On the Culpability of Historical Clarity

I can admit when I'm wrong or when I communicate unclearly. When I write, it is because I am trying to communicate a specific point. As it turns out, I could have done that better.

After this I promise to shut up about non-gameable information for at least a month as payment of JOSKEY tax.

This is a long post, but somewhat fascinating.

Wassermelone from the Penny arcade forums writes: "He portrays himself as some sort of roleplaying auteur. Somehow he plays this game more nobly because he doesn't do anything so facile as to pick characters he wants to play. Its some sort of bizarre walk to school in the snow, uphill, both ways, argument."

Jermery Deram said of my post: "Sounds like retro-pretentious"

I understand this. It can be a common reaction to my point which was there are wrong or inappropriate ways to have fun. Russian roulette is a game people play; they do not do it for healthy reasons. Candyland is not something I would show up to play at a convention. Mainlining heroin is said to be quite pleasant. People feel catharsis from teasing the developmentally disabled.  Jason Smith gives an example of objective poor design:
"Roll a d6.  On a 5+, you go on a successful adventure and slay the dragon.  Otherwise you're eaten by a grue."
That's a poorly designed RPG.  It fails to meet its objectives.

Is this quite one sided? Not nearly as much as it seems. Rob Bush says:
"Well, it depends on its objectives. It could just be a Dadaist RPG, and would be an extremely well-designed one."
Nobilis Reed also made an excellent point about how he was mocked for playing domino's by pushing them around like boats when he was a child. He says:
"My grandmother was like this.  I would take out the dominoes and make buildings and ships and things out of them. She called that kind of play "dummy-noes" and for her it was wrong."
His grandmother was wrong for that, I think we can all agree.

The issue is, if you sat down with me to play dominoes and you moved them around like boats, you would be playing that game incorrectly. We use the word to communicate, and there is an objectively correct one when we talking about playing chess or dominoes; we play by the agreed rules.

So here are the points.
  1. There are objectively badly designed games.
  2. There are wrong ways to play games.
  3. There are incorrect or less valid ways to have fun.
Seriously, it's ok to talk about this. I'm not doing it because I'm stuck in the past. I'm not sitting here being smug or holier then thou (though I certainly understand that people come away with that impression). I am not trying to be inflammatory. 

Being offended is, as always in free societies, on the victims head. 

I am doing it because I wished to engender an actual discussions about validity of design.


Now, my first Mea Culpa.

I work in a specific clinical environment with teenagers, and I used a shorthand we use at work to describe a complex concept. What I said was "I do not play role-playing games as a form of wish fulfillment."

It was quickly and rightly pointed out by Zzarchov Kowolski "I think it is more accurate to say the game you enjoy playing is wish fulfillment to you specifically as you list an unfulfilled wish you have and state the game meets it"

This is ipso facto true.

I implied what I meant and inferred what I meant, but that doesn't count. I didn't say what I mean. And that is my fault and not the fault of my erudite readers.

What I meant was is that I do not play games to engage in a wish-fulfillment of an adolescent empowerment and autonomy fantasy

Oh, but that's not the end of it. Once what I said what I actually meant, Zzarchov points out the following two facts!
"The power to make meaningful choices is also clearly a power fantasy."
"Technically even an OD&D character is a power fantasy over a regular man, and the act of leveling only increases that."
Yep. True. So what's the difference?

An empowerment fantasy is specifically one where the great power is always wielded justly and without negative consequence, unlike actual possessors of great power in the real world.

Although in older editions of Dungeons & Dragons I am empowered to make meaningful choices, I am not protected from the consequences of those choices. Empowerment fantasies contain the trait that no harm can be done by or befall the dreamer of the fantasy. So although making meaningful choices is empowering, it is not an empowerment fantasy. As an aside, I define games as collections of interesting (i.e. meaningful) choices which is a large part of why we enjoy playing them!

Secondly, ZZarchov is right! OD&D fighters are much more powerful then any given human and they go on grand adventures.

