Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Gaming: Limitations

I've spoken a lot of analytical stuff about gaming lately and feel as if I'm going around in a bit of a spiral, heading towards a kill or cure situation where I either embrace the hobby fully again, or walk away and don't come back (for far too many reasons to go into here).

One reason for this is that I've become increasingly aware of the hobby's limitations. Gaming, for me, always seemed to be an activity that was ripe with possibilities; something where you could do anything if you set your mind to it, whether that was neighbourhood defenders, small traders on a star ship; military squads or navigating the corridors of power. It is only lately that I've come to the conclusion that, in fact, the space that gaming and games can exist in is pretty small; occasionally cripplingly small. The hobby is beset with limitations and barriers that come from all sorts of directions, groups, styles and the nature of the past time itself. Let me clear here that I’m largely talk about mainstream games, rather than skirting the indie edge. I know there are games out there that do different things, and take often radically different perspectives on what’s possible even if the bulk of the hobby often seems to be content to swim in Dungeons and Dragons’ wake.

Let's start with the human element, which is to say that any gaming takes place against the limitations of time, personality and commitment. Most gaming groups operate on a basis of the GM suggesting things to play and players either saying yay or nay. Most players, that I've encountered anyway, are unwilling to get involved in the business of deciding what to play beyond exercising some sort of veto. So a suggestion that a group plays a Suicide Squad style game is unlikely to be met with an 'It's a nice idea but couldn't we play that style of game without being criminals'. A response of 'we don’t want that' is far more likely. This tendency to root games in one person's imagination is a liability, as most of us tend to plough a single furrow and without players inputting in a general sense before a game begins, you're almost doomed to a railroad before you've done character generation. GMs aren't mind readers and they'll naturally default to what they know. For instance, I love spy stories; give me half a chance and that's what you'll get, skulduggery, dead letter drops, spying on bad guys and double crosses. I hate dungeon crawling and combat, so I'm always going to shy away from that sort of thing, unless someone says to me ‘we don’t want to playSHIELD agents but we could maybe play a lower level Avengers set up where the groups like Hydra or AIM are as much a danger as Ultron is.'

There’s a temptation to say the players can be left to voice their opinions later on, that they won’t know what their characters want until they’ve got to know them. Realistically this has an element of bunk to it. Player Characters seldom evolve so far away from their players that the player is left wondering what their characters will desire and in the main it is the player’s needs that dominate and should be catered to. There is a danger too in leaving the discussion about what goes into the game until a later date, because by that point many players will have slipped into their natural modes too and may be causing problems. As the old saw goes, you can’t fix an out of game problem with an in game solution. You need everyone on the same page and that’s best achieved by talking things out before you start and not assuming that people can read your mind.

This not being telepaths thing is a two way street, as I’ve learned to my cost.

When games actually start you'll find that some players are enthusiastic to play, but operate in a very limited frame of what can be done, committed as they are to being a big damn hero, a bad ass; or collecting every power up there is in the game, or to something else. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does at least make them consistent, but it naturally sets a limitation on what you can achieve in game. You can't run a delicate political drama with a group who have turned up to smash alien robots or vice versa. Or rather you can, but you're going to end up with a group of unhappy campers. Different genres can also be something of a challenge, I recall running a session of 7th Sea with a group that didn’t grasp the idea that in swashbuckling films death is a rarity, and a superhero game with players who openly chafed at the idea that death was off the table. I’ve even encountered players who felt the Masquerade in Vampire was pointless and there was no point maintaining it. Personally I now struggle with the idea that a dragon could run a mega-corp, simply because the idea seems so ridiculous. These are stumbling blocks and there’s often no way around them, even if they don’t affect too much in the game: one voice of disbelief can prevent everyone else suspending theirs.

Players' styles also influence where the game focuses its attention in terms of what games do, and this start to affect what can happen at the table because of the amount of time actions can take. Combat can eat an entire session of game up and have room for afters, whereas the way the vast majority of RPGs are written favours a swift, almost ‘and let’s move on’ tone to resolutions that focus almost anywhere else. To use a comics analogy, the traditional design of RPGs often creates ‘fight books’; combat drives the action forward and is the central engine for the adventure.

