Friday, January 9, 2015

Shared Hope

Writing Tuesday's post about sports, I had intended to follow up with a rejoiner about what catches the player's mind when watching other players fight the monsters threatening the party . . . and comparing that with, say, a typical boardgame.  It's been three days, but I'd like to pick up that thread now.

I feel like an idiot explaining what schadenfreude means, but there is a tradition in English writing that we must always assume that English speakers have no idea that foreign words exist in the world and that every foreign word must therefore be pedantically explained over and over.  Thus, the insertion of this paragraph.  Simply, it is pleasure derived from misfortune.  Being one of the more masturbatory labels used in literary analysis, it will serve you well through all your life if you know it's meaning.

Most successful board games are fundamentally built on a principle of permissive schadenfreude.  When playing Monopoly, your pleasure is in watching one of your opponents crash and burn while counting their money into your hand for landing on your Ventnor hotel.  In RISK, your pleasure is in watching both your opponents slam fruitlessly against each other, spinning into the grave you will soon be digging for them.  As you watch your opponents in the game roll the die, you're hoping they will fail . . . and when they do, landing on the square of death or tossing the twin eyes of misery, your feeling is meant to be positive.  You are meant to obtain gratification from that.

This is very, very different from role-playing.  At least, in the games you play, I hope that its different.  If you are playing an RPG where the other players are hoping that you'll fuck the roll and the dragon kills you, then you have my sympathy for having to spend your evenings with a bunch of wretched prats.

There is something unconsciously amazing about playing a 'game' where your hope lies in the good fortune of your fellow players.  I say "unconscious" because I'm willing to bet you've never considered the rest of the party in terms of your hope.  The tension does not emerge from a desire to see your companion fail and die, but the anticipation that your companions will succeed, killing the ogre that has them cornered, so that they will be free to launch an attack against the ogre that has YOU cornered.

When you roll the die in a board game, the moment is something you share with no one.  The others at the table have a stake in your roll, but it is a stake against you.  The brilliance of the RPG is that when you roll the die, everyone at the table is with you - even the DM (again, I should hope), whose stake in the monsters' success doesn't begin to measure with the desire that the player should live.

I may play the game hard, giving the monster all their due in order to defeat the party, but I certainly don't want any member of the party to die.  I don't want any one to be forced into an emotional disengagement with a character they've invested in and worked hard to improve.  It is bound to happen now and then, but I don't want that.  I, like the rest of the players, am happy when a player drops a natural 20 on a monster's head.

What a sad, sad table is must be when there are players who envy others who chance to roll better, who get the magic item at the end of the night, who can only see the game in terms of their personal wins or losses.  How hard must it be to be a player who measures their experience against the experience of others, failing to recognize that every player's experience has grown together over time.  How contemptible is it when a DM deliberately aids and benefits one player, building that player into a celebrity for others to have hard feelings for, begrudging the success one player achieves at the expense of others.  What a loss to the game that is.

How much worse, when players dream of turning their weapons on other players, preferring a game of schadenfreude to a game of shared hope.  That is the nature of some people, however.  That is the nature of envy, where a feeling of discontent grows not only in one's personal belief in one's own failure, but the deep, malignant need to see others fail and die, even if that will ultimately mean the death of one's own character.  I have no doubt there are players out there carrying secret grudges where they cheerfully anticipate a total party kill, because they are more than willing to sacrifice their tenth level thief if it means the paladin will die or the mage will lose that damned precious artifact . . . that they think should have gone to them.

We can make a good game if we try - but just as things in life are poisoned, so are games, by the same flaws in a person's character.  This capacity of RPG's to deliver the benefit of another's success to ourselves, to take pleasure in others having a good day, depends upon our willingness to incorporate that joint experience in our own behaviour.  If we will insist on seeing things only in how they benefit ourselves, we will ruin that experience as surely as we'll ruin our friendships, our places of work and eventually the ties we have with our families.

It isn't just about our experience, our toys, our wins and our loses.  It is about everyone.  The more you and your players embrace that principle, the more you'll begin to understand that everyone cheering at the table because of a roll that one person made is proof positive for why this is the best game ever invented.

That is why it is never going to die.  That is why it will never be replaced by a computer.  RPGs have the capacity to bring out the best in us.


James said...

