Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dogs Interview

I don't normally listen to podcasts, mostly because I don't have time, but I've been home sick with the Bacon Fever the last few days, so I gave a few a listen.

Since we're playing Dogs at the moment, I checked out this interview by "ninjas vs pirates" with Vincent regarding Dogs.

I was impressed with the interview. They'd clearly done their homework, because they asked a bunch of questions that had popped up in Story Games threads from the previous couple of weeks. Vincent was cogent as always (is it just my New Zealand ear, or does he sound just like Adam from Mythbusters?). I think what I found most interesting was how they asked about specific mechanics, and how that contributed to the way the game plays. That was interesting from the perspective of playing Dogs, and from the perspective of designing games.

For my own play of Dogs, the question about "what's at stake" in conflicts was the most relevant. In our last game, we'd had a conflict where it took us a long time to figure out exactly what was at stake. I think we came to the right conclusion in the end, but some of the advice in the interview would have helped.

I'm definitely going to check out part two of the interview.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

"Roleplaying" in RPGs

I've been having a frustrating couple of weeks with Story Games. It seems like the interesting threads with good topics get ignored, while bickering and inane banter just piles up the comments. I guess I'm mostly frustrated because I feel like I've made some interesting comments which haven't had any kind of useful response. So in other words, I'm feeling whiny because I haven't been getting enough attention.

Rob Bohl started an interesting thread about encountering players for whom "roleplaying" was an undesirable impediment to the process of playing roleplaying games. The thread (and my comments in it) didn't get the attention I think it deserved, so I'm blogging about it here.

This is largely a semantic issue, which usually means it's boring and pointless, but I thought it was a good opportunity to expand on a thought that had been percolating in the back of my mind for a while.

I think that "roleplaying", in the sense that the gamer Rob is talking about means it, is best described as a set of techniques. An (incomplete) list of these techniques would look something like this:
  • Saying aloud what your character says
  • Thinking about and describing "what your character would do"
  • Having your character interact socially with other characters in the fiction
  • Describing non-essential information about what your character does
These techniques are often very important to people's experience of roleplaying games, to the point that games that don't support these techniques are often described as "not roleplaying games".

Defining what a roleplaying game is is a notoriously difficult subject, because, I think, there's no clear consensus on which techniques are essential to defining a game as such. For example, there are a large number of techniques that are employed in "traditional" RPGs but not in some newer games, leading some people to lable those new games "not RPGs". Some of these techniques include:
  • Each player controlling one in-game "piece"
  • Increasing in-game effectiveness
  • Mechanics for simulating violence
  • A "GM" or similar
I think most people likely to be reading this would agree that none of those techniques are essential to a roleplaying game. I'd like to argue, therefore, that the techniques from the first list are not essential either. They're all techniques that are commonly associated with RPGs, but none of them alone make or break the definition.

So are there any techniques that are essential to something being an RPG or not? The best I can come up with is the idea of a shared imagined space.

"Shared Imagined Space" is the idea that the players all contribute to a shared understanding of what is happening in a fictional space. In short, it's players describing fictional stuff about what's happening in the game, and the other players all agreeing that yes, that is happening.

But Shared Imagined Space itself doesn't make an RPG, right? Otherwise you could describe stuff happening in your game of Monopoly, like "oh, the hat and the iron are getting married" or whatever, and make it an RPG. Some people play a lot of games like this (especially games like "Bang!" and "Lunch Money"), but I don't think that makes them RPGs.

Or maybe it does. I don't know, but it doesn't sit easy with me, mostly because I hate playing games like this.

So another way to think about it, that gets around that problem, is to define RPGs by the use of the technique of Shared Imagined Space with impact on the mechanics of the game.

In other words, you describe stuff, and what you describe has an impact on how the rules of the game work. Purely based on judgements about the fictional content of the game, you make decisions about how to impliment the rules of the game.

That's a pretty controversial definition though. It excludes some indie favourites like "Contenders", and nearly excludes "My Life With Master", and I would argue (based on my previous post) that it comes close to excluding D&D4E as well.

So it's close, but not quite right. It's floating around in there though. It's something about how the Shared Imagined Space impacts on the game, or on the decisions that the players make.

In the end though, I don't think it's a very useful thing to have a definition of what is, or is not, an RPG. I think it's more useful to look at the whole list of techniques I described above, and look at a game as having more or less "RPG qualities". That's a useful definition I think, because it frees up thinking about designing and playing games. There is no technique that is "essential" to an RPG, and there is no technique that is forbidden. Not all RPGs use the same techniques, and when you play an RPG, it is useful to be aware of the techniques it supports.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Gaming and Hierarchy

This post on Chris's blog that links to this post about sexism and violence as "stress release" in RPGs got me thinking about hierarchy in gaming groups and how there are some issues that are kind of "third rails" in discussion of gaming. They're sure to produce sparks when you bring them up.

One of them is the issue of "wish fulfilment" in gaming, how people play these games so they can do things they can't do in day-to-day life. That's an interesting subject, but I think it's being covered in the discussion on Chris's post.

What I've been thinking about though is hierarchy in games, how RPGs sometimes act as a way for groups to reinforce the power structure of the group, how "in character" actions can be a substitute for real life actions, and how sometimes real life issues come out "in game" in ways that we don't expect. I think sometimes players use "in character" actions as a way of keeping others in line socially. I know that looking back at even some quite recent play, there were times when people's in-character actions were clearly about punishing a player for not playing "right", and for not fitting in with the group.