I mean, I set that apart up there, because it's important to note that I recognize and accept his point as correct. OD&D characters are more powerful then normal men. But the design of the character and the relevant design of the game does not fetishize that power. They may have more hit points than a normal man (9d6, or about 32 hit points on average), but their success or failure still comes down to the choices made by the player during the game.

You can't build or pick or choose your avatar in a certain way that insulates you from the consequences of your choice. If you take the gold key off the wall without choosing to tap it with a pole first, then you get your saving throw versus the yellow mold. But it was your bad play in using your hands to take the key that caused the threat of instant death. Choices, consequences.


My thesis then, is that the design of modern games insulates the players from the effects of their choices. They do this to support players living out adolescent empowerment fantasies. This is not something as an adult I wish to spend time doing. My original article's point was that the creators were about my age and also not interested in doing that, which is why the game has the design it does.

Many excellent points were made.

Ken Silverman told me to hate 3e and 4e all I want.

I can understand that impression. But really, I don't hate them. It's just as I've moved into my thirties I've become tired of them. I played 4e for a year and 3.0/pathfinder for about 8 years. If I hated them, I would not have played them for so long. Meaningful choices are few and far between in those games and it's trivial to construct an overpowered character. That engenders little interest.

To me, it is similar to the reasons why I no longer have any interest in playing candyland. I know my colors, I am not interested in a game that rewards me for that basic knowledge. Just like I'm no longer interested in 'following an adventure path' with a character that represents an empowerment fantasy. I am not conflating an age or developmental focused activity with a subjective metric. (i.e. because you are engaging in adolescent power fantasy I do not think you are wrong/bad/suck.)

This doesn't make a new school player or the games themselves wrong, anymore then kids playing Candyland are wrong. It makes it not to my interest to play.

The inestimable Scrap Princess said:
"[you're] like there's saying I like this thing, and then there is saying I like this thing and if you like this other thing that's cool but you are a wanker"
Like.. what is the point of that ? And all that stuff the goes on in pathfinder (tactics , builds etc), boring as I might find it, requires thought, logic , planning etc. None of this is "choose which cool way you automatically win huzzah!"
Well, that goes back to the top. Some games are better then others.

I've played a lot of games. I love miniature war games. I love tactics games. I love strategy RPG's. So why call everyone who plays these games a wanker?

First, I'm not calling anyone names.  (Well, I did refer to engaging in empowerment fantasies as masturbation, saying that it was an activity best done in private.) I'm trying to discuss objective values in games. The point was made that they are different kinds of games.

Second, everyone knows that it is fairly trivial for anyone to correct these issues. Any one of the commenter's below would run a game in such a way that the flaws noted wouldn't exist. I fully understand rule 0 and how it can correct problems. That's not what this discussion is about. It's about how the game is designed as written. Why should we have to fix a game?

Modern games focus on tactics, not adventure. Why isn't that ok? It is ok. There is nothing wrong (and a whole lot right, imho, about tactics games). What I'm saying is compared to most miniature and tactics games on the market Pathfinder and 4e as tactics games are badly designed. The reasons for this are multitude and dependent on the specific game. The most egregious offenders and proof of this fact are defined by the very people defending them.

I point out, that by RAW in those systems, players are expected to win Balanced Encounters. This is, after all, why they are balanced. The basic thesis of modern games is a tactics game you are always expected to win. Why? Empowerment fantasy. Refutations follow.

+Zzachary says: "You are conflating "win encounter" with "win adventure"."

An average challenging combat takes around 90-120 minutes. You are expected to experience victory or defeat due to the management of your resources in combat over this length of time. This claim made that the game isn't made as a empowerment fantasy because you are expected to win or lose over six hours of combat  (a series of encounters)does not seem like a particularly well designed feature.

I know other people have played 4e, having an experience of facing an opponent with 400 hit points, all encounter powers gone in the first five rounds of the fight. I had enough time to both calculate the average damage per round and graph the expected round the fight would end on due to mathematical averages.

Taking victory or loss and spreading it around over the length of the game is an objectively poor design in tactics games. If I know an hour ahead of time I'm going to win, why do I have to wait an hour to make it happen? Compare, Song of Blades and Heroes, where each turn you're forced to make hard choices about dice and action.

