Wednesday, August 24, 2016

What Game?

Whew.  I feel like today started yesterday morning.  Things are not sorted out, my partner Tamara unfortunately needs a root canal.  Thankfully, we have more time to arrange for that, whereas the events of today came out of nowhere, like a traffic accident.  Sigh.

Coincidentally, I was going to write a post about decision-making and problem-solving as it applied to game design - but after a conversation I had this morning, I realized that I was going to have to write a post about just problem solving first.  Now I am thinking I really need to just start with the word "problem."  On the whole, the ease with which those around me have fallen into misunderstandings on the question shows just what a problem it is to talk about problems.  Not to mention having them and then getting bailed out.  Once again, thank you to everyone who helped.

Very well, what is a "problem"?

Since a dictionary will tend to defined a problem as something requiring a solution and a solution as an answer to a problem (look it up for yourself), we have to go back to the etymology of the word.  This gives us the 14th century meaning, "a difficult question proposed for solution."  So a problem is a question; a solution, an answer.  Pedantic, I know, but we're going to get nowhere if we don't start from the basics.

That's because I'm trying to establish a difference between a question that has an answer and a question for which no definite answer exists.

I'll reduce it to this: a problem-solving question could go, "what is 2+2?"  There could be any number of answers to the question, depending on the number system used or how creative we want to get with algebra, but fundamentally we're working in a framework where the solution can be proved.  An unprovable solution counts as an error.

Contrariwise, if we ask a question for which no proof is possible, such as, "would you like four apples or five?", we can theoretically receive an answer of any number of requested apples.  We're not limited by the question in our response, nor is any response distinctive to the question.  We can't be in error because every answer we could make, even, "I don't like apples," is equally valid.

Making a decision is not solving a problem.

All day long, people have been arguing with me that it is.  This has everything to do with the inability of people to make a choice, in keeping with the vastness of choice that has been perpetrated by the manufacturing and marketing culture in which we find ourselves.  Faced with a level of choice that surpasses our comfort level, "choice" itself has become the "problem" - and proof or not, validity or not, people caught in this emotional trap are unable to look at the choice/problem paradox in any other manner.

Some days ago in writing about games I made the point, based on game theory, that the fundamentals of a game feature "decision-making."  To express this, let's start with some simple board games, which I trust most of my readers will understand.  In Monopoly, though the board is static, we're faced with a choice of whether or not to buy a property, whether or not to buy houses, whether or not to mortgage this property or that one.  In RISK, we're faced with choices about where to allocate armies or which territories to invade. In the Game of Life, we're faced with the choice of going through University or taking the short cut.  In Settlers of Catan, we're faced with a choice as to how to allocate our resources.  And so on.  All of these choices are seen as positive elements of game play, exchanging risk for reward to accumulate excitement, interest or immersion.

We can argue that the "problem" is how to win the game, but in fact there's no set solution for how to win any particular game, because we're thwarted by the dice or the strategies of others in ways we can't predict, so the "problem" is really a series of questions for which there is not distinct solution.

Compare the decision-making process of how to count off the movement of your piece in Trivial Pursuit, to give some control in what sort of question you're going to answer, with the problem-solving situation in which you must answer the question.  Here, there is no choice.  There is one answer, that which is written on the card.  Even if the card is wrong, the rules state that you're wrong if you don't reply what the card says is the answer.  There is no choice!  Either you have the solution or you don't.

Failing at that answer is very different from failing to take the Ukraine from the Middle East in RISK. You can blame the dice in Risk.  You can blame yourself for having tried to go too far with too little.  You can measure your success and failure in gradations of gray.  You could have stopped at any point.  You can make a mistake but you haven't failed to solve something.  But if you don't know what book ended, "It was a curious dream, dear, certainly - but now run in to your tea; it's getting late," then you don't.

Assuming any of my readers are getting my point here, why does it matter?

I have become aware of late - not because it is a trend, but because I have reached a state of observing it - that virtually all the examples of "role-playing" that exist in the table-top gaming world fall into the category of the Trivial Pursuit problem rather than the RISK problem.  You are faced with a hallway in which there is a trap - you must identify the trap or it will kill you.  You are faced with a guard who will not let you pass.  You must convince the guard to let you pass or you will fail in your quest.  It is discovered that that the water in the village well has turned to blood.  The close friend that your character has known for years has disappeared.  There is a secret lair in the wilderness that no one has ever been able to find.

Have a look at this page.

These are all problems.  They are mysteries or difficulties or moral crises but not a single one of them proposes a decision except, "Do we or don't we?"

