Do we have to keep losing it?

By on June 25, 2011
Tim Bancroft

I mentioned last time some of the performance theory that applies to RPG’s. It seems pretty esoteric stuff, but based on fairly solid studies of performance and play – and it’s directly applicable to your game and your players. Why? It’s due to matching expectations between you, the GM, and the players. Even in cooperative games the gameplay can be marred by a disjunction in those expectations.

We’ve all seen it, and we’ve all read about it. Whilst there are players who claim that you can have a good RPG experience in any rule system, there are still huge numbers who avoid a particular rule system. Sometimes this is purely because of fad following, image creation, a natural anti-mainstream feeling or purely because of a single bad experience. However, in my experience the majority of issues are almost always to do with the disjoint between the players preferences and expectations on the ludus-paidia scale and how the GM is running a game (or between players in a cooperative game).

The relationship is not fixed. The player has a band of preferences, a slightly different band of expectations and experiences which colour both. When it comes to rule sets, we are dealing with experience over expectation, which is then informed by (and informs) preferences. For example, D&D4e has a very strong ludus ethos around combat, such that every movement is tightly structured. The players experience of this can be governed by their preferences, whether for battle gaming or for a more free-form structure, and by the way the GM runs the game. Nonetheless, the expectation for 4e is that of tight structuring.

Such a game seems to demand that players have a ludus preference in the first place or play outside their preferences for more paidia style games. Their experience of the game will be coloured by that; are they just tolerating the situation to get a game.  Trouble is, they are unlikely to get into that liminal state which suggests a really good RPG experience, when everything else is forgotten but the game.  But what if a GM provides the opportunity for combats to be bypassed or resolved in other ways, in ways which are more imaginative, more free-form?

Even within the ludus rules of 4e there are opportunities to have assessed paidia experiences (the experience point development system within 4e demands that even the more free-form moments are assessed). Though termed skill encounters, they point to an assessed way of avoiding or managing combat encounters that is mentioned in the DMG, but not really explained within the combat sections.

Why not? Again it comes back to this ludus-paidia scale, that this time in the experiences and preferences of the rule designers.  They were building an assessed, XP-based game and (presumably) also had instructions to keep it in the battle gaming format. To allow combats to be resolved or avoided in such a free-form manner goes against their constraints and expectations at the design level.  However, it doesn’t mean that we, the gamers, have to ensure that every combat is a battle gaming experience; we can play the combat encounters in a more free-form, paidia format until such time that combat takes place – if it does at all.

This may mean that the battle gaming style combat is avoided, of course. But what it does mean is that those paidia-preferring players within your group have been given an opportunity to experience a game that matches their preferences, despite their expectations.  The rules even suggest that this can be assessed and awarded the same XP as the combat.

The principle can be applied to other encounters, too. I suspect that, irrespective the rules system you are using, this balance of options between paidia and ludus resolution can be provided.  The skill comes down to you, as a DM or cooperative player: can you let go of your own need for structure; can you let go of your own need to blindly follow the info-crawl trail; can you resist the urge to jump onto the structured battle mat as soon as possible; and can resist comfort of the nicely buffering, highly structured, dice-based skill resolution system?

Or are you only going to run a game for one type of player, a player who matches, or is capable of adjusting to, your preferences only?  Recognising your own preferences and expectations on the ludus-paidia scale is just the start.

About Tim Bancroft

Tim's been a roleplayer since the mid 70's and now just enjoys running or playing tabletop RPGs as long as they are not too complicated. He's written for a variety of RPGs over the years and has even helped develop one or two. He occasionally releases products through Sceaptune Games, but is happy to write for anyone providing he doesn't have to do too much production work (not laziness, just physical constraints). He's playtested a variety of RPG and wargame rulesets, though he prefers board games to the latter. In addition to a little knowledge of computers, history and theology, he also studies choral music, voice and spirituality in Winchester. If you want to be nice, buy him a curry, a bottle of good mead or port, or even invite him along to, or offer to come round to his place for, a RPG session.

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