The Limits of Designing for Role-Playing.

I think this may surprise people, but the thing that had actually set me on the “warpath” of the Blinders, so to speak, of people saying their games are about and using advice to get there instead of rules, was RPGs. That is to say, it was games where the goal was to role-play, it was games where not only people role-played, but that was the declared goal.

I remember looking at some discussions, and I realized, Dungeons and Dragons is not an RPG, or at least, it’s not in the design, but “merely” in the play. I say “merely”, because perhaps that’s all there is. I looked at D&D, and I looked at the rules, and I saw nothing there that would make me roleplay. I saw very little there that even rewarded me for roleplaying, and quite surprisingly there wasn’t even much advice geared towards getting the players to roleplay and flesh out their characters’ personalities and history.

Perhaps it’s not very surprising, as aside from the Hero Builder’s Guide (which cost money for very little), most people seem to “know” what D&D is about, and are initiated into it by friends or know what to pick up. So they didn’t need to add it, because they knew that people will be told what they need to know.
Of course, they may have also realized there was very little else they could do, because you can’t do much to design RPGs.

 If I were to discuss the ontology of a “Game”, I’d say a game does not exist when it is not played. A box of Dominion or Settlers of Cattan contains the system and the physical components needed, but it doesn’t contain a “game of ___”, that game only springs into existence when people sit around and engage in the activity.
This I think is also true for roleplaying, but I mean it in a slightly different form: There are no role-playing in the rules, there’s no role-playing procedure (yes, when you are training for your job and such, let’s stay focused), but the role-playing game? It only exists, there is only role-playing when the players engage in that activity, when they play a role.

This seems like a rehash of what was said about games, but there’s a difference. The difference is that there is no game if you don’t play the game, but you can play an “RPG” by playing the game and not role-playing. For there to exist an “RPG” rather than “rpG” (where only one aspect really exists), the players need to make an actual choice, the choice to role-play. This is not something the designer can do, this is not something the designer can even assure. This is up to the players.

Though a “Story” is very much the same, I do not think humans can avoid creating (“telling?” one), so I think most designers should content themselves not with trying to ensure that people would role-play while playing their games, but to allow for games where role-playing is an easy option that is not over-eclipsed by other concerns.

 You can help by having stories that the players can relate to, that they can place themselves in, you can give them entities that have personas, who are theirs to control, and with whom they can identify, or even identify the characters as their medium of affecting the world/story. Basically, provide sockets for the players to plug into. People mention “Immersion”, and immersion is a tool, or rather, a state, where some of this is achieved. But even if people think from the an “actor” point of view (not Forge theory usage), of “I“, that it’s them who react, it’d be enough.

The other side is that you need to avoid making something that has nothing to do with portraying a role as much more interesting and rewarding to the players. If you take an exciting game and add role-playing to it, people might shove the role-playing aside just in order to get to the “good bits”. And if story and role-playing is not entirely dispensable, but is the vehicle to get from one mechanical exchange to another, then it’d be stripped down and zipped right along, because the goal of the mechanical exchange is where the focus lays*.

The reason I think it may work better within LARPs is because it gives you a visceral grounding. Even if you keep feeling uncomfortable because you feel the vast distance between yourself and your character (and perhaps suffer from fear of performance), you can’t help but be the one who is acting, be the one who is acted towards by others. You almost can’t help thinking from a first person (actor?) stance, “What am I going to do?” And of course, people tend to give LARPs looser systems, probably for lack of comfortable mechanical tools to make use of (dice, cards, charts).

I think all of this should be liberating to game designers. Once you make sure that players have ample opportunities to plug into certain sockets in the game, and once you make sure it can be an engaging and interesting activity even within this game, you’re good. You don’t need to make sure that everyone will role-play, you needn’t make sure that role-playing is the natural outcome of playing your game. You can’t, and only the players can. Heck, even when it’s the “Natural Outcome”, how much of it comes because the players pick it up expecting that they’ll role-play there, if because it was marketed as such (and/)or because previous editions of the game were like that? Just like Dungeons and Dragons.

