Sunday, January 23, 2022

The World of Ø2\\'3||: Engineered Social Behaviour in Dystopias (also talking Player Agency)

I will make it a thing to post once a month about Ø2\\'3|| (read ORWELL, because Leet Speak), that dystopian cyberpunk rpg I wrote. In this series I'll explore the setting a bit, give advice about how to play or prepare the game, might even talk a bit about aspects about the design here and there. I'll try and keep it general enough to be useful for other (cyberpunk) games, though. This one will be about THE GAME VS. PLAYER AGENCY, or what characters might be willing to do that would not necessarily in the best interest of the players, and why that's a good thing (for the challenges the game wants to present). I'll go as deep as I dare here ...


Player Agency is about the limits players are willing to impose on themselves while playing a specific game with a specific gamemaster. Challenging those limits continiously through playing the game will map an EVENT HORIZON for all involved to a degree that it creates a space in which free expression for players is possible as the results of their actions are proven predictable within that space. Those limitations might be about social interaction, rules of the game as well as narrative control and its interpretation by the gamemaster. If all involved can agree upon and maintain the established limits, then Player Agency is not impaired or threatened.
Agency in a World of Slaves

Ø2\\'3|| plays in a dystopian Europe in the year 2081, a not so distant future (as in, people are already born that will see that future). It is a satire on what could go wrong with our society and culture and a game about how to face those (fictive) dangers. A huge part of that world is about control.

As a matter of fact, the powers that be (a political party called The Family is ruling the United States of Europe, USE for short) excise control over their subjects from as early on as conception (all artificial, of course, natural birth has been outlawed long ago). With chips in their brain and AI-powered augmentation of the "real world", hardly any citizen knows more than they are allowed to know. The population is controlled with hard-, wet- and software, with drugs and through media and corporate social engineering with a brutal (and injust) social credit system as the icing of the cake.

When they are done with creating and teaching their citizens, there's hardly any free thought left in them. They are completely subdued, their illusion of agency an elaborated ruse full of games and sweets and energy drinks and rainbows.

See, it's not a bad world to live in if you know nothing else. Entertainment is cheap, the gamified surroundings keep you playing all the time and the only hardship a citizen will encounter, is their own while everyone else is a-okay, like, all the time (or so their feed tells them through the chip in their brain).

Naturally, controll like that will summon resistance, so some citizens are forced to see reality and once the spell is broken ... you got a game going. And yet, resistrance is difficult and dirty and hungry and opposing a high tech state with only very few dark corners left to hide in.

One of many great illustrations in the book ...
 It'll seem like an impossible challenge. And it should. It's a dystopia, after all. To maintain this within the rules, there are some aspects of the game the players will never have any control over. For instance, if a roll of the dice comes up with an 8 and an 1, the situation will escalate for the worse (the so-called "Rule of 81").

The DM is also playing a game on their own where they earn points they can use against the players, but the rules might force them to do so as well, and while the players have some control over how many of those points a DM has, it's almost always connected with a decision to make the DM stronger for an advantage (by "paying" for the advantage) or accepting a disadvantage to keep the DM weak.

There is more. A character's social status will affect how much advertisement they are exposed to (among various other things), with hard disadvantages to being low in status. Characters will not be able to concentrate properly because of the constant media input, and might even make impulse purchases with credits they don't have, ending up in debt, starting to spiral into worse.

Of course, characters will not have to endure those limitations if they find ways around it OR play by the rules the fictional society of Ø2\\'3|| implores (which are cruel, naturally).

A final example how the game simulates character restrictions is how Anger works. The Family prefers their citizens to be docile, of course, and it is a natural state for citizens living in the USE to be just that. Which is why Anger is something a character must collect over time. Actually, characters need to be angry enough to use force to begin with.

Just like a character with very low hit points won't be able to do much of anything (as most systems will have most activities of badly injured characters penalized), characters with low Anger will only support in a fight, but not fight themselves. On the other hand, characters might be so angry that everything they do will seem like some form of aggression or provocation.

The players are able to control that by controlling the Anger score of a character, but once a character is Angry, the surroundings will react to them accordingly, regardless of how the player wants it to appear. Players with an angry character would feel the limits of their agency like a drunk trying to convince cops that he's are able to drive on ...

Challenging Player Agency in Ø2\\'3||

A first impulse would be to think that it's a bad idea to constrain player agency as described above. Alas, if players can have their characters do whatever they want, what need would there be to do anything? And, far more importantly: how would characters grow without having their constraints?

Isn't that how learning works? Restraining your agency to achieve a goal that needs that kind of discipline? You don't just get into a car and drive, for instance, it's a set of skills you learn. Languages would be another good example.

