How Do We Know How To Play?
Monday, September 15, 2008Over on One Thousand One, Brand asked me a good question:
"How do we know what 'playing Dogs in the Vineyard' is? As opposed to how we know what 'playing Game X' is?"
I'm gonna answer him here since it got rather long.
This is a thorny issue, historically. In my experience, through the 80s and 90s, we simply knew "how to roleplay." This was collected wisdom from oral tradition, game books, Usenet, and the early Internet. There were good roleplaying practices and bad ones, and overall the activity was seen as a monolithic thing. When it came to a specific game, "knowing how to play Game X," meant understanding the resolution mechanics, character generation, and how to portray your character at the table (be moody! be heroic! shut up and kill stuff! etc.). Pretty much all stuff at the technique level, in other words. But "good roleplaying" was a thing unto itself -- a science and art that could be studied and improved independant of the game played.
Add to this the notion of "my game" that a lot of GMs had (and have still). The idea was, we're not just playing Game X, we're playing in "Tom's Game X campaign." In this case, Tom is the authority on what "playing Game X" means, and you either read his social cues and participate in the expected ways, or you find yourself ostracisized from the group (or asked to leave if Tom has the nerve). It doesn't matter what you think "playing Game X" means (or what the book says, for that matter) if it doesn't align with Tom's authority. To cloud the issue even more, a lot of game books endorsed this approach with things like Rule Zero.
Establishing and defending what "playing Game X" meant to Tom (and his supporters) was often a primary activity for some game groups. Endless discussions on what would "make sense" or "really happen" -- creative differences disguised as logic problems -- could easily take up hours of game time. Stepping out of line with Tom's vision could result in ridicule or more bitter debates and appeals to logic.
(Full disclosure: I was Tom. More than once.)
So... how did we know what "playing Game X" was? Honestly, I don't think I did. Not every time. This applies to lots of games and game groups that I experienced all through the 80s and 90s (and still see in action today). Generally, many groups got by with status games. Whoever was seen as highest status in the group would enforce what "playing Game X" really meant, and essentially coerce the lower-status group members into appropriate behaviors (and marginalize those who didn't behave).
In the absence of these status games and murky Rule Zero advice, I found the other way to know how to play a game:
1. Shared understanding (explicit and implicit) and communication between the players.
2. A rules text that tells us what is expected of us as players and GM (as people at the table!), creating a shared roadmap for play. A document we can point to and say, "Yes, I want to do what it says in there." Most importantly this trumps appeals to "good roleplaying" or "how I always do it" or "what should happen."
(My first experience with this combo was playing Star Wars D6 with a good group of people.)
This is how I know what "playing Dogs in the Vineyard" is. By playing in a group with a shared understanding and communication about what matters to us (a social contract, you might even say), using a rules text that establishes clear expectations for play. Play becomes a process of reinforcing and celebrating the expectations and procedures of the game as communicated by the text (most importantly: not just "the mechanics") and the shared understanding of the group.
So there it is. I don't think any of that is controversial at all, but I'd love to hear your comments.