Also, that’s why I focus on “Story-Games”. Basically all role-playing games are Story-Games, but Story-Games can be good, can be emotional, without being RPGs.

* This happens when you take a meaty 500 page book and try to fit it into a 90 minute movie, sometimes. You cover all the plot-points, but that’s all they are, merely points you hop along, rather than a story with impact. But maybe that’s just me.

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The Coin’s Other Side: On Losing (and Elimination)

This post is going to be quite basic. Basic does not mean that it will be simple, but that it stands at the base. I may not give you answers here, but I’ll present something that any person who designs a game that is competitive, especially one where people win, should think of – the issue of losing, and the related issue of player-elimination.

You see, if your game has victory, there can be several ways in which you reach it, and many of the examples I’d use are from board/card-games. The question is what happens to the losers, and how they lose. This is more of an issue with story-games because of the length of time they may have to sit aside and the expectation of shared creative activity.

One option for winning is you reaching a personal goal, such as reaching level 10 first in Munchkin. Everyone plays till the bitter end, and everyone is more or less as effective in the end as they are in the beginning. This often leads to “King-makers”, players who know they will not win, but can be the ones who decide whether one player wins or another. In some cases, you need to play the other players more than you’re actually playing the cards.

Another option can be seen in Infernal Contraption, and in most competitive CCGs or war-games aimed for two players (Magic: the Gathering and Warhammer being  prime examples), where you don’t win by what you do per se, but you win by being the last player standing. This is not an issue when only two players play, because the game ends for the two players at the same time – one’s win is another’s victory. It is also less of an issue with games slated to run 15-20 minutes, because the loser does not get to sit idle for long.

However, story games and role-playing games have historically been more akin to the game of Diplomacy, where often players are eliminated in the first couple of turns of the game, which can keep going on for a couple more hours. I suspect this is also partially the reason some groups shy away from character-deaths, because it forces the player to stop being involved in the action, or at least they no longer have an active hand in shaping the story. In some groups the player with the dead character uses this time to come up with a new character, especially in mechanically involved games.

These days, it is sometimes less of an issue. Some games are designed to be of a shorter duration, so if one loses their character they are not out of the action for the whole campaign (at least as that character), or even for the duration of a session of a campaign – the game is meant to be played out in whole in one sitting. But still, I think like in board-games that take longer to complete, even an hour a player has to sit idle is less than ideal.

A “game” where this was somewhat solved which came up in my mind when a friend challenged me to design a truly competitive and cut-throat design was Survivor. Yes, the TV show. There the players eliminated after a certain stage get to be the king-makers in the end-game and little less, but it does require attention after they had been ‘eliminated’ from the running. Likewise, I feel that story-games with a competitive bent who decide on elimination should find a way to keep the players so eliminated not only interested, but let them contribute to the story further, and perhaps shape the competition as well ( if the story and the competition are intertwined, it may be so regardless).

Something done by story-games for a number of years now is that players get to affect the direction of the story even when their characters are not present. They get to reward players whose characters do things they enjoy (Primetime Adventures), or perhaps they don’t even have characters that are ‘theirs’, and all they do is guide the story (Universalis), or the designs  where they have characters and affect the creation of the world and shape the story (the “child” design of Mortal Coil, or Shock:).

But then a new question emerges, if you have competition and elimination: What is the measure of “Victory”, and why would you say those who have been ‘eliminated’ have lost? Perhaps they have just lose their chance to claim victory and their “superiority” over the others, but would you also have their effect on the story lessen? This is a Competitive Story Game, remember. I suspect this is one of the things alluded to by people I’ve approached regarding writing of competition and story’s interaction within their games, when they told me the game only has the veneer of competition, because if someone will try to win the game, it’d crack.

You have choices, whether victory is reached when the victor reaches a goal, or through elimination of all other players. Should you pick the former, you should consider how to solve the issue of king-makers, or keeping it in, unrestrained. Should you pick the latter, you should consider how to mitigate the effect of a player not having a hand in the story and game, and perhaps the issue of kingmaking will creep up again. Whatever you do, be mindful of this. Be aware that this is a design choice you are making, and a critical one at that.

