On the Explicit Procedure of Play

This isn't about bad-wrong-fun.

The discussion yesterday about behaviors we've all come across at the gaming table are not gaming problems. They are related to cognitive distortions. I get that "Cognitive Distortions" has a negative connotation, they aren't moral judgements.

A common example of a cognitive distortion is "Parents should love their children." Some parents don't. Until that reality is accepted, suffering. Often we aren't aware of what these distortions are, and they can drive a lot of our actions as do things to stave off having to deal with that dissonance. An easy way to avoid this type of pain is try to control or manipulate a situation so that you aren't given evidence that contradicts your beliefs.

When this isn't possible, you experience emotional trauma. This goes through a variety of phases, though the order and severity varies on education, culture, and experience. In order for us to get rid of the cognitive distortion (e.g. "Life should be fair."), your body needs to go through processes to rebuild a new mental conception that matches reality: Anger, bargaining, denial, depression, and acceptance of a more accurate model of reality (e.g. "Life isn't fair"). These phases are what allow the brain to, in a quite literal sense, rebuild itself around its current conditions.

This is, I think, very basic, very well accepted knowledge. We expect families to teach rituals on how to cope with change, but frequently that doesn't happen. Cognitive and/or dialectical behavior therapy teach these skills.

Quantum what's?

None of the ideas are wrong. High lethality? Great! Go for it. Want to make a game less lethal, change the rules. Low magic? Sure! Come back as a cartoon? Great idea.

It's never about the specifics. It's not about railroads, or quantum ogres, or fudging. It doesn't matter what specific kind of game you do at the table. Yet still role-playing horror stories exist. It's all about human beings, and getting their needs met at the expense of other people.

When people go into therapy, it isn't some philosophical problem or existential angst. Universally it is specific, often sentinel event overloading their support systems ability to cope. Loss of job, breaking up with a boyfriend, becoming homeless, et. al. You have to look at the specific problem and break it down. It's not how to solve the problem-these are people, like you. Telling people what to do doesn't work, you know? You are there to provide insight. Part of this is an analysis of a person's interactions with other people.

You look at the sequence of events and categorize each interaction as belonging to one of three interpersonal communication styles: aggressive, passive-aggressive, or assertive.

Are you meeting your needs at the expense of other people? Are you avoiding confrontation? There's no right or objective answer, because these are people, they are full of messy squiggly bits and nearly all of their volume is empty space, their presence simply a projection of a vibration that lairs in a place we cannot see.

So we have some baseline assumptions, foundational principals that we work up from. Everyone has infinite worth regardless of externals. Relationships should include ways for everyone to get their needs met without it being at the expensive of someone else. Interactions should be made with levels of confrontation that are respectful of everyone involved.

Cognitive Distortions of Dungeons & Dragons

Player death must meet some threshold of meaning, players should do what the Dungeon Master thinks they should do, A bad die roll is what kills characters; These are all cognitive distortions.

There is a procedure for Dungeons and Dragons, and it requires a Dungeon Master who is a player, and characters managed by players of the game. The person running the game, at no point, should ever deceive, manipulate, or attempt to pressure or influence the people playing the game. The job of the Dungeon Master is to give helpful accurate information. Lying isn't in the job description. (His responsibility to represent the game world might cause him to portray a character who lies, but his job is to represent that lying character honestly.)

The dungeon master can present limited information-the information the characters have access to. Mysteries can abound in your game world. There can be plots and intrigue aplenty. But the core gameplay procedures and loop of Dungeons and Dragons at no point involve any player manipulating another.

There is no rule in Dungeons and Dragons proscribing one person having authority over another person. 

You see, the Dungeon Master is a player. He manages the procedures and flow of the game. He creates the world, and acts as both an auger of a distant realm seen dimly through the ocular power of dice, a neutral judge of the results of game-play, and a designer who creates (hopefully interesting) situations for the players to encounter.

Alignment has no authority to prescribe behavior, it's descriptive (and a palpable, detectable force, in the fundamental sense, within the world). The role of the Dungeon Master is one of servant, one who entertains, not via authorship but by facilitation. The rules are explicit about this: They say "The DM decides how these rules will be used in the game. . . and the final decision is the DM's" (B60) They don't decide what the characters will do. They have no authority over player's choices.

Let's talk about that core gameplay loop.

Core Gameplay Loop

The minutiae of these vary from game to game, so I'll be very explicit here. This will allow you to assess what behaviors are explicitly part of the game-play loop, and determine which behaviors are not. This gives you insight and results in a better game.

Obviously this is quite instinctive (being a model of existing and taking action in the real world), and these social norms make this flow of play transparent. But once you are aware of it, it gives you a framework to handle issues in communication and behavior.

Pregame activities include one player designing an adventure and other players rolling up characters and purchasing equipment.

Play begins with the Dungeon Master providing background for the players. This includes an objective or goal. Even if it's implied, the background information will indicate some specific change of circumstance that needs to be resolved. "We are in a new place." "A dwarf caravan has disappeared." "A house is haunted."

This background will both communicate the narrative themes (which you can not think about or design, but they end up being there anyway) as well as providing players with an ability to contextualize your comments from shared cultural touchstones. It's difficult to communicate extremely complicated situations, so providing a similar frame of reference does significant amounts of work for the people engaged in the game.

