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!


20 Responses to “The Taste for Gratuitous Difficulty”

  1. December 15, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    Great post. Paida is my new favorite term. It’s ironic that I enjoyed best the paida elements of the Castle Zagyg so much: the fact that the world was responsive (through your improvisation) made finally encountering the threats more enjoyable. Though how sad then to lose the whole band (as was likely after the curtain fell with the end of the session) that I had grown to love!

  2. December 15, 2010 at 5:59 pm

    Paidia. I’ll get it. :)

  3. December 15, 2010 at 6:20 pm

    Thanks! My next post will be about those improvised parts of the playtest & how they arise from non-rule aspects of the system, which gives you elements like gods and character background occupations that make for good stories without specifying the procedures you should use to bring those out in play; having played Sign In, Stranger the day before definitely primed that improv well.

    There’s a storygames thread on games scholarship that mentions a paperback by Roger Caillois, _Man, Play and Games_; I’ve been recuperating after Mackay but might be ready to take that on & see what other goodness is there.

  4. 4 Adam
    December 15, 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Wow, this was a really great post with a lot of meat.

    Ludus really corresponds closely to the gamist element of the old Threefold Model (although I recognize the irony in mapping a construct from a late 50s paper onto a construct from 1990s internet discussions), but focusing on the idea of gratuitous difficulty helps pin down something I’ve noticed in my own play: why some games feel “hollow” to me, just exercises in totally unstructured narration, while others create a feeling of accomplishment. I’ve noticed that before–why does Feng Shui, which many of my friends love, feel meaningless to me, whereas D&D in just about all of its iterations provides a sense of triumph? I think the answer can be summed up by saying that I don’t perceive any gratuitous difficulty in Feng Shui.

    (This also points to an advantage of considering things in isolation–by focusing purely on gamism versus not-gamism I can see additional wrinkles that would elude me in a more comprehensive analysis.)

    The point about the role of random chance in producing unexpected spurs to improvisation while also providing gratuitous difficulty also struck a chord with me. One of the reasons that I like some randomization in character generation and in world generation is that I really enjoy that process of “okay, my character has this distinctively wacky element to him/her–how do I run with that?” or “wait, what character traits does the baroness have? Oh, that’s really interesting, and I can see a great story behind that.” An excellent example of this from a game that I played a bunch at AnonyCon is Fiasco, which is a game that’s pretty far on the improvisation side of things, but where the semi-random elements really add a lot to the creative process.

    Your distinction between procedural aspects and risks of failure is interesting, although the division is clearly fuzzy–Sudoku is in a sense entirely procedural, and yet from an experiential perspective there’s often a perceived risk of getting stuck/that feeling of insight when you make another realization. I need to think about this divide more.

    Thanks again for this post–it’s really provoked a lot of interesting thoughts.

  5. 5 Naked Samurai
    December 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    A lot of this is foreign to me, so I have to muddle over it. That said…

    I’ve been going over 4E texts and find the treasure parcel system fairly baffling. While my sense of risk and reward for player/character participation is pretty high, I do think any campaign universe should present itself as a mute challenge to player forays. I don’t really understand magic item wish lists. Difficulty should be high, (and among many other things) and success should not be a given. That said, perhaps strangely enough, I am forever on the side of my players whenever I DM.

    I think a key part of this is the ‘gratuitous’ modifier to ‘difficulty’. I don’t like that adjective, so used. I don’t care for baroque systems of danger, or arbitrary, impossible odds. I really don’t care for Tomb of Horrors. I get the idea, but to me it’s joyless and DM-sadistic. The same with mazes. I can see where a DM working as a collaborator with the mapping players would make it a success, but otherwise it smells like a derailer of crunchy fun.

    Now… I am designing dungeons for Red Box offering over the next months or year or whatever, and have to admit the idea of a long, arduous serious of traps ending in absolutely nothing… has perverse appeal. BUT, in service of adding to the character of the crypt-builder, rather than generic DM naughtiness. So I guess there’s payoff after all.