This issue is also tied strongly to Social Contract, and to whether a certain group would play your game (at least as written). The issue of a player being left out of the game is something each party should discuss, and your game may not fit what a certain group is willing to accept. You may also consider adding a module in your game, where one can have elimination if one chooses, and play a somewhat different game if they do not wish for there to be such. Choices to be mindful of.

Competitive Games and Handicaps.

The previous post was mentioned on RPG Theory Review. Always warms my heart when it happens. I’ve noticed the blog wasn’t updated recently, and I hope it will soon be updated once more.
Not that I’m in any position to complain, seeing as my last post was back in July 07. I’ll try to write some posts these coming months, even if I’ll take a break afterwards, I have several post ideas written down (and have had for a while, the problem is actually writing them down).

I am looking for people to write articles for this post, especially those who design competitive or seemingly competitive games, which also have story. I am especially interested in writing about the interactions between Story and Competition in the game, and how that interaction had shaped the direction of the rules and game-play.


And now we will get to today’s topic. Today’s post was inspired by this thread on Story-Games, “Hardcore Gamism and Dysfunction Within the Big “G””[1], where Jonathan Walton recounts discussions with Eric Pinnick, and also references an article by David Sirlin.
I did not read that thread fully, and as such, this post is merely inspired by it. Some points I make have already been made on the thread, but the overall conclusion seems to have not been made there.

(Edit: People suggested I add my conclusion up top, to clarify things: I posit that it is better for a group to find a game they can agree to play, as it is, without the need to add handicaps to it. Adding handicaps as opposed to finding a game where the gameplay will be the same, but without the need to add those handicaps, will only trouble those players who are extremely focused on competition, at all costs)

So you have a competitive game, one where you compete with others. There are often more powerful techniques, ones that if you’re not aware of or not familiar enough with, you will have trouble countering and will probably lose to, there are some games where there is nothing you can do to counter, we will discuss those harsher games later.

Two weeks ago I was visiting my cousin, and we were playing Tekken 5. I play the game two or three times a year, always when I visit him, whereas he has the game in his room and has been playing it extensively. There are several characters with a move that takes a long time to charge (meaning you can smack them before they can set it off), but if that strike connects it takes out roughly 3/4ths of your health bar. My cousin used these constantly, and the game stopped being fun for me, so I told him to stop using these moves.

There is a very important question, laying behind the issue of handicaps (I think I may have assumed you’ve read at least Jonathan’s series of original posts on the inspiring thread, forgive me). What do you find fun, and when we move into the realm of Story/Roleplaying games, what does the group find fun; and then, what sort of balance you seek, or at least find acceptable.

If for you, playing the game is fun, things that cut the game short, or stop you from playing, will make the game less fun. Magic: the Gathering combos where the player wins on his first turn, do not let the opponent do anything, and stop them from having fun. When I began playing Magic (back in 1996 or so), I had a deck with 160 cards, I then went down to 120 cards, 80 cards, and eventually to the 60( and rarely 64 card) decks. I’ve played with people who were much better players than me, they had much better decks than me, and I’ve lost. I’ve always said that you learn more from losing in Magic than you do from winning. I’ve played, I’ve lost, I’ve learned, and I’ve had fun.
However, had I constantly played against players who would’ve won before I had the chance to do anything, or anything more than draw a card and play a land, I would not have studied what worked and what didn’t (except the opponent’s combo, that it works), and I would not have had fun.
There’s a reason Wizards of the Coast handicaps certain decks; some are considered “too tough”, and we’ll address the issue later, but some, simply don’t let the other player do anything, it stops being a game of competition between two players; one plays a solo game that the other is all but unable to affect.