A large part of the design of hit point inflation was to prevent players from losing characters. Why would that be important? Because the character isn't the avatar for the player interacting with the game, the character is the empowerment fantasy and should be protected from death (or other permanent consequences to poor decisions like level drain).

+Ramanan Sivaranjan says in response to 'balanced is defined as the players are expected to win.'
"I don't think [they define it that way]. More so, if that's what they suggest that need not be how you choose to play.  One of the public play events Wizards of the Coast runs is Lair Assault, which is basically a very honest take on 4th Edition: straight up super difficult combat."
First, 4e DMG, page 56: A standard encounter should challenge a typical group of characters but not overwhelm them. The characters should prevail if they haven’t depleted their daily resources or had a streak of bad luck.

They should win, unless they are out of dailies or they have bad luck.

As to lair assult, Chris Tulach of WotC writes: "At that time, I was talking with David Christ, our convention organizer for some of our big shows, and we agreed that we wanted to have a sort of “challenge” experience to really sate the needs of the growing audience of rules masters." of Lair Assault's design.

A special thing, specifically designed to actually be a challenge, instead of the default 4e rules.

Jeremy Murphy, who's comment about there not being a wrong way to play started this whole series says:
"I choose how difficult to make my games.  So-called Balancing is just a better gauge for me to determine how hard I'm making it.
For example, when I play 4e, I design massive, sprawling "encounters" that contain about 10x the recommended XP budgets for characters of my players levels.  The players have to make meaningful decisions about how they approach things, or the results will be almost definitely horrible death."
Which is a tacit admission of the problem by pointing out that he's correcting the lack of threat, character fantasy empowerment, and dearth of meaningful decisions by using rule 0 to increase by TEN TIMES the suggested amount of experience in monsters.

And, in what may be one of the most direct, clear, and thoughtful comments of the thread, Scrap Princess asks:
"How are easier games objectively worse than harder games if the object of a said game is to have fun, and the people playing the game enjoy the game being easier?"
Insightful, no? 

So, obviously we are talking about a spectrum here. There is a spectrum of balance and challenge and interest. Obviously we aren't interested in a simple game of identifying colors. Who's to say we don't want to let off some steam and play an easy game that just lets us kill some monsters without getting hurt? Well, nobody, really. I mean, if you enjoy playing 4e over B/X, or the cardgame War over Five Card Draw, or even Solitaire over Freecell, there isn't anything wrong with wanting an easier play experience.

But by definition, 'easier' means that choices have fewer, less serious, consequences. They are literally less meaningful choices. You don't have to think about what you're doing when you're playing on easy mode. 

When I'm discussing the design of a game, if I see that it has few meaningful choices, long stretches where my choices don't seem to matter, mechanics that invalidate my choices in play, and contains many things that appeal to a demographic I am no longer a part of, then I measure that game as having an objectively worse design than another one. (Of course, the demographic appeal, being a purely subjective factor tuned to my own interest.)

And that's what I'm discussing. This isn't to say those games don't have virtues or that there is anything wrong with the people playing them. Simply that they are designed to cater to people desiring empowerment fantasies, and that the original creators were not creating with that goal in mind. And noting that those of us of the age they are find value in their original work as if it were created for us. 

And it was.


  1. Have you considered spending some time writing about things you enjoy? I can only speak for myself, but I would find that far more engaging.

    1. I enjoy analyzing the design of games.

      But I take your point.

  2. I've been reading your work for a while now and - I'll admit - I rarely find myself in agreement with your views on gaming... but in this post, I'm about 97% right there with you.

  3. Interesting article, well worth the time it took to read and ponder it! I did have a quick couple of questions about your conclusion, though.

    “When I'm discussing the design of a game, if I see that it has few meaningful choices, long stretches where my choices don't seem to matter, mechanics that invalidate my choices in play, and contains many things that appeal to a demographic I am no longer a part of, then I measure that game as having an objectively worse design than another one. (Of course, the demographic appeal, being a purely subjective factor tuned to my own interest.)”

