Zero Sum Games and the Magic Circle

I hope it continues to be true that I learn the most from my failures, because I royally fucked up my last game. Right now I feel mostly defeated.

So there’s this thing in Legacy called Wonders. They’re big goals your family can aim for. You gather these abstract resources, invest them into the Wonder and explain how that looks in the game fiction, and when you’ve done all five, bang, here’s a big new change to the setting. It’s a neat idea.

Where I fumbled so, so badly is that there’s a zero-sum game lurking inside Legacy. And I was reminded that I cannot be trusted with zero-sum games.

One of the core mechanisms of the game is the Treaty economy. Every family and faction can hold Treaty that’s coded to another family or faction. You spend Treaty (“Call In A Debt”) to acquire one of their resources, or to compel their help, or to gain a bonus when you make a move against them. The only ways to stop that is to spend one of your Treaty back against them (it needs to be reciprocal) or make the Hold Together move. It’s totally unclear from the rules if you need to actually get a hit on Hold Together; I assume you do.

The zero-sum game is taking resources from each other. I now have it, and you don’t.

I can’t be trusted with zero-sum games because it introduces winners and losers. If I have it and you don’t, I’m winning and you’re losing. This is a totally toxic head space to find myself in. I can’t trust my own motivations, and the best-written principles in the world won’t stop me.

In our Legacy game, I had an NPC faction that, since the prior turning of the age, had evolved into a religious crusade. Via several trial and fortune outcomes on the Turning roll, this faction ended up holding a bunch of asymmetrical Treaty on the players’ families. So I opened the new Age with what felt like some strong, sweet moves out of these guys. I’m going to set them up to be the bad guys! I’m gonna upturn our “the vampires are the villains” assumptions of the previous age! Better still, my first target had a resource tied to another resource, with the codicil that if they lost one they’d lose the other.

Or is this ex post facto rationalization? I’m super good at rationalizing. Is my sweet move fictionally sweet or competitively sweet? I don’t know! Because I can’t trust my own motivations.

I’ve been developing a theory of play for, well, a very long time now. It’s not original, I’m not offering it as my invention or anything. But some time ago I read about the idea of a “magic circle” we create when we play. It’s got the trappings of religion, with ritual and community and intimacy inside of it. It’s why I despise playing in ballroom settings at cons: I can’t draw my magic circle.

Play that forgets the principles of fiction first, being a fan of the characters, of making our choices look like things in the fiction, that stuff is extra-toxic within the magic circle. We’ve agreed to the rituals and community and intimacy, and here I am abusing all those things. Because there can be winners and losers, now it’s a competition.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been through this. Burning Empires also has winning and losing as a vital part of the play dynamic. I can kind of keep that at arms’ length, because you can do precious little to actually influence the roll one makes every session to meter out victories of the humans and Vaylen. But in Legacy, those safeguards aren’t there. It’s on everyone to hold the game at arms’ length on their own, to not take anything personally, to play in a principled way.

I’m just not strong or skilled enough. It’s a personality flaw. I know me! I’ve been sitting right there when my motives start getting really fucking blurry around my decisions.

I fucked up. And I knew better.

Our Legacy game is over. In retrospect I should have seen the looming threat of zero-sum play baked right into the game. If you’ve got a table full of players who are 100% cool with watching awful things happen to their stuff, the game might work very well for them. There are lots of ways to inflict awful things on each other in Legacy.

I think, too, that my theory of cognitive load was completely correct: with so much to stay on top of, nobody had any bandwidth left for patience and charity. Me included! The game was too much to track, plus potentially competitive. I think everyone’s patience was worn thin by constantly trying to shoehorn our desires into the moves, constantly evaluating whether we’re zoomed in or out, constantly tracking all the little benefits and bonuses that show up scattered across three pages of character stuff (there are some real information design issues I have with the playbooks) and three pages of moves. Everyone ended up nose-down in their paperwork, thinking very little about the fiction.

Anyway, we’re taking a good long break from any kind of roleplaying going forward, I think. I hope it’s not forever. But whatever we return to, it won’t be a heavy cognitive load nor have zero-sum features. Those things, I think, are poison for me.

31 thoughts on “Zero Sum Games and the Magic Circle”

  1. I admire the way you can unpack this stuff. When games don’t work for me I just throw the book across the metaphorical room and organize a beloved PbtA game.

  2. It was a terrific reminder for me to take a long hard look at my various current projects. I’ve got one that will, in the words of one reader, “create a tornado of PvP.” If there’s bad-competitive stuff baked in I need to pull that shit right out. JFC.

    It was also a good reminder to back down the cognitive load of my designs. They tend to be overinvolved, which maybe is great if you’ve taken the effort to really master them (see: Burning Wheel) but oh lord not if you can’t or won’t.

    Also: super clear affordances of what’s procedurally possible and what’s expected to be handled non-procedurally. The constant butting up against the moveset to accomplish stuff wore everyone out fast.

  3. Aw, dang. This is exactly why I couldn’t run Torchbearer! The mechanics of the Grind, and the fact that as GM I get to introduce checks (and thus invoke the Grind) at whim, AND I get to decide what counts as a “good idea” to avoid a check… it made the whole thing really hard for me, and bounced off all of my decades of developed best-practices.

  4. Sorry it ended poorly, but it’s interesting to hear your thoughts! I still haven’t checked out Legacy, although it’s on my list.

    Competition and PvP sorts of elements have a long (and fraught) history with tabletop RPGs. I got deep into dissecting that history when I was working on WotA.

    Based on that deep dive, I’d say adding PvP or competitive design elements in RPGs is usually ill conceived, although I find it interesting that in the earliest days of D&D, you have Arneson making PvP a very central part of the game.

