Saturday, October 19, 2002

GAME WISH #6: SECRETS

In Game WISH #6, Ginger asks:

Sometimes the plot of a game requires a GM to keep secrets. Is it better for the GM and other players to keep most out-of-character knowledge secret, or to assume that players are capable of keeping in-character and out-of-character knowledge separate? Where and how do you draw the line as a GM and/or player between what secrets should be kept and which ones are OK to reveal?

I'm not of a single mind on this question. I have a number of different impulses on this topic, several of which tend to fight each other. It's hard to say which side will win out. In no particular order, here are things that influence my decisions to tell or not to tell:

First, unlike Ginger, I generally have no faith at all in my players' abilities to keep the secret stuff separate from the not-secret stuff. If a master thespian were immersing him or herself into the script of my game, really wrapping their head around it, and then went directly into intensive filming for the major motion picture to be made from my game, then I expect that person could pull it off. But my friends are not, as a rule, master thespians, and they are not, as a rule, immersed in my game. Generally speaking, my friends are actually slightly scruffy eggheads who only spend a few hours twice a month thinking about my game. I don't believe these people can maintain the mental discipline necessary to partition off the part of their head occupied by their character. And, frankly, why should I put them to that effort? It's a roleplaying game, not Concentration.

Second, I love coming up with clever little plot twists. If there's one thing I love more than coming up with clever little plot twists, it's people patting me on the back and saying 'Gee, Andy, that sure was a clever little plot twist.' So, neat little secrets are awfully fun, but the problem is that nobody else knows how fun they are if they remain secrets. I'm always apt to blab, for much the same reason that evil masterminds confess their entire plan to James Bond.

Third, I have a tough time tracking what information I've given out to people. A year after the party slew the Snorkle, they tend to meet up with Princess Golliwog, and I never recall whether I spilled the beans to them about the Snorkle actually being Princess Golliwog's fiancee under a sinister curse. And I can't very well say "Er, so, last year, I didn't happen to tell you something interesting about the Snorkle, did I?" because of course that would spill the beans. So there's always this paralyzed moment where I wind up telling them nothing, and then later on I get slapped upside the head and get told I denied people CRITICAL NEED-TO-KNOW INFORMATION. Often, rather than trying to remember what secrets are still secrets, I just tell the secret. "But you don't actually know that yet!" I conclude, chuckling nastily to myself over the fact that I've just placed the burden of recollection on the players.

Fourth, sometimes an entire plot is driven by the fact that the secret twist is surprising. If you tell the secret in advance of the money shot, you've just utterly screwed the story. Some secrets HAVE to be kept, because, you know, it's art.

So, if I had to map out the equation I use for determining whether to confess my game secrets, here's how it works:

1) As a default, I tell my secrets. This addresses Condition Three.
2) If the secret needs to be kept to avoid spoiling the story, I don't tell. This addresses Condition Four.
3) If I believe that telling the secrets will cause the players undue agony in not knowing the thing they actually know, I don't tell. This addresses Condition One.
4) Ah, but if it's a really cool secret, or if I'm tired, or if I fuck up, or a butterfly flaps its wings in Tokyo, or or or, I blab. This is the catchall Condition Two, bringing us back to my default, where I happily reside, a cheerful font of Secrets Mankind Was Not Meant to Know.

Everybody got that? there will be a quiz.

Friday, October 18, 2002

MEANWHILE, ON CHANNEL TWO

I suppose I should mention that I have another blog. The intent is to skewer the news as offensively as possible. You might consider checking out And Now The Noose. Just don't complain to me.
WISH 18: STICKING POINTS

Ginger's Game WISH question #18 reads like this:

Every player has sticking points. (Yes, you do. You may not have had your buttons pressed yet to know what they are, but you have them.). What are some things that are absolutely no-gos for you?

I have turn-ons and turn-offs for gaming like everybody else, but it's hard for me to identify something as strong as a 'no-go', a thing that, when encountered, means it's automatically time to seek out greener pastures. I can't recall having had such a strong '...MUST...FLEE!' reaction.

I can tell you what pisses me off in gaming. Does that count? Probably not. I'll write about it anyway.

I just can't stand seeing people be mean to each other for the sheer sake of meanness. That transcends gaming and applies to any situation I can see myself in. I guess a shrink would tell me that this stems back to my years of being an awkward newcomer, despising isolation when I see it. It just drives me nuts to be at a game, a place where people have theoretically shown up to have fun with each other, and somebody's trying to put a bug up somebody else's ass. Aren't there places set aside for such behavior where it's condoned, like debate tournaments, or usenet newsgroups?

