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Author Topic: A Plea for Gamism  (Read 6666 times)
lampros
Member

Posts: 24


« on: November 25, 2005, 01:44:37 PM »

Yo,

This is the first half of an eassy on game design I wrote. I imagine this is mostly old hat around here, but I'd love some feedback anyway. I'm thinking about posting it on rpg.net and seeing what sort of response I get.

Yours,

Alex


Making better RPGs: Why gamers minmax combat monsters, what's right with D&D, and so forth.

Games have rules, which you can exploit to win. Games play better when the rules are clearly articulated, so players can make decisions about what risks they're willing to accept in exchange for what rewards. Hence, when I succed I feel like the success is meaningful; and when I fail I can't blame the GM for failure. Clearly articulated rules give the players a chance to strategize "If I play my ace of trump now, I won't have a chance to play it again later."

D&D does well here. First, it makes the conditions of the game pretty clear: you're definitily going to be fighting monsters and dungeon crawling, so prepare for fighting monsters and dungeon crawling. Second, the rules carefully regulate what works and doesn't work during fighting and dungeon crawling. The rules for climbing and sneaking and jumping over pits are all spelled out in elaborate detail, because dungeon crawls care about climbing and sneaking and jumping over pits. The DM tells you how long and deep the pit is, then you figure out exactly your chance of making it over and exactly how much damage you'll take if you fall. Risk and probablity of success are all spelled out clearly. Reward is relatively clear too, since by genre convention, if there's a pit there's probably some cash on the other side.

Most RPGs don't do so well here. The GM isn't really going to figure out how long the pit is, he's going to say "roll and I'll tell you if you make it or not." And if you don't make it he's going to say "uh, you're hanging by your hands", cuz he doesn't want to kill your character without fair warning. And unless the game makes its genre conventions pretty darn clear, I may have no idea if jumping over the pit will accomplish anything. I don't have a way of predicting cost or benefit. Therefore, I don't have a game.

The downside of D&D is that if you don't give a shit about how long the pit is or what kind of treasure you get at the end, its a pretty lousy game. D&D focuses on one limited genre and one limited style of play. If you're designing a game about superheroes or jedi knights, the rules set doesn't have much to offer.

Players focus on areas where they can see results. Hence minmaxing. Players can see how big of a bonus they're going to get, right on their character sheet. So players focus on making that bonus as large as possible. By the same token, players make combat monsters partially cuz the rules for combat are clear cut. I know my attacks will do such and such amount of damage, and the monster will die after so many hits, and then I'll win. If there were clear cut rules for dealing with other sorts of situations, players might not focus so much on combat. Look at My Life with Master:. Players know what the goal of the game is and have clearly designed mechanics to get there.
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Arpie
Member

Posts: 83


« Reply #1 on: November 25, 2005, 08:33:52 PM »

No doubt this discussion is old hat, but I'm happy to take a stab at it.

I concur. D&D's great strength is a clear and, above all, widely-known set of rules. At this point you could make a similar (and somewhat ironic) argument for White Wolf along the same lines. It's Vampire crap (I make no attempt to hide my bias in this case) has very strong rules and well known mechanics. Throwing a handful of dice to determine whether or not you get across that pit and then counting up the ones which meet the pit's target number pretty much matches what you do in D&D.*

But the most important point you make is whether or not the setting appeals - whether or not the players buy into the premise of the game. If what you're doesn't engage the players, then the game is doomed from the start.

Which is a big problem for me. I'm not very militaristic (in fact, I loathe the military lifestyle for personal reasons) and would prefer to play games about those plucky losers who do good in the end. I might play a sadsack storyline but I really don't care to see the Best and Brightest win the day once again. Which most games and game systems support. Neither am I all that criminal in nature - I happen to like seeing the "good guys" win every now and then. But most games are both heavily criminal and heavily paramilitaristic (if not downright jingoistic.)

So... where am I going with this? Is this railing against gamism? I don't think so. I think that the rules are what make a game a game. I play with simple people so we like simple rules. My wife didn't make it into college and some of my friends barely made it out of high school. Anything complicated makes us very uneasy. But still we play. We have imaginations and we use them.

But we're not actors either, nor writers nor even improv comedians, so we like having the rules there - a die or two to throw when we go blank or get distracted by our need for beer and pizza.
So what kind of game do we like? Well, either one like D&D that every knows (and has had time to get to know) or something with rules that sound and play out as fun

I guess I'm trying to say that you can have a game that is a game and it doesn't have to be a treatise on undergroud civil engineering projects or even a particular good model of any reality at all.
(my group is very fond of games like Unknown Armies and Teenagers from Outer Space, which model emotional reality, to quote from UA, rather than the harsher truths of physical reality.)

