Sunday, January 24, 2021

Roleplaying Games might not be games anymore (although it's in the title)

I should find ways to check my blogroll more often ... Anyway, here are my thoughts on the post What is a Game over on Classic RPG Realm (it's good reading). I commented there as well (comment still pending as of this writing), go at it here from scratch and from another angle.

Not yet back to full form (and I should start talking about something else, maybe), but I gave it my best shot. Here's to more writing in 2021! I'll try to keep it short ...

So 5e is not a game, is it?

Classic RPG Realm (CRR for short?) goes with the definition offered by a philosopher called Bernard Suits called Lusory attitude (wiki source for the following book quote):

"To play a game is to attempt to achieve a specific state of affairs [prelusory goal], using only means permitted by rules [lusory means], where the rules prohibit use of more efficient in favour of less efficient means [constitutive rules], and where the rules are accepted just because they make possible such activity [lusory attitude]."

I can only argue against what is written above (haven't read the book, but it isn't necessary for the argument I'm going to make), and I would say that while the quote above mirrors to some extent what is happening before and during a "game", it is vague in what I deem most necessary, that (as he puts it) "specific state of affairs": the motivation.

The reason to engage and invest is our most fundamental drive for all activities, and shapes our personalities as much as it expresses them. We do stuff for fun, of course, but also out of friendship or pride or guilt or greed or fame or dopamine or ... well, there is a whole hierarchy of reasons to do anything (or nothing) at all.

So, where I think the definition above is faulty might best be described as a lack of First Principle Thinking (following Elon Musk's definition here, as per the link): the evidence suggests that "gaming" traditionally* is not a separate activity that is to be distinguished from other activities people engage with, as for instance "play" naturally emerges with children as a method of learning and could therefore be argued as a fundamental means to learn about the world surrounding us. It is a variant of adaptation, as can be observed from very early on with babies, for instance. A theme we carry with us through life.


Proof that we are biologically and psychologically wired like that can easily be found in all research out there about immersion and flow states and all that other fun stuff we experience when reading or when "playing". Sports would in that regard be a rudimentary form of "play", so this can be applied very broadly. As a matter of fact, the etymological meaning of "game"  not only derives from old versions of "fun" and "entertainment", it actually includes "sport" (from Old Norse).

And this is where, in my opinion, First Principle Thinking is applicable. At some point we started deluding the original meaning of "game" towards an analogy to what we saw around us instead of connecting it with why we are motivated to do the things we do. In assuming there is a distinction to very fundamental (biological, even) functions we need to exercise in order to thrive, one must end up with something like the definition offered above.

Mr. Suit furthermore defines games as "the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles" (same book, same wiki quote), and I take issue with the word "unnecessary" here, for the reasons summoned above. To solve, for instance, a morale dilemma in a "virtual" or mind space is no different than doing so in reality and by no means trivial. We learn and grow by doing (playing!) those thought experiments.

What's more, taking the "game" serious can actually yield tremendous emotional feedback. In other words, the more a "player" believes it to be real, the more they are engaged, the more insight they may potentially take away from the experience. I'd argue that one could not achieve that kind of involvement without acknowledging that our need to "game" is deeply wired into personal growth and learning!


However, the meaning of words may change ...

We need proper definitions to describe and (ultimately) understand reality. It's how we roll. There happened a lot in the good old world since Old Norse had need to describe it. Things actually changed quite a bit, and so did our entertainment. The question is if the meaning of the word "game" changed with it or if we just expanded on the semantic content the word carries.

This isn't a binary problem contained to the described metric, in my opinion. It needn't be just the one or the other, it rather offers an opportunity: we can define us within that (fake, see below) spectrum between the traditional or modern understanding of what "games" are or we can exclude roleplaying games from being "games" as per the definition mainstream keeps pushing as the new reality what "games" are supposed to be. Because that's where that new definition of "games" nowadays comes from, which would be something to consume, entertainment for entertainment's sake while generating enough motivation to make one pay for it.