I hate feeling stupid. I really like having my brain challenged with puzzles and riddles, but it totally sucks when I can't solve the damned things. When that happens I get a lot of 'why the fuck am I doing this again?' feelings, which are pretty immature, but it's my blog, so shut up and give me a quarter.

I hate ultra-slow pacing. Things need to happen in games at a certain pace or I lose interest. This pace varies widely from game to game and genre to genre. It's certainly true that the timescale of PBeM is much slower than FtF, and I can deal with that. But when games lag, I find myself comparing the small amount of precious spare time I have to the diminishing amount of joy I get from that activity, and concluding that I could be having more fun elsewhere. It's all about maximizing fun for me. I have a very Utilitarian lizard-brain.

I hate Rice University parking! let's not go there. Suffice it to say that I game at Rice, so it's not a complete discontinuity.

This is a slippery one to define: I hate gaming with people who piss me off. This is different from most instances of 'I hate [blank] with people who piss me off'. For instance, I don't like working with people who piss me off. That's obvious. I don't like having sex with people who piss me off. That's obvious too. (fortunately Dema doesn't piss me off....much.) But gaming with people who piss me off is just wrong. When you're at work, you don't really get a choice of who you rub elbows with, so what can you do? You generally do get to choose your sexual partners, but I can recall one personal example of where a sexual relationship existed in defiance of complete personality disconnect, mostly because the relationship wasn't about personality at all. Gaming, on the other hand, is all about human interaction. It's an activity that continues despite competition for our spare time from television, computers and videogames, I believe because there is a real and elemental need on the part of most people to rub brains with other live humans for fun. So when I game with people who annoy me, there's a feeling that goes beyond annoyance -- it's like I've been robbed.

Finally, a specific subset of the above paragraph, I hate gaming with people who think it's amusing to whack me with a whiffle bat. You! yes, YOU! Sit! DOWN.

Thursday, October 17, 2002

WISH 5: COMMUNICATION

How very easy it is to ignore one's blog when one gets busy. Fortunately, blogs aren't children or pets. There is little chance that my blog will die if left unattended. It will not crap on my bed to express its dissatisfaction. It will not escape my computer, go missing for months, and return with a string of little blogs in tow. I can fail to post to my blog for a week, and nothing untoward will happen.

So, uh, why do I feel so guilty?

Never mind that! onwards to Ginger's Game WISH question #5, which regards you sternly as it asks:

Gaming requires the GM and players to communicate a large amount of information about system, plot, setting, character, and actions (among other things). There are a lot of places where a failure to communicate on the part of the GM and the players leads to disappointments for the GMs and the players. How do you deal with miscommunications and invalid assumptions as a player and a GM? Give one or more examples of situations and how you resolved them or how you are avoiding them.

Mm-hm. Mm-hm. Communication. Uh-huh. So, um, what was the question?

Something about listening, wasn't it?

Right, okay. I will now give two examples of games I have played in, where my expectations going in were not equal to what I got out of it. Afterwards, I will talk about what I did to make the situation better.

Game the First: A couple of years ago I picked up a PBeM game called Tangorea. I ran across it while searching the web for 'world-building', something I was checking out in the spirit of philosophical inquiry. (Possible future Game WISH question: how do you go about building a world, peopling it, filling it with history and geography and physics and character? Do you strive for completeness at the outset or just invent what you need immediately and, if necesssary, backfill continuity?) Tangorea was a game set in a fairly developed world. It was 2nd edition AD&D with a few house rules and great flexibility. For some time I had hoped to find a game wherein I could play a character sort of like the engineering student who gets thrust into a fantasy world in Joel Rosenberg's The Sword and the Chain, and the GM was willing to accommodate this. We created a character class called a 'Builder', who wasn't much at combat or magic but had a lot of secondary skills, and we were off and running.

In this game, us good guys were combating orcs who had raided a town. The GM was fairly graphic in his descriptions of the orcs and their rapacious depradations, including the carrying off of women for purposes that were painted rather obviously. This bothered me relatively little at first -- I came up in gaming circles that featured zero females and 100% male teens, so coarse and immature talk combining sexuality and violence, while not my definition of fun, is also something I have built a tolerance for.

As the game went on, however, it became obvious to me that this sense of violence towards women wasn't just a kind of icky flavor of the game -- it was an attitude that was pervasive throughout the entire storyline. Like John Norman's Gor books, the notion of male dominance over women, often by force, was in the deep structure of this game. The game involved a lot of cool players, the DM put a lot of work into his game and his descriptions -- there was a lot to like about this game, but there was also no way I could continue on playing in a game that, while not exactly condoning rape, sure liked to parade it around a lot. What to do?

