With our last two classes, Storytelling and Heroism, we discussed theories that contributed to player well-being and motivation. Today I'd like to talk about a theory of game-play, suspending for the moment a schematic discussion of how moment-to-moment game play might be resolved, and instead discuss a theory that arises among role-players as they progress from Novice to Competent player. That theory would be that the best campaigns or adventures are fundamentally goal-oriented.
Let's examine what I mean by "goal-oriented." The imagination might leap to the most immediate example, the expectation of a party bound on an adventure that produces at the moment of success the substance of Joseph Campbell's elixir, enabling greater knowledge, insight, reconciliation with a lover or some equally necessary treasure to the so-called Heroes' Journey. But here we limit ourselves if we consider merely stories that begin with a hero setting off on a quest, achieving that quest and arriving back home. We have many stories in our lexicons that resolve themselves as simply, such as romances, court intrigue, mystery stories, comedies and tragedies, all of which are compelling and none of which depend on a concrete resolution.
We might base a role-playing campaign on any of these, though admittedly some would find fault with some of these examples ~ and we should understand that this fault finding is subjective, and not indicative of impracticality where role-playing games are concerned. Many role-playing games explicitly examine alternative stories as a basis for game-play.
However, we must take note that all of these games are necessarily goal-driven, because they are fundamentally episodic. They have a recognizable beginning and an end ~ and as such, "adventures" and "alternative" role-playing campaigns are largely bound by the broad strokes of Campbell's thesis: we begin with a call to adventure, we motivate the players towards a goal, the players set off, they are tested, they are rewarded, they return to the ordinary world and await for the next episode to begin.
The example on the right is a further example of the same principle. Though we examine the various subjective aspects of what makes "good" or "awful" game-play, we recognize instinctively that the play itself is episodic. The reason is plain to see.
To begin with, our game experiences were initiated with games far simpler than role-playing, almost always with characteristics that included "winning" and "losing." And all of those games were distinctly episodic in format, and almost always in a format that enabled play from the beginning to the end in one sitting. It is natural that we would see RPGs as an extension of that episodic format, even if a given scenario stretches out over several game sessions.
Additionally, when considering what a game scenario ought to be, we return to storytelling ... and again, virtually every example we have of a story is episodic. A book may take many sittings to read, but it, like a movie, a play or the recounting of personal events by a friend, has a recognizable beginning and an end. Long before becoming involved in RPGs, we have already heard many thousands of stories and are thus primed to think naturally in parcels of time when attempting to express ourselves.
When discussing stories, we talked about how good stories obtain the attention of our listeners and make a collection of facts easier to hear and remember. We have all experienced situations where a speaker seems to ramble at length about a group of disconnected ideas and events, the recounting of which seems random and without purpose. We can barely keep our minds from wandering, while wishing to press the speaker to "get to the point" ~ which can be difficult if the speaker is an employer or a lecturer, where self-interest or social propriety disallows such an approach. When thinking of an RPG without a strong, worthy story at its core, our minds travel directly to some situation where we imagine a DM reading off lists of disconnected values, like an accountant droning upon our tax receipts, or the pursuit of a mundane collection of activities, such as an RPG called, "House and Handicrafts."
The necessity of an episodic, story-driven campaign scenario is so powerful that we're bound to think that it's presence cannot possibly be a theory. Yet, again I will remind the class, what have we objectively proven?
Granted, we are raised on an episodic portrayal of events. We have adapted to it, we have embraced it ... and through personal experience we have witnessed examples of the contrary that confirmed that we have taken the right path. Subjectively. We have not, ourselves, examined at length and over an extensive period of time any personal alternative, nor have we demonstrated with anything except our value judgements that RPG campaigns can only be effectively run in the manner of adventures and other episodic formats.
Remember that when we discussed the path from competency to proficiency, Dreyfus wrote about how proficiency meant being able to discriminate between a wide range of choices regarding what might be true and what might not, in order to explore a situation in depth and arrive at a decision that took all the facets of the study into consideration. That is why we make the distinction between a "fact" and a "theory." Not because the theory can't be held to a practical standard, or employed with day to day use, but because it can't be measured directly against other possible theories that might also be employed, if we were to open our mind wide enough to consider that there isn't just one subjective viewpoint ~ our present one ~ in the offing.
For our next class, we'll be talking about the origin of these theories and why they seem to make so much sense that we're loathe to consider any alternative, as we discuss meaning-making.