Then too there's the issue of time outside the game; the last group I was in had a number of people whose jobs meant they couldn't turn up for every session and the group adapted accordingly, focusing on mission based games and eventually stumbling over the paradox of insisting on a particular play style but also wanting something different. Obviously the amount of time that players could commit created a limitation to the experience GMs could offer and in the end for two of us it proved to be a sticking point: we walked. At the time the idea that neither of us had considered the options of email updates, something I suspect may not have worked, as the group was locked into a 'turn up and play' style which often precludes any form of involvement or even contact away from the table. I flirted briefly with using Obsidian Portal, but in the end it seemed too much work, and when Eve tried it after I left the group, it was met with a large amount of indifference by the members of the group who were most committed to the turn up and play style of gaming.

Games are very much shaped by what players bring to the table, the White Wolf essays I read in the 1990s about how the players control the game far more than the GM does, have more than a ring of truth to them. Even one player not buying into what you’re trying to put down on the table can throw the whole thing off. You may not be able to run a game with a serious theme or mood, if a player wants to relax and blow off steam. You may not want to wade through a sea of pop culture references just because you've called an NPC 'Edmund', and you may not want the inevitable Blackadder jokes that follow, but the chances are you'll get them regardless. Creating atmosphere is hard, even with the most willing group and there are too many doodads and toys to create distractions now; mobile phones are such a distraction that I’m considering a blanket policy to having them turned off during play, or at least turned down to silent.

Moving on, let’s consider the issue of game style more deeply. There are two elements to this, a player aspect and a publishing or writing aspect. In terms of player style it’s pretty obvious that some will only ever clash. If we take Robin Laws' play styles from Robin's Laws of Good Games Mastering, we have the Casual Gamer, the Storyteller, the Butt Kicker, the Character Actor, the Tactician, the Specialist and the Power Gamer. These cluster about the various axis we can identify as present in gaming, roleplaying, tactical play, action and acting. We can map them to specific points, with Storytellers and Characters Actors sitting along the roleplaying axis, as opposed to Butt Kickers and Power Gamers aligning to the action one.

In reality most gamers cross between styles; I've known a specialist who was also a casual gamer and a tactician who was a butt kicker as well. I fall into an unholy melange of storyteller, character actor and specialist (knowledge based characters) and tend to end up playing faces, professors and archaeologists given half the chance. Referring to the types that Laws defines, we do stumble over the truth that not every style is compatible. Many don’t mix up well at all, put a Tactician and a Storyteller in the same group and their natural desires, one for strategy and small, documentable threats in order to reap maximum profit for minimum risk, the other for something that feels dramatic and stirring and, well, like something you’d get in a novel or film, are hardly going to get along. So much of what we depend on for entertainment clashes with common sense; how many times have you watched a film saying ‘don’t do that, that’s where the murderer is’? But that’s part of the appeal, for me at least, whereas a session of heavy duty planning just gets dull.

We shouldn’t get too hung up on these of course, most people are likely to be happy as long as they get some sort of time in the spotlight. Your Storyteller player might well be bored during the long combats, but throw in a neat twist as a reward and you’ll keep them interested; whilst a Power Gamer might be mollified if an intense negotiation leads to them getting a new upgrade. The downside is you’re not really sitting back and letting the players run the show, which is what a lot of current gaming philosophy drives toward. In order to keep everyone involved you have to intervene and push towards a spotlighting style, giving all your players a chance to shine.

It’s true to say that most games are designed with a particular play experience in mind, even if that experience is trudging through a labyrinth looking for treasure, or aping a television show. It also would be true to say that some games fail in this regard; no matter how fond I am of Vampire the Masquerade, it fails to reinforce the theme of degeneration into being a monster and more resembles an urban fantasy superhero game (which is probably one of the reasons it was so popular). Obviously the way a game is written is going to place limits on what you can do. The original Vampire, and indeed the original World of Darkness games in general, was pretty unfocused and open but more modern games often draw a line to underscore their themes: consider the way Golden Sky Stories focuses on peaceful solutions to the extent that violence will ruin your long term goals, or that the Gumshoe games focus on investigative play. In the case of licensed RPGs, the One Ring obliquely draws on the journey that was so embedded in Tolkien’s work, spinning it out into the game.

