Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Opinions Of Players

In the comments thread of my last post, Ozzie Pippenger wants to know why it is that there are so many few players producing blogs, and seems to propose that there's an intellectual disconnect between DMs and players (ie., DMs don't represent enough the player point of view).  I would recommend that you read all three of Ozzie's comments, but here's a part:

"There are so many different theories about what players like and why the [sic] like it. Maybe a way to settle it would be to actually ask them. I've told all my players to write essays of a few hundred words about why they play the game, which I then plan to post on my blog. I don't expect all of them to do it, but the ones who don't I plan to talk to and report what they say."


To begin with, there's a terrific assumption here that suggests that I haven't asked them.  That is to say, that in 30+ years of playing as a DM, it has never occurred to me to say, "So, what do you think?"  In effect, Ozzie seems to suggest that we here writing blogs and running worlds are smashing around in the dark, coming up with our 'theories' as if players were incomprehensible baboons living on a distant dark continent, difficult to observe in their natural surroundings and obviously ignored where it comes to the deconstruction of the game.

It's a lot of nonsense, but let's start with asking the question, why don't players write blogs?

I'm sure some of them do.  Truth be told, I don't read blogs, not usually, and when I have tried to follow another bloggers content I usually find myself reading about some point that was settled thirty years ago, or about the reinvention of the wheel, where the blogger has reconstructed spells or elements of the combat system or some other thing, for no other reason that that the blogger's idea is different.  Such changes never seem to fix any actual problems.

So other blogs bore me, rather.  But I'm going to go way out on a limb and suggest that the reason so many blogs are written by DMs and not players is because DMs are activity working on D&D in between sessions, while players are not.

That's a real hard thing to grasp, so I'll go slowly.  DMs have to create some kind of world.  This world is for players to run in.  This world requires maps and charts.  A DM records many notes about his or her world.  A DM spends a lot of time writing these things down.  It is quite easy to rewrite these notes into a blog, so they can be shared with other DMs writing other notes.  So the actual groundwork behind the blog content is going to be created by the DM anyway.  Thus, the blog is just another place to record it, so other people can see.

Players, on the other hand, who are not also DMs, don't write anything except things pertaining to their characters.  In between sessions, players are very passive where it comes to D&D.  Oh, they might design the castle they hope their fighter someday builds, but aside from rare things like that, almost ALL of a players' note-taking applies to their character.

This doesn't create a lot of blog content.  Here is my character.  See his pretty armor?  See his pretty bow?  My character has a +1 bow.  He got it last week.  Isn't that interesting?  Don't you want to keep reading about my character?

IF the player ALSO has a lot of ideas about how D&D should be designed and played, usually the  player will be the proactive sort that actually tries to put a world together and be a DM.  If the player isn't that proactive, it tends to dampen somewhat the respect other DMs have for the player.  Why should I listen to someone who TELLS me how to design a world if they're not actually doing the work themselves?  Surely, this is obvious.  It wouldn't be much of a mechanic that didn't actually fix cars.

What Ozzie doesn't seem to understand is that there is no fixed line between a player and a DM.  Anyone can DM.  Anyone can play.  There's a shop not far from where I live that has D&D games on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons.  If I were interested, I could go play tonight.  I'm not interested.  I've met those people and they are morons.  They're running railroaded games.  But I could play if I wanted to.  It's not a huge mental shift.  Fact is, I'm a very good player.  I know the books about as well as anyone, I know better than most how to manipulate the rules and I've had two hundred players in my world these past thirty years, so I've got a massive background in watching other players fuck with me.  So it wouldn't be hard to take that knowledge and cram it into a character sheet.

Now, here's the fun part.

Ozzie says he is encouraging players to "write essays" describing why they play the game.  Ozzie, as per the usual crowd who still thinks this is a practical method to learn anything, hasn't been keeping up with up-to-date sociological evidence.

The following is a speech by Malcolm Gladwell, offered for the promotion of his book Blink.  in the video (long, 48 minutes), he describes several circumstances in which people are simply incapable of rationally describing why they like anything.  In his book he uses extensive source material to support this theory.  Have a watch:

See, in effect, the majority of human beings do not possess the language or the interpretive skill to accurately express WHY they like a thing.  They know they "like" something; but where it comes to the use of language to describe that like, they fall short.  And the very bizarre result of this is that human beings have been shown to say they "like" a thing because it is something they CAN describe.

