Tuesday, 28 August 2018

What Are RPGs Like?

Scott Adams, whether you love him, loathe him, take him with a pinch of salt, think of him only rarely as that guy who did the Dilbert comics and are they still going?, is worth keeping tabs on for occasional nuggets of gold he comes out with. One of his best, which I've heard him say repeatedly on various interviews, but which I can only trace in written form to this blog post, is that analogies are over-rated and over-used. They are like a substitute for thinking - a short-hand way of convincing yourself you understand something when really all you have done is imagine something that reminds you of it. What's worse, they're the enemy of rational debate: "all discussions that involve analogies devolve into arguments about the quality of the analogy, not the underlying situation."

I thought of that quote while reading the comments to my previous post. Not to point the finger at anybody in particular - I was as guilty as anyone else - but just as an observation: discussions of "what RPGs are like" always and inevitably devolve into arguments between different camps who claim they are like video games, like board games, like music, like novels, like toolkits, and so on, and are never very useful as a result.

What are RPGs like? Well, they are like all those things and more, but the truth is, they're not really like anything else. They are like RPGs. Trying to explain what they are like is like trying to explain what sport is like; what board games are like; what novels are like, and so on. You can't do it as an abstract exercise. It has to be done in practice. RPGs, then, are like anything which human beings do - to actually understand what they are, they have to be watched or preferably played.

We have to be very careful of slippage into analogy, because analogies are dangerous: as Kundera, my favourite person to pseudo-intellectually quote, put it once, "a single metaphor can give birth to love." The context of that quote is a man who dreams up a metaphor for imagining how a woman entered into his life (if I remember rightly, he imagines her being like Moses in the bed of reeds floating down the river and he chances across her). It causes him to fall in love, because he is no longer thinking of the woman as herself - he is thinking about her Meaning and suddenly their meeting seems fated. Allow yourself to become convinced by an analogy and you lose perspective on the real phenomenon

The same thing can happen with analogies for RPGs. The analogy becomes reified and may prevent you actually thinking about what an RPG is in its own right. If you thing RPGs are like stories, you may slip down the dangerous slope towards plot and railroading. If you think RPGs are like music, you may slide into "gamer ADHD", always on the look out for the next cool release. If you think RPGs are like collectible card games, you may stray into an obsession with "builds" and mechanics. If you think RPGs are like video games, you may find yourself being reluctant to kill PCs or start contriving set pieces rather than letting them emerge naturally. And so on.

Rather than think about what RPGs are like, it is probably best to think of them as a phenomenon that is unlike other phenomena and see what works best from there. Instead of thinking of things that remind us of RPGs, maybe the useful starting point is emphasising how they are not those other things - books, board games, sports, video games, toolkits - and what that means.

17 comments:

  1. Great post! And I agree, more or less.

    But if I were to play the Devil's advocate, I'd say that RPGs are really rather like the sort of skirmish wargame that was around at the time D&D came into being (and which still exists in many guises today).

    I'd certainly argue that single-figure-per-player skirmish games are *very* close to RPG territory - and, more importantly, tend to slip into that territory during play, whether or not the players have played RPGs before: voices, decisions that are character-based rather than optimal, fun that arises from the unpredictable rather than from pre-planning.

    I've seen the argument made that even without Gygax and Arneson, RPGs would have almost certainly emerged from things like Braunstein and a similar Western skirmish game that were around at the time.

    That aside, the warnings in your penultimate paragraph are perfectly put - and very helpful for explaining RPGs to new players who are familiar with those things, I think.

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    1. This might seem a sneaky, weasels-compared-with-stoat comparison. But I've actually found it very useful in explaining RPGs to people who've never dabbled. Everyone understands chess, and so they can easily understand wargames. Then, as you scale the wargame down from an army to a band and then to an individual in your description, they can follow quite easily. Tell them that the players cooperat and there's a referee who decides what the they can or can't do and controls the enemies, and you're pretty much there. OK, you need a shift from "enemies" to "other characters", which opens up the possibility of interactions other than fighting.

