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Social Context Matters 
9th-Apr-2007 02:30 pm
chiang 2
Something I've been going on about, perhaps more at theRPGsite than here, was also touched on very strongly over at the Forge in this thread.

Essentially, the nature of RPGs is such that you can't really nail down all the procedures and goals of play without turning them into board games, and the "wiggle room" that's left as a result turns out to be a big gaping breach. Depending on how you fill it, you can end up with a functional game in a wide range of styles, without "breaking the rules"--or you may have a crappy game altogether no matter how closely you try to follow the designer's supposedly "ready to play out of the box" intent.

Mike Holmes also hits on a point that I first saw suggested by Jim Henley: that in many cases, the way a game achieves "focus" isn't through the action of the rules (which are indeterminate), but symbolically and socially, basically by attracting "the right sort of people" and pushing away others. In the extreme scenario, it may be sufficient to simply apply an extrinsic label to a game: call it "narrativist", say, and then only "narrativists" will want to play it...so they'll all be playing together...so they'll have fun due to their shared values.
10th-Apr-2007 12:09 am (UTC)
"In the extreme scenario, it may be sufficient to simply apply an extrinsic label a game: call it "narrativist", say, and then only "narrativists" will want to play it...so they'll all be playing together...so they'll have fun due to their shared values."

Isn't that sort of what happened with the term "role-playing game"?

I mean, starting out, they're a form of Refereed, single piece wargame, with a lot of open-ended options for the players to manipulate the environment as their piece.

It's only later that the "play your character"/actor bit becomes a really big deal.

Would that be an example of a name-term attracting like minded people?

10th-Apr-2007 01:02 am (UTC)
More or less. Not necessarily the name so much as formation of identity and reputation around a set of rules.

(I can't help thinking of RE's "Hard Look at Dungeons & Dragons", though I doubt my conclusions are the same as his.)

D&D started as a wargame, and (speculation here) the original players probably weren't especially "into" fantasy, sci-fi, or many of the other cultural correlates of RPGing, any more than society at large. At least no more than your regular bunch of wargamers.

But once RPGs picked up a reputation as something that "those sort played" they started to attract some people and repel others purely on that basis. Thus you had a feedback loop which amplified what was originally only a small difference in preferences, into quite divergent groups.

Possibly the biggest factor, early on, was the replacement of rigid rules with adjudication. Not because of the stuff I've rattled on about immersion and character-world division, but because not knowing the rules was virtually no impediment to play. And so RPGs had access to a much wider audience than wargames, a much different audience...and then the feedback loop of group identification kicked in.
10th-Apr-2007 01:12 am (UTC)
Elliot, have you ever seen the rules as they existed in the Castle & Crusade days? They were barely there at all. The adjudication factor was there from the start. Gary et al wanted to do something that wargames as they existed in 1972 didn't handle at all - they were making pretty much all of it up as they went along. And I don't know about the "second generation", but all the first-generation people I've actually met and talked to were pretty firmly FSF fans.
10th-Apr-2007 01:24 am (UTC)
Oh yeah. A second, possibly related point. There was a schism between the "roll-players" and the "roleplayers" almost from the beginning, and this contributed to the Gygax/Arneson conflict that was partly responsible for the bifurcation of D&D into separate games (AD&D and "Blue Box").
10th-Apr-2007 02:38 am (UTC)
I would like to hear more about this; all I've been able to find suggests that it more a dispute over creative contributions and money, rather than gaming style. I suppose I've seen a hint here and there that Arneson was the more "roleplaying-ish" of the two but I suspect that, at most, this was Arneson being more into the Braunstein/nonzero-sum aspects of gaming, with Gygax being more into tactics; the rest is just "myth of the golden age" and "narrativism betrayed".
10th-Apr-2007 02:48 am (UTC)
No, no. NOt anything like that. My conversation with Dave Arneson (this was about 10 years back, so I'm a bit foggy) and what I've heard second-hand from others at least suggest that Dave was the original "damn the rules if the rules won't do what I want" DM, while Gary was more inclined toward developing additional subsystems to handle new situations. This played itself out in Dave's games being more free-flowing, fiction-first affairs, while Gary's circle were much more adversarial tests of wits and guts.

The publishing conflict was, of course, about money in the end, but it was also over whose vision of "what D&D is" would become the official one.
10th-Apr-2007 08:02 pm (UTC)
What you say about the Dave's games being very free-flowing is certainly backed up by my experiences the few times I've played with him.

OTOH, I know (from significant experience playing with people who played with Gygax) that Gary was often more free-flowing than his essays From The Sorceror's Scroll let on. I don't think that data really counts for much, since I didn't get to see any of this in person -- other than to note that those who played with Gary certainly had the impression of him as not sticking to the rules as written.
10th-Apr-2007 02:07 am (UTC)
I don't know what you're referring to, exactly, by "the rules as they existed in the C&D days". I did originally play D&D with the old white box (adding the Greyhawk & Blackmoor supplements as I could afford them). Those rules were atrociously edited, though that isn't necessarily a reflection of how they were played. I.e., what was written down was probably mainly the differences from previous miniatures games.