For example, let us say that I am not Alexis.  I like Mozart, but I know very little about Mozart, and even less about music theory, so if you ask my WHY I like Mozart, I'm going to be stumped.  I like him, but I can't tell you why.   So in reality, it is a whole lot easier for me to say that I DON'T like him, because then I'm not under any obligation to explain anything.  Saying I don't like someone is easy - I just don't like him.  As a default, then, I am more likely to say I don't like something I don't understand, than to say I like something I don't understand.

This is PSYCHOLOGY.  It may not seem entirely rational to you, but it has been demonstrated over and over and over again.  Sociologists pretend it isn't true.  Psychologists pretend it isn't true.  Market researchers and Hollywood executives pretend it isn't true.  And as a result they keep fucking up their business success over and over again, because they think putting a bunch of people in a room to explain why they like or don't like a thing is a good idea.

It isn't.  And it has been shown not to be.  But the funny thing about evidence, it can take literally decades to make something understood to the general population even where life and death is involved.  Want an example for that?  How long was it between understanding that soap killed disease and the universal willingness of people to "wash up" before eating?

Hasn't yet.


Ozzie Pippenger said...

I absolutely agree with a lot of the things you're saying here. There is certainly a much blurrier line than I had originally imagined. Most of my best responses have come from players who also DM or have an interest in starting.

I know what you mean about psychology too. Most people uneducated about anything can't describe why they like it. And the best way to become educated about D&D is to actually run games. I never meant to imply that a dungeon master knows less than any individual player. Any DM remotely competent is constantly trying to figure out what their players like, what works, and what doesn't.

The thing is, I'm not sure if one DM knows more than all his players put together. There are more of them. Among every player of every DM, there are probably all sorts of great insights that nobody's ever asked about.

And about music, there are people who are educated and involved, but don't often play. They are called critics. They are essential to the process. Don't you think that there are analogues to these critics among players? People who don't like the pressure of running games, but still think intensely about D&D? They are completely left out of the blogosphere because it's impractical for them to have blogs, but I want to see what they say.

Some of my answers will sound like focus group/customer survey nonsense, which is of limited value. Not to say none. We don't have to do exactly what players say they want, but we can hear what they say to get insights about the game. Some though, I expect will have some genuinely interesting things to say.

Anyone who wants to comment on this or check on the experiment can do so here:

Also, I don't know any blogs by players either. If anyone does, please point me towards them. I would be very interested.

Alexis said...

Since you wrote this comment something like 20 minutes after the post I wrote, and since you're talking about the music industry, it is clear you listened to the beginning of the embedded video AND NOT THE REST. The rest answers some of your questions, Ozzie.

But regarding genuine insights of players - they've taken themselves out of the dialogue, Ozzie, by not maintaining blogs. Moreover, the fetishization of player "insights" as though they are somehow more special or more enlightening that DM insights is wish-fulfillment in the extreme. There isn't an industry on earth that hasn't created some mythical group of people whose "insight" is more special and more precious in terms of success than that of everyone else.

It's industry bullshit.

Anonymous said...

So how does one illicit effective feedback from players if not asking them directly? If Gladwell gets around to this I apologize... but I haven't 48 minutes to listen just now but I want to join the discussion.

Do we learn from players through observation? Specific methods of questioning? What does showing up every other week to play the game count for, given the social aspects of gaming and that these people are also, presumably, your friends? Anything, everything, nothing?

I suppose those DMs that run a regular game in a game shop with regular players who started out as strangers has that as a gauge.

How does one find out if they're any good? We seem to be describing the problem nicely... any ideas on the answer, other than to keep working no matter how good you think you are?

Alexis said...

I hope you get a chance to listen to it, James, and to buy the book for that matter.

The jist of his conclusions could translate into the phrase, "the proof is in the pudding." You've more or less nailed it. They keep coming back. I've been running the online campaign for more than two years and despite the inconvenience of the format, I must be doing something right. So it is less important what people SAY and more what they DO that counts.

If a player continously gripes in your world in particular, then there might be something to their dissatisfaction. But if the player's gripes are all addressed and the player still gripes, then it probably isn't you. We can't endlessly shift and change our world for everyone who is dissatisfied with it - and since we are the ones in the trenches, doing the WORK, fighting the battles day by day, it is probable that a DM will almost always do better to find players who like his or her style rather than trying to achieve happiness for whoever happens to be at the table.

