Archive for December 15th, 2010

15
Dec
10

The Taste for Gratuitous Difficulty

I’m postponing part two of my post about the DCC RPG and Castle Zagyg/Mad Archmage to talk about the results of last year’s Anonycon experiment. Unlike this year’s planned comparison of running the same adventure with different rule systems, this was an unplanned natural experiment: I played in two different games, D&D 4E and Time & Temp, run by the same GM, Kevin Kulp. As I’ve said elsewhere, Kevin is a fantastic GM with an arsenal of techniques at his control that I think could make any game sing, so it was really interesting to see how my experience varied according to the rules he was using.

The reason I’m revisiting this now is that this week’s New Yorker has a piece by Nick Paumgarten profiling Shigeru Miyamoto, the hugely influential Nintendo game designer. Miyamoto is an interesting guy, but what really caught my attention was something introduced in the background of the article, a synopsis of Roger Cailois’s 1958 essay “Man, Play and Games.”  According to Paumgarten,

Caillois also introduces the idea that games range along a continuum between two modes: ludus, “the taste for gratuitous difficulty,” and paidia, “the power of improvisation and joy.” A crossword puzzle is ludus. Kill the Carrier is paidia (unless you’re the carrier). Super Mario and Zelda seem to be perched right between the two.

For starters, I love these terms – not the Latin roots but their explanatory phrases, which would make great names for Vancian spells.  More importantly, the idea that the important dimension for assessing a game is its relative admixture of “the taste for gratuitous difficulty” and “the power of improvisation and joy” precisely expresses what I felt about playing 4E and Time & Temp last year.

This year, Eric and I played in a session Emily Care Boss ran of her storygame of alien first contact, Sign In, Stranger. Afterwards we got into a conversation with Jim Crocker of Modern Myths and Time & Temp’s designer Epidiah Ravachol. Later I got to play his forthcoming Swords without Master,  and Emily was my first playtester for the DCC RPG & Zagyg/Archmage mix, which is why conventions in general and Anonycon in particular are awesome: you get to not only talk about different games but actually experience the way each of you plays them, which cuts past a lot of the usual noise to get to the heart of the discussion.

So during this conversation, I told the story of the two games I’d been in with Kevin as DM:

Each session had a climactic beat-down with a really compelling set-up in the fiction. In 4E, we were riding flying carpets in hot pursuit of the evil vizier who’d tried to have us exterminated during a diplomatic summit in the City of Brass, and now we finally caught up to him and could apply the much-deserved smacking. In Time & Temp, we’d set up an ambush to rescue Paul McCartney from an alien time-traveler who was trying to ensure that he “blew his mind out in a car” as per the coded messages in Beatles records, and how cool is that? So these were both fights I really cared about, but the systems we used to play them out made a big difference in how it felt to win.

In Time & Temp, the looser mechanics let us think of lots of awesome things to do, but somehow it didn’t feel like we had earned our victory; I couldn’t dispel the suspicion that Kevin hadn’t just let us win because it was dramatically appropriate for us to do so. The 4E  mechanics put up a lot of resistance to doing awesome things, but that meant that victory had a visceral feeling of accomplishment. I knew exactly how hard it had been to triumph, because I knew the difficulty of the rolls we had to beat, could track the dwindling resources of each side, etc.

I feel weird about this, because in many ways I don’t like the fiddly 4E approach. Part of the pleasure of the session was the display of our collective system mastery; we’d all put in the hundreds of hours necessary to step through the complicated procedures involved in our fictional smackdown pretty quickly and integrate reporting what we were doing at this mechanical level with narrating our characters’ heroic exploits. I don’t want RPGs to require this level of investment, but I have to say that it was more satisfying for me to win only after going through a lot of intrinsically boring little steps to convince myself that yes, we really did come out on top.

Caillois’s continuum between two modes lets me boil this down: 4E gratifies my taste for gratuitous difficulty, which Time & Temp couldn’t (in this scene) due to its greater power of improvisation and joy.