    Perhaps I am just misunderstanding your meaning, but it sounds like all of the above is largely subjective and not just the idea of your not matching the perceived target demographic. “Less meaningful choices” and “long stretches where my choices don't seem to matter” sound like they are issues that arise because of the person who is running the game, rather than the game itself. Consequences arise from the actions of players, but it is the responsibility of the gamemaster to create both the consequences and a world in which the consequences meaningfully affect a character. If you are not being given enough choices and they are not meaningful, then isn't there the possibility that this is a problem caused by something other than the rules currently being used?

    Also, what do you mean by “mechanics that invalidate my choices in play”? I found that a little confusing, because it feels like all game systems have some mechanics in place that invalidate a characters choices, should they be misapplied.

    Thanks for your time. Looking forward to the next article.

    1. Part of the design aspect of 4e is predictability. This means you can't build a terrible character (or you have to work at it) but you can't really build an exceptional one either. Also, combats are 'balanced' so the DM has a very good idea of what the outcome is.

      The only way to achieve this consistency is to reduce the importance of my choices both in creation and play. I really can't affect the battle very much one way or the other because the encounters are predictable by design. I mean, I have influence over the efficiency of winning the battle, but my moment to moment decisions are mostly meaningless, by design.

      A different problem exists in pathfinder, which I cover at length here Choices made in creation have to be invalidated by choices in play, or vice versa.

      All the above is RAW, and can be trivially and not so trivially fixed by individuals running a game.

      In these games, it isn't subjective, it's part of the stated design.

    2. *nods* I think I see what you mean now. The emphasis on creating a balanced, if difficult, encounter and actively not killing characters (also evident in the death saves and how hard it is to keep a character down) must certainly seem like playing with kiddy gloves next to the older games. Your point about target demographic also makes more sense to me, given that there are certainly players who prefer that sort of game compared to the older editions. Thanks for clearing that up for me!

  4. Man, people in the RPG community are some of the most hyper sensitive, dysfunctional people out there.

  5. I think you're saying some important things here but the whole "challenge" thing is a bit of a red herring. It's not about challenge so much as predictability. It's stupidly easy to run challenging 4ed or easy Old School D&D so I think that saying that people like playing 4ed more than old games because they're easier just riles people up for no good reason.

    The main difference is predictability. If you're setting up a 4ed encounter the DM generally knows (in broad outline at least) how it's going to go down. He knows which fight's going to be easy, which one is going to probably beat the players and which one is going to have the players walk on a knife's edge. 4ed xp budgets give DMs a tool to home in on this better than ECLs in 3ed or counting hit dice in TSR-D&D and that's all well and good.

    Old School D&D combat is far less predictable. While running through B5 my party got its ass kicked one session by a random lizard and then hired two hirelings and crushed two ogres and 8 hobgoblins (with 4 1st level PCs and two hirelings) without taking a single hit point of damage. It's "swingy."

    There's all kinds of elements that contribute to this swinginess from surprise rounds to spells that can totally end some encounters but be totally useless in others, high damage to HP ratios, morale rules, etc. etc.

    4ed combat not being swingy means is good for people who like adventure paths and quantum ogres since it means that the DM knows how hard all of the fights are going to be ahead of time so they don't have the wizard getting killed by mooks and they can be sure that the fight against the big boss is going to be properly climactic so that he won't fail his save on the first round and have the DM tell the players "whelp the big climactic fight is over, you win."

    Of course if the DM actually wants to be surprised that sort of swinginess is golden. It also keeps the PCs on their toes since they KNOW that even a few orcs could gank the mage and kill him or that they could run into a big dragon at low levels and kill it if they get smart and lucky.

    Also the problem with the 4ed approach is that it works best if the DM keeps things balanced right on the challenge knife-edge of having the PCs just baaaaaaarely win hard-fought fights. But if strategic stuff enters into the equation then it'll throw that balance off and some fights will be too easy and some will be unwinnable. That means for 4ed-style challenge to work right (i.e. give the PCs a lot of good hard fights that they can just barely win) you have to downgrade the importance of the strategic and logistical concerns that make up a big part of Old School D&D play. You have to embrace Combat as Sport and tell Combat as War to shove off or you'll have a hard time consistently hitting the "hard as hell but winnable" 4ed difficulty sweet spot.