What I'm saying is that Ozzie's concern isn't only indeterminable, its immaterial. I don't make my world for players. I make my world the game I personally would play in if I had the chance. If I could clone myself and that clone could run my world every other weekend, there would be no greater thrill I could have than running in my own world. If others like it too, that's very nice ... but it isn't the GOAL.

People like Ozzie, who see themselves as cruise directors, looking for ways to better please their players, endlessly concerned with their player's judgements don't speak for my brand of D&D. I am all for feedback. I want my players to be happy and to have fun. But that is my players' responsibility. If they are still here, I guess we are all mature adults deciding how to spend our time in the most mutually selfish way possible.

Anonymous said...

I wrote a response to Ozzie on my own blog, but here are my thoughts on feedback:

1. Feedback should be specific. What mechanic? What element of the setting? Cite your experience or page number!

2. Feedback should be constructive. If you DID like it, what was it specifically that worked for you? If you DID NOT like it, what was it that specifically did not work?

3. Feedback should gather contrast. If someone is liking everything, get them to share something they DON'T. If someone is liking nothing, get them to share a little about what they DO like.

The forms I will be using -- once I get a play test group together -- will be constructed using those basic principles, as well as other more boiler plate methods of collecting quantitative and qualitative data.

Reading through the comments I would also agree that the players returning week after week is the best feedback one can receive, as a DM, that things are working well!

Alexis said...

You're in the business, Reverend, so the whole Gladwellian thing is a challenge - and you've more or less outlined the procedure for market questioning that, while designed and redesigned these many decades, still doesn't work (I'm in a field related to marketing, and I watch it fail every day).

Have you any comments about that? No expectations, naturally.

"Everyone in this room is ready to take a bullet for their country. But nobody in this room is willing to put their job on the line for their country."

- Gilman Louie, speaking at the GO Intelligence Conference

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I work in behavioral health, so I am very curious about your point of view on this. Could you summarize what the main failings are?

What method has been show to work in better or best in Market Research?

Alexis said...

"Everybody lies."

You said you asked questions for a living; I clearly leapt to a conclusion.

I've never found any method that "works" in market research. Most market research is a veiled effort to advertise a product and generate momentum. Phoning thousands of people, or having group dynamic meetings with hundreds in different parts of the country is a way to get a corporate message into the heads of people, presuming they then spread that message to others. This is more effective than basing one's business practice upon people's opinions.

Over and over again different creative parts of industry demonstrate that if you approach a problem or a subject from the point of innovation and practical solution, you have the chance to make literal heaps of money. Market strategists, largely made up of people who were the most popular children in highschool, believe that somehow there's a "key" that will unlock this "magic door" that will produce untold success. 99% of the time such people manage a company or program that has made its original success or momentum from some element of innovation that was provided in the distant past, or continues to be provided by either a small dispossessed cadre within the corporation, or small independents who are in their turn consumed by the corporation (the oil sector's tendency to eat small, innovative companies losing money in order to exploit new technology).

If enough innovation can't be consumed by a corporation like this, in time - often a lot of time - it festers and dies, and we're all left wondering what happened to IBM or Chevron.

The "focus group," so-called ... "let's ask the players what they want" ... is a way of crushing innovation under the bootheel of the ignorant consumer, who really does not know what they want until they want it.

None of this applies to your field, of course. But how often do your questions fail to get the patient to properly disclose something that threatens to bring them harm? And how frustrating is that?

Alexis said...

I meant to add, when the big company dies, all the ex-popular people head off to eat the fat off some other industry.

Anonymous said...

Oh, this is a big topic, Alexis! :)

Well, there are two -- somewhat in opposition -- elements that allows for honest disclosure: 1) Trust or what we call the "therapeutic alliance" and 2) Expertise -- at least appearing to know what you're doing.

Certain populations, based on cultural background, nationality, etc., respond more to one than the other -- but it is highly individualized. All of this is for naught if the clinician doesn't have any cultural compentency -- or an ability to work with a client through the lens of their culture.

I am designing the feedback mechanisms around my understanding of group dynamics and research into the efficacy of clinican groups, educational groups, etc.

I think the main difference here would be that the feedback I receive would be weighed against my own personal biases as to how I wish the see the game design go.

This is an interesting thread though -- in what ways can playtesting a roleplaying game and changing the game in response to the playtesting be informed by the failings or efficacies of market research?

Alexis said...

What indeed?

One needs to look straight into the dreaded eye of the WOTC to see what abortions excessive playtesting produces ... 4e, 3e being such a disaster that it needs 3.5, "new D&D" which shows every promise to be as successful as New Coke, as the flakes in Department Flakorama bend over backwards to fuck themselves four ways in the ass. The dialogue machine of the website offers a spectacular public display of something most companies are wise enough to keep locked up in boardrooms.

My own playtesting success is limited to two criteria: 1) will the players swallow and adapt to it; and 2) has it significantly added anything to the game that wasn't already there.

Beedo, over at Dreams in the Lich House, had a debate going on Monday about True Names that I think makes an excellent example of what would surely be the latter. No doubt the incorporation of True Names into a campaign would be interesting window dressing, but to what REAL purpose? Ultimately, its only another McGuffin to play off of, which would in a year or so become tiresome and stale. There's not much nuance there. Once you've uncovered your first rumpelstiltskin, everything that follows is just the same adventure with new paint.

Yet we're all, to some degree, anxious to try these things, since we think they might enliven the game somehow. My personal feeling with anything in a playtest is to answer the question, "Do you want to play this rule every session, FOREVER." Most of the time, with any rule that's fundamentally esoteric, my answer is no.

But something like designing a better ship travel table? Not much for the players to adapt to - they're going to be aboard ship anyhow - and if it solves a problem without soaking up much time, then it's a new rule that works.

After all this time DMing, I sort of know when a rule is going to work or not ahead of time. And I instinctively drop something, often before I even try it, if it is going to take too long to implement.

Jeez. I seem incapable of a short answer today.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I have more thoughts on this, but I must prepare for a Wednesday play session I am attending tonight. Interestingly, I have been going to a Wednesday-night organized play (Pathfinder) at a store near me in Philadelphia.

These debates are lively and I welcome long-winded responses -- as I can be rather long-winded myself!

joe said...

There is nothing that warms my filthy old heart so much as when a player comes to the table and you can tell they've spent time exploring their character on their own, away from the table.
When a players are showing as much interest in the game as the DM, then you've got magic, and you'd need a poet to tell you why it is so great.

Alexis said...

Actually, joe, I found a musician with that information ... whom I will quote tomorrow.

Lukas said...

I think, perhaps, maybe instead of depressing topics I should begin to post more player posts.

I guess it just never struck me that anyone would WANT to read player posts.

The problem being, first comes the anecdote, then the explanation and the analysis, and the back story and all the house rules and in-jokes and other nonsense that nobody cares about.

What I think people are wanting are THEIR player's feedback, since how many damns does Alexis give about my Savage Worlds game?

(Side note, need to pay more attention for quick posts, or just check more often...)

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Part one of a two part comment:

I just took the time to watch all forty-eight minutes, and I have to say I'm very glad I did. I imagine that Gladwell would approve of the typical approach to D&D. Most dungeon masters seem to run their games, get a general feel of the reaction, and then save in depth analysis for themselves and other experts. This is pretty close to what I normally do. I listen to my players's explicit verbal feedback in proportion to how long they've been playing and how much they know about the game.

When I talk to players, I run feedback through my own impressions of the game and my own knowledge. In the last game I posted about, the players had complained bitterly of the difficulty. I don't usually take such complaints so seriously. I think the Coke/Pepsi test illustrates the situation perfectly. Players like easy games at first, but quickly tire of them. On the surface, this complaint didn't seem worth listening to.

But, this game clearly did suck, and I realized it from the first fifteen minutes all the way through to the writing of the blog post. I didn't want to simply make my game easier though. The statement came up from one of the players at one point or another that the problem was not that it was too hard, but that everything was so hard that any course of action felt completely and equally pointless.

That comment made me realize one of the fundamental flaws of the game: I had robbed my players of the ability to make meaningful choices by making every choice equally bad. It was a perfectly reasonable, logical criticism of the game that neither I nor my players would have come up with alone.

What I want to see is more dialogue like this, from more educated players and more receptive dungeon masters. Near the end of the video, Gladwell spoke about two women who literally had very good taste. They could eat or drink anything, and tell exactly why they liked it, explaining down to slight differences in ingredients.

