Cab Driver - Customer, The Second


In which the border between role-playing and gaming is pondered and our hero speculates on how crossing the border changes a traveller and what that means for both sides. I hate this journey but I accept the fare, today we cross the border and as I'm a citizen of both sides, a player of roles and of games, you can get from A to B faster than doing it by yourself.

I hate this journey but I accept the fare, today we cross the border and as I'm a citizen of both sides, a player of roles and of games, you can get from A to B faster than doing it by yourself. I've donned masks, tried to get under the skin of many people; been different races, genders, nationalities, faiths and professions with varied degrees of success. Yes, there are areas I prefer but I like experimenting. I'm no actor but I like being different. I've seen the other side, played games in a hundred arenas, from the field to the maze, blown away monster hordes with a BFG, scored goals and sunk ships. I've played on boards of wood and of light, on fields of green. I've been a hero, taken kings prisoner, forced friends into ruin and had a good time doing it all!

A short cut through the projects to the border lets you see where signs begin to take on aspects of the other side, alluding to an elusive DMZ where both sides get what they want from the other without losing autonomy. This early on, the signs draw the naive in and frustrated designers move on, wondering how they can get those concerned with their role to play to a competitive standard and how competitors can be less-obsessed with winning and become someone else for a time. Let me tell you about the four C's of gaming and role-playing whilst some game designers push a broken-down car along the street. You give the nod and I salute them with a blast of the horn.

Cooperation - something missing from many CRPGs and MMORPGs barring networks and being a social animal, something implicit in every game you play unless it be solo. Socialization arises in deathmatch situations as teams, clans and crews form to do unto others before they are done to. Though good CRPGs can immerse players in a world in ways that we humans do with great difficulty, they are little different from the solo-player FRPG books that boomed in the '80's. Will the computer-based gaming experience be the death of the tabletop RPG? Oops, ambulance! Hit the brakes and let them go past. Even with multi-path plots and random events to keep players absorbed, your ability to re-play is limited. How often do we hear that Magic: The Gathering is dying from CRPG popularity? No, I think the diagnosis is rampant hypochondria.

Competition is the next C: cooperation doesn't preclude competition but diverts it into more profitable avenues. Two gangs of youths begin fighting as we drive past. Conflict is the chief driver of drama but it destroys trust if the protagonists are on opposing sides. An external threat to all sides is needed for cooperation but something is missing - frontier justice is either lynching, hiring a third party to settle the issue for you or a Pyrrhic victory where the last one standing wins. As the police move in, the two gangs scatter but two youths with different gang colours hide in the same alley and start talking.

Let's throw a third C in: Compromise.

Compromise allows fraternizing with enemies. Teams cleave to each other but play dominance games with other teams, yet they'll stand side by side to watch the same game. This social element (despite the labels of socially-inept and geek to both gamers and role-players) is vital to the continuation of the hobby. A gang member will turn informant and accept money from a police officer and his friends, though he's dead if he's caught, here's opportunity. Commerce is born as someone subverts the 'rules' for the chance to live another day. Alternatively, if you and your opponent are unwilling or unable to continue the struggle, you call it a draw or a forfeit, compromising to resolve the issue.

Compromise allows resolution of those ambiguous issues. Where play isn't defined by parameters, things grow uncontrolled. Watch the children play soldier - bang, bang, you're dead, I'm not - how do you decide where the bodies fall? If the players can't agree on this, then you have no game. This leads to the fourth and final C: Commonality. CRPGs have this innately, how can the computer evoke a game world without defining rules? Tabletop games do the same - rules define the consequences of actions. 'Diceless' or 'pure' RPGs like Amber or Everway depend on arbitration, hearkening back to those days of frontier justice.

So we agree on a set of compromises defining commonality, for a game, the rules. The hackers and lawyers leave their power lunches to try and buck the system, gaining fame and fortune at the same time by arguing and bending these compromises. I'm unkind as their innovation and conviction in testing rules is a part of the compromise process.

