Games Lack Credibility

A conversation I had recently with some of my players about running Cartel at some point reminded me of my most notable transformation throughout a lifetime of roleplaying.

The conversation basically went like this (and also took place online, in sidebar, with a couple folks): 

Them: “I really don’t want to play Cartel.”

Me: “Oh really? I thought it looked like good drama.”

Them, pick one: 

• “God it looks tacky. This is real crime, you know.”
• “I hate drugs, the drug war, kids on drugs, all of it.”
• “Nope.”

At least two of these people have watched and enjoyed Breaking Bad, Narcos, other movies related to the cartels. One of them is a reader of Mexican narcofiction like The Black Minutes. 

To be fair, the other half of my world is all-in. It’ll get to a table sooner or later but this explains why it’s been so frigging hard to set it up. But this whole thing reminded me of the topic of credibility in RPGs, and my relationship to that topic.

It cuts across a lot of different ideas, so hold on tight. If you’re not good at reading the OP and all the comments, this might not be the right thread for you.

The Way-Back Machine

There was a stretch, basically from when I started in 1980 until the mid-90s, when RPGs were explicitly and exclusively escapist fun for me. In my experience, any and all efforts to treat them as anything more than that were universally terrible and borderline dangerous. Minds Eye Theater LARP was the worst offender, with make-believe power and domination structures bleeding hard into the real world without any formal intervention by facilitators. 

I’d also seen efforts to earnestly treat roleplaying as a form of psychodrama as well, either formally via design intent or informally as an exercise by ambitious GMs. Those were universally terrible and borderline dangerous in my experience. The goal was to address and possibly even resolve deep-psych stuff via the “safety” of an RPG: phobias, trauma, interpersonal problems. What can I say? It was the wild west, nobody knew better, the promise was powerful.

Then you had the folks, aiming for “high drama,” finding themselves in the deep end of the pool. If the goal is drama, well, you look at dramatic genre fiction for inspiration/emulation. And you end up with rape stories, murdered families, extremes of unpleasant human experience.  There’s a lot of terrible genre fiction to pull from and to hide behind.

They’re two different goals and boy do they get easily intertwined: the desire for powerful human drama, and the desire for powerful human experience

It’s really no wonder, in retrospect, that I – among many, maybe most of my peers – had come to understand RPGs as strictly escapist entertainment.

I remember a late-night BS session at GenCon…96, maybe, with major design and publishing luminaries. I was one of a couple up-and-comers who had gotten the tap on the shoulder. Steve Perrin asked “so is there an audience, you think, for more mainstream settings and topics?” And my answer, from where I was sitting in 1996, had to be “Nope. No way. Every game needs some woo-woo, something escapist, some way to goose the empowerment fantasy.” Everyone in that room shrugged and sighed and drank their beers. 

That’s a very common position out in the big world beyond small-press gaming, and if your personal roleplaying experience has mostly been in the small-press scene hopefully you understand that, at least in the abstract.

I’m not sure when that shifted for me, but it did. I wrote this essay for those people as one of my final gestures in The Business. The copyright is 1999 but an early draft of it was floating around in ’97 or so. My personal journey has continued from there.

And We’re Back

Bringing this back to the subject of credibility, there’s this confluence of (at least) two different ideas happening. To recap: intensity of drama, intensity of experience. Two different play and design goals even if they look similar. And as long as credibility is a question, I think that’s why RPGs are so easily dismissed as escapist diversions.

Drama is where my personal play needs continue to lie. I think that’s because of my skepticism about roleplaying’s ability to handle personal experience. I mean the psychodrama part. I’ve always been super-iffy about games that poke at grief, trauma, addiction, dysfunction. Edgy/experimental games that burble out of Game Chef (for example) often trigger my skepticism on this front. Mostly I have deep doubts about designers’ ability to handle material with real-world implications.

But my skepticism about designers’ capacity to handle real-world human experience doesn’t make it objective truth! I know (in the abstract) that plenty of folks get that out of their games, and plenty of designers are fruitfully and successfully bringing that to the table.

