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Brain damage

Started by Ron Edwards, February 11, 2006, 06:04:06 PM

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Ron Edwards

About the brain damage. This is coming in a series of posts. Comment freely as I go, but bear in mind that it is a series.

Everyone who's interested, please review my missing-limbs analogy in the Why complex conflict is so confusing thread. I'm going to proceed on the assumption that you've done this. Please focus on this sentence:

QuoteIf you say "creative social interaction" instead of "walking," in that paragraph, then that's what early-to-mid 1990s role-playing procedures concerning so-called "storytelling" were like - Vampire leading the pack, as well as a number of other offspring of a particular application of Champions. You've seen these role-playing experiences too, Jesse. You know all about the social and creative equivalents [of dealing with a badly-designed prosthetic -RE].

... keeping in mind that I'm talking about the specific Creative Agenda of Narrativism, in its most abstract form (i.e. not talking for the moment at all about Techniques). Never mind all the kewl rhetoric and color of the game texts, or the hip/dangerous subculture they purport to offer. Think of any actual play of this so-called storytelling. Remember who you were with and what it was like.

I'm going to start with a claim that a human being can routinely understand, enjoy, and (with some practice) create stories. I think most postmodernism is arrant garbage, so I'll say that a story is a fictional series of events which present a conflict and a resolution, with the emergent/resulting audience experience of "theme." I also think that stories concern a fairly limited range of possible conflicts, but the angles one might use for presentation, and the interactions among the range, make for quite a stunning array of individual examples or expressions of them.

Again, my claim is that this is a human capacity which is swiftly learned and shaped into a personal characteristic ("what stories I like") as a basic feature of the human experience, used as a constant means of touchpoints during communication, along the whole spectrum of polite conversation to icebreaking all the way to the most intimate or critical of conversations. I am completely unconvinced by the suggestion that what we call a "story" today is a local historical artifact, or that people in past epochs or in different cultures had or have utterly different fundamentals for stories.

(Related point: as far as I can tell, there is no meaningful "cultural gap" regarding stories. Differences in content and presentation which seem jarring at first contact are swiftly overcome with further contact. This is common. People refuse to do this, when they do, not because the foreign story makes no sense, but because they are invested in not paying attention for any number of reasons.)

Now for the discussion of brain damage. I'll begin with a closer analogy. Consider that there's a reason I and most other people call an adult having sex with a, say, twelve-year-old, to be abusive. Never mind if it's, technically speaking, consensual. It's still abuse. Why? Because the younger person's mind is currently developing - these experiences are going to be formative in ways that experiences ten years later will not be. I'm not sure if you are familiar with the characteristic behaviors of someone with this history, but I am very familiar with them - and they are not constructive or happiness-oriented behaviors at all. The person's mind has been damaged while it was forming, and it takes a hell of a lot of re-orientation even for functional repairs (which is not the same as undoing the damage).

If someone wants to take issue with my use of the term "brain" when I'm talking about the "mind," I just shrug. As I see it, the mind is the physiological outcome of a working brain. Mess around with the input as the brain/mind forms, and you short-circuit it, messing up steps which themselves would have been the foundation of further steps. You could be talking about an experience such as I mention above, or you could be talking about sticking a needle into someone's head and wiggling it around. Brain, mind, damage. I don't distinguish.

All that is the foundation for my point: that the routine human capacity for understanding, enjoying, and creating stories is damaged in this fashion by repeated "storytelling role-playing" as promulgated through many role-playing games of a specific type. This type is only one game in terms of procedures, but it's represented across several dozens of titles and about fifteen to twenty years, peaking about ten years ago. Think of it as a "way" to role-play rather than any single title.

I now hold the viewpoint that in every generation, inspired and interested young teens and younger college students are introduced to a fascinating new activity that they are eminently qualified to excel at and enjoy greatly. However, subculturally speaking, it's a bait-and-switch, especially during the time-period outlined above. Instead, they were and are exposed to damaging behavior as they learn what to do, and therefore, the following things happen. (1) They associate the procedures they are learning with the activity itself, as a definition. (2) The original purpose which interested them is obscured or replaced with the "thing," or pseudo-thing, of the new purpose, which no one is qualified to excel at, nor does it offer any particular intrinsic rewards.

