What is it I lost?

By on 22 April 2011

Last month I mentioned I’d lost something precious and tried to sort out why.  It came down to the totality of experience a Role Playing Game provides, something that may sound obvious. However, I’m not sure that that really is the case and that it is dismissed far too quickly.

We all have our own preferences for RPGs.  Like other forms of play or performance, our preferences range on a line from ludus to paidia: from outright rule-dominated games such as chess to completely free-form ‘games’. Some of the Indy-hippy games come close to the freer style, but defining a game as totally free form is something of a tautology, as games are framed by social contracts which make them games and not real life. Indeed, some of the ‘freer’ games have rules – albeit perhaps fewer – which paradoxically can be regarded as being stricter rules or framing than regular games in order to provide a freer experience.

This is key.  It’s not the rules and textual support but how the GM/DM applies the rules that counts.  This is the framing in which we drop our imagination, suspension of disbelief and everything else that we bandied about as part of gaming.  Whatever rules are used, whether light or heavy, we can map our position on this ludus-paidia scale to express what we expect and want from our RPG experience.  We may have a multiple-table, highly detailed ruleset such as Hackmaster, and may have fun applying pure rolls to define roles and other characteristics, but what really matters is how the DM applies those rules.  Does the DM methodically count ammunition, meals, precise ranges (e.g. the rules as written) or is it a case that the rules are merely used as a prop to play a game?  Is the GM arbitrarily applying rules, randomly making up new rules, steamrolling over rules the players know about and use or even randomly not applying rules? Then he’s pushing the play experience more towards the ludus end by revolving the game around the rules or not-rules.

Key though, when the GM moves in such fashion he is breaking the framing of what those coming to the table are expecting and that expected by the game rules in the first place.

This always gets in the way of a good RPG session. All of us come to the table with expectations, and above all we expect something of a paidia experience; few players expect a ludus experience within the bounds of an RPG play-frame.  Though there are various ways to define what we expect from an RPG, but the most basic way of measuring our required experience is to map our expectations onto this simple measure of play type, irrespective of ruleset and irrespective of how well we know the rules.  In almost all cases, most RPGers shy away from an extremely tight ludus focus, wanting an experience in which the rules do not intrude into the game.  It is paradoxical, that knowing the rules better can free us from this ludus focus and make our experience more closely map our preference, typically in an RPG more towards the paidia end of the scale.

But why focus on this?  There are rules provided after all.

Without going into the existing analyses of RPGs and exhaustive analyses of meta-roles within RPG, we can identify what we want in ourselves and, to a lesser extent, in our players by a little reflection.  Our wants cannot help but spring from our own experiences and needs, if we can be honest with ourselves.  Those aspects of our character that govern our preferences may include simple, social-psychological assessments of how much we need to have an ordered world (a tight ludus focus) or how much wish to re-enact or avoid previous experiences, perhaps in an unconscious effort to make them right.  If we were truly honest we could ask how much we need to have a social forum in which we can express and re-visit fantasies, or even how much we need our gaming framed to make it into a tighter ritual.

It’s this gaming ritual that the RPG setting frames.

Ritual may seem an odd word to apply to RPG.  However, whatever our needs or approach, the ideal experience is something that enables us to get ‘in the zone’ – to end up in a place in our own minds where we can forget the ‘real’ world and reach an almost trance-like state where the game and its interactions dominate our minds and focus. This ‘zone’ is experienced in a variety of activities, whether playing sports, programming, writing, meditating or performing any other activity where we consciously have to close down our breadth of thinking and heighten our attention to focus on a specific thing.

This is where the actions of the other players and, in particular, the GM either get in the way or enable such an experience.  Even with good players, who can invariably raise the level of a game, the GM can bring down the play experience simply by running at a different level on the ludus-paidia scale than anyone else or, most commonly, by randomly altering the framing he’s established on this scale.  This normally happens through him being too ludus-focussed or by misapplying or not understanding rules that others do and therefore forcing the game into a ludus focus.  The frame gets shifted.  It is this negative pressure on the live game that leads it away from the paidia bias that is a RPG-in-action, and prevents it transforming into the luminal experience we expect from our RPGing.

It’s that experience I lost, that ability to achieve the flow-state where nothing else matters.  It’s not a drug, but a release from the pressures of the everyday, from the humdrum.  We all need that experience in some way or other to free our mind, to make it able to properly attend to other details, other aspects of our life.

That mental break is something we really can’t afford to lose.

The ludus-paidias line comes from Roger Caillois and Richard Schechner’s Performance Studies book.

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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