So I find myself at the crossroads of that stuff with Cartel, surrounded by folks who haven’t gazed at their navel as intently as I do. I’m thinking about the drama; they’re thinking about addiction, celebrating real-world violence, reducing something problematic and terrible to “just a game.” You know, for escapist entertainment.

It’s interesting to me that the roleplaying community at large is often totally okay with other media tackling problematic material but we’re often way-not-okay when an RPG tackles the same material. 

I get that, and I think it comes down to a credibility gap at some point: we don’t trust the designer, or the facilitator, or the other people at the table. At some point, we don’t want to take that risk. I’m not persuaded that this is something you can address procedurally, like via an X-card or something. You can’t unring the bell, although you can stop going down a particular line of thought. But if I’m watching a movie about something traumatic and terrible, I (at least) have this trust that the writer and director have worked harder, researched harder, pulled in more experts. If I’m reading a novel or listening to someone’s album, I don’t have to rely on my fellow readers/listeners to approach the material correctly; I’m answerable only to myself.

So why do we watch Breaking Bad and Narco and Scarface but turn our noses up at Cartel? 

I propose it comes down to credibility, and this impulse to hold games out at arms’ length as amusing diversions and not creative platforms every bit as legitimate as novels and movies.

49 thoughts on “Games Lack Credibility”

  1. I’ve run into this problem when I suggest Fiasco scenarios to people. My guess has always been that it’s about the immersive aspects of games as opposed to other media. You can watch Breaking Bad on TV and feel a little dirty rooting for the terrible people on screen, but to actually be those terrible people-making those choices and delivering that dialogue- that’s too personal, too real.

  2. Is the issue maybe the intensity and intimacy of RPGs? I feel like asking me to watch The Wire is different from asking me to play a game like Cartel or Steal Away Jordan. The former is a passive experience; I can immerse myself in the show, but I’m not necessarily identifying with any of the characters. But with the latter, I have to take an active role; I have to engage with the subject matter, and I likely identify — in some way — with my avatar. Add in the “reality” of the subject matter — its immediacy — and i can see being reluctant. E.g., I remember when Afghanistan d20 came out and being really repulsed by the idea of roleplaying a war that was happening concurrently.

    It could be that fantasy genre bits also provide a certain amount of insulation; I don’t want to play Cartel, but I could play a supernatural drug-lord in Urban Shadows. It lets me address a similar premise, but there’s sort of a safety net, or reminder that “it’s just make-believe”. Historical distance can work similarly; I would do a Napoleonic military game, but not one set in present-day Iraq.

    Aside w/r/t the essay: How does the gaming landscape look to you now? I feel like a lot of what you described has been achieved by indie games.

  3. Steve Segedy and Mark Delsing hit it for my thoughts. Even in a theater surrounded by others, I am not forced to take responsibility for anything being projected; but, at a table where I am, if not author or co-author, but responsible for the actions occurring, even remotely…much, much different.

    I once wrote a short story about a child being sexually molested. It was difficult to write, even never having been a victim; subjecting my story character to it felt…dangerous. Not good dangerous.

  4. I agree with Mark Delsing. The (potentially) immersive and interactive nature of an RPG means it has a different quality than another more passive experience. It’s why it may be harder to be an actor who inhabits the role of a monster and really gets “in the head” of that character than to watch that character onscreen.

    If I’m reading you correctly, when you write about credibility, you are talking about trusting the motives and competence of others. At the gaming table, everybody may potentially be motivated by something different. The closer the play gets to triggering an authentic human experience, that may make it a richer experience, but it could involve genuine suffering. What if another player or the game master wants to explore sadistic themes? It might not bother me if I held the game at arm’s length but it could cause me anguish if the experience is too authentic. Some people are more drawn to an experience that results in an uncomfortable feeling than others.

