You’ve probably noticed I went silent for a couple months. It wasn’t on purpose, but it was the culmination of stuff both within and outside my control. Been thinking a lot about the work I/we do here, goals and the overall environment of gaming talk.
Two big realizations have recently shifted my thinking about the point of…all this. Gaming. Talking about roleplaying. What we get out of any of it. This isn’t existential dread or anything, it’s actual genuinely interesting stuff! By no means am I quitting playing, good grief. But how and when I talk about it might be changing.
The Feed Monster
Finally (finally!) understanding the social media (but specifically Twitter) discourse engine was the biggest one. We get a good bit of traffic here at IGRC off Twitter, and for that I’m grateful. But also? The folks I follow and the general tone of roleplay talk has been fucking with my head. You know the thing where you see all your friends posting pix from vacations and you think to yourself, “hey, am I the only one not on vacation? Why is everyone else so much better off than me?” Your feed becomes, like, an aggregate being. That’s what happened to my roleplaying feed: given any realization or opinion or discovery I might want to talk about, someone else had gotten there first. And they state that realization or opinion or discovery in such a strident way that not only did I feel like the last person to get there, but I felt like shit for taking so long. I’m supposed to be good at this! How am I just now making these discoveries?
Good lord, the sheer condescension. Everywhere. All the time. No effort at all to meet folks where they are, no effort to even try and see a new angle, just viciously patronizing dismissal. Given a broad enough feed of thinkers and talkers, it quickly feels like there’s nothing new under the sun.
Obviously this is untrue. I have a voice and a set of experiences that’s unique, even if any given discovery or realization or opinion I may share wasn’t necessarily the first. The feed will always be there to remind me that I’m stupid, though. It’s demoralizing even if objectively bullshit.
I have to assume this happens because the algorithms that feed us this garbage are designed to do so. To amp up the competition, to put people at each other’s throats. To juice engagement even when it’s not really, you know, how actual humans engage with ideas. I love talking about ideas! I don’t love that someone feels slighted because they didn’t get credit for having the idea first. We’ve all got to be better about both giving credit, but also that ideas aren’t that precious.
The feed messed with my head, bad, over the past couple years. As we got more traffic, I’d also get such weird shit in comments both here and abroad. Listening to criticism is a two-edged sword, and I’ve just recently figured out that a lot of that criticism is someone else’s damage playing out.
With the changes happening at Twitter, and our follower count slowly deflating like a poorly made nitrile glove balloon, I think it’s time to turn away from the feeds for feedback and real feedback. I encourage everyone to either subscribe to the website to get notifications, or if you’re feeling generous, support the work at Patreon and get notified that way.
The other major triggering event for me was a more exciting galaxy-brain moment. This is good stuff and I want to write more about it, but it veers steeply into my most hated gaming-discourse topic: theory. So I’m reframing my thoughts as observations, not prescriptive commandments.
I had a friend visit me a month or so ago. He had moved away several years ago but visits once a year now. Before he left, he had both been one of my closest gaming friends and an ongoing source of tension at our table. When he visited, we played games of course. Having him away from the table, no longer there every week, gave me a fresh perspective on just what was happening there…as well as with other middling-tense gaming relationships I’ve had over the years.
The galaxy-brain realization was this: we all have needs we try to meet with our gaming and those needs might not be compatible. While Big Model theory talks about creative agendas, my realization was that these agendas are actually strategies for achieving what we need. They aren’t, themselves, what we need. (This is the part where I fully expect condescending sighs from old Forge heads who will harrumph that agendas were always that. What fuckin’ ever.) So, like, aligning creative agendas at the table via narrow rulesets or table culture or overtly intentional play? That doesn’t address underlying human needs. That doesn’t get us to the payoff.
The twist here is that the payoffs are often in conflict with each other. And that is why we run into trouble. It’s not conflicting strategies, it’s conflicting goals.
Take, for example, my old gaming buddy and I. My goal is most often fraternity above all else. I’m a pleaser and I like to entertain. I am happiest when my players are happy. Of course our goals are a pie chart. Runner up goal is often novelty, like, what does this game do and what kind of interesting things come out of it? As much as I would like to really explore a weird setting or situation, I’m not really wired to make that a major goal for myself. Meanwhile, I’m pretty sure the goal of my friend is agency. As we played, it jumped out so very obviously that he was happiest when he was making things happen and the unhappiest when he couldn’t. Agency can be at odds with fraternity if your desire for agency means making someone at the table unhappy. And when my trying to angle and massage and nuance the social context of play doesn’t address the fact that this isn’t helping him make things happen.
I’m fiddling with a larger model of play goals. That’s the thing I’ll write about later. But over and over, I see tension where theoretically players’ strategies are aligned. And I will also see good flow despite different strategies being deployed at any moment of play. You don’t need procedural coherence when you’re all going for compatible goals. If the whole table wants to explore the GM’s weird prep, you can absolutely explore in different ways. If everyone’s just happy to be at the table with their friends, same thing. If a novel system also lets you get things done, right on, we’re both getting what we need.
This feels important, a synthesis of lots of play observations over the decades. Identifying the scope of goals is all well and good (and definitely an invitation for willful misinterpretation and gross jargon wars), but I’m most interested in spotting when goals come into conflict. When I want to explore and you want control. When I want novelty and you want comfort. And so on. Agendas — strategies — were just the beginning.
Babble over. Stay tuned for more.
Jahmal And I Do Another Podcast
Jay and I co-interviewed Jason Lutes, our friend who wrote about his sprawling West Marches campaign here a few months back, about his upcoming campaign. Jay’s also working on launching a West Marches style game but in a sci-fi vein. Looking forward to what he cooks up! The whole format feels high maintenance and tricky. Anyway, check out Jay’s Patreon to get the inside scoop on future Diceology podcasts as well.
Apologies for my iffy audio, that’s on me. Didn’t get my mic situation squared away right.
The link to the podcast wasn’t working with the embedded player but here’s the URL: https://overcast.fm/+SgBLSMnDc