Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Funhouse

"For fuck's sake, this isn't fiction."

Those are Maxwell's words from yesterday, expressing the exasperation and frustration he's feeling with DMs who cannot grasp the role-playing game's fundamentals.

Fiction is a work "of imaginative narration . . . something feigned, invented or imagined; a made up story."

A role-playing game is a participation "in which players assume the roles of characters in a fictional setting."

I understand Maxwell's aggravation.  Having created the fictional setting, the DM tends to drift into a pattern where it becomes necessary to control the actions of the characters in order to keep them in union with that setting.  Why is it necessary?  Because we fall in love with the things we make.

This is not the sort of D&D I play now, but it was once (a long time ago, when homes had rotary phones).  I would estimate that 99.9% of DMs equate 'campaign preparation' with 'making a building for the party to act in.'  That building might be above ground, it might be a dungeon, it might be a ship . . . but it is a construct of some sort which is fundamentally designed to produce a given behaviour once players enter.

We can call this form of game preparation the "Funhouse Method."  The player characters are looking for something to do.  To give them something to do, the DM invents a storefront.  The storefront has an entrance that in turn leads to a path.  Along the way there are things that will amuse the players, surprise the players and enrich the players.  In time, the players will find the end of the Funhouse and step out the other side, where they will be able to shake it off and enjoy a corn dog or a cotton candy.  When the next Funhouse is ready, the players will enter it.

The origin of the Funhouse reflects the time and limitation of the role-playing game's creators.  The game had never existed.  The rules seemed naturally suited for a closed, restricted environment.  Working with pen and paper in the age of rotary phones, a more elaborate environment was impossible.  The Funhouse was practical.  It was contained.  It had limits that the DM, with the DM's resources of that time, could manage.

As the Funhouse proved an effective, doable setting from the start - and since templates for the Funhouse could be published in their entirety as a single unit quite easily - the Funhouse developed a reputation for reliable, easy-to-run usefulness.  An ordinary DM, with little experience, could purchase a few Funhouses, run them, gain experience, then set out to design Funhouses of their own. With more experience, these Funhouses could be made more elaborate.  Research through the purchasing of Funhouses that had earned a reputation for brilliance could help ensure better and better constructs that could astound and entertain the participants.

However . . .

The world moved on.  Pen and paper was replaced with computers, that in turn proved they could create the Funhouse far, far more effectively than the role-playing game could.  Whatever the excitement created by role-playing games in the late 70s, it was dwarfed by the staggering potential of video.

In response, a strange thing happened.  The pen and the paper of the role-playing game became a fetish.  Tools that had been used simply because there were no other tools became emblematic of "What the game really was," an obvious reactionary response to the threat imposed by video.  As video has expanded the Funhouse into extremes impossible to manage with pen and paper, those tools have nevertheless become enshrined by the role-playing community.

There has been a response in RPGs to video games.  That response has been role-playing.

Comparing my memories of games and the community in the 1980s with what I read today, there has been a re-interpretation of what role-playing is.  The term was borrowed from the 1960s by the university students who invented D&D because it seemed a natural description of injecting personality into an imagined construct.  To understand what "role-playing" meant to the originators of the game, it is important to know the definition of the term as it existed in 1973, when it was taught to those same students.

Here is a discussion of the potentials of role-playing from Coping and Defending, Processes of Self-Environment Organization, p. 92:

"Still other kinds of situations require different patterns of ego processes.  If subjects are engaged in an objective and dispassionate discussion - for instance, in interviews that are done to collect demographic data, they are not likely to have much need to regulate their affective reactions (except as some subjects' idiosyncratic and not entirely assimilated memories - their childhood social-economic status, for example - may cause them to reaccommodate to past events of pain or joy). Situations where people must act, and thereby publicly actualize themselves, are more likely to require affective regulation.  Much research so far done with this ego model has been based on people's ego processing in interviews that call for relatively detached reporting about one's self, rather than acting for one's self.

