Friday, February 15, 2013

The Paradox of Choice

I'm sorry to keep doing this to you people out there who haven't the opportunity to see these videos wherever you may happen to be, but lately I've just been feeling very visual, I've been seeking out lecture videos on youtube (which is a marvelous, time-consuming exercise) and its terribly convenient to be able to point out to people, "See, I'm not crazy, really brilliant people think so too!"

A fellow asked me recently why it was that I was driven to create this complicated environment for my players, in depth and elaborate in the extreme, but I continued to embrace the sort of clumsy cardboard framework of character classes.

I explained that the reason for this had a lot to do with choice.

It is generally believed by the friendly fuckwits at WOTC, and the many, many fools who frolic there, that increasing 'choice' into the fabric of the game cannot help but improve the game.  This is a natural extension of a lot of different sociological factors that began with the Me Decade of the 1970s and carried forward into marketing and so on ... an ever accelerating process which is loosely connected to the subject we've been talking about the past few days, that being market research.  Generally, market research was designed to identify what people wanted, so that markets could then produce those wants and therefore target people's needs in a way that would make them very happy.  The introduction of 3.0 and 3.5, concentrating as it did upon many classes and many races, along with skill sets that offered hundreds of ways in which to fabricate a character for YOU personally, was a natural extension of something that was exploding in the marketing culture.

(Here you thought D&D was an 'underground' phenomenon.  Shame on you)

This has backfired.  Of course, I don't expect you to believe me that it's backfired, so let me have Barry Schwartz explain it to you:

In general, for those who can't hear the video, Schwartz makes two fundamental points.  The first is that having choices - a great many choices - produces paralysis.  People feel, particularly where they have little or nothing to base a choice upon, that they are almost certain to make the wrong choice.  This has the consequence of making them feel inadequate in the face of change, causing them to either make choices for the sake of just getting past making the choice (and being disappointed) or of making no choice at all.  In D&D, this is commonly expressed in farming the choice out to someone at the table, usually the DM, who has far more experience than the player.  Depending upon the DM, this can be either a good thing or a bad thing, but the principle issue is that it isn't the player making the choice.

Schwartz's other point is that increased number of choices causes individuals to concentrate more upon the choices they did not make rather than the ones they did.  So the character who, as part of the creation of their character, has decided upon the skill of making armor, discovers too late that fishing would have been more useful and valuable given the campaign they're in, and are therefore dissatisfied with their choice to the point where they blame their own shortcomings.  This is a much bigger problem than most campaigns realize, as the words "I've been fucking stupid," are somewhat anathema to the game, producing players who are sullen and unhappy with the characters they had the freedom to create.

I would argue, for anyone familiar with the original class system, and familiar with the later skill-choice system, that their memories of the game are that people in general, particularly less experienced players, are much less happy with the characters they ran in 3.5 than characters in earlier game-systems.

Look at the elements of human nature.  We as people are almost entirely unable to choose who we are.  The skill sets we have when we reach the age of 18 are largely those things which our families happened to know.  If your father was not a great cook, you're probably not much good in the kitchen.  If your mother was wild about fishing, and took you into the woods to fish every summer, you probably know quite a lot about fishing.  For the most part, you're just not familiar with things that haven't been dangled in front of you, and this is even more true of someone growing up three generations ahead of you, who did not have access to most modern media.

So who you are and what you know is something you simply have as you become a young adult, and except for some envy issues you probably have about friends who get given cars by their rich parents, you're probably content that you know how to play hockey or basketball or curling or what have you.  Yes, you may not know how to sail, but you're not bitter about it when you first encounter a sailboat.  You never got the chance to learn.  It's not your fault.

So if the game includes a powerful restriction on who you are - i.e., a rigorous class structure of fighter or mage or thief - you're prepared to live with that.  Moreover, every fighter is the same, every mage is close to the same (the hard part is choosing spells) and every thief is the same.  You're not punished for not picking the "right" elements of the fighter that lets you fight differently from other fighters.  And once you're used to fighters, a fairly shallow learning curve, you're comfortable playing them.

