Conservatism and roleplaying

There’s this story that you hear people tell, of a lost glorious age taken away by those with no right to it, and its last, struggling few defenders. This lost age is a time when there was no challenge to, by which I mean not even the smallest noticeable difference from, a standard hierarchy of power. All difference is challenge, you see, because this person, this storyteller who values this lost age, is so closely identified with their own power that any possible attack on it might be an attack on their very selves. It ends up that the most important job of conservatism is to protect “the private life of power”: the intimate insults, whether in the home or on the nightly news, that stop masters (or those who think of themselves as masters in training) from feeling like masters. “Every great political blast – the storming of the Bastille, the taking of the Winter Palace, the March on Washington – is set off by a private fuse: the contest for rights and standing in the family, the factory, and the field. [...] That is why our political arguments – not only about the family but also the welfare state, civil rights, and much else – can be so explosive: they touch upon the most personal relations of power.”

This analysis, like the quotes above, comes from Corey Robin‘s The Reactionary Mind, a polarizing book for people on both sides of the ideological fence. Lots of folks on the American left believe that the red-meat culture-war side of right-wing politics is just a cover story, a theatrical shell over their real, merely corporatist agenda. Robin proposes not only that the two conservative agendas are really one, but that the people who espouse them are not crazy; instead, they have a large and well-constructed body of philosophy behind them – they just see no problem with its being built on an idea as sick as “some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others.” This possibility frightens a lot of middle-class progressives, because it means that we will have to fight after all, and fight hard. The liberal middle class hates fighting. We hate the thought that we can’t all just get along if we finally explain the facts well enough.

This anxious aversion to conflict, I have to admit, is probably what has driven a lot of my online research into roleplaying. You’d think that when it comes to games, the stakes would be so low that there wouldn’t be much fighting, and certainly not much anxiety over it. But many people in online RPG-discussion circles seem to have a permanent hate-on for new-style gaming, to the point where some have made that hatred a banner of online identity. It’s confusing, at first blush; I mean, how can people not grasp that they can just go on playing whatever they like? Why react not just so strongly, but so persistently? It doesn’t stop online, either. Many folks in the real world who’ve tried to introduce new games or gaming techniques to traditional roleplayers have been rebuffed with accusations that seem out of all proportion.

My anxiousness has declined a great deal since I’ve realized what’s going on: roleplaying games, to date, have generally embodied a number of power relationships – between players and the fiction, and between players and the GM. For the last forty years, the roleplaying hobby has invested most of its hopes for any feeling of fairness in the loosey-goosiest game ever invented in the role of the game master, or most often the Dungeon Master. The GM/DM has been invested not only with the final say over any matter that comes up for adjudication, but with control over the game’s opposing forces. Players venerate the people who manage this conflict of interest well, while anyone who can’t – while being given precious little systemic support for doing so – has, over the life of the hobby to date, mostly just been shamed.

It’s been traditional for a long time, as well, for the GM to be the social host of the game, as well as to decide who is invited to be part of the game and who’s not. Since one incompatible player can ruin everyone’s fun and a lot of players regard play opportunities as a scarce, valuable commodity, the GM role can be a massive source of social power.

On top of these, there’s the power of the storyteller. In some RPG subcultures, the GM is expected to be the main driver of the narrative. If players want to do anything of great consequence to the plot, they can’t just up and do it – they either need to cooperate deliberately with the GM, or they simply understand that what they’re at the table to actively do is something else (perhaps fighting the monsters that have been placed in the encounter, perhaps just being a bystander to a good story). All fine, and all perhaps necessary when the rules don’t much help all players get a satisfying story simply through their play actions, but all certainly adding to the social power of the GM role. Great storytellers are respected across cultures.

The GM-and-players relationship is not the only power relationship in RPGs. A player who has mastered the rules, or other skills required to play well, successfully enough to get whatever he or she wants out of the game, gets many forms of power, including some social ones. In a collaborative game like a traditional RPG, do you help the other players when they struggle with rules? When, and on what terms? Do you help them with strategy, or do you deride them as dragging the group down? What if you don’t have that mastery and your contributions to the game are getting blocked by people who do – do you then build a relationship with the GM, such that you depend on her to keep that blocking player in check so you can contribute?

These are all power relationships that invite personal identification. How often do we hear GMs identify as such, almost like it’s an ethnicity? How often do they talk about “their players” in a vaguely or explicitly paternal way? And in the end, what identification could be more personal than one’s role in a game full of stuff made up by oneself and one’s friends? Especially a game that’s not essentially different from the game you played for countless hours in your childhood?

