Monday, October 1, 2012

What Games Are About

"In a sense, all science, all human thought, is a form of play ... the neoteny of the intellect, man able to continue to carry out activities which have no immediate goal, in order to prepare himself for long time strategies and plans.  I worked with Johnny [John Von Neumann] during the war in England; he first talked to me about the theory of games in a taxi in London.  One of the favorite places in which he liked to talk about mathematics - and I naturally said to him, because I am an enthusiastic chess player, 'You mean the theory of games like chess.'

'No no,' he said.  'Chess isn't a game.  Chess is a well-defined form of computation.  You may not be able to work out the answers, but in theory, there must be a solution; a right procedure in any position.  Now real games,' he said, 'Aren't like that at all.  Real life is not like that.  Real life consists of bluffing, of little tactics, of asking yourself, what is the other man going to do - and that's what games are about.'"

-- Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man: The Long Childhood (Episode 13)

Here is a hint to why D&D strikes so deep into some people.  All the rules I have created for the game, all the guidelines and boundaries and structures I've developed in order to solve problems having to do with measuring the aspects of D&D for the players - the generation and distribution of wealth, for instance, or the limits of a monster's combat endurance - do not, and have never, gotten into the way of the fundamental strength of the game itself:  that being that the game is NOT computational.

I can feel for those who fear that some of what I've advanced on this blog might suggest it is my goal to make the game more computational; however, it must be noticed that although I may increase the measurement of a thing, I also increase the immensity of the thing that is to be measured.  I insist that everything ought to have a logical price - and then I create hundreds more things and objects, and vastly vary the price based upon a geography that dwarfs the silly simplicity of even Greyhawk.  I insist on rational principles for interactive mechanics - and then I greatly increase the variety and type of possible interactions that may conceivably take place in my world.  In short, I establish a law, and then I encourage exceptions to the law that require precedents, which in turn encourage further exceptions leading to more precedents and so on and so forth, ad infinitum.

Am I attempting to capture the world in a bottle?  Yes.  Is the world I am attempting to capture small enough to fit into any bottle?  No.  It is far too large for me to do that.  I haven't the time to do this much work to 'fix' my world in any rational sense.

My purpose in reflecting a real world is done with the expectation that only in the real world is there the flexibility to break all the rules, given imagination, cleverness and ingenuity.  It is not that I create rules so that they will not be broken; it is that I attempt to create rules which cannot be dismissed merely because it is convenient.

What I am seeing and reading in other worlds is a tendency on the part of DMs to simply handwave a rule - or a principle of logic - whenever it doesn't convenience them.  Everyone in this city is a court jester?  No problem.  The Gods can be killed despite being immortal?  Done.  This is your fifth wish spell in a campaign that has run a month and a half?  No issue there.  And so on.  Illogic, for illogic's sake; Santa's bag is open and out tumble the presents, all the children could want.

Convenience carries with it a disease:  apathy.  The greater the ease with which things can be overcome or redirected, the less meaningful they become, stage by stage.  Like a gentleman who degrades his reputation by making small sacrifices of his scruples, the campaign degrades marginally with every waved hand.  Steadily, the DM must trump his or her irrationalities with greater irrationalities, while the players grow to recognize that their life or death depends not upon their method of play, but upon how they emotionally stand with the DM.  It is the relationship that the worshipper possesses with the deity - those the deity likes shall be preserved; those for whom the deity holds indifferently, are on their own.  And if the whole table shall be blessed, the whole table shall do well and riseth in levels forevermore.

If the player will have it that the DM must bend the world to reflect the needs of the player, the player will strive less and less when things are not thus bent.  The player will pout in the mud, and if he or she is given a million experience, then they shall demand two million, and continue to pout until they receive three.

A game is not played when one of the players services another.  The DM cannot be made to service the players, and the players should not be made to service the DM.  Rather, both should exist upon a playing field where the strategy is to lie, bluff and deceive the other, challenging both to the heights of creativity in order to do so.  This cannot be accomplished where one side or the other can dismiss the 'rules' out of hand.

The scrub we played as children had specific rules.  But the rules did not describe how we caught the ball, or how we moved our feet in running to the base, or where we put our hands on the bat when we swung.  The rules only stated what ball thrown was a strike; but they did not specify that every ball thrown needed to be.  The rules stated consequences for actions - missing a ball with the glove, hitting a player, reaching the base too late - but the rules did not demand that consequences be avoided.  The rules did not specify where the fielders needed to stand; or how far from the base the basemen were allowed to be.  In short, while there were many, many rules, and while the rules that existed were absolutely inflexible, the rules did not deny free will and innovation.

If the rules were not applied, however, in even a single instance, the game was ruined.  That is why, instinctively as children, we fought bitterly about the rules, every time we played.  Yet we did not seem to tire of the game.  We did not fail to turn out an play when the opportunity arose.  We liked the game.  That we fought hard and long about the rules when we played was evidence of how much we loved the game as it was designed.