Your comment about Gary Gygax strikes me as way off the mark given the progression from Braunstein to Blackmoor to D&D. Dave Arneson IIRC stated that the earliest games were "good vs. evil" dungeon skirmishes, but players soon expressed a preference against playing "evil", so the GM took over that role...thus the birth of "the party". If you mean to imply that Gygax was trying to create an interactive story game, I'm not convinced.

No, within the wargame culture, the key innovation of D&D was character identification, supplemented by ramping up the use of adjudication to allow development of interesting & surprising challenges & environmental features, as well as making it possible to respond to events on an individual scale of interest. But my experience is that the resulting distribution of responsibility led to GMs being "the rules experts" while players didn't have to know the rules very well at all. Which as I said, made RPGs much more accessible to the populace at large. So once you had people coming into RPGs without prior wargame experience, they naturally pulled the hobby in new directions. Essentially, a wargamer might be up for a game of D&D in 1974, when the group would probably be similar in experience and expectations, but by 1983 the likelihood was much greater that a random group of RPGers would have little in common with the wargamer. In which case the latter might shy away, extending the tendency of people to sort themselves into distinct groups
10th-Apr-2007 02:02 am (UTC)
Yes, there are actually several feedback loops that happen along the way that lead to some splits. Shannon Appleclines history of rpgs is pretty interesting in this regard, since he uses a graphic a lot like an evolutionary tree to show those. I'd agree with Tigerbunny, also, that kinds of splits come in very early.

As for 2nd Generation gamers, it sort of depends on how you're defining it. Sorry to be annoying that way, y'all. I do think something very important changes after the people who joined primarily in the early 1980s had been playing a while. Somebody ( grubman at rpgnet) has dubbed that group the Boxed Set Generation. Anyway, a lot of those folks ( like myself) didn't come into rpgs with a lot of wargame experience. The idea of rpgs was sold to them somewhat differently ( I suspect) than it was to the earlier wargamers who came on board.

Key point: If you started playing in say 1981 at ten years old, in 1991 you would've been 20. That's right about the time of the WW Vampire explosion. I really think the two are connected and that age plays into that.

Or, Vamp didn't attract Goths. Vamp attracted lapsed gamers who had become Goths in the intervening period. Lapsed gamers who perhaps felt the need to cut some of the ties to the more "childish" dungeon crawling.

( Nah, I swear none of that is autobiographical in the least. Really ;-) )

Anyway, that's another split-and-feedback-loop period, and a big one.

Now, part of what I'm wondering is how much the further aging of the Boxed Set Generation is a driving force in Narr design and also in "Post-System Gaming".
10th-Apr-2007 02:18 am (UTC)
Since early history has come up, this is as good a place as any to put in a link to an Arneson interview I hadn't seen before:

Gamespy: Dave Arneson Interview
10th-Apr-2007 03:16 am (UTC)
Nice catch, Elliot. I thought it was interesting how much of D&D was evolutionary rather than engineered.
10th-Apr-2007 04:02 am (UTC)

One matter that jumped at me from this post is the question of how well rules scales and how adaptable they are. Games where there isn't a systematic perspective can drive players nuts trying to develop ad hoc resolution systems. Games with a systematic perspective tend to facilitate rather than deny creative interpreations and impromptu elaborations.
10th-Apr-2007 04:17 am (UTC)
You're losing me and I think you"re onto something. Could you elaborate?
10th-Apr-2007 06:58 am (UTC)
OK, I'm really operating on pure intuition here, but one of things that ewilen is that you "can't really nail down all the procedures and goals of play", which is true enough. PCs try the weirdest things - like (to cite a famous suggestion) parrying a lightning bolt with their basket-weaving skill.

Now in a game where there isn't a (adaptable and scalable) systematic perspective such actions end up being a debate about rules or how to introduce an ad hoc decision. The process of making a collaborative story breaks down. Where there is such a design however, the GM and players can contribute in game and story development when making the decision. Further, this seems to be independent of the creative agenda.

(I think I might be on to something too... but it certainly needs more thought!)
10th-Apr-2007 01:15 pm (UTC)
Feels right to me. When I know (or have pre-defined in social contract) the likely scope of what will happen in a game, I tend to want focused designs that aim right at that content. When I don't know that, or want to leave it open to evolve in play, I like games like FATE, tSOY, or formerly Over The Edge that have that quality of ready scaling/extensibility.

