick."

Ozzie Pippenger said...

First of all, I think that's a rather condescending attitude toward players. Doctors spend years of intensive study in medical school, followed by decades of actual practice. What puts you so far above your players? Do you have a doctorate in gaming studies?

Second, doctors actually do hear from patients. They run studies and test treatments, then record how the patients react or have them report themselves. They organize the data scientifically. They put their results in charts, showing each data point, and take intensive questions about their conclusions. There's nothing like that for D&D. Dungeon masters go out and run games, try to tell if the players liked it or not, and then come up with hypotheses about why or why not. That's it.

Doctors used to stop there. That's how we got nonsense about the four humors, phrenology, leeches, and the anti vaccine movement.

Right now, D&D is in the state medical science was in the dark ages, or psychology was under Freud. It's a bunch of half-religious theories with little or no data to back them up. The first step to learning how to actually play the game is hearing what players have to say.

Alexis said...


I'm the first to say D&D is in the dark ages. But you've obviously taken no time whatsoever to read this blog, or else you'd know exactly how long I've been at this.

"Doctorate in gaming studies"? Wow, that is one major bullshit rejoiner. Since no one has that AS IT APPLIES TO D&D, I guess I'm as qualified as anyone you care to name. "Decades of actual practice"? What the fuck do you think it means where it says on the blog, "thirty years ago." Three decades, sweetheart!

I like how you write, "doctors actually do hear from patients ..." as though somehow it is possible to run D&D without communicating with players. "They organize their data scientifically ..." Well, they didn't in the dark ages, but in case you hadn't looked around you jackass, there's one fuck of a lot of scientific organization among DMs. "They put their results on charts ..." No duh? Really? Charts? Yes, there's none of that in D&D. Certainly no data points, and this blog and a thousand others does NOTHING to answer intensive questions about their conclusions.

Ozzie, its hard to argue with anyone whose head is this far up their ass. Just so you know, this AIN'T no bulletin board. So I wouldn't bother to reply to this. Unless you seriously change your perception, I'm not likely to publish a response. Your big chance to make yourself clear happened with the previous comment.

There's no question my answer was glib. And I do intend to write on the subject of "why we don't hear from players next." But your thick skulledness isn't the least comprehensive.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Well if you write a post about why you prefer not to hear from players, I'm all ears. So far you've given little response to my actual point, and we've just been arguing through an incredibly convoluted metaphor about medicine. Perhaps that's my fault, I did get carried away a bit.

I'm not actually very certain that my little experiment will lead to anything of value. It's just an idea that's been kicking around in my head for a while, and this seemed like a good place to bring it up. I'm sorry if I was a little overzealous in defending my idea.

By "decades of actual practice" and "scientifically organized data" I was referring to the act of, on a daily basis, meeting with patients, prescribing medicine, carefully measuring the effects and listening to the patients's reports, and, in the case of researchers, sharing their data and conclusions with the medical community to be rigorously analyzed. (Emphasis on actual practice, not decades.) In D&D, we don't quite have this. What we have is a lot of different doctors with hugely varying degrees of experience peddling their "cures" without pointing to a single successfully treated patient. I'd like this to stop. I'm not saying you or anyone else is wrong, I'm saying that since we can't see anyone's data, it's hard to tell who's wrong and who's right.

It doesn't seem like we're getting anywhere and I don't know if you'll post this, so I'm ready to wrap this up and go to sleep. I hope you do make a post on this topic. Perhaps we can both discuss it another time, with clearer heads.

Alexis said...

Let me back up myself then, Ozzie.

Right now, I am running 3 campaigns. In toto, this amounts to 14 regular players. Moreover, I am a player ... I just don't happen to play right now in anyone's campaign. But if you think I wouldn't be able to play if I took the opportunity, then you'd be dead wrong.

I think you fail to recognize that MOST DMs have spent many, many years playing, alongside players. You're whole argument seems to be based on some theory that DMs don't or haven't had conversations with players. I will tell you that, on occasion, HALF my weekly session is a continuous dialogue about playing, with players. Moreover, in the 33 years I have been playing this game, I have literally spent thousands of hours doing absolutely nothing but talking with players about this game. It is sheer folly to presume that because a) I happen to be a DM right now and b) I don't happen to quote players in my blog that I am somehow "out of touch" with what players want or need.

I would say I'm very much in touch, since I am continually turning away players at this point, since I don't have space or ability to run any more than I am right now running. These are people who have read this blog, who have responded to it, and who want to PLAY with the DM who writes what I write.

Your supposition - that players are NOT queried regarding the content of this blog - is utterly, ridiculously, spectacularly based on the highest degree of uninformed folly imaginable.

So if I don't give much credence to your supposition, it is for the reason that it deserves absolutely no credibility whatsoever.

You do not know me, Sir. You have no cause nor justification to make any such assumption about me or what I know, and until you can realize that, we have nothing to say to one another.

Anonymous said...

For what it's worth I plan on developing a feedback mechanism / data collection method once I have enough players to begin playtesting my own creation (that I blog about).

This will amount to little more than a form players will fill out after each session, but the questions will be Likert-scaled (1-5) and structured such a way that will hopefully elicit the sort of information I can directly import into the improvement of the game.

Without getting terribly specific, that is the sort of thing I do in my day-to-day job (work with groups, elicit structured feedback).

Alexis said...

Then you're just gonna love the post I'm writing today, Reverend.