      But everything else is emergent, isn't it? The characterisation, the voices and mannerisms, the theatrics and drama: all of these come naturally once you've got to the "one-player/one character + referee" point.

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    2. I think definitely analogies are useful for beginning players as long as you're careful. The problem with the wargame one is that it tends to create a mindset that the game is mostly about combat (which is why it's also helpful to point out at the same time why an RPG is unlike a wargame).

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  2. What you are saying might be valid if we were exercised in explaining what an rpg is to people who don't know what it is because they do not 'practise' gaming. Those who read this post and the previous one are likely to be well 'practised', and it seems reasonable among such people to describe the qualities they emphasize in gaming and the aspects they prefer by way of analogy. As you suggest, analogy does have a weak descriptive effect on novices.

    Arguments typically arise in discussing rpgs when peevish persons suspect expressions of taste are commandments.

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    1. I think that analogies might actually be more helpful for new players. So far I've had success comparing it to make believe, since everyone I've talked to so far has played it, and I imagine they have fond memories. The other characteristic make believe shares with RPGs is that it's a very personal experience, so you don't run into the same pre-expectations as you might comparing them to video games, movies, or board games.

      The bottom line for me is that any good new-player explanation for RPGs has to be A) concise, B) interesting, and C) *reasonably* accurate. The goal is to get people playing, not give them a perfect mental image of what it's like--that can happen when they actually play! Analogies do the job nicely, even if on a philosophical level they're messy.

      "Like make believe, but with dice and paper so we can share a consistent world."

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    2. Sure. Whatever works to sell the concept to new players is good. Noisms is wondering why any universal definition for an rpg is doomed. I approach novices with a twist in the plot of their favourite movies and ask them what the characters they know so well might do in the alternative script ... and then suggest that dice can help resolve outcome.

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    3. I think for people who already have experiences with RPGs it's much more helpful to try to discuss RPGs without reference to analogies, mainly for Scott Adams' second reason - the discussion just ends up being about whose analogy is more suitable, which is never really what we're all interested in.

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  3. Maybe we should switch from allegories to parables. A good parable has a lot of depth.

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  4. Nice thought. Actually very nice thought. But I'm nonetheless offended that you made me think about Scott Adams. What a weird creature he's become.

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    1. I find a lot of his perspectives interesting. He's an arrogant bastard, but he does come up with some useful ideas. His "movie 1 and movie 2" notion is a powerful way of observing not just American politics but many aspects of the world in general (even though it is itself an analogy, something which he elsewhere says are not very helpful....).

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    2. I dunno. He strikes me more as one of those guys in the Jordan Peterson mold who mostly offer well-worn platitudes ("people have different perspectives!"), but dress them up with a sort of larger than life persona that appeals to some people.

      Adams' shtick is just too much for me.

      As I said earlier, the metaphor point is a good one though.

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  5. Analogies are the thumbnail icons of the thing itself. As you say the problem is comparing different thumbnails. They become less accurate the more you zoom in and different thumbnails are quite different from each other because they have extracted/abstracted different low resolution information. Also an accurate description of political ideologies.

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  6. Agreed, though I can't help but think that I've seen people doing that very thing... like, a lot.

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    1. Sorry, meant to say I don't completely agree... I do but I don't because... it's complicated.

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  7. That you can't even say "builds" without scare quotes is telling. A game *is* its mechanics. That is the objective reality of the matter. The huge number of people who petulantly insist otherwise don't like games, they like the tangential subcultures that they've built up around games that they frequently actually shit on and only keep around to perversely run actual fans out of.

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    1. OK. I don't really understand what you're angry about, but I'm glad I gave you the opportunity to vent. I hope it helped.

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    2. He's angry about people obsessing over gaming culture and subcultures.

      Lamia, I think you're missing the fact that culture is far more important to most people than the actual game itself. In other words, people care more about the metagame than they do the game. This is obvious from observing the fan culture of popular sports or TV shows (especially reality shows).

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