Game theory is defined as „the study of mathematical models between intelligent decision-makers“. But „game studies“ or „ludology“ is the study of games, playing and cultures surrounding games. I first came across the term Ludology in a podcast thusly named. In these very informative podcast the hosts and guests fathom the meaning of games and what makes them interesting. I find that this is something worth considering in regards to roleplaying games. What makes roleplaying a game? Everyone wants to have „fun“ playing. What aspects of roleplaying games make them „fun“? What makes a game „epic“ and what makes a game „casual“? In what way do expectations affect experiences? I will be writing a series of articles on this subject. I will start with the definition of a game that I happen to agree with and is widely true. And end with some thoughts on expectation management.
Defining a game
A game is usually an activity done for amusement, competition or both that has a set of rules. In games the outcome is usually decided by the decisions made by the players or by their skill. Lifting weights, solving chess problems, running really fast, marksmanship.. These are all examples of games.
How does this definition apply to roleplaying? Roleplaying is done for amusement. It has rules. The outcome is in some way affected by the players decisions or skills. But there are also external more arbitrary factors that define outcome. And the desired outcome is prone to change over the course of the game. This makes roleplaying more like an ‘activity’ than a game. The difference being that rules no longer apply.
Lets inspect the factors that do make roleplaying “a game” further:
Skills and decisions
In roleplaying a player’s ability for problem solving will affect the outcome. The problems need not be in-game problems or tasks, they might even be out-game or even meta-gaming problems.
An in-game problem is any challenge the character faces and is able to solve using his abilities. Managing the characters abilities in a manner that increases chances of success is part of a PC‘s skill. This might be the decision to use intimidation rather than charm to interrogate an eyewitness to a crime. Because the character, not only the player, knows that he is better at using intimidation in this situation.
An out-game problem could be how many hit points you should allow your characters to lose before you take preventive measures. In real life you obviously don‘t have hit points, and you never know when the next blow you take might be your last and you have exactly one round to cast a healing spell to buy more combat time. In roleplaying however you may have that kind of information at your disposal and it is a widely accepted norm in the gaming world to act upon it. Managing this information well is part of a player’s skill. This too will affect the outcome of the game.
Any avid roleplayer will be aware of the dangers of meta-gaming situations. A classic one is where players at the table will overhear information that their character should not know, and will be tempted to act upon that information. This is where players skill may be a liability depending on what the goal of the game is. Some game masters may prohibit use of meta-game information. Then the player who is more manipulative in using the meta-information to his advantage despite the GM‘s disapproval may get an advantage over players that are less skillful at circumventing the GM‘s ruling, but would use that kind of information given the chance. Thus meta-gaming or lack thereof is a skill.
Arbitrary decisions affecting the game
In contrast to skill-challenges, that challenge a characters or players skill or wit in some way, some decisions made are more arbitrary in nature. Where the PC has no way of knowing what possible outcomes of decisions may be. PC‘s may have no good information to use as a guide to what decision might be more favorable than the other.
An in-game arbitrary decision might be how to deal with a fellow wizard that wanders off into the forest because he feels sorry for the ghost of a small child. Should you try to stop him? Help him? Or just let him go? There may not be an obvious right or wrong answer to the problem, but the decision made will no doubt have repercussions. In-game, the character being played may have an opinion on how to solve matters in accordance to alliances or core belief systems. Out-game factors such as hit point status or spells memorized might also be a concern. And meta-gaming factors such as „never say no to letting the story develop“ migh also cross a player’s mind.
In any case these kinds of decisions and outcomes are arguably not a part of what we might consider a level playing field where „good decisions“ are rewarded by „good outcomes“. The outcomes may be totally random. Pre-determined. In the hands of the gods. Up to fate. This is where the boundaries of roleplaying being „a game“ lay. And where roleplaying becomes more of an activity revolving around storytelling.
Expectations and the Three Pillars of Tabletop Roleplaying
We all expect to have fun playing. And I find that nothing breaks the fun of roleplaying more often than mixed expectations between players or game masters. Roleplaying is both a game and a storytelling activity. It can be frustrating sometimes to expect that you can solve situations using skills and wit when external factors are more decisive in outcomes. In games generally, we expect good outcomes from good decisions. We get frustrated when the dice rolls don‘t complement our good playing styles. But in most other games we can put the blame solely on the dice or even the games poor design. We may not like playing Monopoly as much as we like playing Settlers of Catan, since Monopoly is very largely decided by the randomness of the dice rather than our own effort. We might find that Monopoly is a poorly designed game in that way. And that Catan as a game rewards skill and strategy better. However if we set our minds to it, we may be perfectly happy playing Monopoly. If we transcend the feeling that our skill should affect the outcome. Then Monopoly might become a fun activity all of a sudden. This is where expectations management is important. If we expect to be able to affect the game in ways we can’t or if factors that we have absolutely no control over have more effect on outcome than we originally thought, than we might feel let down.
In roleplaying much of the game design burden is laid on the game master. The balance between PC‘s skill, roll-of-the-dice or external „fate“ factors is solely upon the game master to weigh. We might even call these factors „the three pillars of tabletop roleplaying“: Skill, Luck, Fate. The balance thereof or expectation of balance will greatly affect perceived “fun” playing the game.
If players come to the table expecting to avoid all fate with skill and luck, they may end up being disappointed. Albeit it is easier to brush off a stroke of bad luck than it is to brush off the games poor design. Especially when the games designer is sitting at the table. Is it then the role of the game master to eliminate fate from the game? Or can we perhaps manage expectations better by conversing before we play that not everything in roleplaying is up to skill or even luck. You don‘t have to feel like a failure if the outcomes are different from what you expected. With the right mindset, every failure in skill and any stroke of bad luck can add to a story and make it that more interesting or special. If you let the magic happen. I find that managing expectations is a huge determining factor in perceived fun in the game.
Stay tuned for further in-depth thoughts on these subjects in the ‚Game studies‘ series here on Yawningportal.org