The vast majority of people so exposed quite reasonably recoil and find other things to do. Some stay and continue to participate. Socially, the activity occurs among the generational wave-front of the young teens and young college students, losing most as it goes, retaining a few each iteration, but always replenished by the new bunch. Of the ones who remain involved, many are vaguely frustrated and dissatisfied, and some of them gain power within that subculture and work hard to perpetuate it.

[edited to fix link to parent thread]

Next: The Big Picture

Ron Edwards


To engage in a social, creative activity, three things are absolutely required. Think of music, theater, quilting, whatever you'd like. These principles also apply to competitive games and sports, but that is not to the present point.

1. You have to trust that the procedures work - look, these instruments make different noises, so we can make music; look, this ball is bouncey, so we can toss and dribble it

2. You have to want to do it, now, here, with these people - important! (a) as opposed to other activities, (b) as opposed to "with anybody who'll let me"

3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again - if it's worth doing, it's worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

My claim is that the hobby of "story-oriented" role-playing as expressed by its most aggressive marketer of the term, and as represented and imitated by countless others, fails on all three counts. (1) Since the procedures don't work, and everyone knows it, you get the Golden Rule. (2) Since there is no "it" to do, and since social function is ignored as the necessary context, the ideal becomes to play "at all," with no social or creative metric to judge it as successful. (3) Since play is not fun, the only way to enjoy or validate the activity is to edit one's memory of play to recall it as fun, which carries the additional negative safety feature of critical repair of the techniques.

The fictional content itself is characterized by a hell of a lot of fictional "wandering," and not in the sense of setup or atmosphere, either. Fictional confrontations tend to be extremely inconclusive, what a movie-viewer would call a "meaningless car chase" or "chewing the scenery."

The big-picture result of committing to this ... I don't know what to call it, this thing, is a pure inability actually to understand and enjoy stories of any kind. See Simulationist reality and Narrativist reality, and read all the posts, but most especially Jesse Burneko's. See also my entire chapter on dysfunctional Narrativist play in the Narrativism: Story Now essay, and Dave's self-reflective posts across at least a dozen threads in the Adept Press forum (note especially his shift from resenting the "disorganized and unclear" rules to "oh shit they make perfect sense" between 2004 and 2005), in which he identifies himself as a poster child for exactly that chapter.

A brief list of the specific features, or telltales, of the damaged story-capacity.

- The person cannot distinguish between "hopping over a fence" and conflict, between "this guy meets that guy" and a decisive plot event, or between "dramatic close-up" and character decision-making

- The person cannot summarize any story in simple four-point structure (conflict, rising action, climax, conclusion) - they typically hare off into philosophical or technical interpretations, or remain stuck in narrating the first ten minutes of the story in detail

- The person will devote many hours (and can talk for many hours) to commenting on the details of the story's presentation, either feverishly supportive or feverishly dismissive, but entirely uncritically

Most people I have worked with about these issues, which includes hundreds and perhaps a couple thousand in different capacities (classrooms, etc, never mind role-playing), pick up these skills within minutes of basic instruction and a little discussion. Absolutely consistently, class after class, year after year, the subgroup which offers the consistent exception is the gamers. They flounder terribly for weeks, and some just never get it.

In terms of role-playing technique, at the group level, the inability is expressed in two brands - the ones who persist in rolling dice periodically, often not especially correlated with any importance to what's going on, and the ones who make a big point out of abandoning the dice, claiming a thespian ideal of "getting into it." As story-faciilitating techniques, neither work. This is the roll/role dichotomy, which I see as the distinction between syphilis and gonorrhea, or perhaps, having had one's legs blown off by a land mine, pulling oneself along on the ground by one's left arm or one's right arm. Which is to say, not much distinction at all. Both are the rather appalling result of trying to carry out a social, creative activity in the absence of the above three principles.

Next: the Details

Ron Edwards


Ah, geez, let me count the ways ...

