There Is More Than One Agency, There Are Many Interactions

More or less everyone in RPG discourse – in which I include blogs, forums, podcasts, and other mediums where people waffle about the process of playing RPGs – agrees that different people want different things. Most of us also under-estimate how difficult it is to actually understand want other people want when what they’re after is highly incompatible with what you desire.

This has come up to a certain extent in my discussions with Dan on some recent posts concerning White Wolf’s recent output. It’s become quite apparent that part of the reason White Wolf’s decisions about how they design their games and arrange their books are so bizarre to me is that the White Wolf staff look for entirely alien things in their gaming products compared to what I look for. (I’d say “the White Wolf staff and their customers look for entirely alien things” there, but I’m not sure whether White Wolf have that many customers these days beyond a small rump purchasing stuff from the Kickstarters or via their print-on-demand division – it makes little business sense to disappear from game shop shelves and switch to an all-POD model unless you’ve decided you don’t want to cater to anyone who isn’t already a confirmed fan of your work.) To a certain extent I think they are still making mistakes – I believe Dan when he posits what White Wolf’s agenda might be since he’s always paid more attention to their output than I have, but I still think that what they present in their books doesn’t actually serve that agenda especially well.

What’s inspired this post, however, is Dan’s recent thoughts on the Quantum Ogre.

Dan points out, correctly, that the Quantum Ogre articles are optimised for old-school Dungeons & Dragons gaming (of the sort which tends to fly the OSR flag high). As such, it’s loaded with assumptions as to what player agency is, and what meaningful choices are, and in general what constitutes good refereeing and bad refereeing for the purposes of the players at hand. An awful lot of electrons have been spilled on arguments between advocates of different styles of gaming, and the Quantum Ogre posts inspired a lot of feedback for -Cat. I suspect that whether the Quantum Ogre posts are of any use to you at all – or even make sense to you – hinges somewhat on whether you’re interested in playing in or running a game based on the particular mindset promoted by -Cat’s blog.

A factor which wasn’t overtly explored in Dan’s post, but I think underpins a lot of this, is this: we all know that some form of agency is necessary if a game is going to be meaningfully interactive, but where a lot of schools of gaming thought differ is in what kind of interactivity they deem to be important.

Most people would agree that the unique selling point of tabletop RPGs in contrast to even very interactive videogames is the nigh-infinite scope of interactivity, which you can only accomplish with a human referee. Even when you take into account the constraints of a gameworld’s physical/metaphysical boundaries and the rules system and the assumed genre of a game, there’s a near-infinite number of ways a player could potentially choose to react to any situation in a game, provided their character is capable of action at all. What I consider to be interesting about the different schools of thought about RPGs that have been promoted over the years – the OSR, White Wolf-style storytelling, Forgey narrativism and so on, is that they each point to a particular type of interactivity as being what they are really excited about – and often, their advocates fail to recognise other types as offering meaningful interaction in the first place.

For the OSR, and I think -Cat’s Quantum Ogre posts fall firmly into this category, the meaningful type of interactivity is the freedom to explore the world – and that must, inherently, include the freedom to ignore or evade parts of the world you don’t actually want to run into. The OSR tends to be very down on “illusionism” – and, indeed, even consensual railroading – and also tends to back away from shared narrative mechanics of the storygame variety because the the sort of exploration-based interactivity prized by the OSR requires something objective to explore. Dungeons and wildernesses are to be mapped in advance, and ogres are to be firmly classical (as opposed to quantum), because otherwise the exploration isn’t “real”; railroading and narrative-sharing alike make it apparent that the world being explored is, after all, just like a movie set, where the scenery only looks real because you can’t walk around to the other side and see it’s made of propped-up cardboard.

But this is not the only freedom the RPG medium offers. A lot of people prize the freedom to explore and develop their character, and that can happen equally well in a railroaded game as it does in a sandbox. In fact, the classic super-linear storytelling campaign as advocated in numerous White Wolf publications (Dan eviscerates a particular example here) seems intended precisely for this purpose. The players have little control over the course of the campaign and the GM’s plot is going to rattle down those train tracks where you like it or not, but that isn’t the interactivity White Wolf and its partisans want – instead, they want to explore the capability of the RPG medium for exploring how characters respond to the events of the GM’s plot. It is definitely more reactive than what the OSR advocate, but it still has a unique selling point over other media in the sense that you can choose to take your character in more or less any direction in response to what they’ve gone through. A recent Fatescape campaign I went through was much like this – the overall plot arc was clearly decided in advance, but none of us actually gave two shits because what was really interesting was the sort of people our characters were turning into as a result of the experiences we were undergoing. I suspect Pendragon will have similar moments, given that the players have agreed that they don’t actually want the freedom to completely derail the Arthurian myth.

