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.

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19 comments on “Competitive Games and Handicaps.

  1. Guy Shalev says:

    Really succint form of the following, and of what was written previously:
    It’s better to have the group play a less competitive game, or less extreme competitive game, which is not handicapped, than a more extreme competitive game which is handicapped, even if the resulting game is nearly identical.
    The highly competitive players will know it’s handicapped, and they will enjoy the game less as a result.

    An additional point: There needs to be a spectrum of games, so when only highly competitive players play, they could play those ‘extreme’ games, which would not sit well with mixed groups.

    A discussion between myself and a friend (who wishes to remain anonymous):

    Guy: Heh, it comes at the end:
    Some people like competition without handicaps, some people like competition, handicaps or not, some people do not like competition so much, and need handicaps to enjoy the game. The major point is, the group needs to find a game where they’ll all have fun without handicaps, because once you’ve added the handicaps, you’ve castrated the game to the highly competitive people, which goes against the whole point of designing competitive games. You don’t design a game intending for it to be castrated. But since different people have different likes, and scales, you need a variety of games, where some can be played without handicaps, and some should be reserved for only the people who detest handicaps, and do not seek any.
    Guy: But in a mixed group, a handicapped game? That’s… well, even worse than sub-optimal. You’re better with a game the less competitive people, or less skilled, don’t need any handicaps added to. The competitive people will also feel better about it.
    Friend: It’s a blanket, general statement applied to the world at large. I can’t say that I agree, since the interests and needs of an individual group tend to be fairly specific. ‘Handicapping’, as you call it, works just fine for some groups*.
    Guy: Handicapping works for the group, but if the group has a person that detests handicapping? Many things which work for the group as a whole, are not 100% for anyone, it’s compromises all around. My post was a way to reduce those compromises, because I can tell you, from personal experience, that what I wrote about less than perfect is true. I’d rather play a less than perfect non-competitive than less than perfect competitive. If I play a less competitive game with no handicaps, I’m having more fun than a more competitive game with handicaps, even if the resulting game is nearly identical, in my mind, there is a difference. I know that we handicapped this horse.

    * Additional point, post discussion: You can say this is a problem with theory. In the end, each group does what is best suited for it. I am generalizing, that’s true, but it’s not my goal to address the needs of each and every group in the world. I am saying what I think will work for most groups in general.

  2. Callan S. says:

    The pivotal assumption I identify here is that we play for fun.

    No, we do not play for fun.

    Shocked pause from the audience, no doubt. Everybody plays for fun! It’s obvious!

    It’s also equally obvious there isn’t one, singular ‘fun’, isn’t it? There are millions of different types of fun to be had. We do not play for fun, we play for a specific type of fun.

    Even more specifically, when we don’t know the type of fun a game gives, we play it (for the first time) to try and discover the type of fun it holds. That isn’t playing for fun at all (unless the act of discovering the fun type is also classed as a type of fun).

    Okay, here’s the important bit – it’s possible to think a game is about fun type X, when really it’s about fun type Y. The above examples of Tekken or magic are this – having your ass kicked in the first round isn’t the game being unfun, it’s that you missidentified the games fun type. When you sit down to fun type X and it delivers fun type Y, the game isn’t failing. It’s a result of you having previously failed to identify it’s fun type. It’s rough, but it’s you who failed.

    The whole handicaps issue is a red herring, based on that initial failure to identify fun type, and trying to pad it out with ‘handicaps’. If your not willing to accept being wrong in identifying the fun type, you’ll never be happy with handicaps until they force the game to actually be the fun type you originally thought it was.

    Now pretend Ron Edwards wrote this, in the way he delivers jarring information in a much more sublime way. Cause I’m not good at that at all.

  3. Guy Shalev says:

    First, I did note different kinds of fun, as “reasons to play/compete”. Fun from adversity, fun from winning, etc. I didn’t claim that these were the only types of fun.

    I am not sure I agree fully with the argument you’re making Callan. A game may enable a certain sort of fun, but in the end, I think the fun comes from the player as well.
    There is a synthesis between what the player is seeking and what the game gives. The game can give X while the player is looking for Y, and the end result would be Z, which may still be fun.
    Furthermore, the game may not be designed to create X, and while the player is looking for X, he will gain X.
    And yes, I think that’s what people often do when they play, the “drifting”, and the “house-ruling”, are there indeed to take a game and change it to be fun for you.

