Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Shared Fantasy, Chapter 3

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm back to Shared Fantasy.  Chapter 3 is about how gamers come together to create a collective fantasy.  As anyone who's ever tried to explain an RPG to a mundane knows, it's a lot easier to demonstrate than discuss.  Fine does a pretty good job of breaking down the various issues involved and explaining them.

As a note, Chapter 3 also includes an interesting aside on "cheating" in RPGs.  As it includes some really interesting quotes, and is a fairly involved topic, I'm going to break it out into a separate post.

One of the really interesting initial focuses of the chapter is that psychologists and sociologists apparently have quite a lexicon and body of work established around fantasy.  How much fantasy is healthy?  What purpose does fantasy serve?  Et cetera.  But, almost all of that body of work revolves around either dreams (including daydreams) or storytelling.  The collective fantasy of an RPG is an anomaly that Fine seems to feel requires a different set of rules and explanations.  This book is primarily about presenting what gaming is, and he leaves any analysis as to the causes or effects to later work.

This is the World We're Living In

(Ten thousand bonus points for recognizing that obscure lyric.)

As gamers, we are well acquainted with the notion of "setting," how to create one, and how they tend to evolve and become more detailed in play.  Fine spends many pages explaining the concepts, in a remarkably cohesive manner, to the uninitiated.  He does have one passage that I, at least, found gratifying:
This is what these [referees] have achieved in the construction of their imaginative worlds.  While each component is recognizable, the whole is unique.  These fantasy worlds are socially determined, but they are also aesthetic innovations.
Fine also brings in the term "folk ideas", which are "traditional notions that a group of people have about the nature of man, of the world, and of man's life in the world."  He makes some interesting points about the folk ideas common in nearly all settings to be not only particularly male, but also particularly American.

Apparently, Americans have a folk idea about the "principle of unlimited good."  That is, that there is an infinite supply of reward available for those who are worthy.  According to Fine, this is not common in other cultures, notably Mexico.  That is the reason that, no matter how often a group of players plunder a particular dungeon, the monsters and their treasure will constantly "respawn."

He also says that "most worlds are conceptualized as battlegrounds between good and evil with no middle ground."  I think that the moral greys of cyberpunk and urban fantasy in the 80s and 90s has probably altered that a bit.  But, I also think that that may be part of what the OSR is trying to recapture.  Fine includes a quote from TSR:  "D&D ... furnishes a world in which everything is categorized and labeled; there is no mistaking good and evil." 

The third folk idea he points to is that evil "is reflected in greed and hunger for power, and not in other forms of degradation."  That is, the bad guys rarely engage in truly horrific acts.  (It is interesting to contrast this with his anecdotes from Chapter 2 in which players casually describe acts of genocide, rape, and torture.  Those are the "good" guys.)  He also says: "A gentlemanly evil is reflected in these games - a wholesome evil, in which murder, rather than debasement or mutilation, is the primary weapon of evil."  As someone who has the ongoing flaw of being unable to understand evil, I don't feel entirely qualified to comment on this.  Power is certainly a primary motivation for nearly all villains in RPGs.  However, much of the more recent GM advice recommends adding more dimension to their motivations and actions.

Finally, we seem to apply a Puritan work ethic to our games.  Specifically, "luck is deemphasized; effort and courage are seen as more important criteria for success."  Note that luck here refers to in-character luck, and not the rule of the dice.  Heroes will pull through because they are smart, determined, and courageous.

Realism and Logic

Any game setting can be measured by how realistic it is (that is, how well can you predict what will likely happen based on "real world" knowledge) and how logical it is (that is, how well can you predict what will likely happen based on what has happened before).  Note that these concepts are not the only possible measures for a setting, nor are they unconditionally good.  But, they are important.

I don't think I can do a much better job of summing up realism than just including this paragraph:
"Actual" realism is an impossible goal; as with nostalgia, what is involved is a specially constructed history - a history designed to capture the adventure and romance of the period, not its blistering poverty, intolerance, and plagues.  The realism is an illusion of realism.  Ed Simbalist, one of the designers of Chivalry & Sorcery, argues that the realism of the game is in the minds of the participants.  The crucial issue is to create a world that players can accept as a world, and which they can become engrossed in.
Though, of course, realism as a goal should be tempered.  And, it should be recognized that different gamers have different comfort levels.  Fine quotes one player he interviewed:
I came down tonight expecting, you know, maybe there's something reasonable going on.  And I saw a travesty, some of the things that went on.  I was shocked!  I take a look and I see that Brian is reffing C&S, and he's added pistols. ... For about half an hour after I got there, I simply felt like I wanted to leave.  I was ... oosh.  This isn't a game.  That sort of thing disgusts me!  You can't have pistols in a C&S campaign.
Nice to know that RPG.net trolls existed long before RPG.net.  *grin*

The other issue to be considered is logic.  Fine notes that private fantasies (e.g., dreams) need no logic.  However, because RPGs are shared fantasies, you need some common shared framework of logic to enable communication.  He includes a few interesting quotes describing what logic, in this sense, is.  One of his interviewees uses the term "true falsehood":  "While the logic of the world may not be the same as the one we live in, where, yes, magic may work, but you cannot be illogical ... if you're not going to keep the same laws as this universe, the what set of laws are going to be used?"  Fine sums this up later by saying, "Logic can be understood as realism that ignores historic validity."  I can't think of a much better definition than that.