Now, the interesting thing about the above is that the GM is experiencing an entirely different type of interaction with the game from the players. In the model promoted by many OSR advocates, the players are interacting with the game by exploring the world, whilst the GM’s major creative outlet is in creating that world, with the usual refereeing duties of adjudicating how actions succeed or fail and so on being there to support the evocation of the world. Likewise, in the storytelling mode the GM devises a linear plot and gets the fun of guiding the players through it, whilst the players have little to do with the creation of the plot (with the exception, perhaps, of coming up with some background elements at character creation) and everything to do with portraying how their characters react and change and grow in response to what goes down. A lot of what the Forge and its successors seem to be about is banishing this difference; at an extreme (say, in Fiasco) this means abolishing the position of the GM entirely, but even in less extreme departures from the traditional the narrativist approach is all about sharing the GM’s modes of interacting with the game – creating the world and/or devising a plot in particular – with the players, on the basis that exercising this sort of creativity is the type of interaction narrativists are interested in. (A fuckload of Ron Edwards’ stuff suddenly makes vastly more sense if you read it with the assumption that he does not give two shits about the exploration of world or character – matters he tends to relegate to Simulationism and then forgets about – and is only interested in the exercise of creativity, and that his beef with traditional RPGs stems from them restricting a lot of the type of creativity he’s interested in to the referee.)

Lest people think I’m proposing another threefold model here, I want to stress that the above is me outlining what kinds of interactivity these different bodies of thought tend to value, and I don’t pretend that these are the only kinds of interactivity that exist in a game, or the only types that count. That, indeed, is why arguments about this sort of thing online blow up so easily: people see a type of interactivity they value being de-emphasied in a particular game system or in someone’s description of actual play, and they jump to the conclusion that the game in question has no meaningful interactivity whatsoever. (This conclusion is especially easy to reach if the account of the game in question mentions how a particular type of interactivity was constrained whilst not discussing what other varieties of interactivity were indulged in.) Likewise, someone proposes a way to support interactivity and player agency in a game and someone else reads what the first person says and thinks “What the fuck, this person clearly comes from Mars or something, this has nothing to do with interactivity or agency” – in fact, both people are likely focusing on a different type of interactivity or agency.

For some people a game where developing a character background is a purely optional stage of character generation and the PCs are left to their own devices to try and find something interesting is the epitome of develop-in-play characterisation and sandboxy freedom; for others, it feels like a shallow excercise in desperately trying to hunt down the fun. For some people a game where you are encouraged to create a character with a distinctive personality and background who then goes through a linear story designed by the GM is a load of railroady bullshit where the characters’ backgrounds and personalities are empty sideshows to compensate for the players’ lack of control over the plot; for others, it’s a game where you can concentrate on exploring and depicting your character and are assured of being directed to where the next dose of fun is coming from. For some people narrativist game design philosophies give every participant in a game a fair crack at the tools of interaction and creativity that have previously been the exclusive purview of referees; for others it is necessary that the referees have one set of tools for interaction and the players have a distinct and different type of interaction with the game in order to play the type of game they want to play.

It’s genuinely difficult to see why people who enjoy things you aren’t fond of enjoy them, to the point where it can be a struggle even to acknowledge that it’s possible for such things to be fun. It’s equally hard, when RPG discourse often involves pushing one type of interactivity as being the epitome of good gaming, to recognise that you don’t have to commit to one type of experience or another in your refereeing – or even in your campaigns. For instance, my present Dungeons & Dragons campaign focuses mostly on the exploration of a dungeon, but there’s also been occasional linear excursions here and there (indeed, the next session looks likely to be a linear excursion with a strong focus on exploring character). There’s a lot to be said for picking a particular style for a campaign and delivering it, but there’s also a lot to be said for judging when a departure from the expected is called for. There is no cast-iron formula for deciding when and how to do this because it’s the sort of thing which comes purely down to reading the mood of your group – and reading what direction your own refereeing energies are going in – and that’s not something which obeys the neat rules of any particular gaming philosophy. All you can do is remember that there’s more than one type of interactivity or player agency, and whilst a good referee will communicate which they are going to be concentrating on and deliver it, a great referee will read when a player or players fancy something a bit different and offer it, if they can – or negotiate some compromise if they don’t feel competent or willing to do it. I used to pride myself on having a signature GMing style which I stuck to, and I used to prefer playing experiences of a particular type, but I find that recently I am becoming less fussy and particular – and weirdly, this seems to enable me to be more discerning and capable as a player and a referee, not less.


2 thoughts on “There Is More Than One Agency, There Are Many Interactions

  1. The more I think about it, the more I think that the one recurring feature of genuinely “bad” GMing is indifference to player engagement.

    Taking the Linear-White-Wolf example, there’s nothing wrong with a game which is all about the players’ characters’ reactions to a predetermined, linear plot (you could argue that a lot of Cthulhu adventures are the same). It becomes a problem when the game stops being about the players’ responses to the plot, and just becomes about the plot.

    I think what’s interesting is that people tend to assume that this is a failure mode unique to linear, plot-driven games, when actually it’s possible in all styles of non-gmless play (and then you can get the same thing if individual players refuse to engage with each other).

    The Vampire GM who only cares about their lovingly detailed plot is neither better nor worse than the OSR DM who cares only about their painstakingly documented dungeon, or the 4th ed DM who cares only about their perfectly planned encounter balance, or the Dogs in the Vineyard GM who cares only about their oh-so-challenging moral dilemma.

  2. Pingback: I Love You, Elfstar, But Don’t Forget You’re Debbie Too « Refereeing and Reflection

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