    Hm. Now that I read what I wrote, and what you wrote, I am not sure whether you’re disagreeing with me or not. Handicaps indeed take a game that is not optimal for you and attempt to shoehorn it into being optimal for you. My conclusion was fitting: choose a game where you do not find the need to add handicaps.

    There is my other point, which I think still holds: players can enjoy more than one thing: Give a competitive player game X, and handicap it into being game Y. Give a competitive player game Y, without handicaps. While those games are not optimal fun for the competitive player, he’ll still enjoy game Y more than game X handicapped into game Y.
    The act of handicapping harms his fun, because he knows there’s a limitation put on him, and that is something that detracts from the fun he derives from going “all out”.

    And so, while for most people handicaps serve to force the game into being the fun type you want it to be (I disagree “originally thought it were”, people often make sub-optimal choices conciously), for some people, the mere act of handicapping is antithetical to fun.

  4. Tommi says:

    Personally, I see a handicapped game to be like any other houseruling: Essentially creating a new game very similar to the original. The original does not matter, the new game does.

    (There are social issues like it being polite to inform of any such changes well before play, but those can and should be dealt in social ways.)

    My stance: Use handicaps. Share them. They are new ways of using an existing game. Some computer games are very hard to modify, but handicaps can still be easily used. This is less of a problem with roleplaying games and their ilk.

    This is also exactly what Callan is saying: Games produce certain kind of play (and by implication certain kind of fun). Changing them changes the kind of play (and fun) they create.

  5. Guy Shalev says:

    Then we’ll have to disagree Tommi.

    My whole point is that handicaps, to some players, are vastly different from other forms of house-ruling.

  6. After a long discussion on chat with you, I think that you’re generally correct.

    The problem with the post isn’t that it’s wrong, it’s just that is keeps sounding like it’s trying to apply to things it doesn’t. Which is totally weird, because there are little disclaimers and statements all over it.

    You’re talking about a very, very specific type of fun – and it’s one where mutable rules are a pure aggravation. And it’s a kind of fun that can be gotten from RPGs, though it more often gets sought out in board games and strategy games.

    Which is interesting; I don’t think people looking for that kind of fun get as much coverage as they should; it’s good to see you poking at it.

  7. Guy Shalev says:

    (You were also meant to write what I’m talking about, in the vain hope someone else’s writing would help clarify it to the readers. I accept I’m not a very clear writer.)

    Yes, this is what this post is about, fuck, this is what this blog is here for:
    For people who are trying to get this sort of fun, from “RPGs”. This whole blog is about competitive story games, after all.

    Sure, right now it’s better for you to play card/board/video games, but this is what I’m trying to change (or at least, make it more viable here).

  8. Callan S. says:

    Hello Guy,

    I think the direction of my post may not apply to you and I was shooting in the wrong direction for this thread, but it was still a close thing.

    “My conclusion was fitting: choose a game where you do not find the need to add handicaps.”
    No, this isn’t quite right – and being slightly off will be bad form in the long term, I would say.

    Basically in terms of competition, someone challenges you to a game of X.

    When someone challenges you to X, you don’t go ‘Oh, I don’t find it fun, lets play Y’. That’s really, really bad form. They challenged you – you either accept the challenge, or admit the challenge is too much for you. The most important ‘fun’ bit of play isn’t in any game, it’s maintaining the honour of the challenge to begin with. If the game itself is also fun, that’s nice, but isn’t needed at all. I know that sounds crazy, ‘Games should be fun!’. But remember, you can always admit the game is too difficult for you and not play. That’s why a grueling marathon makes sense – such a marathon make fatigue rack your body and pain shoot through it!! How can that be fun? How can pain be fun?? What’s fun is the honour of taking the challenge and beating it, OR EVEN the fun of honourably admitting defeat and ceasing to participate (yes, this is fun, for anyone who’s reading this aghast).

    That’s my honour construct. I’ve probably just instinctively reinvented something much the same as has been used for milenia. I’m pretty sure the it’s largely instinctual, in the same way you can see puppies or lion cubs challenge and wrestle each other.

    This ties in to your comments on how handicaps peeve certain people off, because no one admits they can’t take the challenge of the player, yet that player is socially pressured to take a handicap. It’s bad form on the other players part, and the gamist player is being punished for being good.