*No, honestly. Just because it's scaled differently doesn't mean that that old White Wolf junk isn't just as hard core boring as D&D in its hidebound determination of perils and injuries.
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Callan S.
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Posts: 3588


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« Reply #2 on: November 26, 2005, 02:54:08 AM »

Games have rules, which you can exploit to win. Games play better when the rules are clearly articulated, so players can make decisions about what risks they're willing to accept in exchange for what rewards. Hence, when I succed I feel like the success is meaningful; and when I fail I can't blame the GM for failure. Clearly articulated rules give the players a chance to strategize "If I play my ace of trump now, I won't have a chance to play it again later."
I agree. Simply, what the rules do is give the gamist player know the risks. Once he knows them, he can commit to a plan that he is willing to accept all those risks for.

There's a perfect narrativist parralel which proves the point, like dogs in the vinyard telling you just how much your risking your characters life. Once the player knows that, he can commit to a principle he is willing to accept all those risks for.

Quite some time ago I railed against GM's with unlimited resources. Old hands told me that really it's just like playing sports against someone in who's in power armour...of course, he's not going to use all those powers, that wouldn't be sporting! I've accepted that answer until recently. It's flawed. Without the knowledge of just how much resources he will bring to bear, you cannot commit to any particular risk in the name of your gamist plan. That risk is just too variable - it'd be much the same if dogs in the vinyard didn't have rules for how dogs die...the GM just made it up. Can you really make an address of premise revolving around supporting a moral principle in the face of...however the GM is deciding to handle death today?

Quote
Players focus on areas where they can see results. Hence minmaxing. Players can see how big of a bonus they're going to get, right on their character sheet. So players focus on making that bonus as large as possible. By the same token, players make combat monsters partially cuz the rules for combat are clear cut. I know my attacks will do such and such amount of damage, and the monster will die after so many hits, and then I'll win. If there were clear cut rules for dealing with other sorts of situations, players might not focus so much on combat. Look at My Life with Master:. Players know what the goal of the game is and have clearly designed mechanics to get there.
I suspect that, apart from agenda clash "I want to do nar, why are you all doing gamism?", min maxing skips the all important gamist address of "I will risk all this, because I'm so invested in my plan". Instead, players min max outside of play, then turn up with their hyper tuned characters. They've earned large system rewards without actually having made an address of challenge at the gaming table.

However, given that many systems encourage this, they are not to blame (they probably already feel somewhat empty for doing it).
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Philosopher Gamer
<meaning></meaning>
Ben Lehman
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Posts: 2094

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« Reply #3 on: November 26, 2005, 06:45:51 AM »

Lampros --

You have my full agreement.  You might want to look over my essay Loving the Minimax for more details on exactly how far I agree with you.  It is possible that I agree with you past what you mean, because I believe pretty strongly in well structured rules that behave in a consistent, reliable fashion.  In fact, I think most designers here do.

Does this make sense to you:  These sorts of well-structured rules are not only necessary for Gamist play, but are in fact necessary for any satisfying play that entails creative collaboration (i.e. not strictly GM fiat and also not based on slavish mutual devotion to a pre-existing canon of texts.)  In short, almost all even vaguely satisfying play is not merely benefitted by clear, well structured rules, it actually requires them.

yrs--
--Ben

P.S.  Forgive me if my hyperlink doesn't work.  From my location, accessing blogspot is a tricky business, so I got the URL out of Google.  If it doesn't, just type in "loving the minimax" with quotes into a Google search and it should be the first hit.
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ffilz
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Posts: 468


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« Reply #4 on: November 26, 2005, 10:21:41 AM »

Lampros - definitely in agreement.

Callan, I'd like to dispute the following:
Quote
I suspect that, apart from agenda clash "I want to do nar, why are you all doing gamism?", min maxing skips the all important gamist address of "I will risk all this, because I'm so invested in my plan". Instead, players min max outside of play, then turn up with their hyper tuned characters. They've earned large system rewards without actually having made an address of challenge at the gaming table.

However, given that many systems encourage this, they are not to blame (they probably already feel somewhat empty for doing it).
With a coherent hard core gamist agenda, I don't see that anyone would look down on minmaxing outside of play, and no one would feel empty for it. Do we put down the up and coming chess player for studying previous chess masters? Do we put down sports players for practicing and exercising (minmaxing) outside of official games? Do we put down actors and musicians for practicing (minmaxing) outside of performances? No. So why should we put down the hard core gamist for "practicing" and optimizing his play?