Again, if you see "gaming" as an activity isolated from activities necessary for personal growth (as in learning or doing sports, for instance), you end up seeing (and treating) it as a commodity in the classical economical fashion, which MUST lead to a process in which you sooner or later derive the isolated activity of all, say, more artsy or even spiritual elements and reduce it to the equvalent of a theme park experience. And that is, ultimately, what 5e attempts to be.

Hence, my argument would be two-fold. While 5e might be less of a game in a more traditional* sense, it is very much so in the common understanding of the word. We can easily acknowledge that. However, that has huge implications for those more traditional* roleplaying games, as they (and the title of this post already alludes to as much) are not games anymore.

Different realities [source]

See what I did there? The meaning shifted, not the activity. But what does that leave us with? Well, anyone spending any time here on the blog should have an inkling where I'm heading with this ...  If roleplaying games are, indeed, a form of medium (like books or movies are) and if we can accept that all those "classic" mediums are symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality, altered to offer growth through interaction, then we already have our answer. Somewhat.

Here's what I'm saying in other terms: rpgs offer, just like books and movies and all other mediums, an invitation to explore reality by other means (rules, languages, pictures ...). This is the core value of roleplaying games. That the means of interaction with this specific medium can be described as "playing" or "gaming" is only problematic if those words can not mean the same as "reading a book".

To be a traditional rpg, it needs to mirror reality in some non-trivial capacity. In other words, it needs to offer patterns that relate to our understanding of how things work. Can have magic and monsters and all that, but must follow the principle of "what if magic was real" or "what if monsters were real". It needs to connect meaningfully so that those interacting with the medium can extract insight from it that applies to their life. It needs reference to test hypothesis ...

On the other side, if characters are always winning with no risk of death, damage, loss or injury, if the learning pattern is reduced to some form of accumulation dissociated from actions or capabilities (xp just for playing or being there, for instance), if all of it is, in short, reduced to mindless entertainment (as in, entertainment that suggests the mind needn't be engaged**), we sure could argue that we are talking about different types of activity.

And if furthermore the definition of what the word "game" means is shifted so far from the requirements described above that the experience doesn't match that way anymore between editions of the same product (say, 2e vs. 5e), we might have to (at least) make those distinctions known.

Other mediums have the same problem, oh my!

Yes, it's true, the requirements stated above also don't apply to all media. Or rather, all media can manifest more on the 5e side of things. I can't argue that, instead I would say it actually proves my point. If you reduce all forms of entertainment to commodities, you will observe the same phenomena across all media for the same reasons.

Here's an angle that highlights the problem from another side: one way to see that this is true is that the content of media is more and more questioned and then regulated along ideologic or political guidelines. Huckleberry Finn was censored and is censored instead of being discussed in its (historical or morale) context and the discussion if orcs are racist just can't seem to die (they aren't, here's why), to name but two examples.

How does this relate, you might ask? Well, if entertainment is generally deemed a commodity instead of, say, a form of expression (or a sport or even an artform!), it is obvious that those not understanding this as a misconception are tempted to superficially "fill" content with the meaning they see fit or change it to their liking. It's not a new problem, but one that occurs more and more regularly, actually to an extend where people (today (again?) start to self-censor to avoid social media repression (one shouldn't break the law, of course).

And that's just that, since the phenoma are similar across all media, we can not only postulate that rpg are a form of media, but also say that there is a meaninfull distinction between media manifesting as commodity (basically the big corp. or capitalist appproach) and the manifestation as some form of "symbolic (or abstract) representations of reality" (or art, maybe?).

There is a struggle going on and one could be inclined to call it more of a spectrum (art - commodity). However, that would imply that we will see a measurable and more or less static expression of all forms of manifestations across said spectrum, and that definitely is NOT the case as one side (the commodity-side) more and more dominates the other***.

In its extreme, the consumer-approach to media could destroy or taint almost all forms of meaningfull medial expression. Everythig is a theme park, everything is a beautiful icecream cone and everything costs while being a meaningless waste of time. Nothing will relate to reality. Consequently, you own nothing, you owe instead of earning and you do nothing but being entertained as it is deemed proper and ...


We are talking extremes here, of course. Not saying any of this is happening, of course. Microtransactions are fake news, of course ...