Consumerism and subcultural identification
Owning walls and walls of books from one or very few companies, in a classic expression of brand loyalty - the cultural code-word is "support," but it's really about staying committed to "fun eventually" at the expense of fun now
Application of the periodical model (comics, magazines) to the role-playing product - one must buy regularly in order to be involved
Frantic attention to what's coming out next, feverish interest in what everyone else has heard or might be interested in
Consistent impulsive and submissive purchasing habits at specific stores, as influenced by specific people there

Cronyism and isolation
Confounding inclusion in play, friendship, and social appreciation in the fashion I described in Social Context (see the Infamous Five)
Social huddling as opposed to social endeavor or friendship
Intense, long-term tensions based on romantic partners who do not support one participant's inclusion in the group; usually accompanied by an increase of dishonesty among former friends

"Story-oriented" without story
Deprotagonizing is the baseline, the pure default of play; when that's the case, "permission" for one's character to matter, however momentarily, becomes the key reward, often withheld
No situation or conflict yielding Premise, therefore no developing of Premise through fictional events
No consistent use of a given technique for a given situation - sometimes you roll, sometimes you don't; sometimes a shouted announcement "counts," sometimes it doesn't
Disappearance of the reward system, replaced by fiat and the fact of inclusion
* Force is the basic technique, the only accepted manner of generating story-ish content, and it is usually expected to be invisible *

[Side note: it is no surprise to me that of every term I've ever suggested, introduced, or adapted in my writings about role-playing, Force is the one most consistently elided or illustratively mis-applied by readers. You should go read the definition in the Glossary again. It doesn't say what you probably think it says. The damage to your own intellectual pathways is preventing you from reading it.]

Co-dependency and reinforcement of emotional dynamics which aren't rewarding
Childish behavior during play: pouting, crumpling up papers, tuning out, arguing to disrupt
Ongoing power-struggle over outcomes of game techniques, a brinksmanship of flouting "rules"
Socially poisonous dynamics surrounding play: ostracizing, overriding, currying favor, participating in a running dialogue of "who said what about whom"
Specific and utterly tacit power-structure reinforced by the above: impossible expectations of fun - you have to guess what I want and provide it consistently

Disconnection between what is done and what is produced
Hyper-tension about one's investment in a given character creation (not play, creation), resulting in posturing and defensiveness during play, which can only be a threat to the potential of that creation
Inability to reflect meaningfully on the experience, including resisting discussing actual play in any accurate or critical fashion
Inability to identify a reward system, "play is its own reward" - which means, inclusion is the best one can hope for
Insistenced that play is awesome and that the other participants are the best possible, focusing on rare and fleeting instances of shared imagination as evidence

We are all familiar with this state of mind - it is precisely the profile of those individuals committed to storytelling role-playing as presented by White Wolf games and many similar others that preceded them or came afterwards. Its origins in terms of game texts are probably traceable to AD&D2, for content, and to some applications of Champions, for rules.

And by "state of mind," I mean something profound and developmentally reinforced, a value system, not just a momentary mood or habitual tendency. For people who are in the "zone" of the age and subcultural target market, they try to make it work (after all, it should work, they think) and in failing, adopt this new value system instead, and eventually they leave, their original interest in the activity (which they never experienced because it didn't happen) diminished. For the people who do more than dabble in this ... thing ...., they undergo forms of indoctrination which are rather horrible to watch, and their behaviors are most especially fascinating when the following opportunities are made available.

1. Actual Play posting - they flatly cannot do it

2. Encouragement to identify their personal creative goals - they react with rage at being labeled

3. An assortment of low-buy-in games, rather than a single "chosen" high-buy-in one - they defend their own consumerism

4. Rules which actually work - they hysterically insist such rules couldn't possibly work, and they cannot actually bring themselves to pay attention to the rules during play, and resist learning at all costs

Next and last: In Conclusion

Ron Edwards


There now exists, in the wake of my own efforts at discussing role-playing in a critical fashion since 1996, a fairly laudable tendency to say, "Well, if it's fun for you, then it's OK." The idea is to raise awareness of a variety of functional priorities and techniques for play, and to eliminate the existing, uncritical prejudices and insults that have characterized past discussions of role-playing diversity. I did not initiate this; I give credit to Mary Kuhner in particular for the original formation of the Threefold Model. I do take credit for developing a community in which these ideas and values could develop and spread (even among those who purport to deny the community).

That awareness and seeking for understanding is a great thing. I've championed it for years, and I still do.

That is not, however, the same thing as saying any and all activities ever called "role-playing" must be fun, must be good, must be wonderful, and must (for someone somewhere) be successful. Note the use of "functional" in the above paragraph.