Where minmaxing outside of play causes problems is when everyone is not on the same page. Perhaps some folks don't have as much time outside of play. Or not everyone is of the same skill level (and the minmaxing outside of play appears in a competitive fashion). Or more likely, you have a player who wants a simulationism agenda (simulationists hate minmaxing when it produces characters or play that don't fit the dream).

If you are producing a gamist design, you absolutely have to take minmaxing into account. What can be challenging is a game that can support both hardcore and softcore players. One way might be to have a relatively small set of rules, so the hard core players can point out what the good options are and then the soft core players can just use those options.

Frank
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Frank Filz
Arpie
Member

Posts: 83


« Reply #5 on: November 26, 2005, 11:23:57 AM »

You know, I was so tired last night that I completely skipped over that last paragraph. About min maxing and player investment. Sorry.

I think there's certainly games out there which did a very good job of addressing that issue. Castle Falkenstein by R. Talsorian, for instance, dealt players a hand of cards so they could see what their options were... they knew what they could risk and what levels they could acheive, numerically.

As a player, I felt it gave me great confidence, but I have encountered many groups which don't like it. And the numbers could get a little ugly sometimes.

I understand that PtA does something similiar, allowing die rolls (or it's cards now, isn't it?) before the situation and letting players alot them as they see fit .

But as far as more traditional games go, you need pretty good statistics skills to calculate those odds - unless the GM feeds the numbers to you, in wich case you might as well leave it up to GM fiat anyway.
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Nogusielkt
Member

Posts: 55


« Reply #6 on: November 26, 2005, 05:02:31 PM »

D&D does well here. First, it makes the conditions of the game pretty clear: you're definitily going to be fighting monsters and dungeon crawling, so prepare for fighting monsters and dungeon crawling. Second, the rules carefully regulate what works and doesn't work during fighting and dungeon crawling. The rules for climbing and sneaking and jumping over pits are all spelled out in elaborate detail, because dungeon crawls care about climbing and sneaking and jumping over pits. The DM tells you how long and deep the pit is, then you figure out exactly your chance of making it over and exactly how much damage you'll take if you fall. Risk and probablity of success are all spelled out clearly. Reward is relatively clear too, since by genre convention, if there's a pit there's probably some cash on the other side.

I wouldn't call the conditions of the game very clear here.  Although the thought of D&D does likely bring up the thought of fighting monsters, exploring dungeons and looting both... it doesn't have to be.  The conditions are made by the GM, but can be affected by the players.  As far as I know, you may be able to calculate your chance to jump over a pit, but not the damage you will take if you fail, unless it is an ordinary pit (and you know so).

Players focus on areas where they can see results. Hence minmaxing. Players can see how big of a bonus they're going to get, right on their character sheet. So players focus on making that bonus as large as possible. By the same token, players make combat monsters partially cuz the rules for combat are clear cut. I know my attacks will do such and such amount of damage, and the monster will die after so many hits, and then I'll win. If there were clear cut rules for dealing with other sorts of situations, players might not focus so much on combat. Look at My Life with Master:. Players know what the goal of the game is and have clearly designed mechanics to get there.

This may be mostly true... but I doubt that is all of it.  To me, it is all about managing resources.  The reason I would make a combat monster is because combat has the highest stake of all situations... death.  You aren't going to die from picking someone's pocket, you aren't going to die if you fail to unite two warring families, and you aren't going to die if you can't track an enemy.  Well, you could probably die from all of those, but the point remains that the GM is less likely to put you in such a situation, if you cannot handle it.  Nobody can fly?  Flying won't be required.  It's that simple sometimes.  So... I disagree that people focus on combat because the rules are clear cut (the rules are still a bit fuzzy, even in 3.5).  I think the stakes are the cause.

With a coherent hard core gamist agenda, I don't see that anyone would look down on minmaxing outside of play, and no one would feel empty for it. Do we put down the up and coming chess player for studying previous chess masters? Do we put down sports players for practicing and exercising (minmaxing) outside of official games? Do we put down actors and musicians for practicing (minmaxing) outside of performances? No. So why should we put down the hard core gamist for "practicing" and optimizing his play?

... I don't think the things you listed are exactly minmaxing.  Minmaxing goes above and beyond normal things like practicing and exercising.  Minmaxing is on the same level as steroids/steroid-like substances for sports, copying moves in chess (instead of understanding and learning from them), or getting plastic surgery as an actor.  Many people look down on such things.  I'm not really against minmaxing, nor do I think it's cheating... but you aren't going to win any player awards from me just because you minmax.
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lampros
Member

Posts: 24


« Reply #7 on: November 26, 2005, 10:31:33 PM »

Lampros --

You have my full agreement.  You might want to look over my essay Loving the Minimax for more details on exactly how far I agree with you.  It is possible that I agree with you past what you mean, because I believe pretty strongly in well structured rules that behave in a consistent, reliable fashion.  In fact, I think most designers here do.

