Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Management of Stress

Like Tim commented on the previous post, I am also very much declared to be in the rule-based game camp ~ but then, this was the original design of Dungeons & Dragons.  A reader will be hard-pressed to find any paragraph or suggestion written in any of the books of TSR about the importance of a "back-story" or the game being "character-driven."  These are film-and-book maker terms, designed for crafting non-interactive art pieces for a passive audience.  Playing a "role" does not ask for the participant to do more than to imagine his or her self to occupy that role for the present . . . the psychologist who asks that we pretend, for a moment, that we are the driver on the freeway who flipped us off, so that we can imagine what it might be like to be in someone else's shoes, does not first require that we sit down and carefully craft the driver's back story.  It is presumed that we can, with a moment's notice, imagine being someone else.

Back-story is the mutation of gaming play to social participation.  The back-story philosophers play a character and not a game and fail to recognize that although the same word may apply to both activities it is not the same thing.  The nuance is lost, however, because it is claimed that it is the same thing.  The back-story philosophers, with their assertion that RPGs are "group storytelling," want and demand the recognition that they are playing a game, for without that appellation they would have to confess that they are really just playing make-believe.

There are no rules in make-believe.

But we don't want to avowedly reject the entitlement culture entirely, though I understand Drain's feeling here.  I have already turned around many people on the subject of back stories, story-telling, campaign building and the importance of both dice and rules.  We need to remember that RPGs were not made popular by the back-story philosophers but by millions of participants who love their dice and love gaining levels, because these things create massive quantities of endorphins and dopamine.  We're quite safe pitching activity that promotes the creation of positive, boundless drugs.

I will confess, until working it out through the podcast's brief exchange on the subject and the general discourse surrounding character building, I did not understand the appeal of the back-story philosophy.  With my comments in the last post, I tried to lead people away from the obvious subject of talking about what's right with a rule-based system and what's wrong with character-based entitlement, because I want us all to get it.  This is the challenge of our times, gentle reader.  It isn't that playing a character or wanting to experience oxytocin bonding with a theoretical character is wrong, because it isn't.  It is just a different drug, a pleasant and positive drug, so naturally we should expect many people to reach for it.  You and I, dear reader, may roll our eyes with disgust at the idea of the participation ribbon with which we were awarded as children, but many children, needing affirmation more desperately than ourselves, treasured that thing.  We need to acknowledge this and NOT trash the desire for some players to play characters that interest them.

The question we need to ask is why any player feels they are able to create a fictional character more interesting than themselves.

Ponder this for a moment.  We, each of us, have a "back-story."  We didn't write it, we lived it.  It did not go entirely the way we would have wanted ~ and for the most part, we haven't any power to do anything about it.  We can't hunt for the persecutor responsible for the failings in our back-story because, for the most part, the villains are all dead, or they are our beloved parents and family, and they are ourselves.  Real life doesn't allow for solutions like "hunting down the man who killed our father," which can only be a solution if the story ends at the moment that the man is dead and we're not forced to answer the question, "Now what?"  Because now what means getting up in the morning and doing something next, something not as clear, something that will hopefully improve our condition or allow us to reach some reconciliation with our general misery.

"Character" is the result of a lot of events that resulted in our making choices about how to react to hundreds of situations, most of which we've had to manage over and over.  We wound up thinking like we do, acting like we do, responding as we've thought best from moment to moment.  Sometimes, we've regretted our actions.  Sometimes, we're proud of our actions even if others regret them.  Most of the time, we don't know if we're right or wrong.  We just don't know.

When we find ourselves in a circumstance that is strange or unclear or threatening, our bodies are designed to push us into some kinds of behavior by creating chemical stresses like panic, adrenaline and anxiety; our bodies are also designed to reward some kinds of behavior with pride, joy and relief.  These are hormonal responses in the form of drugs.  In a safe, comfortable, social environment, playing with these drugs is FUN.

The more uncertain the environment, the greater the stress; the greater the stress, the greater the potential reward for handling that stress.  We want a social environment that massively increases our stress to the highest limits that social environment can handle.  If we lose that feeling of safety, it gets "too real" and we want to bow out.  But no worry: as humans, we've created a social construct that permits higher than normal stress levels for a social activity that will restrain the fear of too much reality.

It is called a "game."

The game incorporates rules.  Rules promote security and a feeling of restraint.  Remove the rules and the social construct flies apart and participants begin to feel less safe.

