Monday, March 5, 2018

How to Live

So here's a screen shot from a video that I just put on the blog.  The speaker is Dan Pink, who's a presenter of documentaries and writes about behavioural science.

"Let's talk about mastery ~ our urge to get better at stuff.  We like to get better at stuff.  This is why people play musical instruments on the weekend.  You've got all these people who are acting in ways that seem irrational economically.  They play musical instruments on weekends?  Why?  It's not going to get them a mate, it's not going to make them any money, why are they doing it?  'Cos it's fun.  'Cos you get better at it and that's satisfying."

I often talk about going to sources other than game makers to understand what is going on with people playing D&D and other RPGs.  This is an example.

Where I differ from most people is that I play D&D because I want to get better at it, while most claim they just want to have fun ... the two examples for motivation that Pink gives.  Part of this is because I view D&D like playing a musical instrument, while I know that many people who participate in the game view D&D like a complicated version of a boardgame, emphasis on game.  When I talk about the game, I'm not satisfied that the reader understands what a hit point is, or what a given monster does, or how a particular adventure is described.  I want the reader to "get it" ~ to have a deeper, more profound understanding that what's going on here is not players responding to rules, but human beings responding to an opportunity to explore incentives and innovation.

Let me put that another way, though I'll keep putting it another way for the rest of my life.  Many people, when they sit down to play, imagine a set of events that they have to problem solve, in order to get from a place where they are, to a place where they want to go, in a linear fashion that might have a few lateral jumps.  In effect, for most people the game is like an excursion ... whether or not they happen to be able to choose which paths they're taking.  The excursion passes through a set piece which the DM designs, which the players enjoy, and that is the basic framework for play.

I want to run a game in which a player is a person, specifically YOU, in an environment which is, intellectually, no different from the environment you are actually sitting in, in the real world.  Just as you might rise from your seat to go get a drink from the fridge, because you happen to be thirsty, I want you to feel the same general incentive to do things in my game world.  And just as YOU, the real person, could save up your money, go to India, buy a plantation, defend it against real life bandits, raise indigo, bring it back home and sell it for a profit, I want the character in my game to think, what do I want to do with my life?

And then, when you figure out what that is, just as YOU, the real person, has to figure out what that is, I want to run a game which makes that a difficult, satisfying, possible, wonderful, deeply fascinating experience for you, as you'll be doing this thing in a world of magic, weapons, monsters, treasure, the potential for world domination, etcetera, in a hundred ways you cannot manage in the real world.  I want you to LIVE in my world.  Not just game in it.

Yet when I think about game design for that system, I'm not interested in making some system that reflects or reproduces reality.  That would be impossible.  Instead, I have to use my energy to make a system that reflects and reproduces the emotional element of reality.  I don't want a system that makes sword play "realistic."  I want a system that makes the emotional fear from dying in sword play, or the emotional triumph from succeeding in sword play, or the cringe factor of bleeding out from being stabbed, or the tremulous satisfaction of smashing flesh and bone ... real.

To do that, I have to approach the game very differently from the way a simulationist might.  I can't be concerned with details that will undermine momentum.  Momentum is incredibly important where it comes to emotional impact.  I can't be overly concerned with too much bookkeeping, though I'd love to be ... so I try to build systems that make bookkeeping easy and automatic, making use of computers, excel and such, so that things can be added and calculated in the blink of an eye.  Again, because momentum matters.  My game can't be run with pen and paper.  It's too slow.  My game can't be run on a map with miniatures.  They're too slow and clumsy, and they undermine the player's identification with self.

I need the player to have access to the rules, because they need to think as fast inside the rules as I do.  I need the players to see my die rolls, so they know it's the die, and not me, that holds their lives in jeopardy.  The dice are inflexible, immutable, implacable, indifferent.  I might bend to appeal. The dice can't.  So the dice must be thrown in the open, where everyone can see them, and be subject to their results.

I need a world that can be comprehended, pictured, seen, studied, revealed and visited.  If the players are in a small town in Turkey, they should know that a Turkish town in the 17th century, with its narrow streets, lanes, houses pushed up against houses, is not like a modern town in Ohio, with isolated houses surrounded by big yards.  If they bring a horse into a village like that, I need them to understand they can't just gallop their horse around willy nilly.  This is a medieval town.  I need my players to "get that."

And I need my players to stop thinking like players.  I need them to open their eyes.  I need them to wake up and see that I'm not just giving them the excursion tour.  If they really want to enjoy the world, they have to stop visiting it and start living there.

I wouldn't need to tell them to do that, if the whole of the rest of the RPG community didn't have their head collectively up their own ass.

1 comment:

Ozymandias said...

I blame the DM.

Not because you or I are doing a poor job as DMs. (Well, I might be.) Nor because any of your readers, specifically, are doing a poor job. I blame DMs as a whole because, from what I've seen of the community over the past 20 years, DMs have relaxed their expectations of their players. They let them get away with irrational discussions. They allow illogical plans. They change rules (or they accept the latest version of the game without question) because that's what the players want.

Just look at 4th Edition: practically that entire game was built by the Wizards' forum members.