  6. December 15, 2010 at 9:28 pm

    @Adam, the distinction between procedure and risk of failure is mine (as far as I know, others may have said it too). I got there by thinking about how 4E makes things difficult in some ways – there are many more procedures you have to step through each round than in OD&D – and yet isn’t difficult enough for me in others – the assumption that encounters will be balanced such that the PCs will emerge battered but victorious. I agree that mapping this onto other games yields fuzzy results, and it’s important to note that part of what makes a game a game is that ultimately there really isn’t any risk of failure; you won’t lose anything tangible no matter what happens.

    @NS, I agree that treasure parcels and item wish lists are an unsatisfactory compromise between new (players get to customize their toon, like in a superhero game where Batman gets his powers from bat-belt items he buys with a gadgeteering point pool) and old (the world exists independently of the characters & isn’t modified to suit the PCs’ tastes in preferred weapon); some of the non-immersion breaking options, like a magic item Walmart that would sell you whatever you wanted to kit out your guy, or a way to have personal power infuse and customize ordinary items as you level up, weren’t chosen for reasons that aren’t clear to me (setting versimilitude? unwillingness to make players wait until they leave the dungeon to get the item the want?)

    I think you should look at “gratuitous” from the point of view of someone who isn’t familiar with games. Imagine explaining D&D to someone who aggressively doesn’t get it: “So the goal is to get rich and retire, right? Well it’s all imaginary, why don’t you just all agree that your characters do that? Oh OK, if the point is to have it earned by fighting monsters, and you don’t know if you’ll beat each one, why don’t you flip a coin to see who wins?” Lots of steps are gratuitous in the sense that they could be pared away but we like having them in there to hang details on, make us pay close attention, etc.; like what Zak calls slow tables or the design logic of inserting a point in combat resolution where you roll your hit points when you’re hurt to focus the drama.

  7. 7 Naked Samurai
    December 15, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    I see your point about the word gratuitous, and agree. To quote David St. Hubbins, “There’s a fine line between clever, and stupid…” Similarly, the use of empty rooms and tedium can be a brilliant ratcheting of tension, a fantastic contrapoint to the stampeding terror of a fight. A maze can be a great statement of the devious personality of its creator. But poorly employed, they can create boredom at the table and relief when they’re over.

  8. 8 Jack Colby
    December 16, 2010 at 1:19 am

    That was one of the more interesting articles on gaming I’ve read in a while. It would be great if every game designer could read it and give it some thought.

    I think this concept really points to why D&D has always been so popular, in any edition, compared to other games that try to reduce the difficulty. This is why D&D is not “all about telling a story”… the “game” of it is at least equally important for players to enjoy the experience and feel it is worthwhile.

    You can’t focus on the Role Playing to total exclusion of the Game and expect people to invest in it the same way, or feel the same thrill at character’s achievements. You need those rules to tell you that yes, it’s very possible to fail, but you didn’t because you used the rules to achieve victory, earning it fairly.

    And on the flipside, that’s why even failure in D&D is not too terrible, because you know darn well you lost by the rules, and other decisions/playstyles might have made the difference.

  9. 9 Greengoat
    December 16, 2010 at 5:11 pm

    Regarding general 4E alterations related to the difficulty of the play experience:
    I do think that a lot of the reasons that 4E has turned off experienced players was that the design advice has done an end-run and cut the agnostic style of play out of the loop.

    4E = Players shouldn’t have to spend time haggling for their goods unless it is a planned story element.
    Redbox = Players should always have to haggle for their goods because it’s fun and adventure comes of it and there are no planned story elements.

    Essentially the 4E design philosophy is that treasure should always be easy to spend, and the players shouldn’t be selling off magic items because it makes the concept of magic less fantastic or heroic. Haggling time is less choppin’ time.

    The other interesting bit is that most of these agnostic/planned problems in 4E exist only in their “playing guidelines” and not their actual mechanics. I just think the DMG just needs a wad of random tables and extra advice for taking players out of safe grinding zones of play.

    The link to the L&L that Tavis posted is great.

  10. December 17, 2010 at 6:12 pm

    This is a tremendously intriguing analysis to me. And I’d love to talk to you about it some more and how it relates to Swords Without Master. It might help me better explain to folks why Swords Without Master and Dungeons & Dragons co-exist peacefully in my mind, despite both having a common ancestry and treading on almost the same ground. It’s the differences in how the two games scratch the ludus itch that keeps me from preferring one over the other.