  5. Okay, but back to Steve Segedy’s thing: you never were the terrible person. You were always the author.

    Authoring terrible things does not make you terrible. We let screenwriters and authors do it all the time and it’s okay. Oh I mean, yeah, there’s tons of grousing among critics and culture observers but whatever, those books are still made, those movies are still shown.

  6. Agree that some of it is about creative distance. If you went to a Brecht-style play that got all up in your face about complicity in the drug trade, it would probably make folks uncomfortable too.

  7. I will admit to being one of the mentioned people who are “turned off” by Cartel. I have zero problem with people who like this stuff and want to play these games. It just ain’t my bag.

    Similarly, Steve Hickey ‘s Soth, despite being a fantastic game I paid money for, is something I’d probably never play – pretending to be a guy hiding ritual sacrifice from regular people is just something that doesn’t seem fun to actually do.

  8. I agree that credibility is a factor, and that distance is a factor, and I’d propose a third, which is social circumstance.

    If I put on Breaking Bad and am uncomfortable with it, I turn it off and I find something else to watch. Vince Gilligan doesn’t care, and if my wife wants to watch it, she can Netflix it while I’m at gaming night.

    If I have a weekly gaming night, and my friend brings Cartel and I trust him enough to give it a shot, but then find partway through that I can’t handle the material, I’m “invested” in a different way. If I walk away mid-game, I’m disrupting my own experience and also the respective experiences of everyone at the table. There’s also the potential that I will be seen as disrespecting my friend who proposed the game in the first place and took the time to prepare and run it. If I muddle through a session, speak to my friend afterwards and say I can’t play the game any more, I can either isolate myself from my game group for the period of time it takes the game to play to whatever passes for completion, or I can pressure them to play something different, which is disruptive if any of them are engaging and enjoying. It’s a substantially lower social cost to say up-front “I don’t feel comfortable playing this game, let’s find something different” than it is to withdraw partway.

  9. Semi-related thought: One thing that I’ve been dealing with is the willingness (or really, the unwillingness) of members of the faculty in my department to really engage with me on the kinds of game design work that I want to do. It’s possible that folks involved in theater or arts would be more open, but generally speaking it seems like the folks I work with are more open to something that at least presents itself as a board or card game than they are some of the more RPG, larp-y, or experimental things that I do. Actually, even the experimental games can kind of be framed as performance art or interactive installations or something, whereas larps and RPGs are things that they’re less comfortable interacting with, even if I’m dealing with serious themes that they might otherwise be interested in. It’s like they lie in this weird space between structured and unstructured interactions: they know they’ll be expected to proactively participate and that there will be expectations for that participation, but they don’t know what they are or how they’ll be able to do that. That’s not related to Cartel, but is related to RPGs being literally the worst.

  10. I am only speculating, but no, my speculations aren’t about being “bad.” That’s…kind of emerged on its own from other commenters in this thread. (Hence my plea/recommendation that folks read everything and not just jump in, I know how my threads go.)

    My speculation is that there’s a trust gap that stands in the way of players being okay with passively consuming problematic media, but not-okay with its active creation. Or with these topics being tackled by game designers.

    My read so far is that my speculations have either been rejected or ignored, which doesn’t surprise me. My OP kind of meandered; probably could have cut it in half.

  11. Also, there’s an interesting gap around what folks will accept in terms of being a GM vs Player.

    Drug Lord NPCs? Dime a dozen. Drug Lord PCs? That’s often a nope.

    I think credibility and distance are part of it. But think there’s a moral dimension there as well, with an assumption of PCs as self-identification avatars. 

    GMs author horrible shit as a matter of course. Put it on a PC and it breaks people’s brain paradigm.

  12. Paul Beakley My comment did mention being sadistic/bad in a game so I may be partially responsible for derailing things. I was trying to grasp and expand on the trust/credibility issue but I may have missed some of the thrust of your post (although I did read it all!).

  13. Paul Beakley​ sorry. Sorry sorry sorry. I was clearly projecting my experience, in retrospect.

    Speaking of doing bad things at the table: im italian, and I’m writing a game about organised crime. For obvious reasons I’m quite sensitised to the topic, as were the playtesters (mostly Italian expats, a bunch of them from the deep south).