The world, on the other hand, for you in reality, is a wide open vista.  You don't want to live in a cage.  You want a big, massive, complicated world because that is the world you live with everyday.  Having a million choices in the world is more comfortable for you, because the world actually offers you a million choices.  Yes, sometimes you'll make the wrong choice, but since you're not identifying your personality on the choices you make in the world, you're more comfortable when you make the wrong choice.

So in general, it is better to make the character creation process more stale and predictable, because your players will be happier.  And it makes more sense to make the actual game world more elaborate and complex, because your players will be happier.  Those players who are familiar with the variety of choices, who have parsed them out in depth, will grumble about the lack of their choices, but the base line for ALL your players will be improved.

Schwartz is talking to an audience in the hope of making the whole world understand this entirely proveable concept against their gut instinct, which is making all of us - daily - less happy.  But for your world to improve on the basis of his argument, the only person who needs to believe this is YOU.

I really liked this one:


Anonymous said...

I have about 5 years of physical notes and electronic "notes" for my own settting. Though I am aspiring to write fantasy-fiction within that world, as well as run/publish a game within it -- I have also wondered what role all that detail could possibly provide the players.

Here is one idea I had when reading your post: The unrevealed detail, if at a large enough volume, creates a web of interconnected information, facts, figures, etc. When developing new "content" (spur of the moment or in-advance) I can draw from that backdrop in an intuitive way.

Also: as a player within such a setting. Having a degree of knowledge about that background information -- even though I may not remember all of it -- will begin to create a similar "Gestalt" of the world in my mind that will similarly lead to richer / deeper / interesting experiences -- especially in co-creating new elements of the world.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You've stumbled across the opening paragraph of my How to DM book for "Creating a Setting."

When an adult creates a playground for children, the adult does not decide to place objects there for the purpose and value of the adult. Nor does the adult fully comprehend all the uses which the children will construct from the objects once placed. And as a child, you did not comprehend that the objects were placed there for any particular use that you felt duty bound to obey. Thus, you created games of your own which you then made up rules and participated in for your own pleasure, in your own way.

This is the proper D&D setting. The DM creates the world. The players "play" in it.

Arduin said...

I'd go even further, and add that because the cost of the "choices" of later games being so high, especially if they are wrong, it forces the DM to construct the campaign around the poor choices of the character.

To use a 3.5 example, there were many classes designed around specific motifs, such as a "Dragonslayer" who would get bonuses against dragons or something.

Since, in the name of balance, the character had to be restricted in general effectiveness for the sake of specific effectiveness, this would mean the DM of such a player was more or less forced to include a variety of Draconic foes for such a player, or else hear the endless griping of a gimped PC.

All this does is fob the responsibility of personal enjoyment/effectiveness from the player to the DM. It increases the perceived need for Railroading, and decreases the likelihood that the player will ever be satisfied with the result of the choices they make.

As was mentioned, a class system enables the player to select which restrictions to apply to themselves. The focus isn't on Making a good character, but on Playing a good character.

Anything that shifts the responsibility of enjoyment onto the person playing, and not the referee, is a good thing in my book.

Ozzie Pippenger said...

I read an excellent post some time ago on another blog about working memory as it related to D&D. It said that working memory (how many distinct elements a person can hold in their head at once) ranged from five to nine, and that older editions of D&D worked well because they didn't overwhelm the working memory of players. A few races, a few classes, and a couple stats. Any person could easily make an informed choice here because all their options were easily manageable. If anyone knows the post I'm talking about, could you please link to it? I can't seem to find it but I think it would add to the discussion.

The speaker does touch on something that, ironically, could be taken as a very good argument for more choice in D&D. He talks about how when someone has made a choice that they feel was uninformed or wrong, they become distracted by the other choices they could have made. He mostly talked about permanent and important life choices, like retirement plans and medicine. But in my games, characters are temporary. Very temporary.