    1. The problem is that the "challenge knife-edge" is an illusion. A "challenging" fight is one in which the players burn through all their powers and healing surges, but still win in the end...which in the end means that there was no actual challenge at all.

      (I say this knowing full well that characters die in 4e games all the time, but according to the RAW as I remember them (RAWAIRT?), this means that your encounter was not "well built," or whatever.)

    2. From Mr. Crowking:

      Contrary to what years of WotC-D&D have told you, a “difficult fight” is not simply one where the characters’ resources are stretched or used up, it is one where the players cannot rely on their usual tactics and still win, regardless of how their characters end the scenario. In other words, even if the characters are beaten, bruised, and bloody at the end of the scenario, if they win without the players having to stretch their imaginations to figure out some new tactic beyond what they conventionally use, the scenario is not really difficult.


  6. I suspect that many 4e players play 4e because they are unaware that there is any alternative. Or even if one is aware or has been exposed to old-school alternatives, one is often not exposed exposed long or deeply enough to get past the initial discomfort of learning to like a new thing. If I didn't know craft beers existed, I would still be drinking Miller. And if someone gave me a craft beer I might not like it at first, perhaps thinking it was too strong or too bitter, etc. Many if not most good things worth appreciating require one to learn to appreciate them. Thus, Hack & Slash and others that reject (or at least partially reject) the, so to speak, relativist view that as long as one is having fun it's okay, are performing a valuable service. Sure one might be having fun, but one might be having MORE fun with a better game.

    1. That seems like a narrow way of viewing things; you're essentially arguing that "they don't know any better". Kind of like when my mother got mad that I didn't like spinach. And, like spinach, I think it is more a matter of taste, than of hunkering getting used to it. Plus, it is a little demeaning toward those who enjoy fourth edition, whether or not they meet the criteria you laid out.

      Further, it would not be difficult to reverse the argument and claim that: "Many of those who are playing older editions are frightened by the idea of learning a new rule set and can't handle change. They haven't played enough to learn to like it." It sounds just as preposterous the other way around. (Just look at -C! He certainly gave the more modern games a fair chance before deciding they weren't suited for him.)

      Also, I'm not sure how you would quantify "many" or even begin to suppose that many players fall into this category.

    2. I didn’t argue that “they don’t know any better.” I simply claimed that they didn’t, or said that I suspected that they didn’t. This is based on personal experience more than anything else. My friends who play 4e don’t know any better. I know this because they essentially told me so. They like fantasy role-playing. D&D is still the dominant fantasy role-playing game. 4e is the only version of D&D that they are aware of (it is the only version that most people with lives are aware of). So they play 4e. Saying that if they were exposed to another approach, they might like it more, is not to “demean” them. It is to make a hypothetical empirical claim. One of the reasons I suspect that that claim is true in many cases, is because I know with certainty that it is true in my case.

      We are not blobs, bouncing randomly from one unexamined pleasure to another. That is not to say that some aesthetic differences do not boil down merely to differences in, so to speak, basic ground floor taste. But it is obscurantist to say that all of them do, especially if one doesn’t even offer an argument for saying it. In my view, partisans of what we might call the pro-4e relativist view often demean themselves. Consider, for example, the pro-old-school arguments of, say, Matt Finch or Philotomy. For the 4e player, there are two possible responses to such arguments. The first is to make a reasoned argument in return—here is why making numerous skill check rolls makes for a better game, or here is why everyone having more hit points makes things more fun, etc., etc. The second is just to say, essentially: “I just like it because I do. You’re a snob. Go away.” If the second response is given often enough, that doesn’t say much for the side making it.

    3. *smacks forehead* I realize where I made my mistake now. When you spoke about getting over the discomfort of learning (and appreciating) a new system, I took it to mean that you meant that 4E players are not willing to get over that discomfort and learn that the other system is superior to 4E--something you didn't say at all. The way I originally read your post had a tone or superiority and a judgement on those who enjoy fourth edition that simply isn't there. I apologize for misunderstanding your post, Oakes.