 If what I care for is the playing, the adversity, I will be having more fun if I play with someone on my level, or someone that is acting on my level. How much adversity do you get from stepping on a slug? How much adversity do you feel like you’re providing when someone is stepping on you as a slug?
I cannot prove it, but I’ve always felt that while sprinting, both people get the best results if they’re nearly evenly matched. When you’re far ahead of someone you don’t step on the gas fully, and when someone is already 20 meters ahead of you (on up to 100 meter runs), you give up.

But do we not also get a good feeling, simply from winning? I feel good when I win, even if it’s playing Magic against my ten year old cousin. Winning feels good.

And so, most of the above was talking about reasons to employ handicaps, but there is, as always, the other side. I will discuss this other side in more detail shortly, but first I’ll talk about the Social Contract, the reasons and methods that this will work out in a group, specifically one where the games also involve role-playing/story-telling. After discussing the other side, the anti-handicap side, I think I’ll return to the group-play once more.

I am going to make an assumption, but I will make it explicitly, and I believe it is an agreeable one; we play games to have fun. It is our explicit goal. Different people find different things fun, and find them to be fun to a different degree (look at Mo‘s Sockets idea). We can try and maximize the whole group’s fun, by creating a formula where we look for a maximum value on the output, and then decide what values to use based on it. Of course, we don’t actually do it in such a codified manner, and furthermore, each player may require there to be a minimum value to certain variables (combat, story, immersion; Mo’s sockets again provide useful terms), and each player requires themselves to have a minimal fun factor for them to keep playing.
As such, we try to reach the maximized value of collective fun, that we can, and can maintain.

This is especially important with competitive games, where one player’s fun may come at the expanse of another’s. This is even more important in competitive story games (our blog’s focus, we’re getting there!), where this is not considered the norm, and many people consider it to be antithetical to what they are trying to get out of the game. Handicaps as we will shortly see also infringe on the fun of some competitive players, while they may feel required for the non-competitive players; some may require that competition will not harm the ‘value’ of the story, and that things be carried out mainly for reasons driven and benefiting the story, rather than the competition, reasons that revolve around who will ‘win’ or advance the most.

To the highly competitive player though, handicaps are anathema, they diminish from the competitive game. Let us take Eric and myself, as an example (Eric, if I’ve misread you, I apologize): If I play a perfect competitive game (perfect means, “I think it’s perfect”), I’m happier than if I’m playing a perfect non-competitive game. If I play a non-perfect competitive game, I’ll have more fun playing a non-perfect non-competitive game[2]. I am much more invested when playing a competitive game. I am much more invested in the mechanics. I am much more troubled by something which does not let me play out, not to my strengths, but to the full extent of the game’s system.

Handicaps are extraneous, they come from outside and limit you, within the game. Look at Chess, no one considers the fact that you are not allowed to simply remove an opponent’s piece from the board a handicap, but not being able to use a certain move in Tekken, one that the game’s engine, technically, lets you play, because a certain group said so, is a handicap.
And this ties back to the social contract issue. After you’ve selected a game, setting up handicaps in order to maintain the fun of the rest of the group, in order to maintain an overall high level of fun, is too late. The highly competitive player is already suffering, and many of the reasons are explained elsewhere (the opponent is too weak, too unskilled, values “X” over competition which is what matters…).

The solution, if the competitive player is so troubled by handicaps, and the non-competitive player is so troubled by the lack of handicaps in games which he perceives to need them, seems quite simple to me: the choice of adding handicaps or how to resolve the social contract issues after the game is chosen is too late, as I’ve said before, the choice must be made before the game is chosen – the choice is the choice of which game is chosen. The game must fit the desires and needs of the different players as it is now, before any changes, any handicaps, are applied to it.

This is a challenge to the game designers. Though I, and many self-pronounced “Competitive designers” are seeking to create games that are handicap-less, and quite possibly such that non-competitive players will deem are in (dire) need of handicaps, perhaps we also need, for different crowds, and in order to effect the rise of competition in Story Games, games which are without handicaps, but where the extreme parameters are such that other, less competitive people, will not feel the need to limit them (Magic without combos, or without combos that kill before turn 4-5, where many creature decks can win as well).

