Friday, April 25, 2014

Two in the Back of the Head

I think we worry too much about being entertaining.

If there is ever going to be a concerted effort in furthering the role-playing game's potential, then entertainment, and the need to provide entertainment, will have to sit on the back burner for a while.  Not that being entertaining isn't interesting or helpful in coordinating your players and your world, but that alone is not going to advance your game.

The issue continues to be, however, where do we go?  If this were fishing, and we were going to discuss how we would be better fishermen, then we could quickly realize our path.  We need to be better with the equipment.  We need to improve our technique. If we're not going to scare away all the fish while casting or jigging, then we should be more reserved, we should shout less and not move.  We should be aware that our shadow is falling upon the water, and that the least shift will have an effect.  We need to get better equipment.  We need to get serious.

The voices here tell us that what we absolutely cannot be is serious.  Being serious - I presume, from the rhetoric - will scare the players away.  People will not want to join.  The game will die.  We have to make the game more exciting, more relevant, more accessible, or else the next generation will not be interested, and the only people left will be old grognards . . . and not enough of them in any one city even to get a table together.

My view is that this is the message that has been carried forward by those people in role-playing who are recognized to be 'experts.'  The experts in role-playing have been, almost universally, members of the corporate elite.  The originators published, they became part of the industry, and through the 80s they became subject to the corporatization of the game, by which they were either consumed or cast out.  Both groups, the insiders and the outsiders, developed more or less the same rhetoric.  The game is meant to be fun.  The more people who play, the better.  Everyone deserves to play.

Perhaps the outsiders pitched the rhetoric because they felt dismissed, or because they felt the more players, the better their independent efforts.  We know the insiders pitched the rhetoric because it is the corporate rhetoric - the more players, the more money.  In either case, there seems to have always been a fundamental acceptance that the game was as complicated as it ever should be.  Simplification is the watchword. Balance, so that no player feels left out, is the watchword.  Universality is the watchword.  The game's potential can only be expanded through making it universal, balanced and simplified, so that no one feels unable to play.

Developing the game's potential by making it more complicated is impractical.  It eradicates the possibility of balance.  It promotes elitism.  Therefore, the game cannot be improved by making it more complex.

This is supported by the named experts in role-playing that I have encountered.

I'd like to propose this description of an expert:  Someone who is widely recognized as a reliable source of technique or skill, whose faculty for deciding rightly, justly or wisely is accorded authority and status by their peers, or the public, in a specific, well-distinguished domain.

I'd like to propose three skills that an expert should possess:  The ability to explain complex matters simply.  The ability to read a situation and prevent issues that might arise.  The ability to execute on rules using well-defined processes.

I'd like the reader to keep these things in mind as I speak a moment about complexity.

Mastering complexity is a technique developed through education and familiarity.  It takes time to learn the names for things.  It takes more time to learn their relationships.  And more time still to develop techniques of problem solving in the field.  But these things come to those who are dedicated.  References to technical aspects, notable glitches, workarounds and long-standing issues become commonplace.  The hands, the mind and the body adapt comfortably to physical tasks that produce gaping stares in the uninitiated. Problems that confound ordinary folks are in fact quite simple, once the process is understood. We find ourselves speaking in cants, unconcerned that a year ago the words would have meant nothing.  This is normal.  Life is complex.  To master it, we change ourselves.

No, not everyone can be a plumber.  Not everyone can act.  Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer.  Some things are beyond us.  Some things we will never comprehend.  We would like the world to include more doctors, but we also understand that more doctors who are not good at the profession is not a good thing.  That is a limitation.  We accept it.

Where professions and trades are concerned, there are organizations that exist to let us know that these people are certified as competent.  We can't ascertain ourselves if the cabinet maker who is reworking our kitchen is an expert, so we rely upon that certification.  We feel more comfortable if the doctor can explain to us what he's doing without using a lot of jargon we wouldn't understand.  We appreciate it if the doctor can tell us where there are going to be problems, and describe strategies that can be employed.  We want the doctor to follow his profession to the letter.  We don't want a cowboy playing in our guts.

Certification is provided by experts.  Experts who recognize that the profession isn't complex because complexity is a good thing, but that we have no choice about it.  The human body is complicated.  Those are the breaks.  We can't simplify the problem.  We can't make the profession available to everyone.  That doesn't matter, however, because the solution is better training, better techniques, more rigorous quality assurance and better technology, enabling us to overcome the complexity and make it simple.