Does this make sense to you:  These sorts of well-structured rules are not only necessary for Gamist play, but are in fact necessary for any satisfying play that entails creative collaboration (i.e. not strictly GM fiat and also not based on slavish mutual devotion to a pre-existing canon of texts.)  In short, almost all even vaguely satisfying play is not merely benefitted by clear, well structured rules, it actually requires them.

yrs--
--Ben

P.S.  Forgive me if my hyperlink doesn't work.  From my location, accessing blogspot is a tricky business, so I got the URL out of Google.  If it doesn't, just type in "loving the minimax" with quotes into a Google search and it should be the first hit.

Thanks for the link and the kind words. I'm with you about the "minmaxing is ok" thing. I don't think its even a debate anymore - I hope not, at any rate.
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ffilz
Member

Posts: 468


WWW
« Reply #8 on: November 27, 2005, 08:45:23 AM »

Quote
... I don't think the things you listed are exactly minmaxing.  Minmaxing goes above and beyond normal things like practicing and exercising.  Minmaxing is on the same level as steroids/steroid-like substances for sports, copying moves in chess (instead of understanding and learning from them), or getting plastic surgery as an actor.  Many people look down on such things.  I'm not really against minmaxing, nor do I think it's cheating... but you aren't going to win any player awards from me just because you minmax.
But isn't using steroids cheating (certainly these days with rules against it)? If so, and minmaxing isn't cheating, how can you compare the two? I don't see how you can compare it to copying moves in chess because minmaxing is all about understanding the rules.

Of course steroids may actually be an interesting comparison. Why is using steroids wrong, while carefully chosing a diet of particular foods is right? Ok, so there may be health issues with steroids (but there are wacky diets that are unhealthy, though I'm not sure any sports players follow such diets). Of course that is another thing that differentiates steroids from minmaxing, since minmaxing isn't by itself unhealthy (and proper minmaxing in sports would balance the short term performance improvement of steroids against the long term health effects).

I think people seeking a gamist agenda would generally appreciate minmaxing.

I think most of the uncomfortableness people have with minmaxing is due to a clash of agendas, or a feeling that gamism is somehow inferior to other forms of roleplay.

Frank
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Frank Filz
Nogusielkt
Member

Posts: 55


« Reply #9 on: November 27, 2005, 10:03:06 AM »

But isn't using steroids cheating (certainly these days with rules against it)? If so, and minmaxing isn't cheating, how can you compare the two? I don't see how you can compare it to copying moves in chess because minmaxing is all about understanding the rules.

Of course steroids may actually be an interesting comparison. Why is using steroids wrong, while carefully chosing a diet of particular foods is right? Ok, so there may be health issues with steroids (but there are wacky diets that are unhealthy, though I'm not sure any sports players follow such diets). Of course that is another thing that differentiates steroids from minmaxing, since minmaxing isn't by itself unhealthy (and proper minmaxing in sports would balance the short term performance improvement of steroids against the long term health effects).

There will always be those who minmax by themselves, and those who copy what someone has already done... so perhaps that is a different issue.  However, back to the sports parallel:  Perhaps it wouldn't be like just using steroids, but getting your back injured, on purpose, so you can be legally prescribed steroids for recovering.  Then, while under the affects of steroids, you take full advantage with your workouts and milk them for all it's worth.  All of it legal.  The downside may be completely unrelated to the sport, much like maximizing your combat effectiveness might leave you diplomatically weaker.
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NN
Member

Posts: 93


« Reply #10 on: November 27, 2005, 03:42:19 PM »

....Simply, what the rules do is give the gamist player know the risks. Once he knows them, he can commit to a plan that he is willing to accept all those risks for.

I disagree: gamism isnt just about knowing the risks and coming up with a plan: its coming up with the best plan you could - one that you are proud of - in the known circumstances. And I think some opacity and fuzziness in the rules is actually beneficial, otherwise theres little to be skillful with.

Quite some time ago I railed against GM's with unlimited resources. Old hands told me that really it's just like playing sports against someone in who's in power armour...of course, he's not going to use all those powers, that wouldn't be sporting!

But...youre not competing against the GM.
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Ron Edwards
Global Moderator
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« Reply #11 on: November 27, 2005, 06:43:59 PM »

Hey guys, I'm seeing a lot of really stupid generalizations about "Gamists do this" and "Gamists would like that."

All further discussion of such points should be rooted in actual play posting. This thread doesn't need to continue.

Best,
Ron
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