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.