For those who don't know, Simon Sinek is a recent guru in the land of behavioral design, in the field of business. He talks about biology, he talks about the social effects of recent history and psychological theory and he talks about how people need to start thinking differently if they want their businesses to succeed in the future. His message tends to repeat itself from talk to talk, but he's worth listening to at least once.
I'd like to take a couple of things he says in the video, to run with them. Specifically, the subject of empathy and the subject of infinite games.
Most people, particularly those who have never played a role-playing game, would tend to identify with "finite" games. These are games with a finite time-scale, finite resources and a projected winner or loser. Baseball is the example Sinek uses. Board games would be another form. There's only so much property on the board; the property is gained and exploited, until all the money is in my hands or in the bank. Finite. And because it is finite, the goal is to win. The goal is to be the last one standing.
As Sinek explains, with an infinite game, the rules can change, the participants can change, the goals can change and the objective is to keep playing the game. It doesn't matter if a player dies or drops out, the game goes on. It doesn't matter if we adjust this particular rule to something we think is better, so that things are different now, the game goes on. The principles underlying the game are fluid, because it isn't about who wins. It is about who plays.
When the makers of D&D first began to encounter complaints about the game, going way back to the late 1970s, both the players and the makers failed to recognize they had created an infinite game. The rhetoric was all about having a super powerful character and being a hero, and fighting through an adventure and getting the treasure when it was done.
Do you see it? People in the game always talk about "finishing" the adventure. But the adventure is never really finished. Even if the party suffers a TPK, the game goes on. The game never stops. And it doesn't matter if your character is super-powerful, or if your character is a hero, because those are things that suggest we're going to overcome something and "win." But nobody really wins. Evil never dies. The game never stops ... not until, as Sinek says, the players drop out because they lose the will or the resources to play.
Time, for example, is a resource. And when players no longer have the time to play, because of work or family or some other outside influence, they stop playing D&D. But that has nothing whatsoever to do with the game.
TSR never understood this. Gygax never understood this. Gygax had this ridiculous notion that he was going to turn D&D into a competitive event, like chess, with winners and losers. It shows the bizarre, egregious stupidity of the man. In chess, the rules are fully agreed upon. This is possible, because chess is a complex, finite game played on a small field of 64 squares by 32 combatants. D&D is played on the field of the imagination, for the love of blue bloody barnacles! How in the hell do we make this finite? How dense and obtuse does a designer have to be to miss this?
To this day, we still speak of D&D in finite terms. Players obsess about the lack of a clear "win," the game company continues to sell finite materials with the expectation that participants will go back and buy another finite solution, and virtually everyone carps about the unfairness of this player having more skills, abilities, levels, power, blah blah blah, than that player, because we're still thinking in terms of D&D being a finite game, even when it is so clearly not that it is stabbing us with pickforks all day long.
Back in the day, long before TSR lost the reins of the thing, people complained. And the company's response, along with the Dragon's response, and the response of everyone who had a means to publish, was to hew and cry about how rules had to be made that would "level the playing field." The goal, it was clear, was to transform all the player characters into the virtual simulation of Monopoly pieces. You could be the top hat or the car or the dog, but in actual fact these "differences" would have no meaningful effect on exactly how well your particular playing piece affected the game. Then everything would be even. So we invented point buys, which were "fair," and put the blame on players who were willing to stay up nights to get the most out of their point buys, which destroyed the "fairness" of the system. After all, the system can't be fair if people are going to use their diligence, their intelligence or their passion to outwit and outdo players who won't or can't use those things, who then feel like they've "lost" the finite game they think they're playing.
So the players who felt cheated in 3e carped and moaned to the company, who continued to take up the finite game flag and wave it harder, making 4e, which so leveled the playing field that combat felt like a big, long, dull slog of rolling high damages that ceased to mean anything, since 18 damage is so much more like 24 damage than 1 damage is like 7, so that everything felt "fair."
But, of course, the "winners" figured out how to reinterpret the rules of the infinite, imaginative game, gaming the game with their darn innovation and their darn perseverance, so again the players who weren't super-powerful felt like losers and the company cried, "We have to go back to the beginning, to the beginning again, when everything was equal and fair and no one was super-powerful over anyone else!" So back to the beginning we went.
And still it is sold as a finite game, and still the gamers recognize the infinite rules and still the problem goes on, and on, and on. So we have session zeros and stat arrays and dice cheats to level the playing field, to make everyone feel included, to ensure that no one loses, insufferably insisting that this has to be a finite game, because no one can figure out how to monetize an infinite game.
What TSR should have done back in the beginning is write a post saying, "You lost your character? Let me explain why this doesn't actually matter."
Or, "The guy next to you has a better character than you? Guess what, he's on your side."
Or, "Your feelings about not having the best character at the table are evidence of ENVY. And just so you know it, envy is a character flaw, in YOU. And we here at TSR don't create policy to cater to people's character flaws."
Except, of course, they had to. Because that's where the money was.
I've been preaching that we need to get away from solutions, so I'm going to suggest this without suggesting it will solve all your problems. However, consider empathy. Rather than changing the rules to make it possible for the player to do everything, how about we try a little empathy about the player's disappointment. "I'd love to help you do that, but ... well, we've got to keep it real." Or when a character dies, how about we try, "I'd love to just poof him back into existence, but if I do that, when does it stop? Listen, let's see if we can't figure out another character you can get invested in. We'll all help with that."
When someone at the table starts strutting around, talking about how tough and heroic they are, how about we remind them that this isn't about winning, that this is about doing, and that there are other people here, and that crowing is also a character flaw. "So how about toning it down, acting respectful of others, or you can find another game." How about the DM stops catering to character flaws, and stops having them as well, and being concerned about these people that we're playing with in this infinite format ... so that we reduce the will they have to leave? Or make them feel that the resources they're spending to stay are worth it?
The problem that TSR faced way back could have been solved by promoting politeness, manners and expulsion for having neither. Instead, they decided the best strategy was to demand that everyone in this infinite game conform.
Great. How's that been working so far?
It's produced graphics like this: