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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.
Comments 
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?

komradebob
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.
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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!)
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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.
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.
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