    The gamist is also socially vunerable to having a handicap pressured on him, because he sees it as some sort of challenge being given to him. But at the same time he can usually sense that the other person doesn’t give a crap about challenge, they just want to ‘explore’ or ‘have fun’. Thus he’s left in some twilight zone where he thinks others have given him a challenge, but no one else quite responds in the way you’d expect if they had.

    Handicaps can be applied without changrin, if the other person admits your too damn good to play against otherwise. That, in itself, is a win! Then when they suggest a handicap, it’s a whole new challenge that they are now giving to YOU where you play with handicap X. Do you accept the challenge? As usual, you can take it, or decline it, openly admitting it’s too tough. This is a basic, but very functional social contract.

    As noted, this goes to hell when the other person doesn’t give a crap about challenge and just wants to ‘explore’, ‘experience the game’ or as Ron once put it ‘Piddle about and just ‘be”. These days with GNS knowledge, it’s usually more clear that they prefer some other creative agenda.

    However, even if they are just interested in another agenda, it’s still a lack of honour (how I’ve defined honour, anyway). The fact that, if simulationist, they wouldn’t like their immersion/creative denial blown away, or if narrativist, they wouldn’t like to be deprotagonised, still doesn’t seem to make them sympathetic to supporting a gamists honour. Guess what, your game world has glaring flaw X! And no, your character wouldn’t choose that in a million years – I know better than you!

    The fact that they do the same to gamists ‘Oh, that’s not fun for me, and it’s all about fun, so take a handicap or your bad/I’ll change the game (without admitting its too tough)’, seems to come very, very readily to their lips. It’s quite frustrating.

  9. Guy Shalev says:

    Callan, that’s a very interesting way to look at it*.

    * I mean exactly that. I do not mean this in the dismissive way, which also reads into the above statement “And wrong”.

  10. Callan S. says:

    “And wrong”? Not sure what you mean?

    Was it useful at all in terms of …
    “Sure, right now it’s better for you to play card/board/video games, but this is what I’m trying to change (or at least, make it more viable here).”

    Basically the honour I refer to is something I had to reinvent over time. Before that I was basically an apologist designer, always looking for whether my gamist designs done gone and hurt someones feelings. Alot of apologist habits still hold me back, I think. Though Xenopulse (Cristian) found some use in some of my forge posts, as it was part of the inspiration in writing Beast Hunters.

    Anyway, I have some thoughts on how it’s currently better (on average) to play video card/board/video games and whether attempting to merge in an imaginative element will be worth the gamble of R&D. Should I post here or would it be drifting the thread too much?

  11. Guy Shalev says:

    Hm, I’m referring to the fact that when some people say about others’ opinions that they are “interesting”, they also mean they’re wrong, I don’t. I’m just saying it’s interesting.

    I am unsure if it were useful to me, and if so, how. It resonated with many things within me, and sometimes, that’s enough.
    I am not sure how I’ll use (or if I can) your post consciously.

    Hm. If you feel your post is substantive enough, feel free to write it as a complete post, email it to me, and I’ll post it as its own post, here, on the blog, if you want. Or you can feel free to post it here (as a comment for this post).
    If you fear drifting, and do not wish your post here on this blog, you can always post it elsewhere and link to it here, so the discussion could move elsewhere.

    I leave that choice to you.

  12. Callan S. says:

    I suppose, in short, it’s a question of whether you start with a board game and include imagination within that, or start with an imagination game and include board game elements within that.

    It depends on which has priority – which comes first, and which is just an additive. Because the additives always bend or disappear entirely based on the priorities needs.

    I’d say alot of gamist design has revolved around taking an imaginative base and trying to add board game elements. Which is destined to fail, because the priority is on imagination – whenever competition would endanger imagination, competition is eliminated.

    Usually when I see gamist design, there is a ton of effort to add gamist elements – tons and tons and tons. But never, ever any move to switch the priority around. And you can’t blot out the result by adding a ton of board game like rules – when imagination comes first, it comes first. The board game stuff will eventually be left by the roadside, because eventually it’ll threaten imagination.

    In terms of gamist design I think the hard question is priorities.

  13. Guy Shalev says:

    I agree, though I think the hard question, which may be a fool’s goal, all but impossible, is to have both components at the same level of importance.