So, you have people who for whatever reason are closely, personally identified with their position of power at the gaming table – no matter whether that position is high or low. Non-RPG story games upset these positions. They become a threat.

I am not saying that people who defend traditional RPGs necessarily hold conservative politics in other arenas, although as I’ve said elsewhere, it shouldn’t be forgotten that D&D was born amongst Midwestern armchair generals who didn’t like hippies much. RPGs also quickly found cultural footing in the science fiction and fantasy fandoms, which have their own strong currents of conservatism to this day. But conservatism can also be quite compartmentalized; you might have no beliefs about a natural status order of economic roles, but strong ones about an order of genders, as one example. (Not to forget liberal activists who end up showing off, and defending, their privilege – nor people who identify destructively with a permanent role of outcast or spoiler.)

I’m also not trying in general to make the problems with our conversations about RPGs out to be a bigger or more important problem than they really are. It’s enough, to me, that RPG conservatism poses problems for anyone who wants to work towards a better hobby-wide conversation, find players for new games, or even just search on Google for more information about them. Not even coming up with the new term “story games” can help us with that one forever.

(By the way, all of the above also explains why D&D edition wars will continue, despite almost every edition of D&D currently being back in print.)

MisubaTwine CompetiFest 20B

I am holding a Twine game design competition.

Entries are due by midnight PDT on Friday, April 19. Send me some mail and either attach the game or give me a link. Put [Twine] in the subject line of all entry emails.

I will be judging all entries and selecting a winner. Judgment criteria include innovation in use of Twine mechanics, replay value, and expressiveness/awesomeness/tendency to make milk come out of my nose.* Bonus points for incorporating something I’ll recognize from story gaming but not being too hammy about it.

There will be a prize, valued at approximately $40 and not very useful. I haven’t selected it yet.

I’ll be updating this post as needed with further news. Send email or come find me on G+ if you’re dying to discuss something.

* I don’t drink milk.

Making your HTML5 and CSS internationalization-friendly

Someday, one of these crazy web things you make will catch on – yes, it will! I believe in you! – and when you aren’t busy freaking out about scaling it up, you will maybe want to spend a couple minutes thinking about writing it so the rest of the world can read and use it. Here are some ways to do your future self a favor when you do your markup and styles.
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Roleplaying and the brain: when you can’t “just roleplay it out”

There’s a thing psychologists call the fundamental attribution error. You could summarize it (when married with its cousin, self-serving bias) as “I Messed Up For A Good Reason, You Messed Up Because You Just Suck.” Specifically, the reasons we give when we mess up tend to be external factors, rather than some internal quality we identify with, whereas the reasons we assume for other people’s mistakes or offenses are internal rather than external – inherent to who they are. We make this mistake in part because we have access to our own subjective experience but not other people’s; if we did have that access, it would tell us a lot about what’s really going on with them.

Now, when you play a roleplaying game, there’s an other person: your character. To the degree that you aren’t just treating your character like a pawn, you have to do some thinking about the reasons for what they do, because you’re deciding what they do. But they don’t exist; they’re only in your head.

It’s okay; you can be just as wrong.
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But what do the rules have to say about the story?

It might not be clear to some readers of my series on defining story games (in three parts!) just how it is that the rules of a game, of all things, are supposed to interact with an ongoing fiction. I mean, what do you do? Do you just flip a coin and say, “heads, my guy beats your guy, and tails, your guy beats my guy”? And that doesn’t even answer anything, because when do you do that, and under what circumstances? Finally, just: what’s the point of using this rule, on this story, when we could just freely make stuff up instead?

Starting with the first question: every game does it differently, that’s part of the point of having different ones. And while not all games are structured in a way that makes this plain, you could think of a story game’s rules as a set of inputs and outputs – and indeed we already have, in our loop diagrams. In the fat-green-loop variant of the diagram, input comes from the fiction-y bits, into the rules, and the rules put some specific addition or restriction back out into the fiction. (This is leaving aside a certain level of rules, implicit for long-time roleplayers, that govern the way we make stuff up: players say what their characters do, one player per character in most games, et cetera. Those rules and other implicit rules are always on. When I talk about made-up stuff and rules being separate, assume for now that I mean the diegetic content of the game versus explicit, procedural mechanical interactions.)

Helpfully for the purpose of giving you an example, a recent design trend has been back towards rules interactions that are brief, focused, and very specific about when to apply them and what goes back into the story. This trend was crystallized neatly by Apocalypse World, a game by Vincent Baker, which puts the bulk of the rule interactions players make into what it calls Moves. Here’s a sample move, from the Gunlugger character’s playbook:

Fuck this shit: name your escape route and roll+hard. On a 10+, sweet, you’re gone. On a 7–9, you can go or stay, but if you go it costs you: leave something behind, or take something with you, the MC will tell you what. On a miss, you’re caught vulnerable, half in and half out.