Of course people are free to obstain from learning skills like that, but it also comes with the consequence of never obtaining them, in which "agency" will lead to other restrictions (like not being able to drive a car or watching a movie in a foreign language). See, it's not that easy to make free decisions AND stay free or autonomous the whole time. Decisions limit to a degree. Your free decision to use the rules of a specific game will have you submit to those rules, to give another example.

And that's the kind of psychological realism that is woven into the game. Players are encouraged (or "nudged", if you will) into playing a certain way, but also need to challenge that to overcome the system OR go along to see where that leads to ... Ø2\\'3|| is open to that. If you play along with the dystopia, your character might end up being rich and famous, but you'll have to experience (decide, even) what it takes to get there in a system like that.

In a sense the game is at odds with the definition offered above, in that the norms this fictional society adhers to are in opposition to good values still prevalent in our (western) civilization. So playing a "good citizen" might be considered playing an "evil and degenerated" character by today's standards (the game is for adults, after all, and there are some dark topics possible that need consent, so to say, from all involved).

Sometimes just a question of cultural shifts ... [source]
One way to give players agency within those limitations, is by giving them total control over their characater's development. Players can decide on the spot that their character can either do or have something or know someone that could help in a certain situation. There is limits how often they can do that, but they are free to fill these slots within reason.

To a degree, this is where the satire comes in. Here's an excerpt from the DM Section of the game to give you an idea how all of that comes together:

Satire in Ø

According to Wikipedia, satire is about shaming society into improvement by using humor. However, the means of that shaming are of utmost importance. This game is not, for instance, about shaming the players or the DM in any form or capacity.

Instead it is designed to make the players into observers of certain mechanisms while offering the means to alter their characters in a way that potentially helps them to overcome those mechanisms through their actions. For that, the system needs to produce results that provoke ridicule and danger in equal measure while leaving a DM enough wiggle room to frame all that in an engaging narrative.

This means that in Ø satire manifests as the interplay of all those elements, not one single element itself. It is, if you will, the music all of the elements produce in concert.

This also is why satire can successfully make light of taboo issues. If the game summons any provocative issues, the DM will frame it towards what is already established, and the players find ways to deal with it. Since the system produces grotesque scenarios, DM and players are basically forced to act as corrective instances while reflecting the consequences of the scenario and their decisions.

Processing taboo (or tough) subjects like this will make them approachable. It opens them for dialogue and exploration from a safe distance. While this is already somewhat true in narrative spaces, it is the additional layer of satire that positions those topics in a way that invites a mature interaction with them, often through the lense of humor (albeit of a more dark variety).


That said, we can dig a little deeper than that. The game's limits allow insight into reality, to the extent a game can do that. For that, however, we need to know what is possible (which, incidentally leads to the reason to write this post).

Break the Spell for the Player!

Best way to show the discrepancy is revealing the "magic tricks" the characters are manipualted with. Knowing how it works goes a long way in understanding why their characters act without free will in certain situations. It also helps in developing counter-measures, of course, which should be part of a game that is about characters living in a dystopian future. Challenging those very limits on every conceivable level is at the very core of the rules of this game, as you might have guessed already.

But how is it done? The manipulation-thing, that is. Three big terms that keep coming up are Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP), "Nudging" and the acronym MINDSPACE (courtesy of UK tax payer money, no less*). There sure are other programs like this all over the world, be it corporate or by some other government (I know Germany has the very thing, also on public record). Advertisement is using this (or variants thereof) ever since WW2 to sell us stuff we don't want ...

There are other usefull areas, of course. Psychological Warfare (or PsyOps, as the hip kids say) would be one such area, Propaganda another. There is no question that all of those things easily work on huge parts of a population, even without all the fine technologies a dystopian future state would have at their disposal. The knowledge how that works (although public, check out the MINDSPACE link above), is less mainstream.

Which is tragic, actually, as those psychological tools are only working when the population is unaware of them, and they are abused constantly.

Anyway, we are talking here about how future dystopian states as you would encounter in a cyberpunk rpg would abuse that, for instance. So here are the basic ideas:

NLP - The basic idea would be that we understand our reality through the words we use and the meaning we interpret into those words. Thoses values describe a map of our understanding, and (1) they are not fixed, but fluid while (2) allowing short-cuts for easy processing. This is, obviously, wide open for manipulation, as the map can be rewritten and those shortcuts can be abused without our consent, as both operate within the "automatic" side of our decision making. Thinking is, basically, circumvented by appearing, for instance, true or well intended or from a trusted source or even a source of authority.