Some further implications:

  • Gratuitous difficulty in games can be usefully subdivided into the kind that involves a risk of failure – that you won’t be able to think of a word in a crossword puzzle, or roll high enough to hit a target DC in 4E – and the kind that just involves procedural work, as in calculating your attack modifiers or crossing out the clues you’ve already answered.
  • Engaging with the gratuitous difficulty of procedural work can make joyful improvisation more satisfying.  Eppy pointed out that, in Time & Temp, working out the Sudoku-like puzzle of the Matrix allows you to feel justified when you narrate that of course, the precise item you need to save your bacon is under the chair, because you the next thing you’ll do will be to back in time to put it there. Part of this is just that the game gives you rules you can follow to decide whether or not that’s possible in the fiction, but that could also be true in 4E (did your DM agree to let you research the time-travel spell, can you meet the requirements for casting it, etc.) Having stepped through gratuitously difficult procedures makes Bill & Ted gimmicks feel earned in Time & Temp the way that WWF smackdowns do in 4E.
  • Players with a taste for gratuitious difficulty may be disappointed in a game with no risk of failure, even if it offers a lot of procedural work. The sense that my character’s life isn’t in danger is often my complaint when I play otherwise-gratuitously-difficult 4E, and its reintroduction is why I like George Strayton’s Legends & Labyrinths 4E houserules.
  • The risk of failure can be entirely fictional. Sign In, Stranger and Swords Without Master are games strongly focused on the power of improvisation and joy. Both brilliantly use mechanics to add some procedural work to the process of collaborative roleplaying (the use of colors to constrain and guide re-incorporation of player input in SI,S; the shifts of tone and phase in SWM), and neither involve the risk of mandated failure you get from a bad roll in 4E. Ultimately I found the latter more satisfying because we were telling a swords & sorcery story about how my character’s life was frequently in danger; imagining this to be true satisfied my taste for gratuitious difficulty in a way that the less visceral stakes of a science fiction story about my character’s struggle to learn did not.
  • All the kids in the afterschool D&D class put a high value on difficulty. My guidelines for making an adventure involve deciding whether the DC for a given obstacle is “easy” (8+), “medium” (11+), or “hard” (14+); one week one of the boys accused another of stealing the idea of “difficult” (19+), and I had to step in to say no, it was an independent invention. When I asked them what they wanted from the adventure I’m running for them tomorrow, the #1 request was that it be “really hard”. All this has always mystified me because they hate it when their characters fail, but now I realize that they’re expressing a taste for gratuitious difficulty – which I suspect has been even more acutely unsatisfied due to my attempts to strip away the procedural work of the 4E rules we’re nominally using and introduce more of the power of improvisation and joy.
  • Dice are great tools for RPGs at both ends of the continuum, as they can create a risk of failure and also provide unexpected results as a spur to improvisation. Sign In, Stranger uses an impressive array of diceless tools to do the latter, including exquisite corpse, Mad Libs, and drawing narrative elements from a cup.
  • The dungeon beneath Blackmoor Castle is, for me, the first and still the greatest example of the form because like Super Mario, it exactly hits my sweet spot on the game continuum. All dungeons provide the rigid flowchart structure to constrain and direct player input, but Arneson’s horribly tedious nightmare maze adds a heightened degree of gratuitous difficulty to the process of negotiating the party’s movement through the dungeon, and the contrast makes it especially joyful when you finally get into a room where group improvisation brings the inspiringly sparse dungeon key entries to life.

Finally, here’s some more from the New Yorker piece that I think is worth thinking about as a counterpoint to the discussion of what’s lost when underground exploration is codified into standard operating procedures*:

Miyamoto recognizes that there is pleasure in difficulty but also in ease, in mastery, in performing a familiar act with aplomb, whether that be catching a baseball, dancing a tango, doing Sudoku, or steering Mario through the Mushroom Kingdom, jumping on Goombas and Koopa Troopas. His games strike this magical balance between the excitement that comes from facing new problems and the swagger from facing down old ones. The consequent sensation of confidence is useful, in dealing with a game’s more challenging stages, but also a worthy aim in itself. “A lot of the so-called ‘action games’ are not made that way,” Miyamoto told me. “All the time, players are forced to do their utmost. If they are challenged to the limit, is it really fun for them?” In his own games, Miyamoto said, “You are constantly providing the players with a new challenge, but at the same time providing them with some stages or some occasions where they can simply, repeatedly, do something again and again. And that itself can be a joy.”

* I know I read some good blogging on this recently; if someone can post the link in comments I’ll edit it in here!




Past Adventures of the Mule

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