This brings me to the issue of gaming’s structure. Take a look at the examples at the top of the blog, they seem pretty varied don’t they? But in fact they’re all set about small groups, tactics and engagement with a wider world. Even within a larger structure you’re defaulting to the ‘team’ rather than anything else. Roleplaying excels at this level, and perhaps as a result it defaults to it, but the focus on small scale squads does create a barrier to running games that are more focused on individual action or large scale groups. This is one reason Noir games are pretty rare, the genre is too focused on solo action and it makes it hard to connect characters into a group. On the other side, large scale games are difficult because the focus on individual characters means you can’t really flip over to play a wide scale agency or army unless you’re incorporating a war game or strategy computer game into what you’re doing (which brings to mind Knights of the Dinner Table with their sweet based battlefield, way back in Bag Wars). So the examples won't actually differ that much, and where they do it will likely be in the nature of their flavour rather than anything more significant. This of course creates an issue for game designers, how do you set something enough apart to feel fresh, whilst adhering to the nature of the hobby?

The answer is that many don’t, not really, and we end up with many games that hedge about a common ground. There’s more choice and variation in system than there is in the settings that they support.

Games are also reactive, players seldom choose to set the agenda even if a game has been bedded in and is in full bloom. Typical plots will set up an event and push the player characters to set out to right wrongs, seldom do they actively try to find trouble or look to alter the world, city or region. This creates a strange situation in games where it feels natural to let PCs establish power bases of their own and work to build their influence. Even where agency is possible, the nature of many groups will leave a lot of gamers waiting for the next dollop of plot. Ironically these players will often be the most hostile towards the game developing beyond a very basic level, uniting two levels of limitation, human and structural.

This is why, after a while, roleplaying settings start to look the same, the small tactics model is expected; it’s become the standard, as have all those things I’ve railed against in other pieces, the large numbers of monsters, the clich├ęd conspiracies and false economics. There’s a tiny space in which you can set a roleplaying game and have it succeed. Whether or not that’s desirable is a matter of opinion: I’ve reached the point where it chafes a bit and I long for more diversity, but your mileage may vary.

Beyond that, the reactive nature of games means that players are limited in what they can do. Most RPGs are structured about four active actions, fighting, talking, running away and ‘stealing things’. The first three are the only ways players can generally deal with encounters – that robot legion can be fought, bargained with or fled from. They aren’t going to respond well to flower arranging or feng shui. Whilst a lot of games will have knowledge skills and so on lore and knowledge are passive, even research is dealt with in a ‘time passes’ fashion, whereas the four active skills are where the main focus of games will rest. As a result players are limited in what they can have their characters do, far from having the run of the universe they're stuck in a trench. The star ship becomes an adventure delivery system, just a way to move the characters around with the occasional foray in to 'Out of Gas' territory when the ship become the focus of the plot.

This can be a boon of course, it creates certainty and allows players to know what’s expected of them, setting up accessibility. It sets boundaries to keep games from exceeding their scope and becoming unfocused, something that tolls the death knell of any roleplaying campaign, no matter what campaign model you adopt. The hobby remains a social one, the focus on a group or squad mean you don’t spin off into the complications that trying to play ‘the team that never meets’, to steal the Seven Soldiers of Victory tagline, or something similar would create. Nor do you risk the casual attitude towards characters that might arise from being part of a huge organisation without a single character to focus upon. That attention on one character still provides a human touch, even if a lot of the time we’re only relying on them to resist the slings and arrows of misfortune, whether that’s a supervillain’s magnetic powers or the mind breaking effects of looking at something from the Weird Dimension.

There is no denying, however, that it creates a conservative paradigm of play, one that is reactive and which does not encourage players to become partners in the process; leaving them as consumers in a very real sense, they consume the game, effecting it only through their characters’ actions. This is pretty far from what I want at present (though bear in mind my perfect game would probably start with a blank piece of paper and everyone at the table putting down three things they wanted, followed by a discussion of how everything fits together and how to square the various elements from ‘robot legions’ to ‘the valley of magical unicorns’ and retain internal consistency).

To draw a conclusion, I think it’s fair to say that the hobby is conservative in many ways and that it operates in a small area, but there are reasons for it doing so. The key is to balance what you do, make your game accessible to everyone and do the best you can to keep the game fresh.

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