There need to be games across the spectrum, games with enough competition, but where people, or different people, will not see the need to add handicaps. Once we add handicaps, we’ve already got the competitive players disgruntled, and the non-competitive players? They may have been happier playing non-competitive games to begin with (though there are also spectrum players; I enjoyed Tekken’s competitive nature, once the “killer blows” were removed).
Spectrum. Variety. There must be enough games to choose from, and you need to choose the fitting game, that too, or perhaps that especially, is a critical part of competitive games’ game-play, on the social level.

[1] I will leave my problems with the title alone, as they will not contribute to the actual discussion at hand, and will yield meager returns for the energy this discussion will consume. I do want to note that I dislike the title though.

[2] This is why this blog is here.

Story? Really?!

We’ve talked about inclusive versus exclusive before, and in a way, this post will also be about that. We’re also going to stay about fairly basic stuff, which is also very controversial and very important.

We’ve talked about Story’s role, as the focus or the facilitator, but now we need to get down to the bloody mess of Story itself. What is story? What isn’t?

We might want to begin with a definition, due to it being quite lengthy, I’ll repost the first item and simply link to the rest.

sto·ry1   noun, plural -ries, verb, -ried, -ry·ing. –noun

1. a narrative, either true or fictitious, in prose or verse, designed to interest, amuse, or instruct the hearer or reader; tale.

And to that I’ll add a short exchange between Keith Senkowski and myself:

Keith Senkowski: fuck story.  it is a game.  no game creates story.  story is created in the retelling
Guy Shalev: In a way, I agree, and that’s one of my thoughts. People keep talking about stories, about narratives. But our lives, when we live them, are just a random group of shit, they only become a narrative and gain cohesion in hindsight.

Some people say that a series of events, each occuring on its own is not story; furthermore, building on that, they say that a story needs to have a purpose, a theme or a thread going through it. Games with stories (a certain brand of RPGs included) therefore require a topic to be about, a common plot for it to have a story, or at least, “A good story”.

But if we go based on the above, then we can have any series of events, random or otherwise, and have them in totality be a story. This is not to say that any series of events automatically becomes a story, but when we retell it, omit and add, especially as to the cause of events, it does become a story indeed and not only in name.

When we play, we do not create a story, we create a scaffolding, a series of events (fictitious as they may be), later, when we recount the story, even if we only do so in our minds, going back over it from beginning to end, we create the story. The story is not created by the activity,  the game which occurred, the story is created by the Story-Machines, our human brains.

Story; Road or Destination?

 The previous entry was mentioned on RPG Theory Review, twice, once during the weekly review, and once during the monthly review. A first.
Yehuda Berlinger also mentioned the same post on his blog.

(Iron) Game Chef 2007 is on. Give it a shot. I threw my hat in, but due to time constraints, I may not get to finish my entry. So I’m considering doing a micro-entry, 6 pages or so. We’ll see.


We’ll be talking about Story. So we’ve talked quite a bit about Competition, as it seems to be what differentiates CSI Games from RPGs the most, but what about what differentiates us from Board-Games the most, about the other big half of the equation, Story?
So we’ll be discussing that too. And discussion means your input is more than asked for, it is in fact required for us to reach interesting places!
Talking about reaching, and places. Here’s one of the most basic questions for us to answer. And by basic I do not mean simple, obvious, or easy, but rather, that the foundation is based on this question (at least in part).

So we decide to have story in our game, cool, but now what? If our games are to be well-oiled machines, then nothing should be extraneous, moreover, we should know what role each bit has.
So answer me this, for you, is story the goal or the way you get there?
If the story is the goal, then you are interested in telling a moving story, or a good story (what that is should be the topic of a whole new post). You may want the story to be worth telling and re-telling, or you may want a story with a moral. But in this example, it is not the moral that is important, but the story having it that is the core.

