Monday, January 5, 2009

Examining Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax, Part VI

Chapter 4- The Group: More Than Its Parts

The chapter starts off with laying down some Gygaxian law:

Group operation and cooperation are the nucleus of any RPG activity. This fact should be obvious from the rules of the game, even if it is not explicitly stated within those rules. Despite this, many long-time participants in a single RPG system do not truly understand or appreciate the interrelationships of the varying approaches to the problems posed by the game system or to the dynamics of a group that is balanced and works well as a team. At the other extreme are novices who instantly grasp these facts and attempt to put their knowledge into play. If the two opposites happen to comprise the same group, or a part thereof, sparks will surely fly. Mere time and experience at play do not make expertise. A veteran soldier is not necessarily either a good tactician or a master of strategy. Because role-playing games are group-oriented, and ongoing play and success requires cooperation, the other player participants must be regarded as friends, or at worst allies, until one or another demonstrates otherwise.

This is both bleedingly obvious and a bit profound. First, the statement that important things about games are not necessarily plainly stated in the rules. I don't think this is necessarily a shortcoming of those rules if someone doesn't understand; there is a good chance it's a failure on the part of the reader. These books shouldn't be written for the dullest of us.

The other good point is that experience does not necessarily mean anything. Someone can play and play and not get any better (and I would guess that such a situation occurs more likely for someone that doesn't take the game so seriously) while someone new at the whole thing might just get the principles involved immediately. Not to say that such a natural wouldn't benefit greatly from frequent playing, of course.

Nothing is more heartbreaking from the referee side of the screen than seeing a clueless veteran player browbeating a clever newcomer on the basis of seniority, not ability. Of course, it is heartwarming to see a clueful veteran being patient and explaining certain things to a clueless green gamer.

This bit also posits that player versus player is not a good situation for long-term gaming. Not to say such things can't be fun in their place, but the continuous accomplishing of goals, both short- and long-term, is surely easier when you know that neither character nor player are going to pull any shenanigans on you. (have there been any long-term Paranoia games, ever, by the way?)

This does not contradict my arguments for a possible "evil" game. This bit here is about group cohesion, and it's perfectly possible for a group of evil characters with scheming players to cooperate with each other and have long-term success... but I don't think the denizens of the campaign world will be much in favor of it. Different things.

Gygax then goes on to describe various types of groups (regular veteran playing group, fragmented veteran playing group, enthusiast-driven player group, peer-group, and club gatherings) and describes the dynamics of each sort of group. While it's interesting theory, I don't know how applicable it is to real-world 2008 traditional gaming. A lot of us have trouble getting any kind of group at all, and those without that problem can't exactly afford to be picky about the experience and caliber of the player at the time they first walk through the door.

That does involve Gygax's demand on GMs though: "The would-be master GM must exert himself to make them into regular veteran groups. This is done by accommodating new or less skilled participants in order to encourage and train them." It is noted that "personal sacrifice" on the part of veterans in order to acclimate new players (by "lowering the level of play" as one means) will enrich the hobby as a whole.

Again, about the benefits and demands of mastery:

Development of mastery subsumes a large and long-term investment of time and effort. Without a group, such investment is wasted. With a superior group, the investment is bound to bring returns quickly and in far greater degree.

Then is talks about demands on players within a group. "As a player, your analysis of your player group must direct your selection (and attendant play) of a PC." Reading between the lines, the master player doesn't have a "pet character type," but rather is able to step in with whatever character type makes the group operate best. The master player, while of course having certain archetypes he might be best with, would at worst be effective in any type that he would play. Pushing my agenda upon the wording even more, I believe a master player rolls a new character with curiosity wondering how it will turn out, rather than working to direct the process in any particular direction for his own enjoyment (of course this is for random generation) or hoping for a specific type to the point that he'd be disappointed if he didn't get it.

Then... Gygax sinks to the utter depths of negativity to discuss problem players and GMs!

If the game master is a novice, or tends to be weak in his direction of players, difficulties can arise. If the GM is unwilling to take effective control, one or more of the other participants must then do so, meanwhile encouraging the GM during nonplaying time, so that authority will be vested in the proper party as soon as possible.

Emphasis mine. Woohoo, is that antiquated stuff or what?

I don't think it is. People would have you believe it is, and maybe you have to pretend it is, but...

Anyway, the types of problem players: The bully, the know-it-all, the adviser (like the know-it-all but doesn't know jack), the cheater, and the pouter. Of special interest is the talker, who is split into two categories... the first is the guy who is using gaming to socialize, and in just being friendly disrupts the game with pleasant, but completely off-the-topic, chatter. Then there's the clueless type that actively distracts from his knowledge about the game or what to do by talking your ear off.

Often he will try to show that his acting ability is superior and use theatrics and overdramatization to cover for his lack of knowledge and playing skill.

I know a lot of people that would give that guy bonus XP for "role-playing."

Then the Player Problem section deals with hostility between players, and then wraps up talking about non-hostile, in-game only player versus player gaming is discouraged not only because of the possibility of real-life tensions resulting, but because such things make the game's "goal" that much more difficult to achieve.

Then... Problem GMs. This is all about not being a dick. The players aren't there for abuse, and neither are characters. Killer campaigns are bad, but then so are easy-reward campaigns (either GMs that give it all away or players that brow-beat GMs into giving it to them).

Which leads to the point, the section "Mastery is Group Success."

Whatever rewards you seek [from gaming], all that might come are based on the play group. As a member of this team, you must know how to invest your efforts to enable the team to become more successful. As you pursue individual excellence and strive toward mastery, you must always bear in mind that it is possible only through your interaction with your RPG group.

... and the text goes on to say that standards of success can't be measured, but they can be defined.

One definition Gygax goes into is whether or not the other players in the group tell stories about the in-game activities to other people. Not, "Let you tell you about my character," but, "Let me tell you about Joe's character!" Seems a little odd, although I see the point.

The next definition is group members participating "successfully" in events outside the group... here comes that tournament thing again, but also mentions getting published in periodicals. The final definition is, peer recognition.

If you are one of the hardworking and fortunate few who become known and renowned among the rank and file of those involved in a common activity, then you - and by well-deserved association, the others in your group - have made it to the top of the mountain.

I see what he's saying, but I also get hives thinking that the modern-day equivalent is having a group of people on thinking you've got cool ideas... whether or not you're actually gaming.

Up next (not necessarily tomorrow) will be Chapter 5... Rules: Construction and Reconstruction... with one section I absolutely love for what it means (if Gygax's definitions mean anything) for 4e... :P


  1. This series keeps getting better and better. Thanks for undertaking this, it's an enjoyable read.

  2. An excellent commentary. I have that book and read it many years ago but I now plan of returning back to it.