Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Door Is There

In the interest of providing myself background noise, I've been working through a series of course lectures delivered by Dr. George Phillies of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute on Game Design. The gentle reader can find the series of lectures beginning here. For those not yet familiar with University lectures (there are young people who read this blog) or those who simply never attended, please take note of the total lack of patience Phillies has for persons who are not serious about learning. In fact, he's really a prick about it, but only because he has to be. It's hard to imagine that students who pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend classes can't get their heads out of their collected asses, but Phillies pre-judgements clearly indicate that being a total prick up front is a necessary part of being a lecturer. For those who want to get straight into the material, I suggest jumping forward to the second lecture.

I know that I have changed considerably since university ... but lectures like these that one can find online really make that clear to me. Whereas once the ending of a 50-minute lecture would have meant relief and a chance to rest my mind, now I think, "What, that's all?" ... and immediately plow into the next recorded lecture without a moment's hesitation.

(Incidentally, Phillies apparently knew Mr. Gygax, and has a few comments to say about the creation of D&D here and there in various lectures. If you're patient, you'll stumble over them).

Anyway, I've been meaning to pick up a topic he covered in lecture four, that of 'Eurogames' or German-style board games. This would include recently popular games (recent to me, I'm fifty, and the year 2004 still seems like last week) such as The Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Puerto Rico and so on. Starting about 43:00 on the 4th lecture link, Phillies discusses the 'shape' of these games. They're designed according to various constraints, which Phillies describes as coming from the way Germans raise children. Games are played in the evenings, after homework is completed, by the whole family. Therefore it is necessary that the game END prior to the time when the children must go to bed (limit of about two hours). The rules have to be simple enough that the grandparents can understand. Everyone has to be playing for the WHOLE game. No one can be eliminated as part of the game rules. The game has to have a relevance to child raising - the game must be in some way 'important.' And, as Phillies points out, part of the restraint also was no warfare. This was very much a consideration for older persons in the family who personally remembered the destructiveness and suffering of WW2. Finally, it needs to 'look pretty,' as it needs to appeal to children that are five to seven years old.

I confess, I have only played one game of Settlers of Catan in my life. I didn't particularly like it, primarily because I make decisions quickly (even if they are wrong decisions) and I found the effort it required for others to come to a decision meant that I was sitting about doing nothing for far more time than made me happy. This was ultimately the reason I lost interest in RISK, also, in that while I was not defending, there was very little to do, and I would grow bored. I blame this on DMing far too much, where gameplay is for me a continuous, unrelenting assault on my brain, which makes any other casual game activity dull. I don't say this is something most people would experience from Settlers of Catan.

My parents played Puerto Rico for a time rather a lot back around 1999-2000, so I am more familiar with that game - the same that Phillies uses in his lectures for his game 'lab' to make his points in lectures 2 & 3. I therefore have some understanding of the concept. There is an uncertainty as to who has won until the actual end of the game, thus building 'tension' about winning (tension dies in games like Monopoly when its clear who is going to win), and about the reduced but present interactivity of the game, which rewards innovation in oneself rather than the suppression of others, that almost all American games emphasize.

I'm rather past boardgames these days. I grew up in a house where boardgames were played religiously on Friday or Saturday nights, along with various card games, so I feel I've done my time. But there is a great deal to be said about the improvement of games where player smashing player is replaced by player out-playing player.

Last night I wrote a long discourse on how competition ceases to become the purpose of pursuing complex or difficult games or activities. I'd like to make a point about the importance of SUPPORT in activities ... a matter that is given so little consideration when the dynamic of role-playing is discussed.

Now, I am a DM, so I have my role in the game defined. I'm both the friend and the enemy of the party, as it's necessary to swing back and forth in order to keep the party's interest. Each member of the party, on the other hand, is free to take a stand about their treatment of others - and I must say, the very best parties are those that fight FOR each other, rather than against each other.

The genius in D&D is that the party is utterly free to be anti-competitive with one another, reserving all their energy to fight the DM. My sense has long been that this position ('all for one, one for all') offers a gamesmanship that is so utterly unique to role-playing that I'm often flabbergasted when I see a player fail to take advantage of it.

Consider, the members of a soccer TEAM join together to defeat the enemy ... and all the effort that one takes to support the team is done wholeheartedly with the understanding that to win requires complete support of one's teammates. There is something outstanding in being a part of this, especially on a good team, where everyone embraces the concept. People who don't embrace the concept - and who do it vocally - tend to be pushed out.