  7. "Seriously, it's ok to talk about this. I'm not doing it because I'm stuck in the past. I'm not sitting here being smug or holier then thou (though I certainly understand that people come away with that impression). I am not trying to be inflammatory."

    Courtney...there are 2 options here:
    1.) You are such an idiot that you did not think that people would be offended by the remarks you made.
    2.) You intended to offend people, or at least did not care if you offended them.

    This statement:

    "Being offended is, as always in free societies, on the victims head."

    ...leads me to believe it is #2. I have never seen or heard anyone make that comment who was not using it to defend the fact that they said something offensive (usually intentionally so). It is a tacit admission that you do not care about other people's feelings or opinions.

    Contrary to what people may claim, being offended is not solely the fault of the victim. As an example, the societal impact of the word "nigger" is not chosen by the person hearing it. There is an immense amount of weight and power in that word, and depending on context, a black person can no more "choose not to be offended" than he can choose not to feel a slap in the face.

    "I am not conflating an age or developmental focused activity with a subjective metric. (i.e. because you are engaging in adolescent power fantasy I do not think you are wrong/bad/suck.)

    This doesn't make a new school player or the games themselves wrong, anymore then kids playing Candyland are wrong. It makes it not to my interest to play."

    You don't NEED to conflate an age or developmental focus with a subjective metric...society does that for you already. We have known since we were kids that accusing one of "being babyish" or immature is meant as an insult. Directly comparing new school games/players with "kids playing candyland" is a directly (and intentionally) derisive remark.
    Now, one does not need to take it this way (I appreciate and agree with C.S. Lewis's comment on being adult), but I think it disingenuous to claim that you didn't expect people to take it that way.

    Your article is a troll; a simple and obvious one, used on schoolyards the world over. More, it is one used most often by people who feel the need to claim superiority "Look what a grownup I am, I don't bother with such childish pursuits...it's fine if you like that kind of thing, but I've outgrown it". For pity's sake, you make a point of telling us how adult and empowered and in charge you are, how you are "not a teenager".

    As Lewis said...the need to show how grown-up you are is and deride other pursuits as "childish", in itself, a mark of immaturity.


    1. I do not care if people take offense. I'm not engaging in behavior that oppresses anyone. I say this to address your strawman that there is a victim. No one is being oppressed by my message, so your false analogy is strictly designed to derail the content of the message.

      Since no one is being oppressed, Offense isn't given, it's taken.

      The study of design (or any field of facts, science, or discussion of objective reality) is not improved, that is to say, made more accurate, by taking into account someone's feelings about the results.

      So you are correct, when attempting to have a discussion about objective merits, I do not 'care' about how someone feels about that.

      You are mistaken about your second point also. I live and work with adults who do not conflate age or developmental focus with a subjective metric. I don't 'think less' of my own child for being fascinated with colors, textures, and shapes, any more then I stand in judgement of the disabled or abused teens we work with.

      Since what we are talking about facets of Erikson's stages of development, this allows us to have a clear objective baseline of discussion.

      That being the case, I will only address comments made to the actual text of my argument, not summations designed to obscure the content. I am fairly certain I never typed the word babyish.

      You are correct, of course, that I did not use dry, clinical language, in order illustrate the developmental stages. You may or may not find this surprising based on any misunderstandings or preconceptions you had about this being an independent research outlet, instead of a blog, designed to present insights in a memorable and entertaining manner.

      I note what your post acutely lacks is a single refutation of any of the objective statements made in the article or comments about the thesis of my post. Other's have. This post is in fact a refinement of the thesis based on actual discussion of theory, including my refinements where accurate points were made.

      I'm certain based on the G+ thread and the comments on this post that although you were provoked into an emotional response, the majority of readers that choose to comment, did so from a desire to actually communicate about the issue, a seeming failure of a troll post. I find it interesting that a troll post is defined by wikipedia as an attempt to provoke an emotional response or disrupt on-topic conversation. An impartial bystander might find that it fits your comment better then the post itself.

      As always, I wait to address any comments that actually discuss the content of the post.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...