Anyway, I digress. The terms "game" and "play" can only mean all of it if one isn't trying to own and destroy the other with an agenda to hold sway on how reality is to be interpreted. It is a general problem concerning all media, and it needs to be addressed.

A rose is a rose is a rose ...

I sure don't have all the answers, but if 5e wants to be a game, it can have the monicker, but it isn't a "traditional" rpg anymore and we should start exploring what those old rpgs are or how to call "our" way of interacting with that new form of medium in a hostile media landscape ... This is my little contribution towards that end, and there will be more of the same in the future (I hope).

Let's close with saying it's a complex issue, but very much worth exploring and talking about, as there are real dangers in how we treat our media. I see a lot of freedom vanishing with big publishers getting more and more powerful. Little voices disappear, big corp dictates the narrative and something needs to be done about that.

Just saying "5e isn't a game" touches on some truth, but really doesn't cut it, imo. 5e is on the winning side, and if we want to see some change, we let them have the terminology and come up with our own. Or at least create some awareness to the difference between playing as a consumer and participating meaningfully in a media-driven interaction.

So what do you guys think?


*Damn, first footnote in ages, feels like. Anyway, "traditionally" is unfortunately a very vague term in this regard, as the original western (culturally, not etymologically) understanding of playing or gaming was that it's a waste of time. It's that old-timey concept you might know from your grandparents, for instance. So to be more precise about what we are saying here, I'd define "traditionally" as the short period of time when psychology recognized the value of play and before it the culture shifted the terminology towards gaming being a commodity. For anyone interested in an excellent treatment of the subject, I recommend this paper by Piaget as a good starting point. I'd wager it mirrors Gygax's understanding of what play means, as he grew up with teachers echoing it into schools ... it's definitely what I'm talking about here.

** Which is, btw, my main gripe with this sort of thing: since we still interact, suggesting that we don't need to reflect on what we are experiencing is VERY VERY problematic as it very nicely covers all forms of manipulation up to infecting people's minds with all sorts of dangerous ideologies. You were just reading Harry Potter, now you accept a society ruled by the elites, that kind of thing ...

*** Ok, this might be a more controversial opinion. That said, scientifically speaking, spectrums describe a more or less static order between two extremes, or if there are shifts, they are also at least cyclic, so that there might be differences in different states, but an overall constant that allows a classification as "spectrum". I'd argue that this isn't the case here, as one form of media expression seems to supersede the other ...

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Innovation in RPG-Land Part 3: Good rules are hard to write (or so the song goes)

I'll just pretend 2020 didn't happen, if that's alright with you ... I've done lots of posts over the years about how design emerges from scratch to finish. At least as far as concepts go. I also can DM those designs or even get others to DM them. The next problem, however, is writing them down in a way that someone who just read the rules is able to DM them as I would. It's my attempt to map how innovation is linked to several aspects on why and how we write rules. It was one of the hardest posts to write, btw. Took me months ...

Eric over at the Methods & Madness blog incidentally started a series some time ago that goes in a very similar direction and you can check out Part 1 of that series here

Also have Part 1 and Part 2 of my thoughts on this from different angles ...

Where to begin?

From a designer's point of view, you'll have to write your concepts down, but with me it turned out to be more of a stream of consciousness type of organization and bound to be patchwork to some degree. I tried writing the rules for the game I'm working on down in a somewhat coherent way, but I gave them to test-readers and the result was in almost all cases the same: no one could have reproduced the rules. No one understood the game just from reading what I gave them (sorry about that, guys).

Which leads to the first important insight, I guess. Rule books should fulfill at least three basic functions: (1) reading them from front to back should teach you the game proper and how to use the book when playing it, which (2) means that the information presented should also be arranged in a way that allows easy access to all relevant material (tables, lists, generators, etc.) and (3) should work as a reference guide for all terminology the game uses (which means it needs an extensive glossary). Well, that and it should look nice, doesn't it?