It is not challenging the principles of awareness, critique, and mutual appreciation of functional play to point out other phenomena, dysfunctional ones. I am saying there is one "way" in particular for which I have not been able to identify a single fun quality even for its staunchest advocates, based on their very words, and now, at this late date, I have concluded that it is demonstrably damaging. It is, to use my jargon terms, Broken Narrativism, with all the features of Prima Donna and Typhoid Mary described in my essay, but wrapped up in a subcultural package and reinforcing procedures that impair normal human mental function as consistently as, for instance, inappropriate sexual experiences prior to a certain age.

I call it "damage," and I mean it. People are story-creatures. The characteristic loss of the capacity I see across almost all story-ish role-players, especially those of a certain age range, is like seeing a bunch of people with physical objects sticking out of their punctured skulls. Some of them, presented with alternative (or more accurately, functionally-prosthetic) procedures, say "oh!", extract the damaging material, and move on (that's you, Josh Neff). Others see that something functional is available, but suffer and grapple with it because they mistake some of the damaging material for required parameters (that's you, Jesse, Lisa, and Dave, or was for a while). Still others clutch the end of the object penetrating their brains and shriek protectively (that's you, Joshua [mneme]), which I can do nothing about.

Jesse's first post in Why complex conflict is so confusingmakes a very clear point: the Sorcerer rules work, but the gamer brain (well, the "story-oriented" variety) does not. Confronted with these rules, the mind recoils and re-interprets and retrofits what "must" be meant into a tortuous shape which does not work, but at least the frustrations and confusions are familiar.


[edited to fix link to parent thread]



Despite disagreeing with you about post-modernism, the nature of story, and all the other introductory theoretical material (could you have guessed?) I still agree with the majority of this series of posts.

Years ago I did a livejournal post in which I talked about gamer damage. At the time I lacked a lot of the language that you used, and was obviously playing in the shallow end of the pool, but I think the basic points I was making were in the direction of the things you've said here more clearly.

So I'd just like to reiterate a point and make an AA style statement.

I, Brand Robins, am brain damaged. I have had to work long and hard in order to learn how to tell stories and enjoy them, because my youth of gaming screwed me blue. (I also had to do a lot of damage that gaming gave me towards other things: such as understanding of religion, mythology, and social structure -- but that's a rant for a different day.) I am still not all the way out of it. I continue to work, and like to think that I am making progress. Yet the fact remains, I have damage. I have scars. I am doing all this "Forge theory moon language" not because I think I am better, not because I think I should sell my illumination to the masses of peons. I am doing it because I need to fix myself.
- Brand Robins



I want to start by saying that I generally agree with your analysis of the problems that role-players encounter in the process of gaming with each other.  The point where I begin to disagree is not the analysis of those difficulties, but the account of how they came into being.  I don't think there is some sort of fundamental disagreement here, but I'm interested in the results of broadening your critique.

Here's the thing—describing these problems as primarily arising from within the rpg scene has the effect of dividing people into those damaged by traditional role-playing and a healthy Natural (straw) Man who has not suffered this damage.   This distinction between the inappropriately civillized and what people would be like if this 'bad thing' hadn't happened is, as I'm sure you know, a very old trope, one which, for the rhetorical purpose of critiquing one culture ignores the fact that there is no-one outside culture, no-one who isn't subject to or seen through some sort of cultural lens.

Now, the traditional rpg scene presents a peculiarly interesting witches brew of influences that result in some rather strange behaviours, but it isn't by any means unique.  Moreover, I want to suggest strongly that some of behaviours that have such a detrimental effect on attempts to role-playing not only come from outside the field, but are actually fairly deeply rooted in western culture as a whole.

A case in point—the 'physics model' of game systems.  Neal Stephenson has a particularly interesting digression in his _Cryptonomicon_ which not only misunderstands role-playing games fundamentally, but does so in a way which is very revealing not just of his understanding of how games work, but of the attitudes to the idea of role-playing as simulation of a whole sub-section of society.  (Unfortunately I don't have a copy with me, so if you want to read it, you'll have to wade through the text to find the section yourself.)  It details a bunch of role-playing nerds working on a computer system to aid 'role-playing' by taking into account every variable and cultural detail and making that available to the players as aggregated data.  (They have a falling out; break up their basement company; and the person who wrests control of the rights from the others goes on to make a fortune from the system.  Radically implausible.)