That's technical agenda stuff, if you want to use the Dreaded Terms.
10th-Apr-2007 04:51 pm (UTC)
Actually I'd rather avoid use of the Dreaded Terms here. When I see them all I hear in my head is whistles and pops, as I try to ascertain if the speaker has the same understanding of them as I do.

Social contract is another dreaded term, BTW.

Plain English, please, or define your own as needed on the fly.
11th-Apr-2007 12:58 am (UTC)
I like games like FATE, tSOY, or formerly Over The Edge that have that quality of ready scaling/extensibility.

Ooh! Nice examples.

That's technical agenda stuff, if you want to use the Dreaded Terms.

Creative agenda, technical agenda... wow, it's fitting together like a jigsaw ;-)
10th-Apr-2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Is that at all like games that have rules/procedures for changing or adding rules during play?

There are a couple of games that have that ( Universalis, Matrix Games) and a couple that rely on it (Nomics, Mugger Games) as a core part of play).

I'm not sure that it's the same thing you're talking about, though.
11th-Apr-2007 12:55 am (UTC)

Hmmm.. I'd be able to give you a straight answer if I was even remotely familiar with any of the games that you mentioned ;-)
11th-Apr-2007 05:31 am (UTC)
Yeah, I suppose that would be more useful, eh? :-)

(I'm not surprised; They're a bit obscure)

Okay the key point is that each of those games has a procedure for suggesting a new rule into play _during_ the game. Generally it goes beyond simply being a GM decision; There is some involvement from the other players to basically OK the new rule or procedure or whatever.

They also ( at least to start with ) have extremely simple core rules, often with mechanics that resolve essentially everything the same way. You can probably guess that in a long game, you can start to get a wide variation from those initial rules.

Part of what is interesting in this is that what the group says yes or no to (along with what it may further change/change back down the line) builds in a sort of feedback loop.

In Nomics, apparently this shifting evolution and rules change/addition is a core part of the fun of the game. I can only assume shots of tequila are somehow involved.

In Mugger Games ( which are primarily military miniatures games), there really aren't any rules to speak of at the start, beyond some suggestions perhaps on range and movement distances. Anything else is effectively made up on the fly ( with a fairly heavy GM hand-sort of a limited consultation based enlightened monarchy model?).

Matrix Games, particularly the minis variant, has the ability of the players to offer either new rules or new situations. Some of it can be relatively mundane and universally applied. Alternately it could be a one off occurence. There is a die throw to determine success. The throw needed is determined by an _opposing_ player ( which kind of creates an interesting feedback loop of its own).

Universalis is an Everybody-is-GM storymaking game. In this one, people can offer rules variants which they have to pay for with resources. People can offer variations ( negotiation) or straight out oppose the rule with a cost to their own resources. With multiple players, players can use resources on either side of the issue ( which is pretty much a core concept of the game anyway). In this case, the expenditure of resources and open negotiation is part of the feedback loop also.

Phew. Any less muddy?
14th-Apr-2007 07:28 pm (UTC)

Thanks for that; the particular line which really struck home was:

They also ( at least to start with ) have extremely simple core rules, often with mechanics that resolve essentially everything the same way.
15th-Apr-2007 02:53 pm (UTC)
Perhaps instead of "Story Now!" it's a matter of "Rules Now!"? As in, whatever it is that is actually jazzing up a particular group of players is what they will inevitably expand/clarify/complicate with additional rules?
15th-Apr-2007 09:55 pm (UTC)

Heh, I like that title. There's certainly an essay in it!
16th-Apr-2007 04:20 pm (UTC)
I'm not entirely sure it's right, though. I've seen people make some very solid arguments for the idea that they make up rules for stuff they _aren't_ interested in and can play along pretty happily without rules for the things they _are_interested in. No-Roll Social roleplaying vs. Combat rules, for example.

Of course, it depends on whether you consider unwritten social conventions within a playgroup rules or not. Being the anthro geek, I tend to come down on the "yes they are" side of that.( If I came down on the "no they aren't" side, I'd cry more every time I write out the student loan checks...;-) )
18th-Apr-2007 01:02 pm (UTC)
No-Roll Social roleplaying vs. Combat rules, for example.

Heh. One of the criticisms of HQ is that you roleplay the combat and roll dice for the social interaction.. Not quite true, but...

Of course, it depends on whether you consider unwritten social conventions within a playgroup rules or not.

First rules of any game

1) This is a social meeting, so be civil to one another.

2) This is a game with a shared imaginary space..
10th-Apr-2007 08:32 pm (UTC)
"Mike Holmes also hits on a point that I first saw suggested by Jim Henley: that in many cases, the way a game achieves "focus" isn't through the action of the rules (which are indeterminate), but symbolically and socially, basically by attracting "the right sort of people" and pushing away others."

I think I came up with this independently about the same time that Jim did, if you're thinking of the same post of Jim's that I am.

