Thursday, January 18, 2018


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:


Drain said...

I empathize with this post.

As I approached roleplaying games at a relatively late point of my youth, it meant that, by then, if there was something that I loved more than the übermensch-character, it was the plucky, resourceful, pathos-rich underdog.

JB said...


Marcelo Paschoalin said...

IIRC, Huizinga proposes in Homo Ludens that the difference between playing and gaming is the goal (I may be missing the point since it's been a while since I read his book).
So, a game has a goal. Playing is just for leisure, without a proper goal.
Considering this, what we call a game (like the computer game Sim City, where the player manages a city) may not be really a "game". Using Sim City as an example, since there's no winning condition (unless you play some specific scenarios or consider "not being bankrupt" as a goal), it's more like a toy than a game.

As most RPGs don't have a winning condition, could we call them toys than games?

Alexis Smolensk said...

I take exception with your characterization, Marcelo. In any case, "infinite games" are actually a thing. So we don't need another name for them.

François Laroche said...

Maybe you've already done a post on this topic, but would you mind explaining what your issue is with the notion of a "standard array"?

Is it a problem with the fact that it gives players too much control over which of their stats end up being good or bad (relatively)? Is it because it restricts the "spread" of ability scores (by limiting it to a value from 8 to 15)? Is it because you naturally favor "randomized" stats as being inherently better than "standardized" stats?

I agree with a lot of the points you brought forward in your réflexions on online DM advice, but this specific gripe of yours is one I can't fully understand. I'd appreciate if you could clarify (either in response to this comment, or via another post, or simply by pointing me to the proper post that previously addressed this).

I don't want to start arguing in favor of standard array before understanding what you find wrong with them. To me, it's a tool like any other, neither good or bad in and of itself, but with some pros and cons like many things in life.

Alexis Smolensk said...


a) It is deliberately designed to "balance" the players, which means it forces a false equivalency to individuals who are not equal by virtue of their actual intelligence, wisdom, charisma, strength, etc., which the game CAN'T compensate for by fucking with the stats.

b) It destroys one of the best qualities of the game, the randomly good and the randomly bad result, both of which create both benefits and hazards, forcing players to increase their level of play to counteract the difficulties of having bad stats or the responsibilities of having good stats in a party that works together.

c) The lack of chance produces a dull greyness to the character building experience, encouraging players to think they can control everything, which makes them want to control more and more, until they whine when ANYTHING goes against their control-based safety fetish.

d) It empowers the sort of player who can't tolerate bad luck, hasn't learned to be mature in the face of it and insists that if they can't guarantee their own empowerment, then NOBODY can have it.

e) It is a corporate-driven solution that caters, and thus approves of, human flaws like envy of others and the malignant need to control others. This approval creates an atmosphere where such people can invent other bullshit control rules, arguing that if stat arrays exist, then excessive rules about player behavior should also exist.


Alexis Smolensk said...

To put it another way, it gives players too much control over OTHER players' stats, in the sense that if I want to roll my stats, because I want to take the risk of obtaining higher numbers, and I'm prepared to live with lower numbers, that right and privilege is taken away "for the good of the majority," forcing us all to conform the the level of the least risk-capable person in the group. That empowerment creates a game atmosphere where risk is minimized, ALWAYS, in favor of the player who is least able to endure a bad result ... and as that weak player, or group of players, is bowed to in session after session, the DM begins to fudge the dice to ensure that TPKs don't happen, and failure to achieve victory doesn't happen, and individual deaths don't happen, and all we have is this really shitty game experience from night to night where we pretend to play in a story for the sake of not being alone in our nerdish misery on a Saturday night.

Fuck that. I want risk. I want stat rolls.

Drain said...


All of the games I've been on enforced the stat array, it was never optional, since you might either "suck" and hold the team back or excel and break the "fairness" of the system.

Of course, the runnings that followed were filled with so much safety padding that I was coughing up feathers after every session.

It couldn't even have mattered if someone had spectacular or lackluster stats: it was clear that our path was charted to the stars of greatness.

Stat-arrays are well and good for a generation of squeaky wheels (and even Alexis's stat generating method is hedged, so he doesn't seem to pursue the idea of low stats, just of their variance.)

Alexis Smolensk said...

I'd never heard of stat arrays until a few weeks ago, and I immediately saw this was the problem!

For the record, I hedge rolls only very slightly for henchmen; henchmen can end up with horrendous stats.

François Laroche said...

Thanks for further explaining your views. I think you are taking it to a certain extreme perspective, and I don't fully agree with it (there is a certain logic leap from "stat arrays exist for the sake of balancing players against each other" - and even that is not the full story as far as I see things - to "soon after, DMs start fudging dice roll and the company starts downsizing the risks inherent to the gameplay to cater to whiny players" that I do not follow, in part because I've experienced different things).

I guess my difference of view also comes from the fact that I do not value "randomness" as being inherently better than predictability (or "control", as you call it). To me, it is just one of the ways to play, and one aspect of the game, and not the end-all of ultimate good gameplay.

Sure, cool game experiences can come out of playing a weaker character and seeing how the teamwork of the group compensates for that (or even how one's own ingenuity can compensate for that weakness). And I'm usually happy when I see one of my allies get some sort of benefit that the whole group can also enjoy (such as a character with extra attack bonus - say because he rolled an 18 for his Strength stat - who can kill enemies faster in combat, thus reducing the odds that the whole groupe will be slaughtered, myself included). I can live that experience at the table without feeling the "envy" you describe, because I share the view that what is good for one player is good for the group.

To me, it is just a different system, with different pros and cons. As well, at least from the perspective of 5th edition, the limitation of a high score of 15 with stat array (or point buy, another system I assume you do not favor) means that the player gets to make more meaningful decisions (or at least, needs to give more thoughts to the trade-offs) during level progression around picking Ability Score Increases or going for feats (assuming the DM allows their use in his game, which most DMs I believe do). The player with the high stats just doesn't need to think about this, since he does not benefit from increasing non-primary stats.

Anyway, I do not see "random stats" as automatically producing a better game (nor a worse one). A lot of it is dependant on the actual players themselves and their approach to the game and the story that we collectively create.

The game is about a group of players trying to overcome challenges put before them by the DM and the game rules while collectively creating a fantasy adventure story. Using random stats can create one of those challenges (or reduce said challenge, depending on the results), but I don't think using a different method (such as standard stat array, or point buy) inherently puts an end to the game.

Anyway, again, thanks for having responded, and feel free to bash my views. I'll keep reading your blog anyway, since there are so few bloggers out there who seem to put as much energy and thought into the actual fundamentals of the games as you do (and I do share your "obsessive" - not meant as an insult - approach to world building, so I also enjoy all the time and effort you put in building tools and developing your world). Your posts are usually always good for stimulating my own reflections (even if it's just to think that I totally disagree with your views - but at least I get to think about why I disagree). And when I do agree, you often put in words things that I have some sort of vague understanding or feeling about, but have not always developed in such a rational way.