I'd say only one of my players has a similar level of figurative "taste" in D&D. He's my brother, and he's gamed with me since we were old enough to write and read. With him, I can discuss the specifics of the game, as well as general themes and trends in how our sessions go. He'll speak to me months after a game about how it was clearly influenced by a book that I'd read a long time ago, but he had just picked up. He'll discuss with me why, on a psychological level, some parts of the game worked and some didn't. He also digs through old blog archives to better understand the workings of the game, and bring his insights back to our table.

Basically, he's a player who thinks about the game as hard as the average DM. He's not always the most fun person in my group to play with. I often prefer the more active, fun playstyle as opposed to his slow, judgmental one. But in the post game analysis, he's the best friend I have.

Of all the essays and interviews so far, his is clearly the best. I think the reason it's the best is that he does the exact same thing in his head every day. So the real question is, how do you start to engage more players in this kind of dialogue?

Ozzie Pippenger said...

Part two of a two part comment

When I talk about player input having the potential to revolutionize the game for the better, I'm not talking about taking random suggestions from anyone who sits in on a single game, or catering to the whims of a spoiled party. I mean a shift of perspective to see D&D campaigns as a collaboration between the dungeon master and the group. Not in the "shared world building happy fun way where you can be a 1/3rd Drow ninja from a kingdom you just made up becasue it's more fun!" way that you seem to think I play, but in the way of seeing the game as collaborative art where the players are both the audience and the critics. Dungeons and dragons is a very new and very unique game, one unlike anything before it. Looking at it through the old lens of business people and consumers isn't going to get anyone anywhere.

By having my players write these essays, I'm attempting two things. One, I want to more clearly understand my group's specific motivations for playing that I can't get from short conversations. I've found I can be much more thorough and honest in essay format than in person, and I expect the same is true of many of my players. I'm not so that I can pander to them in the short term, but so that I can communicate with them in the long term. Second, I want my players to get in the habit of giving reasonable, honest, educated feedback.

I interviewed a few of my less verbose players today, and I got answers like "I joined your game because it reminded me of Skyrim" and "in D&D you can play anyone you want." Not the most eloquently stated or thorough answers. What I'm definitely not going to do is copy every single feature from Skyrim or add another hundred ways to modify your character. I also got the contradictory feedback from the same player that character creation with my house rules took too long, so he clearly didn't have a coherent vision of his idea for the game, nor did he claim to. He clearly hadn't thought about it much. My goal is instead to foster long term intelligent conversation between myself and my players, and encourage other dungeon masters to do the same.

I plan to keep asking all my players to be more and more specific, about why exactly they play and why they enjoy the things they enjoy. I'll get better at asking questions and they'll get better at answering, and over time I expect my games to improve.

I was definitely rude in some of my earlier comments. I'd had what seemed like a great idea, and your post seemed like a great example of game design that could have benefited from my new idea. Watching the video and thinking over what you've said have led me to a more complete understanding of your position. I hope you understand me better now as well.

JD said...

First of all, thanks for that Gladwell-video, very nice. There is another aspect to asking people about their opinion I didn't see developed so far. Wrong or right in their interpretation, capable or not, people like to be asked. As a matter of fact, they like it so much, most of time they won't even bother to check if their opinion has any effect what so ever. That's why democracy is so popular. To give the players the chance to participate, by asking them what they think, will have a positive effect on the Game. It's not so much that you have to consider what they are saying. Simply the fact that you give them the feeling they are part of the result has a purpose on it's own.

The second point I'd like to make: There is a difference between an expert asking a non-expert "Why do you like it?" or "Do you like it for the same reasons I do?". The result of the first question is answered by Gladwell: the more beyond the capability of expression something is, the more likely the non-expert won't like it. Or pretent to. The variant, on the other hand (and Gladwell mentions this only in passing), gives the non-expert the chance to "safe face" by agreeing. I won't say, this is the way to go. But it is the way it is done more often than not. What I'm trying to say here is, that the tragedy in all this (in my opinion) is not in the realisation that market research follows a false premise (and it's implications for anything else), but that manipulation is so damn easy. So for me the far more interesting question would be, how to play the game without making the players agree due to the sheer force of expertise. "They come back" just doesn't cut it for me.

Alexis said...


Quickly, regarding your first point. It's a techique corporations use to quell the dissatisfaction of their employees, but pretending to make them part of the "decision making" process while in fact passifying them with feel-good bogus involvement which, sad to say for humanity, works. Let's NOT endorse asking players what they think just to make players feel better - and therefore, more accepting, passive and ready for further DM manipulation.

Regarding the second point: