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Player Power Abuse

Started by Mike Holmes, November 29, 2002, 12:31:15 PM

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Mike Holmes

Quote from: Christopher Kubasik
If anyone has any actual "All my fears of trusting my Players/GM with too much power played out exactly as I expected" stories, I'd love to get them up here on a new thread in actual play.

I'd start the thread myself, but I'd only be arguing against something which, at this time, seems to me to be only a hypothetical.

In the name of equal time, here it is.

I have an example of such. At one point early in my RPG career, we had a GM who came up with what he referred to as his 2d6 system. Which was, essentially, Fudge, with even less rules. He wanted the "rules to get out of the way" of play.

What happened? My friends and I made combat monsters. In my case, prety much literally. Then in play, it was a constant push to see who could "out-protagonioze" or one-up the last player. That is, with so few rules, we were expected to define things quite a bit ourselves. And we took advantage of it.

The result was an unrecognizable mish-mash. Fun for short moments of narrative (not narrativist) brilliance, but overall, kind of a drag. And it collapsed after only two sessions. I'm actually surprised we tried it the second time. I remember putting the khybosh on it myself to an extent complaining that things were too loose, and our power to make of it what we would was making it all very undramatic and senseless.

I attribute this to a couple of things, however. None of which was actually having too much power.

1. Age. We were about 14 or 15 at the time. So we ran away with mad adolescent power fantasies.

2. No guidance from the game. This is why we always say that Rules-Lite and Narrativism are not the same. I think it would have worked had we had any idea of what it was that we were supposed to do. But with such an open-ended palate, nothing coherent happened.

OK, so this is not really an example of the sort of player power abuse as Chris was looking for. In fact, it's to point out that such fears are misplaced. We've all encountered munchkins. And we all want to ensure that we don't have to suffer that sort of play. But there are no mechanics that one can make to avoid that sort of dysfunction. So, just as making rules to avoid it is unlikely to work, so too is refusing to include such a mechanic beause it will tend to encourage such players.

Instead of discouraging bad play, encourage good play. This is how you kill the munchkins (if it can be done at all). Make your rules provide a direction to play that will result in the sort of play you want to see, and it will happen. Abuse of player power is a complete straw man. Focus on giving your players something to do, and not preventing them from doing things you don't want. Positive, not negative reinforcement.

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Ron Edwards

Hi there,

Mike, considering that your post made a sharp left about two-thirds of the way through, I'm still trying to process what your point is, as opposed to what you spent most of your time describing.

If I'm not managing to de-rail your thread ... here's my call on the "abuse" issue.

1) There are no such things, a priori, as GM-power and Player-power. There is only ... well, Power as a single entity. Dividing it up into "GM" and "not-GM" (which I suppose tradition insists we call "players") is a perfectly valid thing, but how that is done, and for what purpose, varies drastically across role-playing. I can't stress this enough: "GM" and "Player" (in the traditional sense) are short-hand for particular ways to distribute ... Power. Those distributions vary so widely that starting with these two terms will automatically distort the discussion. The starting point is Power.

2) Rules cannot be abused. "The game" cannot be abused. Play may be abused, and most specifically, the Social Contract. When people talk about abusing the rules, they are describing something extremely complex. To take it from the top down, (a) the culprit is making a statement at the purely social level, sometimes as blunt as "Fuck you all," or "No one's the boss of me," or sometimes more subtly "I am smarter than this 'rule' thing." (b) GNS goals at the group level are socially clear but verbally inaccessible, usually. In other words, most people can refer to "what we want" or "what we're here for," with a great deal of emotional commitment, but without being able to describe it. Therefore the culprit can quickly (and equally nonverbally) identify a way to play that violates the current or most common goal at the table. (c) Rules exist as a means of formalizing social goals (the Lumpley principle). Therefore the culprit becomes skilled at co-opting the existing rules for a different GNS goal, or in extreme cases, to disrupt any GNS goal. By sticking to "rules" as an instrument, the culprit can always look innocent.

3) This behavior applies to any rules set, lite or not. As long as people see the phenomenon as being (c) to (a), which is how it feels, instead of (a) to (c), which is the real causal chain, then the following occurs.

- The culprit will continue to be tolerated in the group, because "at least he shows up to play," or some similar lame acknowledgment.
- Play itself is diminished in fun for everybody.
- The rules are diminished in use and enjoyment, because whenever they're applied, his behavior kicks in. Thus over time play shifts to informal or what they call "system-less," which is of course nothing of the sort, but it's not written down so the culprit's influence can be minimized.

4) The above chain of events is disastrous. Effective solutions do not occcur at the (c) level.

The famous "ignore the rules you don't want" or "these rules are only guidelines" are intended to be a defense against these people. What it says is not actually what people do with it. Imagine taking the White Wolf Golden Rule, for instance, as written: "You take five shots to the head and chest [shuffle, consult]. You die instantly." "I just decided to ignore that rule. I'm alive." No one uses that rule as written - they use it as a social us-against-you mechanism to drum people out of play who are skilled at (a)(b)(c) above.

