Tuesday, 6 December 2016

The Personal RPG Coefficient

In "The Creative Act", Duchamp talks about something he called "the art coefficient":

[I]n the chain of reactions accompanying the creative act, a link is missing. This gap which represents the inability of the artist to fully express his intention; this difference between what he intended to realise and did realise, is the personal "art coefficient" contained in the work. 
In other words, the personal "art coefficient" is like an arithmetical relation between the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed."

In other words, a work of art is never what the artist fully intended. The difference between those two things - what he really wanted to create and what he in fact did create - is the personal "art coefficient".

RPG sessions are a bit like this, when you think about it. We are all nowadays, most of us, sandbox DMs, or non-railroading DMs, but still I think most DMs when planning a campaign have some ideas, however vague, about tone and quality and maybe certain key events and encounters. And this is also true on the microscale of individual aspects of a campaign, like NPCs, monsters and lairs: when planning or designing or thinking up such things, any DM has an idea in mind of how the PCs will interact with the NPC, defeat the monster, investigate the lair, etc.

We can therefore speak of such a thing as "the personal RPG coefficient". This is the difference between how the DM conceives of an in-game thing in the abstract, and how it actually turns out in practice. The clever and sarcastic NPC wizard does something stupid (the DM doesn't think things through). The sinister monster turns out to be really easy to defeat by the thoughtful players. The PCs discover the secret entrance to the lair before they come across the main entrance. And so forth.

Anybody who has DM'd a gaming session will be familiar with the personal RPG coefficient and its strange alchemy.

According to Duchamp the scale of the personal art coefficient didn't matter. All art is open to interpretation by the spectators. They are the ones who judge its success or failure. Not the artist. By implication, the artist may intend to do one thing, but utterly fail to achieve that in the final product. That doesn't matter, because those viewing it may judge it as good art and posterity may decide it is great art.

In the same way, it doesn't matter that the DM may have intended or predicted things will turn out one way, if they are different in the actual outcome. Those involved in the game may still judge it as good and fun.


  1. Interesting to think about this as it relates to computer games: open-ended sandbox games like GTA tend toward absurdity and narratively weightless ultra-violence regardless of the tonal intention of the designers, and old-school tabletop RPGs have this quality as well. There is of course a fundamental tension between player agency and centralized control of tone and narrative, and more specifically, a game (tabletop or computerized) that provides mechanics for violence and other anti-social behaviour will tend to degenerate (or ascend!) into murderhoboism.

    1. Same goes with indie RPGs which tend to veer towards absurdist comedy no matter what the intended tone of the game is. It seems that the more you let players run things the goofier it ends up being, which is overall fine by me. Often the DM's job is to be a good straight man.

    2. I think it depends on the group and their age. I am noticing the tendency towards murderhoboism a lot less. And contrary to my post, the DM can set the tone there to some degree.

      Totally agree about indie games though. I've always found they tend to tilt towards unintentionally producing comedy gold. I think it may be because so many of them are so po-faced.

  2. I find the idea a fascinating one, but I am not sure how accurately it corresponds in play.

    That is to say that the narrower, and tighter the GMs intention is, the larger (wider?) the personal RPG coefficient is likely to be. For example, should the GM really have, "an idea in mind of how the PCs will interact with the NPC, defeat the monster, investigate the lair" the more likely they will be profoundly disappointed on the average that things do go their way.

    From my own point of view, I know only the NPC, monster, or mystery's intended purpose, and that said beings, creatures, or initial events with follow that purpose. I have bloody idea how the PCs will react to them. I could certainly postulate on what their approaches might be, and have some contingency plans in place, but I don't anticipate, or expect anything in particular.

    I long ago realized that way is folly. Better to expect the unexpected, and never be disappointed.

  3. Good post. Accurate too. I definitely have a coefficient. Some of it is me and some of it is lack of player agency. One thing I should add. I am a big fan of sandbox DMing, but you still need a direction and a flow of events, with which the players will have to interact or be carried away. This is not railroading. Example. Let's say you set your sandbox in Hiroshima in 1935. Players are martial artists and monks and whatever who can do what they will, until the war starts and they have to resist the pressure of the Imperial Japanese government to draft them into the army to remain in the game. Unknown to the players, there will be an end to campaign - the day the fireball goes up in 1945. Can the players "win"? Can they stop the war? Prevent the Bombing? Save themselves? Even discover that this bombing will take place and take right action? See a sandbox? DM must resist temptation to railroad.