Rewriting or short-cutting are achieved by creating complex threatening scenarios (for instance that doing something is a punishable crime or harmful) without being concrete about the circumstances and THEN offering easy solutions that are nothing else but the intended policy. The irritated and confused mind looks for an easy out and takes the advice under whatever pretext it was done (say, authority, for instance). Imagine a beaurocrat citing several laws to get you off balance just to offer you that with a little fee it can all be gone ... In a bigger context, say, state-wide, a message needs to be repeated non-stop through all channels to rewrite mind maps like that. A famous (and fitting) example in this context would be from 1984, no less:


NUDGING - This takes the whole concept a bit further by basically reducing the whole short-cutting to symbols. Perfect example for nudging would be the fly you'll find in some public urinals. Men aim for that automatically. You are basically manipulated to piss on a certain spot. This is useful as it seems to reduce cleaning costs by up to 80%!

MINDSPACE - The next step (and not the last or only step) is easy described by taking the acronym apart (from the repot itself):

See p. 14 [source]

And that's the gist of it. A DM that makes themselves familiar with the ideas here and takes a careful look around will find many exsamples for this in real life. What you see when waiting in line at the supermarket? Not at all accidental. Framing? Look at the mainstream media news on almost every topic. They tell you the part they think you should know, always. The intentions are not always as clear, however.

Cancel Culture will give you examples a plenty, too. Look at how people are framed emotionally instead of proof and how others react to that. You will find a lot in the patterns of such an attack described above, same goes for the reactions.

And then think about how all of that is AI-driven in that dark future, how technologies that think million-times faster than we do control us effortlessly to the point that we don't even care and even though we wouldn't necessarily agree with the reasoning behind the control. In general, all of the above can be useful for therapy, of course, and that's a good thing. It's just not what we are talking about here.

What we are talking about here is manipulating a fictive population in a dystopian game into, for instance, docile obedience and how a DM can use those ideas to make their games more realistic.

And that's it.

You have been played ...

Or have you not? Just kidding, you haven't. But now you are thinking about it ... And that's the important part: immunity from manipulation comes from conscious questioning of the impulses our surroundings give us. Not all the time, but if you are more relaxed about something, it should be the result of some form of thought process before that. Don't let anybody tell you that everything is alright, come to that conclusion yourself and act on that.

The advice above can be used or abused. I'd strongly urge you to only use it to exemplify abuse by those in power in the narratives of your games. But make no mistake, those things are all around us right now and should be main tropes for every cyberpunk game (actually, how media and states, for instance, manipulate us should be part of every curriculum, imo).

I hope I managed to lay out the basics of it, as far as I understand them and it'll be useful for our games. This really is a deep hole to dig into.

And the fun part is: players that get it will get a kick out of their characters being manipulated like this, to some extent. Especially when the game is about finding ways to either get away from being used against characters (or even with them using it).

The potential is always there ... [source]


If you are interested in finding out if I actually try to do what I'm talking about above, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3||  right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


* This is about using ideas for your games. Interestingly enough, however, Wikipedia will inform you about NLP being "pseudoscience". Which is a rhetological fallacy, of course, as just the claim doesn't make it so ... Actually, it's a good example for NLP called "framing". Once something is painted a certain way, we more often than not take the easy road, believing someone will have done the work. It is using our wiring to irritate or even exclude close review. Not saying they are trying to manipulate here (as they quote research after that), but look at that MINDSPACE report, which has some very renomated scientists not only telling you the exact opposite, but even keep building on those ideas formulated through NLP! Interesting, isn't it?

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Repost: Misconceptions about Gatekeeping (Opinion Piece, not a rant)

This respost from 2018 was triggered by this post over at Monsters and Manuals. There is no "gatekeeping"? Come on! Sure, everybody can do whatever they want, even publishing. That's just not what gatekeeping means. Gatekeeping means that those who took the same path earlier and with success, will do their best to keep that high position in the hierarchy, which MUST lead to gatekeeping, one way or another. As I say in the post: the matter is not if there is gatekeeping (that's just a reality of life), it is if it's benevolent or not ... Anyway, here we go once more:

You wouldn't think that having an opinion is how "gatekeeping" gets defined nowadays, but that's sure how it's done (happened to me just the other day). You would also think people see right through those things, but that doesn't seem to be the way it goes. Let me propose some ideas and thoughts about that. You are, of course, always encouraged to make up your own opinion, just make it an informed one.

Definitions & Implications

I'd point you to the English Wikipedia article, but the lack of content makes it useless, so we go to the German version instead and translate away (first paragraph, using DeepL):
"In sociology, gatekeepers are people who have the ability or position to influence the rise of people, also known as mobility in sociology."
It's so simple, there's almost no need to explain what this means. People at the top of a hierarchy decide who makes it and who is ... ignored. This is common knowledge. Sociology found this true in schools, in economies, actually, it's true in all the places where hierarchies are established.