    Perhaps we should play again.

  11. December 17, 2010 at 6:26 pm

    I like talk! Even more I like play! Let me know when you’re in town and the New York Red Box will run red with blood as we fight to get in on that action.

    My son and I played one-on-one SWM during a car trip the other day. The character he made was the Old Seaman, whose features were being even shorter than an eight-year-old but fantastically strong; “you know, one of those sharp triangular metal hats,” and a submarine that propelled itself with fins and could curl into a ball like an armadillo – with the possible exception of the hat all of these were inspired by his reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which made me proud and proved to be a nice test of how glum and jovial can encapsulate Captain Nemo’s melancholy and mania. We played diceless by having us each pick & simultaneously announce a number from 1-6; ties were complications, even sums were jovial, odds were glum. The main thing I missed was having other people to pass it to, and not remembering the details of phases that well, but overall it worked quite well.

  12. December 17, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    That’s absolutely delightful! I’ve actually been working on a Swords variant that could be played in the car. But mine is far more complicated than yours. So I’m absolutely stealing your idea (with a couple modifications).

    (I’ve also got an Overplayer + 2 Player version and I’m working on a Wandering Overplayer variant that should make it possible for just two people to play.)

    I try to make it to New York at least once a month (though that doesn’t always work out). So we’ll definitely find time to play. And I need to play in one of your games as well.

  13. December 17, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    Next games I’ll be running are the 21st for Gamma World and the 30th/31st for OD&D; also Apocalypse World at Recess. Dates in following months TBD.

  14. 14 Gregor
    December 19, 2010 at 9:19 am

    These posts are fantastic, Tavis. A very good read. This blog is fast becoming one of my favourites.

    In addition to the Paidia-Ludus axis, Caillois also distinguishes a separate fourfold distribution of the joys of games and play: Agon, Alea, Mimesis and Ilinx.
    Ilinx is “vertigo”, the kind that kids get by spinning on the spot or we get by riding a rollercoaster. Pretty impertinent to RPGs, but I think some interpretations of Ilinx could be related to “immersion”. Mimesis is “play pretend”, masking oneself and taking on roles: the core of RPGs.

    Agon is about proving oneself, it’s about battle and skill, it’s about winning and showing one’s worth and ability. Alea on the other hand is about luck, abandoning oneself fully to the will of fate. So I think your distinction between “risk of failure” and “procedural work” falls squarely on the Alea-Ludus and Agon-Ludus combinations. You just re-invented Caillois!

  15. December 23, 2010 at 3:38 am

    Ridiculous difficulty is good, as long as intelligence & quick thinking can save the day. Ideally, there should be multiple solutions as well, for different playing styles or player types.

  16. 16 richardjohnguy
    May 17, 2011 at 8:32 pm

    Alas, late to the party.

    In Understanding Interactivity Chris Crawford uses agon (struggle for mastery) and paidaia, and he consistently undercuts the latter with the former, pointing out that very often paidaia is bought with agon, or that agon is latent in paidaia. I agree wholeheartedly with Miyamoto: in many ways playing his games is like learning to play a musical instrument. It’s painful hard work at the start, but there comes a moment when suddenly you’re making music. I don’t think I’ve ever had that experience exactly in an RPG, but then I think the fun is not found in the rule system, so I may be denying myself some good times there.

    On a tangent from this, I’m brewing a post right now about forms of challenges that I think might make a good counterpoint to this analysis: right now combat, puzzle solving and story/strategy planning all seem to be the same in your analysis of what makes the game fun. I think they might appeal to different urges/reward systems/ways of thinking – that ludus and paidaia might be different for different categories, or even that some appeal to other things entirely. My big example is chess vs poker: the thrill in chess comes from whether you’ve been cleverer than your opponent or vice versa – it’s really a mechanical game in which the intelligent other is a mysterious black box. The thrill in poker comes from raising the stakes and playing the opponent directly in a social game: here the black box is the cards, while the arena of play is really the people.

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