I also think that this is a really fruitful avenue of exploration for game craft. IME, the single most important thing for having a fun game is finding a group of players who have a common play style that will make them all happy, and identifying that play style. Certainly, rules text can be one such tool -- but all too often, each player puts their own spin on the rules text -- resulting in a group of players who *think* they have a common play style but don't. I've seen this in PTA or DitV just as often, relatively speaking, as with 1st-ed AD&D -- well, more often, in fact, but I think that's probably an artifact of the novelty of PTA and DitV.

I think there's some really great gamecraft there waiting to be unlocked -- things like guidelines for pregame discussions, Mike's idea of portable game prodecures, etc. -- bits of craft that might help players communicate better and come to find their common play styles.
10th-Apr-2007 09:41 pm (UTC)
The guidelines for Star Moon & Cross come to mind here, not only because you wrote them.

More generally, if we want to look at this stuff seriously, instead of just shunting it off as outside the control & purview of the game designer/analyst, JimBob's Cheetoism is worth more than a passing glance, particularly the section on Stages of Group development.

And as a challenge to that perspective--one I don't think I fully agree with, but worth thinking about--is the claim made by some Forge-related folks (such as Vincent Baker), that it's a game's job to "make [the players] better friends". (Especially check out this debate.)
11th-Apr-2007 04:45 pm (UTC)
Well, that latter debate really points out that both sides are on the same page about this in many ways. Because what I see John Harper as saying to start out with is something like "Fan Mail is a great way for players to communicate their gaming preferences with each other at the gaming table, in a way that really helps get everyone on the same page and contributes to a positive atmosphere." On the surface, it's hard to argue with this. But, as John Kim pointed out, it's just plain wrong -- wrong because no one communication tool works for everybody. It's absolutely right that Fan Mail is a great tool for some people. But, as John Harper comes to recognize, it doesn't work for everybody. Nor can it solve every problem -- what it does is points out things that one player does that some of the other players like. It won't work at all to point out things that one player does that some of the other players hate (which IME is the one thing that will kill a game dead). In short, Fan Mail helps solve some communication problems for some players.

But trying to extend this to solving all communications problems for all players with a finite set of rules and techniques is an impossibility. And I think that trying to encode a such a set in the game rules results in a set of rules that works really well for some players/groups and not at all for other players/groups. Which is exactly my experience of PTA, DitV, Polaris, etc. I don't mean to imply that this is a bad thing in and of itself. What I do think is a bad thing, however, are claims that these sorts of rules work for every group. And I also think it is a bad thing if other communication avenues are neglected because "it's all in the rules" (something I've seen advocated any number of times).

I don't really see how the threads you cite make a case for the opposing view. I see a lot of assertions and a lot of enthusiasm, but I don't see any kind of analysis of how it is possible to design a set of rules that will solve all communication issues in a gaming group -- which is how I read the claims that are being made. So I guess I don't see those threads as much of a challenge to my views, really. Maybe you could explain how you see them so.
11th-Apr-2007 04:54 pm (UTC)
To be clear on what my views are: communication tools encoded in the rules can be a great tool for helping some groups solve some problems. But they'll never solve all problems for all groups, and for some groups they'll never solve any problems. Given this, we need to develop effective guidelines for face-to-face player discussions to help players find compatible gaming choices.
11th-Apr-2007 05:10 pm (UTC)
Is that even possible? The solving all problems bit, I mean.

I mean, some problems will come up that are similar in non-rp games. What is the factor that makes it so weird in rpgs?

I have a strong suspicion that somehow the ideal of the open-ended campaign comes into this...
11th-Apr-2007 07:03 pm (UTC)
"Is that even possible?"

Well, obviously, I don't think it is.

But it's certainly how I read some of the claims that Vincent makes in the thread that Elliot linked to.

"What is the factor that makes it so weird in rpgs?"

I think much of the problem is that "playing in character" provides a lot of good camouflage for poor social behavior. How do you see open-ended campaigns working into it?
11th-Apr-2007 07:52 pm (UTC)
"How do you see open-ended campaigns working into it? "

It's more like a contrast to non-rpg games.

Take Poker night. I show up and play one night. If I don't care for the vibe, I'm out- no harm, no foul. The organizer of poker night isn't likely to be seriously offended if the event doesn't just match up well with my style of poker play.

But, let's say I do like it enough to come back a couple of times. Also good, but still no big commitment ( although proabably a building commitment the longer I'm there). Still noone expects me to be there until the end of time or something. If it happens, cool- a regular poker player. I can also drop out after a few games, still without that big of a trauma for anyone if I do.

Now think about how idealized the open-ended, possibly never-ending, rpg campaign is in rpg hobbyist culture and compare that to my poker night example.

There's a big huge different set of expectations, all pretty much driven by that campaign ideal, that you sort of have to buy into. It's a big commitment in a way that most other hobby level activities aren't.

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