The idea of gatekeeping originates from communication science and it is important to mention that the practice itself can be useful or even necessary in certain contexts, while of course bringing lots of responsibility to the one "keeping the gate". Take, for instance, the pre-selection of news before they are published: the criteria with which the available news are filtered and used can have all kinds of good or bad results.

Easy examples for this are found in the thousands. Take newspapers that decided to report unwelcome "truths" but filter politically, to those that filter for commercial reasons. Fake news is a thing for a reason: it shows how those deciding or influencing what is published (the gatekeepers) can and will abuse their power to reach goals that are not within the common interest, but in the interest of the few (whoever benefits from it, generally speaking).

Applying this to a scene or subculture has clear implications, I think, chief among them the realization that there is a distinction between a "scene" and a "hobby" (roughly the distinction between a belief (think "hobby") and a church (think "scene")). I believe it explains rather well how a hobby will have different co-existing (and shifting) scenes and why scenes themselves might end up with some form of hierarchical orders (like churches would). It also explains the dynamics that will be at work.

So scenes move and shift in the greater context of the hobby, hierarchies form and change the same way. The OSR is to be understood in this way: it's one scene among countless others in our hobby. As a matter of fact (and to be perfectly clear about this) some form of distinction is crucial to have such a thing as a scene (think catholics and protestants, to keep it with religious analogy), so you will have to state characteristics of distinction if you want to belong. Always.

Having established borders like this ("3e sucks" or "Traveller is the only true SF RPG!", insert your own), a scene will form hierarchies, mainly based on popularity and to some degree on competence, depending on how possible it is to assess or achieve any of that. I'd say the OSR is mostly popularity-driven (adding some competence from the successful publishers and some artists). 

Example of malevolent hierarchy ... [source]
Those at the top of the established hierarchy now naturally form cliques of supporters around them, and the next thing you will get are camps within a scene where each camp struggles for a better position in the hierarchy (pick the last flame war and you know what I mean). Given that this is mostly about opinions and artificial borders and with no objective measurement other than commercial success (which is to some extent arbitrary and/or manipulated by the same mechanisms), this all must come down to politics of taste.

And that's where gatekeeping comes in. Every scene has people that decide what gets popular and what doesn't. So if you are part of a clique, support will be voiced and a infrastructure of more or less sufficient sales-manufacturing instances is triggered, ensuring commercial availability and with that, success (which loops back to keeping yourself popular).

If you aren't part of a clique, the question arises how to gain access to one. This is the crucial choke point, the proverbial gate. I would argue it is also crucial in that it is the very point where it reveals if a scene is fair or corrupt.

The Corruption of the OSR?

In a perfect world, those at the top of a hierarchy would have the best in mind for the group. Publishers filter for true genius or art instead of going with what works, is popular or transports hidden agendas. Newspapers inform the public about what is relevant and offer information with the means for the individuals to form their own opinions instead of creating fake news or working for big corp or politicians.

However, we aren't living in a "perfect world", if such a thing could even exist. Instead we live in a world where those things coexist in a duality. That doesn't mean it has to be both all the time, one scene can be more or less completely corrupt and another one more or less fair. This opens a new line of inquiry: how to measure corruption in a scene. Let's look into that.

A most basic definition of corruption is (according to
"Corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for private gain."
Again, simple enough. How to measure (or proof) this in a community is a completely different animal. We have indicators for this, although indirectly (or concluding from established general research towards how it could manifest in communities).
There is proof that marginalization of people leads to criminal/aggressive behavior (here, have one paper on the subject, if you search for it, there is way more) and you can say that one of the main forces behind criminal (aggressive) behavior is the perception that a rise in the social hierarchy is prohibited if not impossible. This connects nicely to what is already established about gatekeepers further above.

It's important to understand that we have to take into account that we are applying those ideas to a social media environment, which means that "crime" and "aggression" will manifest somewhat differently while the social mechanisms are still very much in effect.

We also have to take into account that the only fair measurement of corruption in a society is based on its perception (at least that's what's used, see linked above). Which isn't conclusive at all, but can give implications. So you'll have a higher mortality rate of critical journalism in corrupt countries, for instance. Corruption has measurable consequences.

I'd like to add that "social capital" is another important aspect to consider, not necessarily "just" monetary gain. There is also a strong trend to mix personal politics in all of this, which doesn't help.

With all those restrictions in place, we can go and make fair and conclusive assumptions how the perception of corruption in a scene like the OSR might manifest in what outside the social media environment could be perceived as criminal or aggressive behavior, or the appropriate equivalent thereof.