It was certainly not the rules we loved; rather, it was the degree to which we could circumvent the rules while maintaining the rules.  How far could we stretch them?  After all, the real world is full of rules - natural and judicial laws - and it is in circumventing those rules that life is given its very purpose.  The compromising of uncompromiseable rules is the reason art exists.  We know what we cannot do, and we know what we must try to do anyway ... and the grey area in between is so sweet, it is the stuff of our dreams.

So it is with D&D.  Handwave that away and the game is spoiled.  It is not as though the rules that do exist can ever account for every possible situation in a player's imagination ... no matter how many rules are created.

There's always another way to bluff the DM.


  1. Would this be a bad time to say I've got a return... argument? On my clarification thread?

    Anyhow, yes. This is one of the greatest strengths of DnD and many other games. The wiggle room. It's one of the reasons I like seeing the different core rulebooks and systems. Seeing how they give the player wiggle, enable and restrict them intentionally or not.

  2. This. This is what I wish I could smoosh into some folks' heads.

    Rules are an obstacle that a player can tangibly manipulate in a way that NPCs cannot be tangibly manipulated, that plot threads cannot be manipulated.

    You can see the pieces, and plan around them, and ideally shouldn't have to worry about DM whimsy when it comes to how they act.

    I have no clue why anyone would want to take away the one truly reliable source of danger and conflict in a game.

  3. Wait wait wait, are you saying NPCs cannot be manipulated? To have an actual result? Or that you can't cross plot threads tactically?

    I mean, it's not super likely, but I thought the essence of the post was referring to how that is entirely possible and amazing.

  4. I am. The NPCs and plots are a product of the DM, and therefore are unreliable. They are the human element. Don't get me wrong, the human element IS part of what makes this great, but it's half the equation.

    Without the shared rules, there's nothing to attempt to bend. If you've had experience with "freeform" roleplayers, you might understand what I'm getting at.

    The inflexible nature of d6 enables players and the DM to appreciate the flexible nature of the rest of the game. It prepares a player to think, not in terms of how to manipulate the DMs emotions into doing what you want (though they'll do that too), but instead to manipulate the shared reality of the game to skew the inflexible dice in their favor.

    I might be having issues articulating it, but what I mean to say is essentially Alexis' last paragraph: handwaving away rules takes away an element of conflict and danger that allows the game to be so incredible. Instead of -half- the game being bluffing the DM, the whole game would become so.

    This is not desirable, as a person who is used to such games. It's boring, there's no element of real danger, and more importantly no surprises, even when things should be surprising.

    Rules are meant to ensure the fairness of the upcoming conflict. They ensure that when the players enter battle that success is up to them, their rolls, their decisions to manipulate modifiers.

    An NPC can be manipulated, but it cannot be owned, can't be felt, in the same way that holding the PHB and reading with certainty the rules of combat, or starvation, or seafaring, or whatever can be owned.

    The NPC, and the plot, is a product of the DM, and therefore not something the player owns. It's not them. The shared rules are what allows the DM and the Players to interact with one another, what allows them to share a mutual vision of the game.

    That's not something to handwave.

  5. I'm going to presume that Arduin's phrasing for "If you've had experience with "freeform" roleplayers, you might understand what I'm getting at" is responsible for making this sound accusatory - and jump in now and say that Arduin is probably NOT saying Lukas is ignorant.

    Though it does sound a bit like that.

  6. Frankly, I'm lost as to what point you're making, Arduin.

    The flexibility of the NPC was never part of my post ... and in any case, the NPC when played by the DM is as potentially directed, driven and purposeful as any of the players.

    My NPCs are not merely foils, they are real in my mind; and I play them with the expectation that they want to succeed and achieve and reach status just as much as anyone. Therefore, they are every bit as flexible as the players, because I play them that way.

    Because, however, they are not played as foils, I do not use them to manipulate the players from an agenda that the DM might have; I conceive of a character, and if that character is evil, that character may deceive and manipulate the player. But I try to leave out any agenda of my own, because I don't think a DM needs to have an agenda to make the game work.

    Is this even close to what you're saying?

  7. It's close. But not quite there.

    And no, I'm not accusing Lukas of ignorance.

    What I mean is, even though you, Alexis, make these NPCs with defined personalities and goals and such and such, that's you.

    That's not the players' NPC. That's your piece of the game. When I'm saying manipulate, I mean less "connive" and more "touch".

    The rules are the thing both you and the players touch. The characters are what the players alone touch, and the NPC is what you alone touch, and the actual game is where the pieces they touch, you touch, and the both of you touch intersect through the rules.

    You definitely enjoy your role as DM, and the artistry it demands, but the players can only enjoy the product of that artistry, since half of it is in masking the rest of the show. They don't touch your experience.

    Likewise, you can watch them plan, and read their emotions, but you aren't them. If Lukas makes a decision, that decision is his to make, for his reasons, and he feels it in a way you won't.

    So, to try and get this right the third time around, I am saying that it is the intersection of these two disparate experiences that makes the game, and that this is possible through the rigidity of the rules.

    Is that any better at all?

  8. Me too. Wonderful initial post and comments.


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