Monday, July 11, 2011

Shared Fantasy - Chapter 5

I'm up to Chapter 5 in Shared Fantasy.  Just to give you an idea, there are eight chapters all told.  This chapter starts to leave behind the "what is this 'gaming' thing?" territory and head into actual sociological issues.  So, I have less to say about it, having no background in sociology.

The topic of this chapter is Game Structure.  Mostly, it's all about status, leadership, cooperation, and how gamers can be real dicks to each other.

The Eternal Troll

Keep in mind that this was written in the very early 80s.  Way before such creations as internet forums and edition wars.  And yet, see if these quotes don't sound vaguely familiar:  "Even though this is a relatively small social scene, considerable fragmentation exists."  "The gaming world is not made up of individuals who love and respect each other."  I don't know about you guys, but I kind of take these truths to be self evident.

Fine also includes a wonderful quote from an amateur gaming magazine, that era's equivalent of a blog.  A modern version would likely involve a lot more cursing, but it sounds deliciously familiar:
I will concentrate on your libels (malicious disregard of the truth). ... Between repudiating your own remarks and ascribing statements to me that I have never made, I can only conclude that if you're not morally irresponsible, you must be mentally irresponsible.
Throughout this chapter, Fine also references "Don," a high-status referee and player at the Golden Brigade gaming club he observed.  He uses Don as an example of how gamers use their status to various effects.  Don is a stereotypical  small man with a little bit of power.  I'm pretty sure you all know the type.  In short, Don is a dick.  I may do a follow-up post with his various indiscretions and why they are bad behavior.

I Get By With a Little Help

Fine makes the rather obvious observation, "friendships do affect game-related behavior."  Apparently, this is an important point to make in the sociological argument that he is building.  But, some of his examples of how friendships, rivalries, and other out-of-game relationships affect in-game interactions are kind of interesting. 

Of particular note to me is that many of his examples revolve around the gaming club.  Personally, I've never belonged to this kind of club, where you show up on a Friday night and see who's running.  Some of the examples involving who gets to play in which game (according to the rules of the club, a referee can't specifically exclude someone, but he can declare his game "full" then open it to new players when his friends show up), where they sit at the table, and what role they get to play in the game.  It sounds like an endless procession of convention one-shots, only people remember how you've gamed in the past.  I shudder.

I also had another quote trigger some thoughts: "The power of the referee is supported, at least in the Golden Brigade, by the fact that the leading referees are good friends -- a consequence of having played together."  A few years back, I got involved in the local Vampire LARP.  The locals were an unusual concentration of "high MC" players, meaning they'd been involved in the Camarilla at a high level for many years.  Breaking into that network was incredibly hard.  But, I couldn't really blame them, because it made total sense that, when choosing between a newbie and someone they could predict and rely on to interact with, they went with the familiar choice.  I wrote a long email to the group about it.  I may have to dig that out and turn it into a blog post.

I Respectfully Disagree

There is quite a bit to the chapter that I am skipping over, because it doesn't involve anything that would be particularly insightful to this audience.  As Fine enters the conclusion of the chapter, though, he makes a few related statements that I have to disagree with.  I don't know if it reflects changing attitudes about gaming, my own prejudices about how gaming should work, or the particular echo chamber of gamers that I've associated with. 
Relationships in gaming parties tend to reflect relationships in the real world.  This suggests that affective ties are difficult to transform radically in fantasy.  Stated differently, fantasy is constrained by social structure.
It is important for the effectiveness of the game structure that the status characteristics of players by positively correlated with the status characteristics of their characters.
While there is an informal perception that it is legitimate to kill [monsters], it is considered improper for a fourteen-year-old to lead a party of adventurers in which there are twenty-year-olds.
Fantasy is constrained by members' perceptions of what variables cannot be transcended by players and their characters under any circumstances (e.g., intelligence and maturity).
Some of the sentiments there are legitimate.  The people who tend to lead in real life will also tend to lead in the game.  That's simply a function of decision-making not being clearly divided between IC and OOC.  And, I can support these conclusions as broad generalizations.  However, I do think that it needs to be stated that exceptions abound.

First, I have known many, many groups that have in-character relationships that are not mirrored, even imperfectly, by OOC relationships.  For instance, my wife and I rarely have characters that are romantically involved (though they are often friends).  I have seen natural leaders deliberately take "low status" roles in the party (admittedly, they were still highly influential).  And I have seen innumerable instances in which the same group of players has two different parties that have radically different party dynamics.

I think that the comment about letting the younger player lead probably falls into the "broadly correct, specifically inapplicable" category.  That is, if you look across the whole culture of gamers, you will find that this is true more often than not.  However, trying to use the rule to predict whether any particular fourteen-year-old in any particular group will be accepted as a leader is doomed to failure.

The final quote there engages with a discussion that is ages-old, but with no clear resolution.  Can a typical player manage to accurately portray a character with either significantly higher or lower intelligence?  What about charisma (the traditional bugaboo regarding social skills)?  Personally, I think the answer is yes.  For me, the whole point to role-playing is to be someone that you're not.  (I do realize that is not a universally held view.)  It may take a bit of thought and effort, but it is very possible.  I don't know if modern gaming is simply far more sophisticated than what Fine was observing, or I am simply naive about what the average player is capable of and what the average group will allow.


  1. "Can a typical player manage to accurately portray a character with either significantly higher or lower intelligence? What about charisma (the traditional bugaboo regarding social skills)? ..... It may take a bit of thought and effort, but it is very possible."

    I think the DM has a prominent part to play at this point too. I have written elsewhere that I think the DM can explain why an inept role-play works and why a brilliant one fails. Apart from the dice meta-game talk. We all know the simple truth: the world is populated by the clueless. So success for the inept should be expected. Whether the inept success is the PC with a laughable role-play [but a great roll] or the NPC who susses out the brilliant PC [based on a poor roll].

    Roll players do not see the necessity to role play when the dice can talk - giving the DM a role to play. (But roll players view the DM as hardware to run the rules software anyways.) I do require role-play at the table because an inept success or brilliant failure can lead to other situations down the road, uncharted and interesting. Maybe the PC's inept role-play is unchallenged to suit an NPC's agenda? Maybe the PC's brilliant role-play is over the head of the NPC?

    I will say it again; the world of PCs or NPCs is populated by the clueless. That's realism.

  2. I'm going to hold off on posting a reply to this. Another blogger has challenged me to do a whole series of posts on dice, task resolution, and the intersection of rolls and roles. Look for the first post in that series later today.