I think "the party" is a pretty clear metaphor for the out-of-play social group.

This is most obvious in adolescent play, where there's a lot of tension and one-up-man-ship in play, where the players are all struggling to define themselves against each other. A lot of interpersonal aggression comes out as in character bickering, fighting, and so on. I don't think it's an accident that GMs tend to be the more socially competent and respected members of their groups. I think the amount of power that traditional games give GMs over the players in the game is directly related to the ways that the people who habitually take the GM role dominate their social groups. I know this was a feature of my early play, and from listening to others, I don't think that's an unusual experience.

I want to take a moment to say that I'm not at all bagging on the concept of GMs in games, or saying that roleplaying is an inherently damaging activity for young people. I'm saying that the format of gaming which has a GM position with considerable power over a group of players naturally facilitates and reinforces the existing social structure of a lot of social groups, and that in-game actions are not exempt from the interpersonal relationships that exist in those groups.
Groups reproduce in play the power structure that exists outside of play. So groups with a strong leader type are going to gravitate towards games that facilitate that role.

I talked about some of this stuff in my post grad thesis, which was about the local gaming club in my town. I didn't really have the roleplaying experience or theoretical grounding to explore the idea fully at the time, but I was very aware of the way that the GM position worked in social groups, and how in-game actions reflected out-of-game social structures. I wrote about how the breakdown in a game I observed was directly related to the power struggle between two players in the group.

Of course, none of this made me very popular in the club. Talking about this stuff was implicitly forbidden. The "It's just a game" mantra was strongly invoked to dispel any analysis of power in gaming.

I think it's pretty clear that it's not "just a game", and that social structures do influence the way people play with each other. What I'm interested in is not the really obviously dysfunctional ways that adolescent players interact with each other in play, but rather the way that all in-game actions are really interpersonal interactions.

I think as a hobby we've got this really strong cognitive divide between "in character" and "out of character" as two totally distinct things. It's an article of faith that what happens in play is totally distinct from our real-life social interactions, and I think that's a mistaken idea.

Not that that is a particularly original observation, but I think it's an important consideration to keep in mind during play, and in design. All interactions between characters are interpersonal interactions between players in the game. They are all "real life" interactions. I think that's one of the strong differences between rpgs and other mediums, and it's both a strength and a weakness of the hobby.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Review of "Radiance" by M.J.Graham

Here's Vincent from his blog:

"Let's say that you're playing a character who the rest of us really like a lot. We like him a whole lot. We think he's a nice guy who's had a rough time of it. The problem is, there's something you're trying to get at with him, and if he stops having a rough time, you won't get to say what you're trying to say.

Our hearts want to give him a break. For the game to mean something, we have to make things worse for him instead.

I'm the GM. What I want more than anything in that circumstance - we're friends, my heart breaks for your poor character, you're counting on me to give him more and more grief - what I want is rules that won't let me compromise.

I don't want to hurt your character and then point to the rules and say "they, they made me hurt your character!" That's not what I'm getting at.

I want, if I don't hurt your character, I want you to point to the rules and say, "hey, why didn't you follow the rules? Why did you cheat and let my guy off the hook? That sucked." I want the rules to create a powerful expectation between us - part of our unity of interest - that I will hurt your character. Often and hard."

So what I think Vincent's saying here is that the point of game rules is to make things happen at the table that no one wants to see happen, but players are invested enough in the rules of the game that they go with it anyway.

It's that bit in the game where a character is on the brink, hanging off the edge of the cliff, and everyone's cheering for him to drag himself back up, but they know that if that die comes up a 1, he's going over.

It's that bit where the couple is fighting and hurting each other, and everyone's hoping that they'll stop it and get back together, but the dice go the other way, and everyone's heart breaks but they go with it.

That (Vincent argues, and I agree), is what conflict resolution is for.

"Radiance", (link is to pdf) a free game by M.J.Graham, is designed with a different philosophy, I think.

What the game's rules do basically is apportion out narration rights to various players. One player describes some stuff happening, other players suggest complications or "redirections" that may occur, and you draw beads from a bag to see if the redirection is relevant or not. If it is, the player who introduced it gets to narrate what happens next. There's no direction as to how the "redirection" affects the story, just a change in narrator.

So the game doesn't introduce anything into the fiction that the players don't want to be there.

But that's good, right? It means the only stuff that happens is stuff that the players want to happen!

I don't agree. Vincent again (from the same essay):
"The only worthwhile use for rules I know of is to sustain in-game conflict of interest, in the face of the overwhelming unity of interest of the players. "

In other words, if your game rules aren't providing some tension in play, if they're not "pushing back" against the unity of interest of the players, they don't achieve anything. I think what "Radiance" boils down to is M.J.Graham giving you permission to tell a story with your friends.

Let me expand on that. What the rules of "Radiance" do is apportion out narration to various players. They tell you who gets to speak at what time. But there's no rationale for why this particular configuration is better than any other. What does distributing narration around the table add to a story? Why do you need a bag of beads and some candles to do that? If you're going to tell a story with your friends, why would you bother with this, rather than any other way of telling a story?

The author reenforces this impression at the end of the document in a "Q&A" section:

"Why don't you give more tips or instructions on how to make a story?

Because I don't think I know more than you do about creating good stories. I certainly don't know more than you do about creating the kind of stories that you enjoy. Besides, there's nothing I can tell you that you won't pick up faster and more completely than by creating your own stories. "

So what's the game for?