The only experiences I have had that are similar to role playing (as in, games where much of it is you hoping your friends succeed) involve gambling (specifically blackjack and craps, where often everyone wins or loses together).

Your post reminded me that one of the reasons I will play blackjack as a break from poker is it is enjoyable to sit down with a bunch of people and win or lose together.

JB said...

Huh...I'm surprised no one's commented on this post.

While I dig your philosophy of cooperative gaming (as I glean it from your book and blog), I'm not sure D&D as written is really set-up for it. That is, it feels (to me) there's a certain degree of gamesmanship that is created (or fostered/facilitated) in the way the rules are written...gamesmanship that encourages the "sad table" of which you write.

I don't think you're wrong in running-playing-promoting the game in the way you do; I don't think you're wrong in that your method makes for a better game and better experience. I do think that a certain amount of schadenfreude is just part of D&D, perhaps part of any game where the reward of the system is tied to achievement that is obtained individually, as opposed to communally.

Your own system may have modified that reward system to the point that it fosters a communal/cooperative effort among the players, but that's not the default version of the game.

Alexis Smolensk said...


You know that schadenfreude is a bad thing, right? I mean, it isn't something that is encouraged in a healthy, productive human being capable of substantially improving a community.

If you don't know this, take a look at the sort of community a strong Catholic church ethic builds.

Please take this in the strong spirit that it's intended: I don't give a FLYING FUCK what the so-called default version of the game is. That sounds like something that one has to take on faith, nyet? My concerns about the game do not revolve around keeping the faith, but in IMPROVING the game experience. Since you state clearly that community does make for a better experience, pray tell:

Why would you play any other way?

JB said...

@ Tao:

As you point out, many tabletop games are built on principles (or at least facilitate an attitude of) "permissive schadenfreude;" it's an aspect of competition, and can be enjoyable...if not taken too far for the particular stomachs sitting around the table.

I understand that RPGs are different from these simplistic "win-lose" games in MANY ways. I just think there are trace elements that remain based on the design.

Some folks might find these trace elements enjoyable (in small amounts) at the otherwise "sad table;" I've seen people take enjoyment in these aspects of D&D. Is it "healthy?" I think that's debatable. Is it conducive to long-term play? Not, perhaps, in the way you envision it...but I suppose that's debatable, too.

[there are some people who play D&D as a step up from a "beer & pretzels" type game. I know this is not your approach...for some folks, "funhouse" style gaming is enjoyable and can be for a good, long while]

I'm on board with you, just BTW, about improving the game and not giving a fuck about the original design of the game...that's part of why I write my own games.

Alexis Smolensk said...


I am glad you are on board with me. I sincerely am. But I won't feel that I've truly convinced you until I see that PvP decal removed from your blog.

Yes, of course I know that there are folks who cannot or will not understand my approach. I've been around a long time, I've met and even played with many such people. Their presence is known to me.

However - and this is something that needs to be as clear as possible - these people do not matter. Every activity includes people who do not take the activity seriously, who act like fools, who set out from the start to fuck around. It isn't just beer & pretzels either, it's drinking and drugs and playing naked and probably fucking each other on the table between d20 rolls, for all I know.

I don't need this explained to me, or that these people find such things to be fun "for a good, long while."

My good, long while lasted from 15 years of age to about 17 years of age. Then I wanted more. Most people quit after college, often due to limited time and unlimited responsibility.

Many quit, however, because the beer & skittles grow flat and stale and they just can't think of how to keep the game they loved going.

That's where I come in. I'm standing up for the other side, the serious side. I know you're on a campaign with me to convince me that I need to make space for the funhouse boys, but I'm too damn busy making space for the dedicated player - who is here speaking up for that small, mangled group?

If you're going to be on board, BE on board! Stop telling me to look back at the people we left on the dock. I've done my part, I've given them a chance to sail along - but as they haven't decided to do so, fuck them. We're on our way. Look around. We're not alone. There are plenty of people on board.

Let's just enjoy their company, huh? Let's stop worrying about what the people we left behind are doing.

JB said...

@ Tao:

Can I help that I feel sorry for the folks on the dock? Can I help that I want to enlighten the ignorant?
; )

I'll consider pulling the decal, man. I really will.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Don't worry about them, man. They have beer.