How Do We Know How To Play?

Monday, September 15, 2008

Over 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.

Labels: ,


Blogger Brand Robins says:  

Not controversial to me, but it bears looking back to the original context -- about the tension between parts of a game.

Dogs has this thing where you push to win. Dogs has this other thing where you tell a story by judging your own and other characters.

For people who know how to play Dogs that tension gets successfully resolved, folding in on itself to make a functional game. (In fact, I think the game works so well for those it works for because it plays one off the other.)

However, for people who don't know how to play Dogs, those two things can come into conflict. People who have other expectations can resolve that tension in a different way, by following the logic of the mechanical system without following the logic of the aesthetic system for example, and find a way of playing that is fully logical within the construct of the game, but which is not fun.

The mechanics of a game, the things they teach us as we use them, are an interesting thing when it comes to learning how to play. I've seen ever so many people ignore the rules, refuse to learn to move forward on them, despite the fact that the rules have a clear logic to them.

An example of this would be folks who are now on their 5th D&D 4th adventure and still will toss off a daily power without setting up for multiple bonuses to make sure they have the best odds of not wiffing. You pretty clearly can't, in D&D 4th, just whip out a big power solo and expect to rock the world. You have to work as a group, you have to work to set up, and you have to use long term tactics, not just toss off powers in the moment.

Some people learn that. Those that do learn that, they're learning something from the logic of the system by paying attention to it and moving forward with it. Awesome.

Some people don't learn that. Those that don't seem to want the game to be something else. That could be because of their aesthetic preferences, their play preferences, or the social situation at the table.

Over time, the two groups are going to grow apart in the way they play.

Which, funnily, is what happened back in the days when we just "knew how to roleplay." See, a lot of those modes of play didn't come out of nowhere. They came out of rules and how those rules got used, how they were learned from and how they were not. People had texts, individual preferences, and tensions they had to solve. They found all sorts of way to solve them.

Over time those modes became kinda set, people would assume that people knew how to play the games, and that those who couldn't just didn't get it or were wrong -- because they would take different tracks towards resolving that tension.

Ironically, that's happening again. How many story games do we know how to play because we know how to play other story games? (Didn't Mike Holmes talk about this not to long ago?) How many Story games do we know how to play because the community we play with tells us how?

And how many people are playing these games and not getting it, just like many people didn't get Vampire, and are being told they're wrong for not getting it?

Blogger John Harper says:  

I'm tracking with all that, Brand.

I think there's a difference between failing to understand the aesthetic intent of a game at first blush and willfully refusing to alter one's play style when playing a new game.

The former is something that can be addressed in a variety of ways, and is really just a matter of learning something new. The latter is, to me, being a bad gamer.

So, when someone says, "Dogs doesn't work for me," I need context to assess where they're coming from. Usually, yeah, it's the case that they're following the mechanics down a path that leads to not-fun, and it's not their fault for "not getting it." Sometimes the game has failed to lead them in the right direction. Sometimes not.

Nor is it even necessary for them to get it. It's okay with me if Dogs is not-fun for some people and they abandon it. I'm not an evangelist.

But when someone says, "Dogs doesn't work for me because it doesn't deliver the one type of play I like," I have no sympathy for that. I say that's not a problem with Dogs, and it doesn't need fixing to accommodate that player. So in that case, yes, I will tell that player that they are wrong for not getting it.

They're not trying to get it. In a word, they're lying when they agree to play Dogs. Instead, it's the same old stuff, paying lip-service to the game and using status games and social pressures to get what they want. Ruining everyone else's fun while claiming to be open-minded is a classic move.

In my experience, several indie games don't fix these issues, but they sure as hell shine giant spotlights on them. People's ugly little manipulations get shoved out into the open and yeesh! No one likes that.

Blogger John Harper says:  

Oh and to address your point about tension:

I agree that there's a tension in the DitV system that is functional if you know how to play, and not functional if you don't.

Blogger Jonathan Walton says:  

Hey John,

So I dig with most of what you're saying, but, while the dysfunctional Dogs game that you're imagining is certainly possible, it's not what's happening in SGBoston. We have specifically not played Dogs with Eric largely because he hasn't yet figured out a way to approach it that seems to work for him. Maybe, at some point, he will.

Eric is very much aware of his personal issues / hangups regarding play and, as such, we try to minimize situations where his instincts are going to infringe on other people's fun. In the meantime, I feel like he's trying to work on learning about and understanding other play styles, even if he can't yet really get into them himself. Coming of his previous gaming life as a hardcore competitive Magic & Street Fighter player, it's going to be a gradual and awkward shift for him if it happens at all.

In the meantime, there's plenty of games we can play with Eric: completely non-competitive games and games that support really strong competition. Also, it's not like SGBoston is the only place any of us play. There are many other smaller, invite-only groups that folks that come to SGBoston play in, many of which do mess around with this tension in a productive fashion.

So, while I get that you're having a strong negative reaction to talking with or about Eric, I feel like your veiled condemnation is mistargeted, based on my own personal experiences here.

I don't think anyone is saying "Dogs is a bad game or fails in this respect." Dogs is one of my favorite games of all time, which is partially why Eric keeps being interested in it, I suspect, even if he's not sure he could enjoy playing it. What I'm trying to say (and I suspect Brand is too) is that the socialization and learning to play process is crucial for satisfying play and it doesn't always "come naturally" to everyone.

Does that mean we give up on playing certain games with certain people? Maybe. But it's also possible that socialization will take time and can gradually be accomplished. A lot of people come to small press games because they're fed up with certain aspects of traditional games and are looking for something else. But some folks come perfectly satisfied with traditional games, which can make socialization harder. They already know "how to play," right? It's like Jason Morningstar saying "I've got story games brain damage" when playing Wushu last GenCon. Even when you can realize you need to switch perspectives to make a game fun, it's not always easy to do that.

Blogger John Harper says:  


Okay, cool. Your post makes a lot of sense to me. I apologize for being too harsh regarding Eric. Clearly things aren't quite the way they seemed across the Intertron. Not everything I'm saying is directed at him, of course. I'm resurrecting some past demons here, too.

I agree that adaptation to a new game can take time and is worth doing. It's my belief that addressing those issues at the mechanics/resolution level is approaching the problem backwards, but I am open to being proved wrong on that point.

Anonymous Anonymous says:  

When I think about it, no, it doesn't make sense to me.

When I first roleplayed, I didn't know how to roleplay. I tried roleplay. To be more exact I tried the activity my friends suggested, that they called 'roleplay'.

I evaluated what that described activity involved. It did involve talking, and I know how to talk, but that didn't mean I knew how to roleplay. Talking was just one component of the activity my friends had suggested.

I'd suggest that if you 'knew how to roleplay' rather than try the activity your friends called roleplay, then you'll end up 'knowing dogs in the vineyard', and repeating the assumptions you have about the activity called roleplay - because since you never tried RP and 'knew' it, these aren't assumptions, they are 'known truths'.

Post a Comment

<< Home