Finally, this leads us into our first game structure. Different games have different words for it, but it is easily conceptualized by the word "Scene." The characters are existing at some conceptual space in this imaginary world, and the background is our entrance to that conceptual scene. "You find yourself. . . " "You are standing. . . " "Before you lies. . . " et. al.

Each player of the game is in control of one or more agents who can take action within the world. Note that "Role-Playing" is a term derived from taking the role of a singular unit on a battlefield. The player is still considered to be playing a game, just one in which he controls individuals instead of squads of soldiers. Almost immediately upon exposure to the wild the term was conflated with the idea of role as emotional experience and theatrical presentation. Even though this wasn't the intent, it is completely compatible with the play of Dungeons & Dragons and is a matter of taste. You are encouraged to interact as your character, while playing the game, though it is by no means required. Many people still play by saying "My character does. . . " or "My character says."

It's important to note here that it is A) a game B) with explicit and implicit goals C) and you can succeed and fail within those goals within the context of the game. This is true of every official version of Dungeons and Dragons, though it is not necessarily true of other games. It's left as an exercise to the reader if this is related to the unrelenting dominance and success of Dungeons & Dragons.

There are a few different games or modes that Dungeons and Dragons switches between, and each one has a separate procedure of play.

Exploration Loop


The most common is Dungeon Exploration. Frequently there is wilderness travel or handling activities in downtime. A lot of these are clearly procedural-I'm not going to walk through the combat rules, likely you already know them by heart. What's important is that the non-combat sections of the game are as procedural and game-like as the combat structures.

But because these rely more on conversational social norms, rather than explicit discussion about procedural issues, it can create a lot of tension when miscommunications happen. Adding in one person trying to manipulate the outcome of game-play can rapidly create a dysfunctional situation.

This is illustrated most clearly in examples of play from early editions of Dungeons and Dragons. Here's an example from the 1st edition Dungeon Master's Guide. Here's a different sample of play from Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

DM: "After 30' you reach a round landing with two sets of stairs. One goes down and to the east, the other goes down and to the west."

The environment is described, as well as any relevant activated objects or red herrings. Once the environment is described the gameplay proceeds via the characters asking questions. This is a two-way process of information gathering. The players can ask any questions they wish until they are satisfied.

In this opening example the players don't have any questions, and the caller goes ahead and takes action. Taking action has four steps. Intent, Initiation, Execution, Effect. This is a social exchange between the Dungeon Master and a Player. The player states their intended action, providing a space for the Dungeon Master and the player to negotiate over the specifics of their action. This is the reduction of the Deadly Difference, i.e. the difference between the players understanding of the situation and the Dungeon Masters. Then the player oks the initiation of the event, the event is executed and the result is presented, leading us back into our next opportunity to act. Frequently Intent and Initiation will be collected from the whole group and resolved effectively simultaneously.

Here is the next play example containing the Intent and Initiation from Basic Dungeons and Dragons.

Morgan:"Fredrik looks down the east staircase and Silverleaf looks down the west one. What do they see"

And the execution and effect.

DM: "The parties torches mess up their infravision, so they can only see twenty to thirty feet. The west stairs go down ten feet and turn sharply south. The east stairs go down at least thirty feet. Also, Fred smells a rank, musty odor coming up from below."

This process: Information gathering, Intent, Initiation, execution, and effect continues until one of the other modes of play is invoked. Within those other modes of play, player action follows a truncated version of IIEE. I hit the monster, picking up the die, rolling the die, rolling damage. Intent, Initiation, execution, effect.

It's not white room theory. It allows you to explain in a concrete way why, for example, players never die to unlucky die rolls. The unlucky die rolls are consequences for a series of choices. It gives you insight into the specific roles each player has, not of their character, but there responsibility in the game. It clarifies why a referee has to be neutral and what that means—when performing the execution step he should be invested in determining the outcome objectively, because that's his role at the table. The players job at the table is to decide what she wants to do.

This absolutely happens fluidly, often in a non-linear order because it's a game for fun that you play while hanging out with your friends.  (e.g. "Wait, I actually have fire resistance 5. That will change what I want to do.")

This helps clear up specific distinctions. It's why considering the last monster dead in a fight when it really has 1 hit point left is fine, but arbitrarily changing monster hit points based on your personal feelings of how long combat needs to last is a breach of responsibility as a player in the role of Dungeon Master.

The first is an action taken out of respect for the time of other people, the second is capricious, subjective, and arbitrary and undermines the intent and initiation phase. "Don't change the rules during play" as it goes. This is why "Rocks fall, everyone dies" or "You get hit by a bolt of lightning" are inappropriate behaviors (those aren't called via the game systems, they are caused by the Dungeon Master being passive-aggressive—punishing the players while avoiding a confrontation by virtue of a misunderstanding of the servile nature of the responsibility).

This framework provides a lot of clarity over where the problem really is in role-playing game horror stories. Psst. It's the people. *ghost wail* Whoooooooo--oooOOOOHhhhhhhhhhh.

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4 comments:

  1. What’s all this in aid of? Is it just to get it out of your head onto the page or has it another purpose?

    By the way, the cognitive distortions you speak of are getting worse, not better, in the last generation or maybe less.

    ReplyDelete
  2. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/proscribe

    Proscribe
    to denounce or condemn (a thing) as dangerous or harmful; prohibit.
    to put outside the protection of the law; outlaw.
    to banish or exile.
    to announce the name of (a person) as condemned to death and subject to confiscation of property.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for catching that typo. Alignment has no authority to prescribe behavior

      Delete

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