If the story is the way, then imagine what was discussed in the last post, but reversed. Suppose what I care about is the social aspect of the game, specifically competing with my friends, my fellow players. The story is the road I take (and the movement along that road too!), in order to move me from one instance of competition to the next.
Imagine many of the computer-games or hack-n-slash games, where there is minimal story, and the game is basically all about the next encounter, and getting there.

Story can be your goal, or it can be your method of getting to the goal. It’s often less prevalent as a designer, and more prominent when you actually play the game. It is thus very important to discuss when setting up a play-group, in order to avoid clashes over this topic. Such clashes can become very heated, because they deal directly with what you actually come to the game for.

This entry is not very… thought-provoking or innovative. But it is basic, and the material discussed here needed to be let out.

Competition as Training Wheels.

Quite recently we held a discussions called “Competition? What for?” on this very blog, and with this post I’m going to give a suggestion on a possible role of competition in games, specifically RPGs.

In most traditional RPGs, there is one person, the Game Master, who weaves the story and the world. Players can act and then the GM has the world and story react to their actions, but in case the group is more reactive, or even passive, the GM can push the story forward, forcing the characters to react and take a stand. The game progresses one way or another, and the GM, a good one, helps ensure that it is so.

A common problem when traditional players are faced with more recent games is that the task of narration is suddenly thrust upon them. It is not uncommon for players to freeze in such an instance. But we’re not going to dwell on that. Many a time these games are based on the assumption that all players will push the game, their characters, the story and/or the world forward. They will introduce complications, go out of their shell and make things happen. Sadly, this often does not happen.

When you have no limitations, you often get nowhere. You are paralyzed by too many options. Once you are limited by some constraint you have an easier time of figuring a direction in which to move and act. Before being thrust into a new game, many a player might do well to have some in-between stage. I posit that competitive games can be that stage (as well as a non-competitive game to which you add a competitive side for this explicit purpose).

You can treat story as a vector along which to enact competition or competition as a vector along which to tell a story. It matters little. Once there’s competition present, there’s a direction. It is clear what the goals are, who you’re competing with and why. Once you have a competition, you may very well not explore other facets of the game or enviroment, but remember, you limit freedom in order to foster creativity and lower paralysis, and once creativity is fostered, you can later remove the competition and have the players use the new knowledge and skills they had gained to explore the game.

Competition has many uses. There are too many games that once you finish reading them you say, “Cool, but now what do I do?” Competition answers that question. You compete, and if the rules make you create a story as you go along, then by the game’s end you should also have a story created and told.

Next month I’m going to focus a bit on the Story component of games. I hope this short entry was useful to you. It was intended as an answer to the previous post more than as a post of its own.

An Editorial: On Identification.

This is an Editorial, this means that I sometimes will get to air game/theory ideas without the need to tie it down to competition. Sadly, this is still my blog, as in all the entries in it are still mine. So I may as well make use of it.
I’ve had some setbacks in that my last two weekends weren’t spent home, so I lost my work-time. But, unlike previous times this is only a setback in the time-tables. Work continues behind the scene. And when I finally shoot, I’ll have multiple bullets in the air.
Over at the Sons of Kryos Episode 32 (MP3, forum discussion) is about Competition Vs. Cooperation, and thus may be of special interests to people who read this blog.

And not to worry, this post will be tied to competition. I can’t undo my mind.


I participated in a discussion on Story-Games that went as follows:

hamsterprophet: im really interested by LARP, but i have interest in actually doing it
which i support makes it difficult to really learn about it
shreyas
: mmm
i’m not interested with how larp basically forces you into an ‘authority over exactly one character’ role and puts you in the company of immersionists
hamsterprophet
: i think its really interesting, actually, how the nature of larp makes it pretty much impossible to break out of one person = one character
shreyas
: mmm
hamsterprophet
: its almost tautological
shreyas
: that’s just a kind of play i’m not really interested in at all
Thunder_God
(me): Nate>It’s just as false as saying that in real life one person = one mask/personality.
shreyas
: if i don’t have some broader authority i don’t feel like i’m participating
Thunder_God
: In fact, I think this is a very interesting point.
hamsterprophet
: cuz even if you take on multiple characters, people associate you with the first one they encounter you in. unless you do extreme makeup, i guess

In LARP the boundary between you and your character, and indeed you and others, is much thinner, in fact, it’s only skin deep. In real life there are multiple personalities we adopt when faced with different situations and people, so why is it that in games we tend to adopt one face?
Because a game is not reality, it’s a simplified model of reality, and usually one which we get something out of modeling. Our faces in games are akin to archetypes.