    It actually took me years of brooding about it before I started writing the thing. Because it’s about real stuff and real people (not directly, as we played a fantasy renaissance version of it, but organized crime dynamics work very well everywhere). And we had great fun.

    But I remember playing wargames, or rpgs, and being told off for feticising violence by people that routinely enjoy watching fictional violence. I never heard before the “too personal, too real” perspective and, well, yeah, it’s a totally legitimate and 0% hypocritical point of view that also happen to be helpfully insightful.

    Got me thinking about designing in that space.

  14. Paul Beakley I was neither rejecting nor ignoring your premise. I was attempting to contextualize it.

    Choosing to engage with difficult material is a risk, and in so doing, a potential player must make a form of risk assessment, and it brings in a huge number of factors. Your trust factor is a really key one, because a high level of trust in the people at the table and the game designer are probably going to be the chief factors in the “pro” column of choosing to engage (and, in typing that, I’m thinking that they are distinct enough that we might actually want to discuss the “two trusts” separately).

    That said, I think you might sufficiently trust (or want to trust) the people at the table and the designer to handle the material in a way you find tolerable (as oppose to comfortable, which is probably the wrong way to feel about challenging material), but then find out that either:

    a) you were wrong to trust one or the other; or
    b) you overestimated your own capacity for the material;

    and thus you are forced to withdraw, which carries with it social consequences that aren’t present in noninteractive media. If one is aware of that risk, then one might choose to shut down the interaction early, rather than take the chance.

  15. Paul Beakley hey, I was agreeing with you and adding to it. I don’t feel my issue is one of trust particularly, but one of the acts, even if simulated, being unfun to do yet perhaps fun to watch. Full disclosure, though, I didn’t like Breaking Bad or The Wire.

  16. Paul Beakley can you say more about credibility? That (or rather, the lack of it) seems to be your primary explanation for the player behavior, but I’m not sure what you mean by it.

  17. I mean trusting that the designer has done the hard work to ensure the material is worthy of your time and emotional investment.

    I mean trusting that the participants are equipped to treat the material respectfully.

    When you look at the vast majority of gaming stuff, mainstream empowerment fantasy, it’s pretty much all trust-agnostic. When your game is entirely about make believe, you’re not risking much. Same on the player side, and I think it’s apparent why physics-centered resolution is, by extension, more palatable than systems where credibility (trust in your fellow players, trust that the designer is framing things well) is not necessary.

  18. Paul Beakley it feels like “trust” is the wrong term here. For me personally, a game where you ship drugs in a human digestive tract while beating underlings to work off steam will not be fun and I am unwilling to have that belief challenged. Some variation on “stubborn” feels more accurate than “untrusting”.

  19. Adam D cultural situation also applies. 

    Like, tell me you want me to play a diceless game about dying in pain in the trenches of WW1 and I’m going to say “where and with whom.” 

    Because that’s like the dullest scenario at Fastaval, but if you say “GenCon” I’m gonna nope.

  20. Brand Robins yes, that’s huge! (Also, I’d play that.) And if your situation is anything like mine, you have a broad spectrum of play-motivations at the table on games night or in another context. I’ve got one or two guys who are down for anything, no matter how challenging, but not on Wednesday. On Wednesday, they just want to play a casual game and drink a beer. Then I’ve got people who just want the escape thing, and some of that is probably just because they don’t want to engage in stressful play, and some of it is probably the trust thing that Paul is onto here: they might be willing to cross that boundary a bit more with the right subject matter or with a designer they trust because they trust me.

    Now I think I’m just rambling. Probably I’m just too startled that you were being so civil and agreeable.

  21. Also, is it possible that one likes Breaking Bad for reasons that don’t involve the drug trade? Maybe there are other kinds of enjoyment we get from fiction beyond the surface subject matter.

    And maybe that enjoyment doesn’t translate 1:1 to role playing similar subject matter. I dunno, just a thought.

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