If I had more time on my hands and if I where more than an enthusiast for social science and psychology, I'd try to formulate some indicators for a healthy community and collect data to index all that. I'm not, so we'll have to work with some rough concepts here (would be willing to do so, if someone with an academic background would be willing to help). Here's a couple of good indicators:
  • TRANSPARENCY: We already established that the scene is not the hobby, but the same is true for commercial interests. The clearer a distinction can be made between the commercial interests of an individual acting in the community and its contribution to said community, the better (the more transparent, the less corrupt).
  • FAIR MODERATION: A hierarchy comes with responsibility for those higher up. How easy it is to address the hierarchy and how those in the higher positions interact with the rest (benevolent, malevolent, indifferent), gives indications how healthy or corrupt a community is.
  • QUALITY OF ARGUMENT: What discussion culture is apparent in a community. Are extreme politics tolerated? How common are personal attacks? How are opinions categorized in general? The way a community discusses (or allows discussions) gives indications about corruption in as much as people tend to get more aggressive and polarizing, if they believe they are not heard or taken serious.
  • QUALITY OF CONTENT: The quality and the amount of the content a community produces as well as the restrictions that are put on that output (pay walls, for instance) gives an idea about the decision processes behind the content. If bad stuff is hyped or if publications are ignored, it's a sign that the processes are corrupt.
  • MOBILITY: How likely is it to become popular (or known) in a community? Can everyone do it, if necessary from scratch? Or are always the same people in the spotlight? How open is the community to new people? Stay those at the top of the hierarchy at the top? How? By what measures? Are those successful parading their success (which would, again produce aggression)?
  • GRATUITOUSNESS: One final, but very important indicator is how many people are willing to contribute to a community for free. Whose taking the time to do all the little administrative things that make a community work and are they (in some way or another) charging for it? Gratuitousness is a sign of good will in a community. If there is none, it's most likely because people perceive the community as unfair in some way or another and that would be another sign for corruption.
Those six should suffice, I think. They interconnect and overlap a bit, but should differ enough to count. This also isn't a black or white type of thing, it should have nuance (like a grading system and an average result). If tested and any or all of them show signs of corruption, the more intense should be the reactions to it in relation to the grade of corruption.

In other words, if a community has a tendency to very polarizing and heated debates where no one changes his opinion, where personal attacks and marginalization are common occurrences, if that community also allows no development and doesn't divide between commercial and non-commercial interests, if material is hyped for reasons of  privilege instead of quality and if everyone believes his or her efforts should be remunerated, then you most likely have a corrupt community. 

And that's just by applying reason, nothing else.

Where does that leave us?

This is not about if there is gatekeeping in the OSR or not. There is without a doubt. The question is if it is beneficial or malevolent towards the community at large. There's also the question how to address and oppose corruption, if it is detected.

But before any of that can take place, people should come to a common understanding how the community they are part of works and why. I hope I helped a bit forming that understanding. I also hope I was able to make a clear case that voicing opinions is NOT gatekeeping. At best it is challenging a hierarchy, but most likely it's just a border conflict between different scenes or cliques.

That said, attacking people for their opinions is a bad sign for a community in general, for the reasons I summon above. So, is the OSR corrupt? Well, you should be able to form your own opinion about that. I believe the OSR took a turn for the worse in recent years. Maybe that's the natural course of things, as scenes have the same fluctuation among each other. However, that doesn't mean you can't have a positive impact in a community.

Every bit helps, right?

ADDENDUM 2022: I'd be interested in opinions about how those six markers above manifest in what's left of the OSR. My impression is: there is no mobility anymore. Those that had been "famous" 5 years ago are either gone or are still on the top. There are no new faces (I'm aware of) and those who are left don't seem interested in real community work. Last time that was challenged was the artpunk/nop-artpunk carfuffle that went nowhere. So how do you guys see it? Is there even a scene left to talk about? Are the gates just closed?

Monday, January 10, 2022

Railroading the DM - Is it a thing? And if so, what about it?

Railroading is generally understood as the process of one actor leading other actors towards a certain goal without allowing diversion from what is "planned". In gaming we usually see that as something a DM does to the players. I want to challenge your perception in that regard a little bit. Is it possible to "railroad" a DM? What would that look like? And is it as bad a thing as it is considered to be for players*? Lets find out (it's a long one, you are warned).

Time is not linear, that's why!

[Disclaimer: all of the following will lead to some game-theory thinking. Just stay with me here. It's also "only" how I interpret these things. All will be somewhat less obscure in the end, however, as I aim to talk about gaming sooner or later here. Turns out I needed to take a big swing here ...]
I'll start the year post with claiming that there is, broadly speaking, no free will since the presumption that time is linear may be quite faulty. We experience it that way, yes, but even in hindsight alone we realize that things couldn't have happened any other way as they did. There's even a causality to it, at least one we can negotiate individually (and I'd argue a very complex one playing out from that point in time we call the Big Bang).