Here, now, we have a game.  The game was conceived to be about people pretending to operate in a world, where dice would contribute to the random element and the world would contain the possible relationships between players and events.  The game was conceived that a DM would adjudicate the game.  The game was conceived as something that would mostly take place in the player's heads, and not on a board.

These are ambitious ideals.  Human thought is extraordinarily complicated.  Interactions between humans are fraught with misunderstandings, the need for dominance, the need for trust and safety, selfishness, altruism, compassion, empathy, cruelty, pettiness and vengeance.  We don't have a choice about this.  If the game is going to be based upon open discussions between human beings expressing their fantasies, and part of this game is going to be based upon one human being leading the others, then this game is going to be complicated.  Those are the breaks.  We can't simplify that problem.  Not everyone will find themselves interested in being a part of it; not everyone will be able to play.

The experts, however, aren't interested in certifying anyone's ability to overcome the problem. They have decided instead to ignore it.  Role-playing isn't complicated, we are told.  In any case, we have proposed simplifying the techniques that enable the participants to play.  We have done our best to dumb-down the training.  We have ignored, resisted, even vilified the development of technology to master the game.  We don't care that the game includes people who are not good at it.  Fundamentally, we have approached every aspect of improving the game as if the game wasn't important.

Since the creation of role-playing, the 'experts' have done everything they could do to shoot the game in the head.

I think that needs to stop now.


Scarbrow said...

Have I already spent my weekly allocation of applause? No? Ok, there it goes:

Bravo! Great! Well said! Olé!

And just because you prefer to know I read, and enjoyed, and thoroughly agreed

James said...

So you have mentioned several times that roleplaying is something you can get better at, as if there were some objective standard. So what is the objective standard?

In this post, you basically acknowledge that sheer entertainment value is insufficient.

Maybe I am wrong, but I also doubt you are discussing mechanical superiority, what is often known as power gaming, minmaxing or being a munchkin (all terms I hate, but they exist).

In chess, the goal is to achieve a checkmate. What is your goal in a RPG?

More specifically, what should the goal of the player be?

Alexis Smolensk said...


I am hoping by the 10th of May to have a rewrite of the How to Play a Character essay on this blog published in a book, with other essays, that answers the player question.

In July, I will have a book called How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games, that will answer the DM question.

You may not have known.

Alexis Smolensk said...

James, I suggest that that you read this.

Included is the preface to the book I am writing.

James said...

Wait, you have a book coming out?

That was why I specified about players. I did not realize that the rewrite of your post would answer that very question, however. It makes sense considering how much it looks like you have been dancing around that exact point.

I suppose it'd be smartest to hold off my question then until that time.

James said...

I mean, yeah, I am incredibly interested in your book. I am holding off on a campaign until it comes out because I expect it to help me greatly.

Clovis Cithog said...

I know that you and NOISMs have your disagreements in the past; however,
“You really, absolutely, definitely, indisputably do not need a detailed character background before play begins. In fact, all you really need is a name, a class, stats, and some equipment, and you're good - because within five minutes of the game beginning you will without fail find your character beginning to take on a personality of his own. This strange and almost mystical emergence of character through play is one of the best things about the hobby, and it amazes me that people have been so determined, for decades, to kill that concept.”

Monsters and Manuals Blog,
21 October 2011

Alexis Smolensk said...

I both agree and disagree with Noisms here, Clovis.

On the one hand, regarding the kind of background he is referring to, the "player invented background, out of the player's mind," is totally not needed.

However, I argue that the stats, height, weight, race, class and so on are all 'backgrounds' . . . and my character background generator uses those to FORCE more background on the character that does not define what the character believes (like most player generated backgrounds) but rather what has happened to the character. This additional set of randomly generated events, relationships, effects, limitations, additional abilities and so on ENCOURAGES the sort of "taking on" of a personality that Noisms defends.

Like with most things, Noisms wants to immediately kill something the moment that Noisms himself can't think of a better way to do something. It isn't the character background that is the fail. It is the player's CHOOSING of character background that is the fail. The same fail highlighted brilliantly in Reservoir Dogs.

Poor Noisms. So limited in his thinking. So unaware of his limitations.

Clovis Cithog said...

does that man I have to be Mr. Pink, again!!

darn you Alexis

I am going to sulk in a quiet corner of the blogosphere