One tactic to manage this destruction of the social construct is to bring the level of stress down to where it can be managed.  We do not permit anyone to be a bad person.  We do not demand persons to participate in activities that are difficult, like math.  We do not allow anyone's role-playing to touch on subjects that are uncomfortable.

It is not a surprise that the back-story philosophers invariably run games where the permissible character types are Heroes, where open racism or sexualism is not permitted, where the principles of right and wrong are clearly understood.  "You're not here to be the bad guy.  You are all good guys.  I will not run my game unless it is this way."

This choice is necessary to maintain the social construct.  Because the lack of hard rules regulating die rolls and choices forces the DM to maintain the stress level of the participants by reducing the amount of possible stress.

I do not play this way.  I push stress to the maximum by pushing rule-making to the maximum. The more rules there are, the safer my players feel, meaning that more elaborate subject matter can be brought to the table and managed.  I can run a group of serial killers because they have to obey the game rules and the tacit understanding that a complex, largely law-abiding world will quickly slam down hard on them if they're even a little bit sloppy.

There's no room for sloppy in my game because the game is designed to create stress.  Knowing that there's always a die to be rolled discourages players from feeling that they can "talk their way out of a problem," as happens in character-driven make-believe.  Knowing that there's always a die discourages players from being sure that a plan will work, or that they'll live, or anything else that might serve as a comfort in a low-stress character-driven environment.  In my game, there are no heroes, there are no villains, there are just people who want things, who may resort to violence and subterfuge to get them, and there's no telling who will do that or how much they'll employ.

It isn't that the back-story philosophers don't understand that or don't get it.  They're afraid of it. They're "playing" the activity they can handle.  It is up to us to lure them into understanding that they can come play with us and still feel safe.  It can be a hard sell, but as I say, I've convinced many, many people already.


  1. This, this right here is why I read your blog. There is a horizon in the world of RPGs, and you are one of the few people who dare to go out and cross it, exploring beyond the safe boundaries of the small little village we all grew up in.

    Thank you for moving the light around to the other side and illuminating the subject from another angle. Managing stress via rules of one sort or another, either strict rules of the game, or the less well-defined "no evil characters" sort is a new way of thinking about the whole issue for me.

    It seems to me, from this angle, that much of the disdain the "crunchy" players feel towards the "fluffy" style games stems not so much from reasoning and logic (as it is typically presented), but more of a conflict of personality with the types of people who prefer the fluffier games. It isn't that the games themselves are offensive, but that the players of the two styles just don't get along all that well, and fall back on a proxy war of competing play styles instead of facing head on the differences in their personalities.

  2. @ Alexis:

    You're so awesome, man. RPG companies should put you on payroll just to write "What Is Role-Playing" sections.
    : )

  3. I was discussing this very problem with a friend of mine, and he said my game has too many rules and that's not how roleplaying is supposed to be.
    I'm going to suggest him to read this post.

  4. Damn good read, I concur with Lothar : that's the kind of post that makes me dig your blog so much.

  5. Alexis: Two things,
    Just to clarify your point.

    "The game incorporates rules. Rules promote security and a feeling of restraint. Remove the rules and the social construct flies apart and participants begin to feel less safe."

    Are these are both The Game Rules, like rolling for hide in shadows and Campaign Environment Rules, for example, Town A's Guards will butt f**k anyone casting spells in their town.

    Secondly. To what detail, if any, would you allow your players to create a back-story for their character in your rule-based game?

  6. Aradoth,

    The first example you make of rules are rules. The second example is a consequence, not a rule. The rule would be, "When you are casting a spell, you must move and speak for a minimum of 12 seconds (one round), making it obvious to anyone that you're a spellcaster and that you're about to release something potentially life threatening."

    Think of it as a rule that says, "You need to lift and point the gun and it takes twelve seconds for it to fire." What would be the logical consequence of such a move in the eyes of others?

    You don't even know what spell they're about to cast.

    Regarding your second point. I don't stop people from creating backstory. However, I do impose a random character background, using a generator that works very well. You can download it here. So your backstory must fit the facts, unless of course the player wants to lie to everyone. But everyone in the party will know it is a lie, so that takes away much of the preciousness of the story.

    Some have created an elaborate backstory that fit the facts ~ but players have to realize, if they give me a backstory, I will incorporate it into my campaign. People from your backstory will emerge to create stress; give me a tale and I will use it to wag the dog. That's only fair.

  7. Cheers for the clarification on rules, Alexis.
    And I agree on the back-story, it has to fit and not break the campaign setting.
    A random background generation is good to challenge the player with, something they may not have considered.


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