Now, if your game’s loop is more black than green, you want rules that let made-up stuff change play-by-the-rules in such a way that your experience of play-by-the-rules is enhanced, not diminished. This opens all sorts of questions of balance and fairness that remain challenging for designers to this day. Our primary interest here, though, in case you haven’t noticed, is fat-green-loop games. In mostly-making-stuff-up games, you (predictably) want rules that let play-by-the-rules change made-up stuff in such a way that your experience of made-up stuff is enhanced, not diminished. That’s what the above is an example of. It triggers when the character is in a specific situation (in this case, wanting out of somewhere dangerous), and it complicates that situation in certain known but flexible ways.

However, in making-stuff-up-oriented games we face the challenge that our own process of collaboration, the just-talking-to-each-other part, is in competition with the rules. More rules-oriented games don’t have this problem; when they get more and more rules-y, they just trend towards not being story games anymore. They remain story games because no matter how small the green loop gets, it’s still there; the things you get from it can’t be gotten any other way. In a fat-green-loop game, you can similarly argue that at least one tacit rule will always remain (the one that says “we’re making up a story”), but every rule that actually makes one designed story game different from another could conceivably fall away. To put it Vincent Baker’s way, if a given rule doesn’t get a given group better results for their story than “vigorous creative agreement” does, then there’s no reason for that group to use that rule. Story games have to keep justifying their existence by bringing players things that they didn’t already know they wanted.

The trick to that – that is, the aesthetic value in a given piece of game design – lies in when you decide to make the input, what the rules put back out, and in how it feels to use the rules to make that transformation. All three of those things should support the goal of play – there’s that weaselly phrase again! – to the satisfaction of the designer and the players.

So can we put this together into a nice, concise package? Here’s Baker again, who along with fellow habitual-RPG-theorist Ben Lehman has lately been doing it like this:

  1. A rule is something, spoken or unspoken, that serves to bring about and structure your play.
  2. Good rules encourage players to make interesting changes to the game’s state.
  3. “Interesting” is locally defined by play groups.

This is a bit of a change to the way RPG theory is heading. Some of you may have heard, or read, about a little thing called “GNS,” and its birthplace, a web forum called The Forge. It’s hard to separate the two, perhaps because GNS stands for three different families of “creative agenda” in RPGs that have been “observed to conflict with one another at the table,” and throughout its recently-concluded life, The Forge tended to cause conflict.

For most of the last decade-and-change, GNS – nevermind what it even stands for – has been the nearest thing story games have had to a theory of aesthetics. As it turns out, though, conflict isn’t a great basis for an aesthetic theory: conflict is complicated, divisive, and utterly subject to accumulated historical accident. When you try to make it a part of your answer to “what should rules have to say to the story?” you end up getting an argument about something else most of the time. On top of that, all this theoretical work was being done on web forums, which are notoriously poor at keeping arguments under control.

(It should be said, though, that when the seeds of GNS theory were planted, the fight was kinda necessary. It was 1995 or so, and the state of the roleplaying art was a muddle. There was a new 800-pound gorilla on the block, a game called Vampire: The Masquerade, that had a bell-clear stylistic vision and did the rare trick of actually, for-reals having an effect on the larger culture outside of gaming. It produced, and its progeny continue to produce, a ton of fun play. But… its actual rules-bits did little or nothing to reinforce its style and themes, and it came right out and admitted this, pushing and popularizing the notion that satisfying story-play and the use of rules were mutually exclusive things. To get away with this trick, it had to lend weight to some long-standing fallacies like the socially suspect notion of the gamemaster as master-Svengali-storyteller. All of that was theory that needed to be destroyed for the art to move forward, and GNS helped to destroy a lot of it. So, good. GNS served its purpose, and now we have a different job, that needs different tools.)

The new orientation around “interesting” is a much better foundation. In some ways, it’s a cheat – not coincidentally, the same cheat that we made in our definition of story gaming. It allows the same necessary flexibility in terms. In the name of “interesting,” you can bring in anything that shapes human attention – and if you wanted to fully understand roleplaying, you might have to bring in everything.

But as of now, we have a definition and a basic aesthetic theory. Once you have those, what do you do? You might start by making a few more specific aesthetic sub-theories, such as the one I promised you last time. After that, though, there’s also some of the more structural stuff in the Big Model, the GNS-associated theory that we should be careful not to throw out with the bathwater. So we might talk about that next. And of course, you can go play.