    I don’t want either to bend before the next.

    And yes, I usually feel story priority first is closer to what I’m looking for than competitive priority first. Perhaps it’s a remanant of the culture I come from.

  14. callans says:

    I think it’s the wiring in your head and in everyones head. One thing comes ahead of the other. You can say you want both, but your wiring says one at a time. Chamillion’s can decide to look at two things at once – humans can’t.

    Anyway, I’m posting cause I started a blog here and wanted to publicize a bit. Fairly challenging read, roleplay wise though, I’d imagine: http://brokenmarrow.wordpress.com/

  15. Guy Shalev says:

    Heh. As I just commented on your blog, I don’t think it’s true.

    Or at least, we should strive, I don’t think we can just assume it is so and stop there.
    I think the best form I’ve seen it thus far is doing one for the other.

  16. Callan says:

    Why strive?

    Assuming it is possible to focus on two at once, it seems far more complex to do – whist focusing on one at a time seems relatively simple. It almost seems a dissinterest in nar or gamism that instead of playing either one now, you wait for them to be combined in the far future. When almost right now you could have one of them (and indeed, write a game for either of them, and play both games in turn)

    “I think the best form I’ve seen it thus far is doing one for the other.”
    I think I’d call that using one as the means to an end that is the other. That’s what I mean by priority – one is just a catalyst to get to the other. Like a booster rocket – vital, yet discarded in the end.

  17. Guy Shalev says:

    We strive because we’re human.

    I strive because I do want to have this. I want to have a story and be as competitive as possible at the same time. I want to have one game fill both needs, and the synthesis should be great as well.

    If we don’t strive, even low-key, we may never get there. Sure, we could have a sudden break-through, a stroke of genius, but even these can be helped by ground-laying done beforehands. Ideas need nurturing.

    And yes, I could have one of them right now, but, about the “far more complex” and the “Relatively simple”, why do I not simply play Diplomacy when I want competition, why do I not just tell a story, or read someone else’s? If we’re honest, RPGs, and those with ample mechanics even moreso, are “far more complex”, yet we do them and do not engage only in the simple forms. Our whole field is the complex.

    I am interested in both Nar and Gamism (and Sim too), I will continue to play them now, because that’s what I have. I will continue to strive towards what I’m looking for, which may be a simple synthesis or may be something else (Spinoza didn’t think there were two modes, but that we can only think of two), or it may be a “simple” synthesis.

    I strive, because that’s what we do. I strive, because why content myself with what I find lacking?
    This whole blog is about that striving. I’ll be exceedingly pleased even with things that show “progress”, no matter how scant, but that will give me more of what I want.

    Is that not why we engage in design? To see more of what we want to see? :)

  18. Callan says:

    I’m a bit confused – are you having some small amount of fun with lacking things and at the same time putting some side effort into developing the nar/gam hybrid? Or are you only focusing on the nar/gam thing? This blog seems mostly focused on the latter and may have given me the wrong impression.

  19. Guy Shalev says:

    In my play, I play what is there to play, and it runs the gamut.
    When I design, I usually do so by inspiration, so once again, it varies.

    This blog is about competition in Story Games. The hopeful end result is this hybrid (I don’t want to call it Nar/Gam because I’m not sure how accurate that is), but aside from this I’m a whole person, a whole role-player, a whole board gamer, as it were.

    As for the “Side effort”, you can see that term to mean that I don’t try and push and do nothing else, because the road to the unknown is rarely straight and forward. You can also see it as “Side effort” of the Story Game design community, as it is not a main thrust by any means; some designers design things that are tangenital now and then, now and then some designers design things that occupy parts of the circles I try to join. The effort is always made, in an almost consistent manner, but usually indirectly, and quite randomly (it is not THIS that they set out to achieve).

    It is my sincerest hope we will reach this hybrid, it is my starkest horror that it will be the only form to play. I do not have fun “lacking” this. I do not have “fun” putting “side effort” into this.
    I lack, and I put some effort into this, now and again, with thrusts in the general direction, because that is what can be done.
    I could probably do more, and these days I’m more often found commenting on fora/blogs to nudge things in the direction I wish to see things explored.
    This blog has an agenda. I am not so one-dimensional as to claim this agenda is the only one I have.

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