The game, as it is conceived of right now, as it is designed by most DMs, fails the players because it fails to be a game.  Fundamentally, at this level, it is on the order of a really complicated jigsaw puzzle or crossword.  Granted, these things are played by millions of people and many of those people do call Sudoku or word-searches "games."  Inaccurately, by definition. They're not games, they're puzzles.

It isn't just that we're talking about railroading.  The fabric of the experience within the railroad still lacks a choice.  The only reason the fast path or the slow path matters in the Game of Life is because there are other players.  If every path in a game solves the same problem, for all the players equally, the decision of which path to take has no meaning.  It isn't a game.

Perhaps the reason why so many D&D campaigns embrace player-vs-player comes from that being the only game-like quality in their campaigns.

If we participate in our table-top campaign in this way, we're not "gamers," we're "puzzlers."  To be gamers, we have to offer a choice.  A meaningful choice.  One in which there is no wrong answer, just a different answer.  An answer that creates a different sequence of events, without that sequence of events feeling the restraint of failing to have solved a problem.  It isn't wrong to attack the Ukraine with too few armies; it's a choice; and as long as the party accepts the consequence for their choices, it matters not if the choice was an answer to a question.  The choice, in itself, justifies itself, without needed to be answerable to anything.


  1. If it's a root canal, do you need more funds? I don't have much in my OneBookShelf account right now, but I can transfer it to Paypal and make a donation if you're short again.

    On topic - I think you're definitely on to something here. And it's not just about railroading or not, or pixel bitching (although those are related).

    You've defined the difference between a choice/decision and a problem/solution. I'm interested to see where this is going. I'd speculate that good play resides in the area where choice/decision and problem/solutionS (plural important) overlap. But then I may be way off.

  2. Regarding more funds: I won't say no but I am deeply concerned about the financial condition of my readers and their comfort. The surgery isn't going to happen right away, we can get help and support and there's time after the fact to make up for borrowing. My credit has taken a severe hit in the last year (I really don't have credit any more} but my expenses have fallen off and as long as I'm working at least a part time job, we can come through anything alive and well.

    I simply can't keep going back to a well of kindness and generosity without eventually causing my readers to feel misused. Those who have the means have chosen to support me regularly each month through Patreon; I trust that those able to do so can sign on there with whatever means they have available, enabling me to feel sustained after the artists of medieval times with their patrons, while my patrons feel owed the dignity they deserve.

    My Patreon account is here:

  3. When asked what I do for a living, my answer - tailored for the situation, of course - often involves some variation of, "I solve problems." By the definition provided, I am wrong: I don't solve problems, I provide decisions (or options) for people under the guise of solving problems. Yet in my mind, I am solving problems because I approach the decision-making process as though there is a right and a wrong answer, every time. (And I usually find a way to apply logic or math to justify that position, as well as support whatever answer(s) I find.)

    At least, that's how I read this post... so... that's right, isn't it?

  4. @ Alexis:

    I will be pondering long and hard on this post as I wing my way to Panama tonight.

  5. Ozymandias,

    This is why I so badly wanted the word "problem" better defined, because I think we tend to associate problems and obstacles far too easily. In making decisions that solve "problems," are we talking about puzzles for which there is a specific, provable solution or are we talking about things that block, hinder or prevent the progress of our overall strategy?

    Suppose I need to move a set amount of material from point A to B. Is this a problem? Or is it an obstacle? The decision to move the material, the amount of material that ought to be moved, the method to move the material, these are all part of a strategy to achieve an overall goal, to accumulate something. The trial in moving the material is not found in the "problem" of moving the material, however. The problem is relatively easy: use this number of vehicles with this carrying capacity moving this fast along this path to enable this result. That's just math.

    The decision-making process you describe comes into action when the math doesn't work, when the trucks break down, the path is flooded, the material breaks loose from its moorings or some other contingency occurs which has to be managed in real time without the benefit of there being a mathematical solution. At that point, you make a decision, choosing the one that seems best in this moment with this amount of experience and SEE.

    When you're faced with making a decision that produces the equation, "We'll try this and SEE if it works," you're not producing a solution, you're producing a strategy. After the fact, it may seem to have been a solution - but if the exact same solution can't be applied the next time things go sideways, that ain't problem-solving, that ain't math. You're overcoming an obstacle with the resources available in a situation that isn't repeatable. Effectively, you're playing the odds, even if those odds are 1000:1 that you'll succeed.

  6. Give your players problems, not puzzles.

    It seems so obvious now. Thank you, again, Alexis!

  7. Carl,

    Well, actually I said that "problems" are "puzzles," but I think you've just experienced a language fail there. I think you understand exactly what I meant, it is just that it's hard to describe a difficulty the players have to face without habitually calling it a "problem."

    A better way of saying it would be, Give the players obstacles, not problems.


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