Game the Second: Rick Jones used a modified version of the Star Wars d6 system to run a game in the Star Wars universe. The Empire has fallen a while back, and now evil Sith guys are running around trying to collect evil Sith artifacts for their evil Sith purposes. The good guys, us, are Good guys trying to find the Sith artifacts before the Sith guys do, thereby neatly combining two Lucas franchises (SW and IJ) into one game. Neat premise, Rick!

I decided to play a droid. I had an idea for a robot that would buck the system of Bots as Chattel. My little repair droid would have a will of its own and a kind of Black Panther ideology that self-aware droids should throw off the mantle of biologic ownership by force if necessary. When we had created characters and gotten into the game, however, Rick pointed out that this went against the grain of the Star Wars universe. Star Wars is all about things being black or white, Rick said, and certain factoids about that world, pleasant or no, are accepted as givens. Hence, bots are still property.

This was a problem. I had built a character around a certain mode of play, and now was being told that this mode was not acceptable. I couldn't play the character that I had designed. What to do?

I have delayed mentioning what I did in both scenarios up until this point, because I now would like to point out that these two situations really reduce down to the same question: when player vision doesn't match gamemaster vision, what happens? Although these games are very different, this fundamental problem is an invariant. I don't believe it is ever the case that a player and a GM are picturing the exact same thing when they agree to game together, although the degree of discrepancy between their viewpoints can be great or small.

I've spent all this time getting to this point because I believe it points up the fact that Ginger somewhat begs the question with the phrasing of Game WISH #5. Is it really the miscommunication between GM and players that causes the disappointment and the conflicts, or is it the mismatch in expectations itself? Phrased another way: even if the GM and the player communicated via telepathy, with no nuance or idea fragment lost in transmission or reception, wouldn't there still be a conflict between me and my GM's in the two above examples?

I will now say how I dealt with these two games. I believe these examples will show that communication is certainly important, but even more important is flexibility on the part of both parties -- the ability and willingness to shift one's game paradigm to more closely approach that of the other.

In game one, I confronted the GM. I told him, hey, I have a problem with the way that violence towards women is presented. I feel you have a good game going here in many respects, but the theme of rape and degradation that I am perceiving is incredibly offensive -- so much so that I'm considering quitting. Can you tone it down a little? The answer came back: no. The GM didn't seem to be particularly defensive, but he also was firm on the notion that his game had a certain flavor, and the substance of that flavor wasn't negotiable. He and I agreed to disagree on whether that flavor was 'Mature' vs. 'Beat a Chick for Fun and Profit', but we found that this difference of opinion was sufficiently great that we couldn't continue to game together. I quit the game and haven't looked back. (Although I have kept up with some of the players.)

In game two, I also confronted the GM. Rick, sez I, what are we going to do? I don't particularly want to play in a game where I'm somebody's slave. There that whole free will thing, you know. Besides, in the Star Wars movies, the roles of bots are usually limited to 1) waiting with the landspeeder, 2) getting comically disassembled and reassembled, and 3) burbling cutely to maximize merchandisability. How fun is that?

Rick was pretty flexible. Look, he said, your fellow player Pete von der Haar has made a Han Solo analog; you can be sort of like his Chewie. Maybe he takes a liberal view of bossing around his bots. Maybe you can even harbor ideas of being your own bot, even if you don't advocate for AI Lib. Rick also allowed me to build a 'design flaw' into my droid (the reason he was the only bot of his kind left in the universe): his memory doesn't wipe cleanly, so even if some rascal decided to have me blanked, there was a chance I could come back from it. So, I accepted being somebody's bot, took a liking to screaming 'Boss! boss!" at inopportune moments, and generally did everything as cherub-enticingly as possible to guarantee that QT-107 ('Cutie') would wind up on every lunchbox in America. I had fun in that game as long as it lasted.

I posit here that communication, while imperfect, was probably about as good as could be expected. Had I communicated perfectly in game one, however, I would still have had the same argument with the GM. The argument would have come before the game instead of months down the road, but I still would have had the same bad feelings. (and wouldn't have met some cool people who I like.) The main reason game one ended unsatisfactorily for me was that I had a game view, the GM had a different game view, and the two could not be made to approach. In game two, however, the GM and I each made compromises. We examined the final product of that bargaining and both decided we could have fun with the results. Hence, owing to this flexibility, game two was successful.

Every person has differing thresholds of tolerance for viewpoint mismatch, and differing abilities to flex themselves. On the matter of violence towards women, I wasn't willing to move much. On the matter of free will, I was more able to accommodate. Other people have almost no ability to flex on any axis; such people don't last very long in games that aren't of their own creation.

So: Communicate, yes, by moving your lips when you have a thought that needs sharing! but also, once you have sent and received, be willing to alter your own message as much as you can and still have fun.