What I've found is that overwhelming players with more character design options in more lethal settings softens the blow of dying. When a character is desperately wishing they'd done something differently, they can actually be glad to die.

I have no interest in running games where character death isn't a constant risk. It's very important to the atmosphere I want to create. I've found that adding more character design options, to a certain point, can grease the wheels and make the game run more smoothly.

I think in more recent editions, where character death is supposed to be rarer, too much choice undermines the players. I tried playing in a 3.5 group once, but quickly dropped out. I just realized today that one of the main reasons was that I came in at epic levels, and designed my character badly. I'd put everything into AC, at a level where I was subsequently informed that "AC didn't matter anymore." Faced with the prospect of running a useless, poorly built character until the day months from then when he happened to die, dampened my enthusiasm very much.

I think overwhelming choice and low character death rates make for a very bad combination that goes a long way to explain why newer editions don't appeal to many people. But, does anyone else think there are certain times when overwhelming players with choices can have a positive effect?

By the way, I like posts with videos in them. I hope you keep it up.

Sovereigneternal said...

No Thousand Island? It really is Hell!

JB said...

It's funny (not really amusing, more like 'interesting'...Jeez, what a stupid turn o phrase!)'s funny to me that you and I are on the same page in some ways (with regard to character class, for example) and then so wildly divergent in our other priorities...all in the name of reaching the same goal.

It doesn't bother me, for instance, that you spend so much time crafting your world: I can see what your aim is (you've spelled it out often enough on the blog!). But it's just such a foreign concept to me to go through so! And yet, I've spent probably 2-4 (or more) hours a day, every day for the last couple weeks researching Arabia (and muslim culture) from the 8th and 9th century...not with the idea of creating a vibrant WORLD but with creating a vibrant mechanics that model things I want reflected in game play.

You've deconstructed the real world to create a better game world (in aid of better game play). I'm deconstructing the system to create system more accurately reflective of the game world I want (in aid of specific...and in my eyes, play). You might tell me not to bother cracking at the system, that the system takes care of itself if the world is in place. I'd tell you not to worry about the cost of wood and labor in building a game house, because this isn't Sim Builder we're playing, so abstract the shit out of it.

And yet we're both taking a more radical approach to the game than most people care to do. We're both "thinking the fuck out of it."

It's just interesting to me. Man, I'm glad there's at least a few people out there that grasp the goodness of a simple class system.

Keith S said...

I guess I view character creation as an ongoing process. It continues through gameplay. Classes, and their accompanying capabilities, I find too limiting. I may start the game with a specific character vision, but evolve it through the circumstances of play. The choices therefore are not wrong, but can be indicators of progress.

if I abandon my spellcasting and take up the spear, was spellcasting wrong?

Arduin said...

Not to put too fine a point on it, but yes, it was. You've wasted valuable resources being bad a two things, instead of good at one.

Modern game design in RPGs revolves around "twinking", around being good at one thing, at the expense of other things.

If you take up the spear, you are now getting in the way of people who took the spear at the start. You don't have the experience and ability to aid them.

And now, other casters, who kept casting, are better at it than you. Your choice brought the whole party down in terms of combat ability.

As I mentioned above, this now forces the DM to either pander to your bad choice, making the game significantly easier for everyone else, or you will lose relevance entirely as everyone outstrips you easily.

If you'd like an in-character version, consider: a wizard may be as much as 40 years old at 1st level, certainly not much less than 25. That's at least a decade just to learn enough to cast the very lowest of the spellcasting tier.

Is your wizard really, really going to cast aside his entire training and spend the years it would take to be -acceptably- good at the spear?

Not a chance. It's a waste of his time, especially since his partner Conan has already mastered the spear, or sword, or whatever far better than he, at his stage of life, could ever ever hope to.

Classless systems do not account for how much time it takes to learn things, more often than not. Those that do generally put MORE emphasis on sticking to your initial choices, not less, as that time is considerable.

I'm especially thinking of Ars Magica in the above case, the best classless RPG I've ever seen.