However, in team sports, there are TWO teams that are both competing, and someone has to lose. Part of the program, obviously, but it still sucks when you don't win.

But coming back to D&D, the party 'team' doesn't compete against another team. It competes against the DM - who shouldn't have anything to lose.

As DM, I'm not, or at the least I shouldn't be, invested in the existence of my monsters beyond their use as foils to stimulate the party's enjoyment. If I am involved with my monsters, that's a problem. Since I can conjure as many as I want, and I should always be aware that the party's need to live are greater than a monster's need to live, I am happy when a monster dies. I don't let this happen easily, of course, that would spoil the resolution, but I certainly am not cheering for the monster to win. That's crazy. A DM in love with monsters over the party is a DM hopelessly in love with his or her self ... and that is just pathetic.

So the party CAN win, there is no meaningful loser, and virtually all the other conditions of the Eurogame (which we had to come back to) are satisfied. Everybody plays for the whole game (you make up new characters immediately if you die). Players do not eliminate each other. The game can be interesting for the grandparents, and children adapt easily to interactive story-telling. The game play can be suspended at any time, so it can stop when the children go to bed, and be restarted the next night. The only two issues are that individual adults in Germany have not been generally educated to be DMs, and there's still that pesky 'no war' policy. But as Phillies points out in his lecture, that's disappearing ... mostly because the problem is being solved actuarially.

One last word about players who don't support the party against the DM. Players who are in it for themselves. As I say, this flabbergasts me. That is because virtually every stupid, ignorant thing I ever see in a game occurs because the player is being wholly and absolutely selfish in that moment. There's no way to dismiss it. On some level, the decision being made by the player is intended to be something self-serving.

And one of the worst philosophies that has become attached to the game is that this is acceptable.

It really isn't. Call it whatever the reader will; call it competition, call it role-playing, call it initiative, it still comes down to one thing. A player that thinks only of the self deserves to be shown the door. Period.


Dave said...

Sharing with the kids that play in my OD&D and Traveller games...

I don't always agree with everything you write, Alexis, but these last few days you've been stealing (and polishing, and publishing) my thoughts!

BTW, now I've got to go check out Professor Phillies lecture series... as if I have any spare time! The discussion of Eurogames was fascinating (we enjoy Catan, and have played with my in-laws and my son and nephews, so everything described rings true to me!)

Matias Conoscente said...

Hello Alexis, and first of all, compliments for sharing your amazing work and thoughts by a fellow DM, although with considerably less experience than you (in my 30s right now, been running since I was in my early teens).
Following your latest consideration about a player's unacceptable selfishness, I'd like to ask you if and how does this fit with a player interpreting a selfish character... I mean, for instance, a typical 'wolf in sheep's clothing' character who works for his own scheme (or NPC masters) and could potentially / occasionally decide to work against the rest of the party or not to fully support his companions against the DM. In this particular case, said player's selfish choices would be motivated by his character's background, history or personal goals, although potentially detrimental for everyone else's characters. In other words, would you describe a player's selfishness referring only to his or her abstract metagame choices or instead as a reflection for his or her character's background? I surely know these are two different levels, but sometimes there could be a thin red line between them... Best regards, Matias

Alexis Smolensk said...


Let's look through that very polite comment and try writing it this way:

"I'd like to ask you if and how does this fit with a player interpreting their own importance on the football pitch? I mean, for instance, a typical celebrated player who works for their own success (or marketing department) and could potentially / occasionally decide that the rest of the team wasn't as important as their own notariety or future value as a player ... deciding not to support his companions in an effort to promote himself. In this particular case, said player's selfish choices could lead to a huge franchise deal, which would be motivated by the player's selfish wish to be rich and important at any cost, even if this ultimately lost the season for the actual team. In other words, would I describe the player's selfishness only in his abstract commercial success, or as a result of the really shit parents this fellow had?"

I have noticed that players of all kinds will go a long way to justify their self-conceived rights to be a selfish prick, Matias ... but it doesn't change who or what they are.

Silberman said...

It does astonish me how people talk about a player's obnoxious character as if that character just happened to the player, and isn't their own creation. To continue with the team sport analogy, there's always the option to turn around and deliberately score a goal against your own team. Doing that once pretty much guarantees you're done playing on that team. Because you can't offer the flimsy pretext that you had to sabotage the team because that's the character you were playing, there's nothing masking how flagrantly antisocial your action was.

There are all kinds of bad behaviors defended with this "but my character would..." stuff. I used to game in a group with this guy who would always play "lone wolf" characters. These jerks were so skeptical of the party and its goals that we would have to spend the first 20-30 minutes of every session cajoling him into joining the group while he argued against the very premise of adventuring together. The proper response would have been to leave him sulking in the tavern, or wherever, playing bench-warmer while we went and played the game. I now see that we were trying to achieve the extra-game goal of getting this guy to play with us, and you know what, the same principle holds: he should have been benched until he was ready to play nice.

Another point that just occurred to me: when there's an overarching agenda at work, say keeping the party together so that everyone gets to play, excellent play will tend to seamlessly integrate this into the action. Poor play, by players or DM, will make such agendas feel awkward and forced, even when they are commendable.

Alexis Smolensk said...

"It does astonish me how people talk about a player's obnoxious character as if that character just happened to the player, and isn't their own creation."

That was EXACTLY my take on the comment, Silberman. And it astonishes me too. Your take is spot on. Role-players who can't play with the team should be treated exactly as players in sports who are sulky self-centered brats.

I said show them the door, but benching them is just as reasonable.

zooggy said...

Hey, :)

In my groups, we've grown accustomed to calling that the Nuremberg defense. "It's not my fault, my character told me to do it." It used to lead to PvP, dead characters and busted campaigns. Now, it just gets those people to pretty much swear to not do it again or get booted from the tables.


Party-centric play is not the only way to play RPGs. And even though D&D is pretty sucky when it comes to non-party play, it's a fine line between the odd jerk out and the party railroading someone into doing something they don't want to do.

I mean, I know you bend over backwards not to railroad the party, but players railroad too, and sometimes, that's just as hard to swallow. I've seen it kill sessions, and in one case, a whole campaign.


Alexis Smolensk said...

"Nuremberg Defense." Brilliant.

If the party as a general whole begins to feel the game is getting tiresome because of the need for 'team play,' that is a result of the DM not being enough of a foil for the party's hatred, anger, bitterness and resentment. The DM has to be the lightning rod that drives the party to band together to 'beat the system.' If this is not how the party feels, the DM is going WAY too easy on them.

I am a powerful personality, zooggy, and I'm impatient with ungentlemanly conduct at tables, so it takes about two seconds of one player browbeating another before I'm interposing myself between them. I've seen many a DM ignore squabbles between players and that's a very stupid policy.

The idea, then, of someone 'railroading' another player in my world - and really, the term can't be applied, unless the player can actually determine what's going to happen next - is foreign to me. It isn't 'railroading' - it's personal abuse, by one human being towards another.

Some players at the table ARE able to make faster decisions, and will lead a party forward by the strength of their personality, and I have no problem with that - provided that they treat the rest of the party with generosity and mutual support. Someone who bosses around other people and then takes everything soon learns what the weather is like.

zooggy said...

Hey, :)

Yeah, I've read enough of your blog (started at the beginning, have worked my way through to December '11), to pretty much believe that without reservations. Note, however, that I'm not talking about one person bossing others around, but rather, about the whole party bossing one person around. I've seen it happen a few times over my gaming career (which is almost as extensive as yours, started at 14, am 41 now), and for me, it's a lot harder to pinpoint and wrangle under control than it would be if it were just the one guy.

Also, when I talk about railroading, I'm talking about forced decision making, not necessarily specifying the subsequent events. From that, it should be easy to conceive of a party railroading a player. (As an example, another highly touted DM technique, illusionism, i.e. the art of putting the prepped encounter under the party's feet, regardless of what they decide to do, as if it had always been there, is also a form of forced decision making. The only difference is that illusionism is covert, whereas railroading is overt.)

Incidentally, I've seen DMs use the Nuremberg defense as well. Prep is good and all, but there is such a thing as becoming a slave to the prep, thus screwing the players over, by, say, ambushing the party with some totally OP ninja assassins, then excusing oneself saying, "hey, you pissed off the duke, you think he wouldn't be able to afford the elite to get you offed? It's not my fault, the world told me to do it." Again, I've read enough of your blog to know that that's not how you roll, but it seems pertinent for other readers, in the context of this post.

And, yes, this is a value judgement, but I do tend to look at all of these phenomena - railroading, illusionism, Nurembergism - whether by the DM or by the players - as personal abuse from one human being toward another. It's usually not on purpose, but that's no excuse. At my tables, like at yours, people either shape up or ship out. :)

I found this chart enlightening.