The more meat we meet, the more effort we need to buy into the fiction. Online you are often what you claim to be. In table-top it’s a bit harder. When you’re a little annoying kid, who can’t be patient about anything, maybe you’re better off not playing the mature Paladin. In a LARP, you and your character are often one. If your character is smart, athletic and female, and you are male, dim and 200 pounds overweight, don’t be surprised if people have a problem reacting to your character fully.
And yes, the smart player/character divide is an issue all of its own.

Why are we capable, or at least willing, to let ourselves be a multitude in real life and unwilling to give others the same benefit during games?
The answer is twofold:
1) We let ourselves be a multitude, not others. When others act in a manner different than that in which we expect (allow?) them to behave, we are surprised, and often offended. We are not honest in our assumptions regarding others. Just as we assume we have free-will but expect others to behave in the manner dictated by their previous behavior.
2) We are different people in different situations, one game, one situation, one mask. Perhaps we can even go further. You know how often some people play the same character in all games? One situation: game, one mask.

It is more than that. It is not only that others can identify us, it is how we identify ourselves. There is no mask as constricting as that of the skin. And that is what role-playing is about eventually, breaking out of the mask, or shapeshifting our skin into a new shape, as if we were shamans.

It is often educational to look at edge-cases. Cases where one portrays many a character (such as most games’ GMs) and games where one does not even play one character. One of the comments about my game, Cranium Rats, and rightfully so, is that people have a hard time seeing what to play in it, because not only do they have a hard time identifying with something or someone, that I actually disturb them. What the players portray is utterly inhuman, and they have a hard time identifying with it/them, and the characters don’t belong to them and are out of their control, and so they have a hard time identifying with them either.

I find that interesting, because how often do you not only find yourself identifying with, but actually imagine yourself in the spot of a character from a book or movie, their stories often complete, with no hooks left for you to immerse yourself in the character. Is it possible that when we come to the role-playing activity we already come expecting to be “let in”, to immerse ourselves in other personalities, to tell stories vicariously. And when denied we feel cheated out of what we came to the table to get?

Anyway, let’s look at competitive games and Identification. I think that people require identification, of sorts, in all of their games, and competitive ones are no different.

  • In most sports games, or games where what is at stake is your own skills and is known (chess), we are the players and we are the ones we identify with. Win or loss, it’s ours. The easiest identification there is, with ourselves.
  • Sometimes a game is of ourselves, or abstract, and yet we tend to latch onto identification. Look at Monopoly, supposedly it’s our skills that let us win or lose, but more often than not it is luck, and Monopoly games are quite long as it is, and actually serve the purpose of teaching kids the value of money. And yet, people often make “Vroom vroom” sounds when they play the car, or portray the dog kicking someone away. Identification is that important.
  • In abstract concept but detailed competitive games, such as Settlers of Cattan, it is obvious we are not the settlers, nor are we actually the rulers. The luck of the die rules much and yet it is not as widely accepted as Chess that winning in Settlers proves one’s intellectual might (more likely their social acumen), and yet we yell and shout when we are winning or wish to stop another party from winning. We clearly fell invested, we feel as if it’s us who are at stake.

In your games, either make the competition so entranching that the players identify with themselves, make the stake personal so they have no option but to identify with themselves or give them tools to latch onto something, to enable identification. The easiest way is obviously to give them a character that is theirs to create and control, a role-playing option. But if you want an external storytelling vantage point, you should consider how to let your players into a mask.

This is what they come to the play with, this is what they pay you money for. Success and failure often hinge on identification, and its strength.