Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Door Is There

In the interest of providing myself background noise, I've been working through a series of course lectures delivered by Dr. George Phillies of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute on Game Design. The gentle reader can find the series of lectures beginning here. For those not yet familiar with University lectures (there are young people who read this blog) or those who simply never attended, please take note of the total lack of patience Phillies has for persons who are not serious about learning. In fact, he's really a prick about it, but only because he has to be. It's hard to imagine that students who pay tens of thousands of dollars to attend classes can't get their heads out of their collected asses, but Phillies pre-judgements clearly indicate that being a total prick up front is a necessary part of being a lecturer. For those who want to get straight into the material, I suggest jumping forward to the second lecture.

I know that I have changed considerably since university ... but lectures like these that one can find online really make that clear to me. Whereas once the ending of a 50-minute lecture would have meant relief and a chance to rest my mind, now I think, "What, that's all?" ... and immediately plow into the next recorded lecture without a moment's hesitation.

(Incidentally, Phillies apparently knew Mr. Gygax, and has a few comments to say about the creation of D&D here and there in various lectures. If you're patient, you'll stumble over them).

Anyway, I've been meaning to pick up a topic he covered in lecture four, that of 'Eurogames' or German-style board games. This would include recently popular games (recent to me, I'm fifty, and the year 2004 still seems like last week) such as The Settlers of Catan, Carcasonne, Puerto Rico and so on. Starting about 43:00 on the 4th lecture link, Phillies discusses the 'shape' of these games. They're designed according to various constraints, which Phillies describes as coming from the way Germans raise children. Games are played in the evenings, after homework is completed, by the whole family. Therefore it is necessary that the game END prior to the time when the children must go to bed (limit of about two hours). The rules have to be simple enough that the grandparents can understand. Everyone has to be playing for the WHOLE game. No one can be eliminated as part of the game rules. The game has to have a relevance to child raising - the game must be in some way 'important.' And, as Phillies points out, part of the restraint also was no warfare. This was very much a consideration for older persons in the family who personally remembered the destructiveness and suffering of WW2. Finally, it needs to 'look pretty,' as it needs to appeal to children that are five to seven years old.

I confess, I have only played one game of Settlers of Catan in my life. I didn't particularly like it, primarily because I make decisions quickly (even if they are wrong decisions) and I found the effort it required for others to come to a decision meant that I was sitting about doing nothing for far more time than made me happy. This was ultimately the reason I lost interest in RISK, also, in that while I was not defending, there was very little to do, and I would grow bored. I blame this on DMing far too much, where gameplay is for me a continuous, unrelenting assault on my brain, which makes any other casual game activity dull. I don't say this is something most people would experience from Settlers of Catan.

My parents played Puerto Rico for a time rather a lot back around 1999-2000, so I am more familiar with that game - the same that Phillies uses in his lectures for his game 'lab' to make his points in lectures 2 & 3. I therefore have some understanding of the concept. There is an uncertainty as to who has won until the actual end of the game, thus building 'tension' about winning (tension dies in games like Monopoly when its clear who is going to win), and about the reduced but present interactivity of the game, which rewards innovation in oneself rather than the suppression of others, that almost all American games emphasize.

I'm rather past boardgames these days. I grew up in a house where boardgames were played religiously on Friday or Saturday nights, along with various card games, so I feel I've done my time. But there is a great deal to be said about the improvement of games where player smashing player is replaced by player out-playing player.

Last night I wrote a long discourse on how competition ceases to become the purpose of pursuing complex or difficult games or activities. I'd like to make a point about the importance of SUPPORT in activities ... a matter that is given so little consideration when the dynamic of role-playing is discussed.

Now, I am a DM, so I have my role in the game defined. I'm both the friend and the enemy of the party, as it's necessary to swing back and forth in order to keep the party's interest. Each member of the party, on the other hand, is free to take a stand about their treatment of others - and I must say, the very best parties are those that fight FOR each other, rather than against each other.

The genius in D&D is that the party is utterly free to be anti-competitive with one another, reserving all their energy to fight the DM. My sense has long been that this position ('all for one, one for all') offers a gamesmanship that is so utterly unique to role-playing that I'm often flabbergasted when I see a player fail to take advantage of it.

Consider, the members of a soccer TEAM join together to defeat the enemy ... and all the effort that one takes to support the team is done wholeheartedly with the understanding that to win requires complete support of one's teammates. There is something outstanding in being a part of this, especially on a good team, where everyone embraces the concept. People who don't embrace the concept - and who do it vocally - tend to be pushed out.

However, in team sports, there are TWO teams that are both competing, and someone has to lose. Part of the program, obviously, but it still sucks when you don't win.

But coming back to D&D, the party 'team' doesn't compete against another team. It competes against the DM - who shouldn't have anything to lose.

As DM, I'm not, or at the least I shouldn't be, invested in the existence of my monsters beyond their use as foils to stimulate the party's enjoyment. If I am involved with my monsters, that's a problem. Since I can conjure as many as I want, and I should always be aware that the party's need to live are greater than a monster's need to live, I am happy when a monster dies. I don't let this happen easily, of course, that would spoil the resolution, but I certainly am not cheering for the monster to win. That's crazy. A DM in love with monsters over the party is a DM hopelessly in love with his or her self ... and that is just pathetic.

So the party CAN win, there is no meaningful loser, and virtually all the other conditions of the Eurogame (which we had to come back to) are satisfied. Everybody plays for the whole game (you make up new characters immediately if you die). Players do not eliminate each other. The game can be interesting for the grandparents, and children adapt easily to interactive story-telling. The game play can be suspended at any time, so it can stop when the children go to bed, and be restarted the next night. The only two issues are that individual adults in Germany have not been generally educated to be DMs, and there's still that pesky 'no war' policy. But as Phillies points out in his lecture, that's disappearing ... mostly because the problem is being solved actuarially.

One last word about players who don't support the party against the DM. Players who are in it for themselves. As I say, this flabbergasts me. That is because virtually every stupid, ignorant thing I ever see in a game occurs because the player is being wholly and absolutely selfish in that moment. There's no way to dismiss it. On some level, the decision being made by the player is intended to be something self-serving.

And one of the worst philosophies that has become attached to the game is that this is acceptable.

It really isn't. Call it whatever the reader will; call it competition, call it role-playing, call it initiative, it still comes down to one thing. A player that thinks only of the self deserves to be shown the door. Period.