To put my personal philosophy: if you make the character you want to play from the start, things only go downhill. You can only get worse.

RPGs are about Growth. You don't start as King of Aquilonia. You have to fight, and train yourself, until such time as your right to kingship is indisputable.

The more of the game you put into character creation, the less game you have to play afterwards.

Also, that turned much wordier than I intended.

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's less important that it brings the party down than that the player KNOWS it brings the party down. And that knowledge builds guilt in a game that shouldn't have rules catering to it.

Keith S, what you don't understand is that your argument is the very same argument that marketing specialists have been using for three decades, which now we're beginning to demonstrate IS NOT GOOD for our welfare. It's good for the marketing agent's welfare ... and I don't doubt it has things that are good for you as a DM. But it is shit for the players, even if you can't see that.

Arduin, some people, the more light you shine on them ...

Scarbrow said...

I'm going to partially back up Keith's words: "if I abandon my spellcasting and take up the spear, was spellcasting wrong?" On D&D and similar systems, the answer is "yes", as Arduin explained.

What I want to argue for is that "right" or "wrong" in this question is entirely dependent of the system employed. Specifically, whether your system keeps allowing you to progress indefinitely at some skill, or there is a (soft or hard) cap on skills.

D&D is obviously for specialists. You get better at what you do, no matter what: new levels, more wealth, cooler magic items... Even when special measures taken to allow multiclassing options, specialists quickly outstrip generalists. You never cease to learn, you never cease to progress.

However, real life doesn't work that way. Real learning happens on an exponential/logarithmic curve. You progress slowly util you learn the basics. Then you learn a lot of things in little time, quickly progressing. And then you slowly become a master, spending a lot of time on it, gaining ever less ability with each passing year. Even if you're always getting better (ignoring the aging factor) soon your progress is imperceptible unless carefully measured. Going back to Conan, at the start of his adventures he could surpass another novice warrior due to his superior strength and resiliency. Then he starts to learn, and soon he's able to survive mass assaults by mere "common" warriors, let's say 9 or 10 at a time. And then he keeps learning, till he's the unsurpassed master of the knife in the Hyborean Age. But at that time, though he may win a balanced match against any opponent, he is no longer increasing his ability so fast. He isn't dispatching hordes of 20, then 30, then 100 enemies at once. He would maybe defeat 12, or 15. Better than at any other previous time in his life. Maybe better than anyone else in the world. But in the end, the difference is small. In fact, the character building of Conan through his adventures centers around Conan mastering different abilities. He masters several weapons, then riding, then tactics, then politics. He no longer rushes to the battle, but he becomes a tactician. He doesn't become the world's most apt legislator, but he's certainly capable of managing a kingdom by the time he becomes a king.

Let's compare this to a professional modern master of a craft. Let's say, Olympic athlete, or world-class piano player. How much better is the best piano player in the world against a "mere" 10-year experience conservatory teacher? He's better, no doubt, to the expert. To the commoner, they sound the same. How much better is an Olympic athlete compared to the local champion? He may run the 100 meters in 1 second less, or 16% better. And we know because it's precisely measured. Very precisely. To the point where this advantage could barely be sensed if we used an informal method.

Even more, the quickest, most productive learning happens at the beginning. A chess player, athlete, driver, chef, you name it, with 10 hours of coaching and training will perform much better than the untrained one. After 20 hours of training, the difference won't be as big. After 30 hours, the difference will be even smaller. And so on. The beginning of the skill is the best point.

My long-winded point is, if your system recognizes that after a while you can no longer quickly progress, the most advantageous character development route will be learning several abilities. If not, you will be required to become an specialist on just one skill. But it's the system which will tip you to one point or another. Which will tell if picking up the spear was "right" or "wrong".

On a sandbox game where your challenges won't be precisely tailored to match your players' abilities, not only the most powerful will survive. The most resourceful will too. And that comes with more abilities, not just better abilities.

Alexis Smolensk said...


400. Bad Request.