The past of this timeline is solidified (not "history", as a concept, but that'd be another argument I'll make later), which means that the future will be solidified, too. Or from a more general, non-linear perspective, all of it is already solidified**. A symphony that will play out as it plays out. Like seeing Beethoven's Ninth engraved into a vinyl record instead of playing the record ...

So there is no free will, you may ask, and I answer to that: well, we (in western culture, mainly) need the idea of free will to help people seeing that the history of things we experience in life is not the whole picture. There is an out and you can find it yourself. It is, if you will, a key that opens a door to an autonomy away from, say, the shackles a culture may present. Or a personal history. The list goes on ...

Anyway, I'd go as far as wagering that the idea of free will is incompatible-but-comparable with, say, the classic Daoist way of thinking in that the shamanist culture creating the conditions for the Daoist movement found an alternative way to show the outline of that same door (or one of those doors?).

The Doors got a kick out of that quote ... [source]

In that sense, or at least as I came to understand it, "free will" is a hallmark of critical thinking and has an immense psychological value. It is a necessary tool to free minds in our society, but the general (maybe naive?) understanding that we are free agents able to make "unimpeded" decisions is, in a very physical sense, false. That Big Bang has its course, down to the smallest subatomic particle, and we are along for that ride. Knowing what that ride exactly is, is an entirely different issue.

An excersize in critical thinking?

So free will is more like a cultural neon sign (blinking, of course) to point the way to the insight that there is more to the universe than what we know and are able to communicate or fully grasp. There is, to describe it by ways of daoist thinking, an unknown pattern underlying everything, and we can somehow tap into that.

All of this alligns nicely here: free will denounces the limitations of an individual's past and makes social "suggestions" out of social "norms", Daoism denounces the Ego and cultural norms to form a deeper understanding, and all of the above can be described as "critical thinking" as that needs an individual capable of autonomous thought and all the necessary steps to become "autonomous" fullfil several criteria we can see mirrored in cultures all over space and time to have something akin to "free will" or (much more developed) spiritual "enlightenment".

Not all the same, but HUGE overlap.

In short, autonomy from the forces limiting our growth is the key signifier. We see this evident and very well researched in psychology as well. Having "agency" (another buzzword that fits here), as in "being able to chose independently", is a healthy condition for us humans. To achieve autonomy is tricky, though, and maybe starts with the vague notion that we have to find out what we actually decided for "ourselves" and where we are manipulated into acting without questioning.

Each step in that process needs to be taken, owned and understood ...

The Limits of Control

There are limits to the things we can control physically and mentally, there are limits to the forces controlling us and there is something beyond what we define as control. Autonomy, then, is first of all "knowing the territory".

It is the kind of birds-eye-view on ourselves that helps us realizing our shortcomings, limits and potentials, and with that we can work. Freedom is, then, operating within those limits to develop our potential.

Many of us carry, for instance, trauma, one way or another (especially given the times we live in) and it manifests to our surroundings through acting out in pathological ways. It varies between individuals, but it's always what C. G. Jung would describe as the "Shadow" and it takes, according to Jung, "considerable moral effort" (Aion: Phenomenology of the Self) to face and overcome that shadow.

Naturally, there is obvious value in overcoming those limitations imposed through trauma. What's more, it seems to be a function of cultural development to implant the seeds for that throughout a society so that most (if not all) get a chance to find their way out of misery. It's why I think there is truth in the saying "Psychoanalysts are the shamans of the 21st century". We find ways to track down and map those doors within the cultures we create.

It really seems to be an universal constant. Shamans, holy men or women, psychoanalysts, priests, all seem to be functions of societies to connect us to ... ourselves, more or less. As we are lost. Allan Watts wrote in his book "The Book" that god plays hide and seek in us and it is our quest in life to find him. I think that's a beautiful way to describe it.

My point being, as soon as you go looking for those doors, you will start questioning the world surrounding you. And if you take this upon you long enough and with vigor and discipline, you will grow, you will become a "better" person in the best possible way. It is a process and not all people will go it all the way, but the journey is the goal, as they say.

And while you are at it, you will develop the skills necessary for critical thinking almost instinctively. Over time you will gain autonomy and "free will", maybe even enlightenment.

I'm aware that I've glossed over some aspects here, like what "the unknown" is or could be and how it limits or frees us. Or what the difference between free will and enlightenment might be. It'd be too esoteric to dive into all of that at this point (I might in another post).

In passing I want to mention that there are rather profane ways to, for instance, "manipulate" time, for one by interpreting our past differently or even just by starting to act differently so that our acting today will change our "future past". Exploring even more obscure ideas in that direction (maybe like how words form reality, and so on) might further help illustrating my train of thought here.

However, it'll lead too far away from the point I'm aiming for (as this will be about gaming eventually), so we'll leave it at that for now.

Not an elephant, but the outline of it ...

