Tuesday, January 6, 2015

A Sport?

Last week, New Years' Day, I ran a ten-hour session of my world, from noon until 10 at night.  We would have liked to have gone longer, but as the next day was Friday, a work day, we were forced to cut it off.

Throughout the day, we took several breaks, including one for dinner.  Along with that we did take a while to get started - we weren't hurrying.  In all, I'd estimate that actual pay-attention game time was seven and a half hours.  Which went by fast.  Very fast.

What was actually accomplished?  The party finished off their attack on a kobald village of 80 kobalds, 18 of which were 1st, 2nd or 3rd level (see this post).  Afterwards, they gathered their treasure, paid out shares to their followers, inspected the kobald fortification to determine if it was viable for themselves, discovered it was not, discovered the well could be purified through magic, discovered that the fortification's clay-and-stone platform could be salvaged provided everything else could be built, updated their characters for levels gained and discussed what things they'd want to include in a fort they built from scratch.

Then we were done.

Imagine, if you will, watching a 450-minute film.  For the first 375 minutes, a group of well armed soldiers and wizards hack their way through sixty odd combatants, with each moment of the battle being shown over and over again from every possible angle, both the party and the combatants - the camera showing the thief fighting the kobald, the camera cutting to the cleric fighting another kobald, then a shot of the druid concentrating, then a shot of the fighter fighting three kobalds, then a shot of the young girl who desperately wants to be a fighter (npc) fighting a kobald . . . and then all the same shots shown over again, only this time from the kobalds point of view, so that the kobald is trying to kill the young girl, then we see the kobald trying to kill the cleric, then we see two kobalds trying to shoot the druid and then . . .

And it goes on and on.  For more than six continuous hours.  In brutal detail.

Think of how you feel, watching the Avengers for the 9th or 10th time, watching that oh-so-exhausting 90-second bit where they talk about Coulson and his bloodsoaked cards.  Why are 90 seconds so LONG during a movie and so meaningless during a role-playing game?

I'd like to pull out a well-known quote from an extremely annoying man, one of those men in the history of culture that succeeded in irking me to the point that when he died, my only thought was "finally."  Roger Ebert:

"What I should have said is that games could not be high art, as I understand it.  How do I know this?  How many games have I played?  I know it by the definition of the vast majority of games.  They tend to involve point-and-shoot in many variations and plotlines, treasure or scavenger hunts, as in 'Myst,' and player control of the outcome.  I don't think these attributes have much to do with art; they have more in common with sports."

I find myself turning this on its side and looking at it differently today.  I've always viewed Ebert as wrong about this - as most people do - but I'm thinking just now that while he still is wrong, it may just be that he's right, too.  Perhaps this is the reason why it is so damn hard to define role-playing as a 'game.'  It is a fact that emotionally and chemically, it affects us like a sport.  Time passes more rapidly than it does with a game.  Time passes like it does with a sport - and not a sport like baseball. Time passes like football (european).  Where play doesn't stop to make 'plays' - it only stops when something goes wrong or very right.

Ninety seconds is the time it takes to hear the DM say its time for you to take your action, decide on your action, roll the die, identify the result, communicate the result, listen as the DM contextualizes the result, react emotionally to the contextualization, express your emotion and shift your thinking to the next player's turn.  Blip.  Time gone.  Within the moment of taking your turn, there's no time to self-analyze as there is in a film, where your boredom compels you to examine closely every thing that appears on the screen, particularly after seeing the film ten times.

This isn't possible at the speed that sports take place.  Getting the ball, throwing the ball, stopping the other who has the ball - there's no time to analyze until the ball ceases to be in play - whereupon most of the initial analyzation is about what happened, not how you personally feel about it.

This makes me realize something about players, particularly those players who do not seem to enjoy the game as much as others.  When I am playing football and pass the ball up the field, I don't take my eye off the ball.  It doesn't matter that I've ceased to be part of the play - I am as concerned with what my team mates are doing with the ball as I am with my own actions.  I remain immersed, through every second, because my stake in what's happening doesn't cease to matter when my immediate involvement ends.

Above, I used the phrase, ". . . and shift your thinking to the next player's turn."  At the moment I wrote that, about ten minutes ago now, I realized I had nailed something down that has - until now - skirted out of my grasp.  There are football players who kick the ball away to a teammate and then 'turn off.'  They let themselves rest.  They get interested in something off the field.  They get caught with their guard down when the ball makes its way back.  They're bad players.

Granted, I'm 50 years old now.  If I played football, I know for a fact that my focus on the game would mostly involve not dying from a heart-attack.  Still, I stand by the words above, because fat, aging, computer-bound chair-swiveling geeks make shitty, shitty football players.  I haven't been good at football since I was 23.

Here we're talking about people who play a table game.  Er, sport.  Whatever.  Players who finish their action and then . . . go away.  To think about themselves until it is time to do something for them.

450 minutes of D&D must seem to stretch out into forever for these players.  Every other person's turn must drag like the bloody trading card scene.  Combat in particular, where everybody at the table gets a turn, must be the worst nightmare for these people, who need attention all the time.

I've never thought about that.  See, I don't have any of these people playing at my table.  Probably because I like combat.  A lot.  I like having my NPCs talk to everyone in the party, not just the one player making the most noise.  I like setting up every player at the table with dilemmas and problems to solve, forcing every other player to give everyone their moment in the sun.

Players who only care about themselves - like gamers - jeez, I get creeped just thinking about it.  Even in this first twenty minutes of this epiphany (which crept up on me unexpectedly), I'm realizing how much of the RPG-culture is based upon players who think they're playing a game . . . when it fact it's a sport.


VeronaKid said...

This post is timely in a very strange, personal way, as just this weekend after running my family through an admittedly basic dungeon level, I found myself thinking "man- that was hard. Like- probably one of the top three most difficult activities I've ever done hard. I was trying to figure out something that would compare to it and, like you, I thought of playing soccer. It's a very good parallel. When you play a team sport that never stops in its pursuit of action, the activity is very much akin to DM'ing- there is a constant input/output loop going on, you are being constantly bombarded with stimuli and forced to prioritize, organize, verbalize, and make snap-judgments based on rules.

You just don't ever get an elbow in the ribs playing D&D.

It does make me wonder, though, why there don't seem to be more people who participate in both sports and RPG's. Maybe I am wrong, but I certainly haven't met many.

Alexis Smolensk said...

In my younger, teen and twenty-something days, breaking a session that wasn't going all that well to play 'night football' was a common thing.

We never seem to do that any more.

Ever try to catch a passed football thrown over a dark field on a starry, moonless night?

I still have a scar.

BaronOpal said...

I have often told new players that weren't getting it that "D&D is a team sport. If you don't work together the monsters will eat you." It seemed to ring true, although I never really thought about it in a sport context until now.