This endeavour is very much like the late-70s, early-80s trends in rpgs—I'm thinking particularly Chivalry and Sorcery—where the impetus was to pile on more and more detail to make the setting 'realistic'.  What I want to argue is that this aberration a) lies behind the obsession with 'modelling' the world that blights many systems, and b) comes not from inside gaming but from outside it.  You can see this strain of endeavour in all kinds of predictive modelling employed naively in our society.   Yeah, this is a computer geek mentality, which has a fair cross-over with gaming, but it's also a sort of modelling that comes out of a view of the world derived from Newtonian physics, one which ignores chaos, complexity and emergent effects, and which goes back all the way to Descartes and mechanistic accounts of the world in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

My point: Most people in the world are bad at seeing the complexity of the events around them; they abstract poorly between the relatively controllable and understandable results of the combination of a small number of factors and what happens when another magnitude of complexity is added to the situation. 

A corrollary: The reason why the Sorceror combat system causes such so many headaches for people is only partly because it is unfamiliar to gamers' training.  The problem is its very strength and efficiency.   Because it resolves everything at once, rather than breaking actions down into simplistic steps, it forces players who are trying to understand what is going on to do so all at once.   People in general aren't good at seeing that much all at once.  Take D&D for comparison—anyone can understand the progression of 'to hit', 'damage', 'does he fall over', because it is broken down into steps; likewise, Attacks of Opportunity—once you get when they happen resolving them is simple; the emergent effects of the combination of these things are not so simple, but not many people are trying to understand them on that level, because the system allows them to deal a lower level of complexity.

You say that most non-gamers intuitively 'get' narrative, rising action, when a scene is important—that sort of thing.  My experience teaching also says you're generally right.  The question for roleplaying is not about that ability, but about the ability to combine such insights with their model of understanding how the world 'works'—and the reflexive desire to create mechanics upon this basis, whether the 'system' is explicit (eg encumbrance) or implicit (eg the refusal to divorce how persuasively a character is roleplayed from how effective that character is at persuading).  Getting the two to mesh, to work in sync without falling into various sorts of incoherence is the problem.

Where I agree with you is on how easy it is to introduce a person who has never roleplayed before to indie-style games—they get them very easily.  The idea that relatively abstracted story-like action should be controlled by mechanics directed towards the premise of the fiction makes intuitive sense.  However, traditional style games also have a suprisingly easy uptake of player understanding on certain topics.   Something like, say, GURPS makes an unfortunate amount of sense, and that's not the result of roleplaying 'brain damage', but of the wider acculturation of our society.  The same goes for the relation between GM and author.  And once you've learned it is fairly difficult to undo.

But I don't think there is anything special about roleplaying in that sense.  Take post-modern fiction, which you take a side-swipe at in your first post, for instance.  There is a lot of bad post-modern fiction, and a huge mess of post-modern criticism to go with it, but its project--the self-reflexive critique of a form in that form--is at least potentially interesting.  But it is also difficult and a little bit navel-gazing.

The thing is, the reaction of many readers and critics to post-modernism almost exactly parallels the reaction of tradtional games to rpg theory and indie-style games.  At its best--and that is often when it is least ostentatious--it provides a salutary critique of the process that it is involved in, rather than attempting to patch over the 'problems' of fiction and fictive accounts.  But you don't have to like it--it's okay to go on reading the old-style books / playing the old-style games / thinking in the same old way. 

It's just, that's what's got us in the mess we're in, not just in roleplaying, but in the organization of our civillization in general.  And that, in part, means I'm seconding Brand.


Some of the ideas are useful.

Some are not.

The ad homenim is not -- it more or less comes down to "I have disagreed with you, therefore you are brain damaged" -- Ron, you're not a shrink, and don't try to be so.

Maybe your training wheels hurt because we're not used to using our legs.

Maybe they hurt because we'd rather, you know, just walk, or run, or because we're used to wheels that aren't square, or aren't made out of something sticky -- or various other flaws that come from using training wheels designed from someone "brain damaged" in a different way than we are.

Maybe one reason some people have problems with Sorceror is because it's trying to communicate concepts they're not used to or not willing to accept.

Another reason some people have problems with Sorceror is because it's badly written.  It may be going somewhere, but it doesn't communicate its ideas as well as Everway, PTA, Capes, Nobilis, or even D&D3.