There is a famous analogy that describes how we can see the outline of a thing by looking at the other pieces (which are usually the pieces we can know). One huge outline-inducing piece regarding "critical thinking" is what happens if a society decides it doesn't need that kind of personal growth. Or how "interested parties" manufacture consent by attacking, side-lining or undermining critical thinking.

The main word to describe that would be propaganda, which basically is about using psychological tools to wage war against a populace. Those tricks are as old as the need for those in power to keep the populace down, but the earliest 20th century saw some of its ugliest manifestations of it and the early 21st is doing its best to top that, it seems.

As far as methods go, the simple version seems to be to keep a populace in fear, which means they can't negotiate their way out of a problem as it seems either to be too complex, too contradictory or too intimidating. A populace primed like that is easily open to suggestions how to solve a given problem without questioning it much. Which will be abused, of course. Always.


Advertisement has discovered this for profit decades ago, which is why we don't teach in schools today how to recognize and counter those methods.

Another term helping with the outlining seems to be the postmodern idea of deconstruction, which seems to have lead to the idea that there are no basic truths other than what can be decided individually. I'm making shortcuts here, of course, but when people say they can't have an idea of, for instance, certain scientific fields because they didn't promote in it, then we see the result of deconstructive thinking as interpreted by the mainstream.

Sneakily forcing people into submission through lies and intimidation or helping them thinking their way out of coming to their own conclusions are both counter-intuitive to what critical thinking is about. Both perfectly line out their opposite, if you will.

And this relates to gaming how?

Well, what kind of gaming experience are you looking for? If you are prone to critical thinking, gaming can challenge you to explore ideas and grow. If you are happily subservient, gaming can offer you mindless entertainment with opportunities to show your thought-fealty.

Is there an in-between? Don't know. You tell me. But gaming can offer a door to critical thinking, and that's where gamedesign can come in. This is where the Gamemaster can make a difference. It is where players have a choice (not necessarily where they get a choice ... there's a difference). All it takes is taking on that considerable moral effort Jung talked about.

An idea like that will have, of course, detractors. People will say "but it's only a game" or "why so serious, I play to relax!", and to all of those I'll say: have it your way. It's all right to just let go and consume. No harm, no foul. People will take your money, for sure, and you will be entertained.

As for the statements themselves, they are just patently wrong. We play to learn. Not only that, we thrive when we play to learn. It's not work, it's not serious. IT'S WHAT WE DO. You don't have to, of course, but it is well established that gaming is among the only things that get us forward in life. It just can also be used to keep us in a lull, but that's NOT it's original purpose.


People telling you otherwise are either trying to sell you something or believe what they are being told. I'm not saying this to insult, but merely to point out facts. Those distinctions are important.

How to (properly) railroad a DM, then?

The greatest benefit of training in Judo is not that you learn to fight. It is a Zen discipline, and as such going that path is about engaging with yourself through discipline and training in specific, say, rituals. The fighting part is almost a fringe benefit, if you will. In a way, it offers an individual expression of the philosophy not only through combat, but in life. I've met people who've trained Judo their whole life and it is quite obvious that it informed their behaviour and way of thinking.

You see where I'm going with this?

Role-playing games CAN offer guidance towards critical thinking by providing the tools by which a gamemaster will find that damn door through mastering the game (what the name actually implies, you know?). That's a gameDESIGNERS gold standard, actually, to offer a design that allows some form of insight into reality through playing in addition to being entertaining. You will find no long-term successful game that doesn't fullfil that criteria (really, try me).

GMing a role-playing game won't lead to enlightenment, as it is. But with proper design, it'll take a gamemaster's hand and show them how to master the craft and that can show a way to enlightenment (if we accept this as a spectrum). I think that we should aspire to achieve something like that as designers. Every craft deserves that kind of excellency, why shouldn't role-playing?

Doesn't need to be every game, but it'd be nice to see it given a shot (I'll try that anyway, but I'm not really what you'd call an influencer ...).

If nothing else, gamemasters being successfully able to form narratives through conveying a resemblance of reality that translates to a participating audience needs an understanding of many, many facets related to critical thinking. The question is: is a DM railroaded for following the recipe in order to make their own game or is a DM railroaded for being neglected that growth and just being told what to do (making them some sort of medium for a designer's vision)?

If you read up to that point, you know the answer: both can be considered railroading, although the intentions in the necessary designs are very, very different and that will be obvious in the games.

I've said this before: a first person shooter is mostly bound to be a railroad. Sure, there are those with huge sandboxes, but the stories are linear, with very simple decision trees and character development to go with at best. The point of playing them, however, is to express yourself within those rails***. How to move, how to kill, which weapons ... the rest is noise, and as a player, if you came for a shooting, you appreciate the fast-forward for the rest (if it's a well done addition, all for the better).