Reducing power is also intended to be a defense against these people. "The GM is always right," or, "All rules are subject to the interpretation of the GM," or any number of rules exhorting the GM to ignore the system, are all means of keeping power concentrated in some one person's hands. The interesting corollary, historically, is that a "Good player" is someone who acknowledges this defense and abides by it ... that is, an obedient vassal rather than a co-participant.

I consider both of the above solutions to be no solution at all, and indeed, historically, I think their impact on the hobby has been almost unilaterally negative. The real solution is to think in terms of (a) to (b) to (c), and to recognize the trouble's source.

And if you think this has something to do with my "boxes" idea in the Social Context thread, you're right. Abuse of play occurs when people are not successfully socially interacting, rather than when they're "playing wrong."



Slight additions:

I think concentrating power in the GM's hands is a way of making things simpler. Thus to have a 'good' game, you need a 'good' GM, because the GM sets the entire game. If a non-GM doesn't like it,they have to leave.  Thus a single odd player can't ruin the groups enjoyment, unless that player is the GM.
This was one of the problems with communism. If you have a small group of people who have power, one person who is corrupt can either gather the power to themselves, or force the others to become corrupt to counter them.

I'm not saying this was reason behind this structure, (I imagine it came about because originaly the creator or a RPG was the only one who understood it.), but I think this was somewhat beneficial side effect.

MK Snyder

It's also the way a lot of childhood games are played, including Cowboys & Indians.

Usually, in a group, boys, girls, or mixed; one kid will assume a leader role either because of personality, expertise, age, or status.

That kid will direct the others in a play session.

As the children engage in different sessions (different games, if you will), forming and breaking up groups, different kids will take the "director" role. Marcie is bossy during Four-Square. Tom tends to choose up the teams for Piggie, Piggie. Howard P. Lovecraft tells the neighborhood kids what they should do to play Detectives. (truth).

Christopher Kubasik

Hi Ron,

Congrats on such a great and clear outline of the issue.  I think I've finally got a handle on why people say things like, "I'd really need players I could trust with rules like that."  People really are playing with people they don't trust (something I've never really done, nor would anticipate doing.)

I simply never let this enter my head as a possibility before... Though, of course, I see reports of this sort of social interaction all over RPG boards.


Take care,
"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield


An unspoken myth among many gamers is that game rules can overcome someone who is out and out breaking the social contract.  

In other words, the game rules are used much in the same way the law is used;  It is there as an explicit bit of social contract, although even where there aren't laws, I'm sure folks would rather not have anarchy.  The whole aspect of trusting or not trusting players with certain rules says a lot more about the social activity of the group and how folks tend to play.


Christopher Kubasik


As is the whole aspect of wanting to offer more trust to players.

My whole thrust of game play (and efforts at design while working on RPG design teams), was to toss more power to the players, to keep me, as a GM, more on my toes.  I just find that more fun.  

I didn't want to be the final judge of what is good and fun.  I wanted to have fun with the "players."  I didn't want to be making decisions of rules interpretation for the players.  I wanted the all of us to create a bang-up scenario together.

This does require trust -- but that same trust can be found in small theaters, on recreational softball teams, in noted writing groups (the Inklings, for example.)

"Can't we for once just do what we're supposed to do -- and then stop?
Lemonhead, The Shield

Mike Holmes

Ron, I think I got what I came for, here. :-)

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Blake Hutchins

Thank you, Ron.  Very succinct comments that go a long way to sum up a long-term player and close friend's problematic choices in the context of our gaming.

Interestingly, this particular fellow - whose efforts go toward finding loopholes in system rules that provide his character with a unique and extraordinary advantage - characterizes his gameplay as "exploration of system."  Your description of trust as a pivot point for the social contract really does cover the impact he has on gaming groups.  No one wants to game with him precisely because they know he's competing against the group regarding breaking points in the rules.  Unfortunately, he is very, very good at this kind of thing, and although he's a good roleplayer as well, his participation creates far more tension than enjoyment.

What's particulary intriguing to me, however, is that he has been quite reluctant to play in games with less granular rules, claiming he feels more comfortable with a situation wherein the rules hedge against GM abuse.  He's starkly suspicious of Drama mechanics such as in Everway or Amber (the latter of which he broke by manipulating the inconsistencies in Zelazny's cosmology), as he sees them as arbitrary.  He is not interested in playing games like The Pool, which facilitate sharing of narrative power.  I have to conclude he doesn't trust GMs as a matter of course, and comes to the group in the first place thinking he must secure some kind of special advantage or somehow "lose."  It's not sharing of power he's after; rather, he appears to be want to shift it to him and lock it there.



Edited PS:  I am not currently gaming with this guy, though in all candor, that decision has put some pressure on the friendship.