However, that's 'just' superficial structure (or rather, something a publication needs to feature) and not yet rules presented in words (or graphics or pictures ...). It doesn't answer the question of how exactly all that information needs to be arranged for optimal effect. It is not enough to say "Well, you have to do it right, of course!" (which seems the go-to kind of advice you get when you ask people that don't know any better and it isn't helpful). It just covers typographical information structure, if you will.

Standards? What standards?

All right, all right, so I have a shit-ton of information I need to arrange in a meaningful way and I need to hit the notes I described above while doing so. How do I do that and where do I look for examples? The first thing would be to research how we learn new things, right?

Right. While it is true that we all learn differently (we can even chose between different models about how differently we are learning, figure that), the first thing we need to realize is that even if every individual would have an approach that'd be ideal for them to learn, well, anything, common sense dictates that whoever is reading a book might have learned all kinds of different techniques with all kinds of varied success (or lack thereof) and therefore ... it doesn't matter that much?

[source of original]

Sort of. It depends on how big of an overlap between the game you wrote and what happens at any given table you actually want (or need) to make the game a success. If you write a D&D clone, you can full well expect that most of the people showing any interest at all already know the original rules and (at best) will be looking for the odd rules variant they can use for their homebrew instead of actually playing the clone as written. The rules needn't be coherent or even complete to make a clone accessible for the intended target group.

With varying degree the same is true for games hewing close to the established basic assumptions of what role-playing games are (i. e., other popular brands ... it's not that anyone made an effort to create such an understanding beyond that). Abilities and Skills and some sort of die system to glue it all together while being reminiscent of "that one popular game". It'll get all the more traction the more familiarity with something known makes access easy. The further you go away from the "known", the more difficult it'll be to explain a game ... up to the point where people actually won't put in the effort to learn your game (which is a totally different story, I guess).

That said, all of the above is more or less betting on the "overlap" as a way to get a game played at all, even if it just plays like any other game of CoC (or whatever). The more "original" a game is, the more a designer will have to actually explain how a reader will be able to play the game as the designer would. The text needs to be written and presented in a way that allows strangers to recreate the experience of playing that one specific game.

A game like that would need to be as complete as possible and thoroughly tested. All possibilities of how that game might manifest need to be addressed. The onformation needs to be arranged ... carefully, which is why we should take a closer look at those games to get an idea how to make that work, exactly.

Words carry meaning (when arrayed properly)

It is not surprising that successfull games can make for good examples. Since "successfull" is a matter of debate, I'd go for those games that managed to change the gaming culture lastingly. Take Vampire: the Masquerade, for example. Undeniable impact, completely new set of rules ...

How did they present their game? Lots of exposition. Tons of it: First edition (1991) starts with a narrator, goes on establishing the world of darkness and its terms, then lays down a general understanding of how to play the game (defining the designer's stance and philosophy or approach, no rules yet), again with lots of little flavor pieces in between (Book of Nod, quotes, heavy on the artwork as well to get a reader in the mood) and it's only at page 31 (the beginning of chapter 2) that they go into the rules proper.

If the reader is invested at that point, it is in the world not the rules. It inspires readers to explore a world of gothic punk, and the 90s where full of sources to fuel something like that (The Crow, Anne Rice, Tim Burton ... it was heavey on the zeitgeist). Getting the genre and setting across like they managed to, activated people enough to go and read how they can play in that world. You wanted to know how to play a Vampire and how to experience stories in this world. You were left wanting more. I'd argue that a huge part of the success of Vampire was having a hierarchy to the presented information. It penned out the possibilities of the stories players will experience using the terminology of that world before showing how to actually do that. It's genius. A perfect storm of timing, presentation and innovation.


So other than being typocraphically challenging, it is the order of the information you present that is of great importance (with art and artwork being a third layer a good rpg book might need to exhibit). It is why we should assume linear reading as one main way of reception, btw, as it is most likely the first appoach anyone will make with any book (maybe after looking at the pictures first). The best way to get some handle on the contents of a book is to read it from beginning to end, so that should best be accomodated and encouraged.

You should also make the terminology the game uses as clear as possible from the beginning AND the terminology needs to be chosen carefully as well (as the terms used regularly will color the gaming experience). In general it seems best to start wide, leaving lots of room for the reader to get comfortable and oriented. Get more and more specific and find ways to keep the reader engaged, for instance by using connected and colorful examples and artwork as well as a typocraphical structure to have the reader informed about where they are at all times.