The problem is when it goes too far. When it justifies its actions by assuming roles where competitive behavior is rewarded to the degeneration of all other behaviors, or forcing an unsatisfactory compromise upon the others. As another car breaks down, steam blowing from the bonnet, the game designers look and shake their heads, I have to smile.

The four C's are all social phenomena.

Interestingly, the gaming industry experiences all of these phenomena, when someone tries to subvert the system; the industry is harmed as a result. The industry park awaits.

Competition is an inherent part of the industry; ideally there would be enough market share for everyone but even niche markets are only so big. Expansion leads to more intense competition and eventually someone will lose. That's the nature of business. Sad but true.

Cooperation is done out of necessity for survival, conventions and playing groups like the RPGA are dependant on cooperation to perpetuate themselves. When TSR declared an embargo on home-brewed Web material, their reputation took a battering from which it never really recovered. People voted with their feet.

Compromise, the ability to say live and let live, has recently been in for a hammering of late. Gamers proposing a one true game or way to play the game not only risk alienating peers but also sound pretentious. Look closely and you see they're no better than the others, some even have a vested interest in influencing you. A conspiracy theory in gaming - imagine that.

Commonality. I have one thing to say to you and that is d20. Isn't it bizarre that just about every established tabletop RPG company has suddenly developed a d20 imprint and now is starting to put out products that often as not are as compatible as possible? SJG was close with GURPS but now they must find another way to subvert the established order - I'd say try a Discordian game setting (using d20 rules of course) but SJG did Discordia already.

Out the industrial park and back once again onto the freeway. Border soon and I need to address two Golden Rules universal to both gaming and to RPG, one explicit, one implicit.

If you don't like the rules, change them.
If you aren't having fun, why are you doing it?

The rules lawyers and hackers all then jump up and shout 'That's what I'm doing and you won't let me! It's so unfair!!' before you point the rather large handgun at them - which I hasten to add is not a good thing to have near the border. I propose they play 'Killer' to ease the passage of time and you throw the gun out to them. I floor it and the distant gunfire is a balm to our travel-weary souls.

The golden rules support everything else - in a game or sport, the golden rules take precedence, you either change the rules or you do something less boring instead. Yet with this comes a reminder for you to try and manage your expectations. When a player demands a Biblical epic from a dungeon crawl, you can do one of two things. Either change the scenario to accommodate their wish or you can ignore it.

Say, isn't that Compromise again?

Both sides of the border have ideas that can be brought to the other side. The clarity of thought in gaming can resolve the problems of role-playing. Role-playing brings along social dimensions and relationships to a game, lending it depths it would never have if was just played.

Can you artificially create social behaviors in a game? And can you bring the clarity of rules into role-playing without forcing people to play within the boundaries set by them? Are there objectives that the rules support but the spirit of the game will not? No plan survives contact with the enemy. This is nature, red in tooth and claw. Either the rules must be robust enough to fight them off or cunning enough to fool them into not killing.

Here we are at the border. A guard leans in and I check my ID to make sure that it matches the face I'm wearing today. They ask to see what is in the case. They know I'm here on business. They'd like to know if you are too. Behind us in the distance, the group of developers push their broken down car towards the border.

They frown, apparently, they can see no reason why your new reality can't cross over to their territory. It fits all the criteria. Rules and social interaction. Cooperation, competition, compromise and commonality. With a cheery grin I pull away from the checkpoint and we head off to the undiscovered country.

"Wait?" you ask. "Which country are we in now? Role-playing? Gaming?"

"Does it matter?" is my inevitable reply.

"How often do we hear that Magic: The Gathering is dying from CRPG popularity? No, I think the diagnosis is rampant hypochondria."

No, I think the term you're looking for is "Munchausen's Syndrome" [when people make up symptoms for "attention" or for drugs]. Much of the medical community [as well as most people in general] don't really understand hypochondria, which is when there is no physiological cause for said symptoms. Back pain, for example, that has no physical CAUSE, is still pain. It may be the brain screwing up and telling the body there are symptoms of a disease which are not there [remember, a high temperature is a symptom of a fever, but it is actually CAUSED by the body, trying to burn the fever out], so the symptoms are real.