Gaming is a Social Disease

Fine spends the remainder of the chapter discussing how players and referees jockey for joint control of play.  Very little of the information is new to those of us who have been gaming for a while, and especially those who have been reading gaming blogs for a while.  Though, as a note, the section on cheating is in here, and that had quite a few excellent points.

Fine opens with a statement from Gygax, stating that, in theory, a referee is supposed to be supremely impartial, even to the point of "disinterested" in what happens to the characters.  In practice, of course, that never happens.  In order to make the game fun, both the referee and the players work to explicitly shape events in the game, and not always within the rules.  To include another Gygax quote:
Not to be pretentious, but the rules for D&D are like Aristotle's Poetics, if you will.  They tell me how to put together a good play.  And a [referee] is the playwright who reads these things and puts his play together.
I must say, I haven't seen many better summations of the relationship between the rules of an RPG and the actual play.  I will definitely want to hold onto that quote.

The first way that gamers manipulate the game is by making decisions.  The referee decides what is happening in the game world, the players decide how to react (or proactively engage), and the referee decides how the world is impacted.  While much of that is controlled by the rules or the dice, much of it is also simply left up to either the will of the player, or to negotiation.

The second manipulation, of course, comes from the dice.  The rules of the game dictate all sorts of situations in which the referee should use dice to maximize fairness.  However, "both players and referee act so as to decrease the significance of chance."  No one wants the game to be truly random, only to be flavored by randomness.  Fine also sums up the player attitude well:
It is not the chancy roll of the dice per se that players most object to.  Rather, it is the location of this chance in the game.  Rolls are particularly objectionable at critical junctures in the game when they may result in severe negative outcomes.
Also, he includes this interesting tidbit in a footnote:
The players let their dice say what they might be uncomfortable saying because of embarassment about drinking and sexual potency.  Players might not wish to admit to a desire for either, or, alternatively, might not wish to be seen without a desire for them.  Thus the decision of how to play these problematic options can be solved through the chance roll of the dice.
The third and final form of manipulation is social.  There are an endless variety of ways that gamers can be brought to heel by social pressure.  We are not, as a rule, a particularly secure breed.  Much of this chapter references ways in which a player can attempt to gain influence over the ultimate power of the referee.  It could be an appeal to internal game logic ("But, I already said that my guy wasn't even in the room!"), to the rules (insert any rules-lawyer-y bit in here), or to compassion ("Look, Jerry, cut the new kid a break, huh?").  And, ultimately, the player always has the ultimate option of simply walking away from the game.

One of the problems that players face with social manipulation is that they are, generally, costing the referee face.  "A referee who changes his mind as a result of social pressure from the players admits that he has been wrong, and implicitly that he has been a poor referee; consequently referees are reluctant to change their positions because of player insistence."  Now, many of us who are experienced GMs may shake our heads disapprovingly and say things like "Stop being so immature."  But, in our honest moments, we have to admit that those concerns do play a part in our decisions.

In yet another quote from good ol' EGG, we see one of the earliest (albeit crude) expressions of Rule 0:
You're supposed to be providing entertainment for yourself and all of your players, so I don't allow arguments at all, and sometimes [the players] will show me my own rules and say, "Look, it says this in the book," and I say, "Who cares?  I just told you otherwise.  It doesn't make any difference what the book says."
Fine makes a point of repeating several times that, despite initial appearances, it's actually players who hold the trump card in any confrontation.  "Despite the power of the referee, players have the ultimate weapon to control those referees they consider to be 'sadistic' - refusal to play.  The sadistic referee may find no one to control, forcing him either to change his style or give up refereeing."  There are also a number of anecdotes about players having their characters suicide out of frustration.  That's one of those tropes that I think has largely passed out of general usage, thankfully.  Most players who are willing to get to such a level of passive-aggressive frustration as to off the character are more likely to just get up and leave the table now (or disappear into a smartphone or laptop).

As a final interesting note, Fine discusses using in-game punishments to correct problem players (something most modern gamers consider a Bad Idea).  He references a character that might suddenly "come down with the plague."  A couple paragraphs later, he mentions the flip side of the coin, of giving in-game rewards for out-of-game good behavior.  He references giving a character "immunity from the plague for two months' game time."  It sounds very much like this is a common game element, but it's not one I've run across.  Is "the plague" something from Chivalry & Sorcery or Empire of the Petal Throne?  Or is it just one of those local quirks from the Twin Cities (where much of this research was done)?

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