  5. I also hope it’s clear that I’m talking only about myself in this post. Lots of I language! But it’s easy to read stuff as prescriptive and I’m totally not doing that.

  6. I feel ya on butting up against the moves. We’ve only played 2 sessions of Legacy that MadJay Brown has run and I keep thinking of thing I want to do but I’m not sure how to do them with the moves. We sorta made a couple things work by squinting real hard and bending moves a little out of shape, but that’s not incredibly satisfying.

  7. I’m still trying to puzzle out what you did that was your fuckup. Was it that the players didn’t like getting punched in the gut now that some bad people wanted to try it?

  8. Jason Corley it was (probably) making moves motivated by my desire to deliver a brutal hit, rather than my desire for the faction to act in a principled way.

    Like, did or would “they” “want” the resource I went after? Or did I go after the resource because it was a really strong competitive move?

    I rationalized it in the moment but even now I don’t know if it’s real.

    The fuckup isn’t necessarily that the player didn’t like getting gut-punched, although it was one of many punches and I know it was a lot to absorb. It’s not knowing the motivations for my own play. And it was not taking the temperature of the table, not noticing that everyone was struggling with the moves, not seeing all their noses down in their paperwork.

  9. Adam Day fwiw the amount of facilitator discretion Torchbearer requires totally didn’t trigger the same worries for me that zero-sum stuff does. Dunno why! It wasn’t even a thing, and lord knows I spend an inordinate amount of time looking for things.

  10. Interesting. I wonder if Legacy is saying something about the nature of institutions with those moves. In other words, a flash of greed like you experienced, where power corrupts your decisionmaking, might be the point of the zero-sum nature of the rules. Perhaps the game is saying “You did all this prep, but did you really plumb the depths of what happens when there’s a dramatic power differential in an institutional relationship? Make this move and find out!”

  11. Dunno. I didn’t like it. My players didn’t like it.

    I really think it’s not the zero-sum move on its own. It’s that plus the heavy, awkward load of the rest of the game.

  12. We had a really similar reaction to Undying as well, but in that game’s case there’s just a very short list of moves. Less load so the players were less strung out when it came time to face something stressful, like getting jacked by another vampire.

  13. Paul, you touched on this above but I’m totally curious about the difference between the feeling this gave you and burning wheel. BW seems quite a bit more antagonistic/competitive than most other games I’ve played/run. But there are very definite constraints in what can and cannot be done by the GM. I always feel like it has mechanics in place to allow the GM to fight as hard as they can once a situation had been established. Is there anything here that prompts additional thought? I’m running (possibly) some bw in the new year and want to understand it as much at possible.

  14. Nicholas Hopkins okay yeah.

    First off: I’d say Burning Wheel continues to be best-in-class in its various PvP procedures and solutions. This is because, as I understand it, Luke et al are hyperantagonistic players and a lot of the game grew from managing that dynamic.

    In Burning Wheel, formally you always negotiate everything. They can’t necessarily negotiate completely out of a tough roll, but there’s a whole thing in place where you’re required to talk through what’s happening: here’s the intent, here’s the action I’m taking to achieve that intent, here’s the consequence for failure, here’s the die pool and how I built it, here’s what that die pool looks like in the fiction. And after: this roll will stand until something dramatic changes. That’s important too.

    In Legacy and PbtA in general, move procedures are either triggered because the fictional trigger was hit (and everyone agrees that that fiction is what actually happened) or the player makes the fictional trigger and the move happens. The GM is constrained in their moves to the moves list, which in every case I can think of is so broad as to be more of an inspiration list than an actual list of constraints. But more to the point, there’s no negotiating: it’s all baked into the move.

    In BW if I was about to take away a faction’s control over a hydroelectric dam, it’d all happen at the character level in the first place: this religious group meets with your elders and makes a moral plea that their great work cannot continue without the dam. (First check: is this even a reasonable request by the crusaders? Almost certainly not but … let’s say it’s been fictionally positioned that it could be.) It’d probably be a Duel of Wits. The player would have their own stakes, like get the fuck out of our territory and never come back. And there’d be all the rolls, that add up to a compromise.

    It’s possible that it’d be a catastrophic fuckup, the religious group would get everything and offer no compromise. But way back at the beginning there’d be that first “okay sure, I agree to those stakes” between the GM and the player.

    Legacy has these family moves that are, first of all, super abstract. Nobody’s really “making” the moves; they’re meant to represent large-scale movement that sets up zoom-in scenes. But the big difference is that there’s no negotiating: I’m spending my Treaty and I want your resource (the dam), now either you spend a Treaty to shut me up or you make the Hold Together move. Oh you rolled snake eyes? Fuck you, the dam is mine.

    The whole transaction from start to finish is completely different. BW’s transaction has lots of safety built in so the players can play as hard as they want/can but they’re constantly checking in with each other and agreeing to stakes. PbtA’s transaction cares only about fictional triggers, and there’s no stopping the outcome once the move is made. That can be really powerful in terms of generating unexpected/unwanted outcomes but it’s not “safe” in the same way.

  15. This is me reminding myself to come back to this later. It is hitting a ping on my radar about fights I used to have on the Forge and early Story Games, and things I thought were behind a lot of folks reactions to push-pull discussions, and how the differences around the assumptions about the fundamental core activity of play. Like, it isn’t all about zero-sum, but your framing of it here makes me think that is a good place to approach it from.

  16. > That can be really powerful in terms of generating unexpected/unwanted outcomes but it’s not “safe” in the same way.

    I have experienced this even in Urban Shadows. It is really all over the PbtA space.

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