Alter the tone as well. Be precise when talking rules, be conversational when talking concepts and build tension when telling stories. Make clear distinctions when shifting between tones.

It is a matter of taste, now, if you write with the Gamemaster in mind from the beginning. Arguably, the only person reading a role-plaing book completely is the person actually willing to make a game happen, so there is that. It doesn't hurt, however, to start with the general assumptions of a game and have the more specific stuff (that'll definitely be for the DM) more in the back. I'd say most structures will lend themselves towards a general part in the beginning and the gamemaster part in the end.

Lots of craft (some talent, some luck)

Well, that's the scope of it. But why is it relevant? Maybe it tries to show that there's lots of room to grow when designing rules. Maybe it makes an argument for the worth of the hard work that goes into writing and designing rules. It's a craft.

Recognition is a completely different aspect, though, as is success. Both are only barely connected to how "good" a work is. If you are putting out good work constantly, there are good chances that it'll be recognized somehow, although the degree is dependant on factors that mean additional work unrelated to creating (that is: marketing).

In my experience (limited as it may be), just putting in the work will impress people most of the time, irregardless of the quality of the work. Getting them engaged enough to actually invest into it is an entirely different matter. Creating enough buzz to actually finance a work is another job altogether.

Art adds yet another dimension to craft (is there art without craft? I'd say: no), but not necessarily in a linear fashion (as in: craft allows manifesting art as intended, but mastering a craft is a worthy goal in itself) and it might even be harder to do marketing for. Those innovating will always have a harder time to also sell it.  

Talent, finally, would be how fast you pick up a craft and how far you can push it.

Talent is where talent goes ... [Source]

The rest is luck, or ...

Is that it?

Unfortunately not, as far as culture is concerned. Creating is a high risk, high reward endeavor because we, as a culture, make it so. Used to, anyway. In our digital age it seems more and more like something that an entitled group of people is allowed to get an audience for: big corp (Disney, among few others) and the dopamine-dependant shills that dominate twitter with empty but popular and intoxicating word-clouds ...

I digress, but not without reason. Mentioning the culture is important in that creators can only create, the culture is what carries and forwards them. If a culture shifts significantly into one direction, it doesn't change what's available, it changes what is picked as relevant. Access is not only about who gets a platform, it's also about what is favored. Both shape and color the input, which then encourages creators to act certain ways.

It's easy to see if a culture stifles or favors innovation and who has access to it by looking at the output it allows and the standards it endorses. Which neatly brings us back to writing rules well, I guess. As established above, rules only need to be written very well when the designs they describe are not already established to some degree or another.

If the only games getting tracktion are revisions of something already established, you have indicators on hand that the culture (or scene) involved is stagnating for lack of innovation. And if innovation is lacking, it's not (never) for the lack of potential. So there is one example. School books might be another good example where the discrepancy between what's possible and what's done is easily asserted. And so it goes.

Coming full circle (where to stop?)

So, fucking Covid, right? Sorry, couldn't resist the punchline ... The whole pandemic-business is changing our culture massively right now. If you take 5 years to write a game, and you started 5 years ago from today, the perception of what was already written will have shifted dramatically between 2019 and 2020 alone. There's no helping it, might shift further as well. It might even be almost impossible to assert how the (imminent?) changes in culture actually affect a work about to be ublished, but mostly written with a different cultural background in mind.

In conclusion, good rules are hard to write and depend as much on the climate and culture they are written in as on the craft and talent of the author. 

If nothing else, I hope this mess of a text (and the other parts of this series) help a bit showcasing the importance of culture beyond monetary gain and the importance of innovation. RPG-material just doesn't appear without context, it almost always echoes the surroundings it appears in. Nurturing innovation needs nurturing in a culture.

 Which just ends up producing more questions I don't have an answer to: what is the status of our little rpg-scene? Is it nurturing? Are there any problems, maybe? If so, what could we do to make it better? So, what do you guys think?