Same can be true about a DM expressing themselves within the rules they are provided with. It mostly remains true regardless of the intentions the designers had, btw, if the DM is already "on the path", because they got their informtion from another game (even from another activity!), for instance.

Either way, railroading the gamemaster is a rail real possibility. As with players, it just isn't inherently a bad thing. Like I said, the intentions are making the difference here. Are you supposed to be compliant sheep, dancing on the marked spots? Are you just reduced to be an author's mouth piece, with the weak promise to shine in their supposedly superior light, as long as you keep it on track? Or is there a chance of growth in keeping within the rails?

Situations to avoid, Part 1 [source]

Opportunities to take responsibility?

Be it the gamedesigner who aims to manifest great ideas through complex designs in their games or gamemasters aiming to convey some very specific and demanding story in their games or players testing the boundaries of their limits, nothing of that is per se necessary to play games. But all of them are opportunities, and as such, one should not dismiss the good it can do to explore the possibilities here.

I keep saying that our hobby is still in its infancy, but we still have seen some high marks. From the beginning, actually, as everybody and their grandmother will tell you how playing the early games changed their lifes, or how they learned this and that.

To connect the dots her a little bit, the whole DIY attitude of the first editions of D&D, the idea to let DMs roam free in their campaign development but giving them the tools to get it done properly (which had to be mastered, of course), all of that was one of the main reasons for the success of those games. Incidentally, it's that encouragement to create and, implicitly, the idea of some form of autonomy (and all that might entail) that made the early OSR movement so lively and eclectic.

To keep something like this alive it needs voices in the community realizing that there comes a responsibility with writing, publishing and even playing games. Again, that considerable moral effort Jung is talking about. The effort not to make it about profit. The effort not to reduce something to brainless entertainment. The effort to strive for some kind of excellency in our endeavors.

"Build it and they will come", right? And we know how to do all of this properly. We know what's possible and where there's still room for exploration. We are able to recognize intentions in designs ... Nothing of this is news. The beauty of culture is that we can stand on the shoulders of giants to get a chance to see maybe just an inch further than they did.

We don't have to start from the beginning, we already have a headstart, IF we take the responsibility that comes with it. If we put in the work.

It needed saying, now I stop ...

Just one last thing, to bring that last argument home: the Tao Te Ching, that original first text about Daoism, is roughly 2500 years old, based on ideas that are even older than that. Shoulders of giants ...

“The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth.
The named is the mother of ten thousand things.
Ever desireless, one can see the mystery.
Ever desiring, one can see the manifestations.
These two spring from the same source but differ in name;
this appears as darkness.
Darkness within darkness.
The gate to all mystery.” (Laozi, Tao Te Ching)

See? They already knew.

Role-playing games can be a journey for all willing to engage in this hobby to find growth. And not just individually, but as a group. How cool is that?! I hope we don't lose the values needed for that growth out of sight and instead manage to inspire others to start that journey as well.

I also hope people don't take issue with the broad strokes and shortcuts I had to make in this post. I know the devil is in the detail and one generally shouldn't lump in all those different ideas into one concept, especially if some of those ideas are highly debatable themselves. However, I believe my shotgun-approach here holds true and I'm willing to discuss particulars, if someone would be so inclined. Just keep it casual :)

Have a good start into 2022, friends and neighbors. And remember, no matter how dark the world is, there's always a journey inwards waiting for us to make the next step. Ranger out ...



If you are interested in finding out if I actually try to do what I'm talking about above, you can check out a free preview of Ø2\\'3|| (that science fiction role-playing game I published) right here (or go and check out the first reviews here). I'm still doing a sale on it ...

If you already checked it out, please know that I appreciate you :) It'll certainly help to keep the lights on here! I'd love to hear about that, too.

Just look at that beauty ...


*With which I disagree, btw, for the simple reason that there are different modes of play and "railroading" is one of them. Like you'd see, for instance, in the heavily scripted Call of Duty series. You don't have to like scripted games like that, but that's no reason to disregard them as valid, right? So if people want to get a ride through something a DM planned, and all are on the same page, then that should be totally fine. Just saying.

** That's not even all, of course, since a non-linear approach might also mean that all points in time are readily accessible at all times, so to say. And Merlin lived backwards in time, as we all know ... The point I'm making is that it just might not be only linear and that ONE cnclusion of that is that the whole thing is fixed. I'm aware of the idea that changing the past might introduce parallel timelines and that might be happening all the time. Our consciousnesses might even travel in between or visit them in dreams or ... whatever. All interesting sidetracks, just not what I'm aiming for. 

*** Even if the rails are wider, you are still lead somehwere. Sometimes that is a good thing, but I'd offer it's always a good thing to make it a conscious decision to be lead, even "only" for entertainment.