One exception is the work by Hunter and Goodstein (1967) and Margolis (previously Hunter) (1970). These investigators designed four role-playing situations wherein student subjects were called before a "dean," who had either correct or incorrect information about them and who intended to praise or punish the student for superior or inferior performance.  Margolis reports that the use of various processes was highly specific to each of the four role-playing situations.  This is, of course, the point that needs to be made: Different situations require different ego patterns that usually emerge, not because the situation determines the person, as the social learning theorists assume, but because the person cognizes the situation and in interacting with it, brings specific patterns from his ego repertoire into play."

I must confess.  When I read things like the above, I hear hammers falling on simplistic evaluations of players made by DMs.  I get excited, I see the evidence accumulating for why rebuilding the system or why punishing the player to get different responses is built on deeply faulty premises.

I forget that for people not used to reading this sort of material, much of that reads like gobbledygook.  I'm sorry about that.  I recommend getting up to speed on this sort of research if you're ever going to have a meaningful opinion about these things.

The above quote is an example of the thinking behind role-playing: that the process of pretending to be something the individual was not was revealing of egocentric behaviour that the individual was likely to keep hidden most of the time.  Role-playing was advanced (still is) as a psychological methodology for surfacing, and thereby managing, elements of an individual's subconscious personality.

As role-playing games progressed farther and farther from psychology, however, the term 'role-playing' was redefined by gaming participants more in line with 'acting.'  To act is to function as a "storytelling medium who tells the story by portraying a character and, usually, speaking or singing the written text or play."

Since the DM's part of the role-playing game was to role-play the non-player characters in the created Funhouse, the npc-as-storytelling-medium became central to the fictional setting.  However, the DM's agenda as a role-player was very, very different from the player's agenda as a role-player.  The player was free to be dispassionate about the player character because the passion of the PC was not relevant to the entertainment-value provided by the setting.  The player's enjoyment was reflected in the player actually enjoying what was happening all around, and not by the player's self-satisfaction at having played the character "well."

At least, not until the matter of role-playing became more important in light of the competition offered by the advancement of video games.

Throughout the 90s, the importance of character role-play was preached and promoted by game producers as it had never been before.  Remember, initially the use of the term 'role-play' only existed to distinguish between the original Chain-mail rule-set and the invention of D&D.  The importance of the descriptive adjective was conflated with time into the all-consuming purpose of the game - at least, in the eyes of some people, particularly those who were financially competing with other media.

As there was no way to improve the Funhouse technically, it became necessary to improve the Funhouse esoterically.  The back-story, or reason for entering the Funhouse, was turned up to 11 as a means of creating a better and more thoroughly emotive gaming experience.

However . . .

This was impossible if the players themselves were not co-opted into the esoteric construction.  Thus, a greater pressure was placed on fitting the characters into the setting by any means necessary.

This brings us to Maxwell's original complaint.  His exasperation and frustration has been brought about by a willing effort to save the Funhouse by yes, insisting that it IS fiction, it IS the responsibility of the players to adopt EMOTIONAL, MYSTERIOUS persona in order to make the game BETTER than it has ever been before.

Otherwise, how ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm after they've seen Paree?


Matt said...

I may be completely mistaken, as I do not know Maxwell, and I don't want to put words in his mouth. But, I read his comment as "making a game is not like writing fiction. I do not want your rules to try and make me feel something. I do not want your rules to tell me how emotional and mysterious I am supposed to be. I want your rules to make sense in their context."

I read it as a general rejection of sort of 'hip' 'indie' storytelling games that spend more word count on atmosphere than on the actual game rules.

That is to say, I believe I interpreted opposite of how you did.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I thought my readers knew me better than that.

The last paragraph, and the song link, were included as a facetious observation.

I do not believe that role-playing makes a game better. I do not believe that player characters should be co-opted into the DM's story. I fully agree with Maxwell, too. I am merely emphasizing how we wound up at this ridiculous attempt to extend the lifespan of the RPG Funhouse when video games do it so much better.

Regarding the song, no one expects anyone to remain at the farm when they've seen Paree.

Sorry this wasn't more clear, Matt.

Matt said...

Sorry. I couldn't tell when you were being facetious and when you weren't. I also wasn't able to watch the video due to a web filter at work.

Thanks for helping me get on the same page. I hate to misunderstand someone.