A third is because, frankly, it doesn't go far enough -- it retains garbage like hit points, initiative, and rounds that are an artifact of D&D-like play.  In essence, there are too many rules, and if one actually tries to use all of them, they get in the way and stop play cold as people start hunting through the book or arguing over them.

-- Joshua Kronengold


Oh, FWIW -- since as far as I can tell, I'm the only one you (Ron) singled out for a gratuitous insult, I'd like to know -where- you draw your conclusion from.

As-is, I can't tell whether it's from something said on the Forge or whether it's a particular annoying Gencon conversation (which mostly amount to me saying "the sky is blue" and Ron saying "no, the ground isn't a single color" -- just talking straight past one another.

-- Joshua Kronengold

joshua neff

I'm looking at Brand and nodding. As you already know, Ron, I am exactly that damaged player that came out of the "storytelling game" era. I first stumbled upon Ars Magica and Vampire early in my undergrad years. That's a time when people are traditionally seen as impressionable, formative. Boy, was it for me. I was sold this idea, attractive to a young English major, that RPGs could be Very Important Stories. The mechanics of the game had absolutely nothing to do with creating these Very Important Stories. The method was put out very simply in the rulebooks, but it was done in such a seductive way, with language that made it sound as if it were all about people getting together and having fun by playing a game, that many of us didn't realize what we were actually being instructed to do. The way to make a Very Important Story with these games was this: the GM comes up with a story that s/he thinks is good; the GM then bullies and coerces the players into acting out his/her story; the players, meanwhile, get to emote about non-conflict issues ("chewing the scenery" is spot on) which they think of as conflict issues; bingo! a great time is had by all, right?

Geez, it's such a load of horsefeathers, it makes me laugh and cry at the same time. I'm little by little realizing exactly how I've let myself become damaged and how I've perpetuated the damage. I'm little by little realizing how I can shake off the damage and relearn how to have fun playing RPGs. Sometimes it seems like an awfully slow process. There are a lot of learned habits that, in the heat of playing, are hard to break sometimes. And you can't do it yourself--this is a social thing, so you need other people playing with you who are either undamaged or want to fix the damage.

Anyway, thanks for posting this, Ron. You've really nailed some things that have been in my thoughts lately. And you given me more to think about.

"You can't ignore a rain of toads!"--Mike Holmes

Jonathan Walton

Hey Ron, I find myself nodding at what seems to be your main point:

Quote(1) They associate the procedures they are learning with the activity itself, as a definition. (2) The original purpose which interested them is obscured or replaced with the "thing," or pseudo-thing, of the new purpose, which no one is qualified to excel at, nor does it offer any particular intrinsic rewards.

But surely the culprit here is not repeated play in the model that you are criticizing, but the lack of a wider perspective among the players involved and, honestly, in roleplayers, Anglo-Americans, and modern human beings in general.  Brand's point that we are ALL damaged, that we have been fucked up by modern culture (whether roleplaying culture or otherwise) such that we can no longer tell good stories is spot on.

If people really are associating the "second wave" of roleplaying with storytelling, that age-old human activity, surely it's because they don't have any other storytelling in their life.  If most roleplayers attended the National Storytelling Festival or similar events as often as GenCon or Origins, you'd think they'd have a much broader perspective on storytelling as an activity, since they would realize that the kinds of stories that roleplaying has traditionally engendered, as well as the ways in which these stories are told or presented, is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling.  But they don't.  And neither does anyone else, relatively speaking.

Truth be told, most roleplayers and most people in general have little non-roleplaying-based experience with formalized oral storytelling.  Maybe they were read to as kids.  Maybe they read to their kids.  Everyone tells stories everyday, of course, as part of normal interactions and conversations, but most people don't think of that as storytelling, since it doesn't take place in a ritual space that says "now we are going to tell stories."  So they don't consider telling their friends about some funny experience to be storytelling.

I agree, it's cringe-worthy when smart, creative people continue to reach for game concepts, styles of play, and character types that only allow them to tell a very specific and often mediocre kind of story.  But even people who are involved in other varieties of storytelling might do the exact same thing because this is what people think roleplaying is and these are the kinds of stories people believe roleplaying is fit to handle.  Sure, you can tell people to listen to other styles of music, to broaden their horizons, that listening to a single style of music is making it harder and harder for them to appreciate other kinds of music, but some people truly believe that Iron Maiden and Judas Priest (for example) are God's gift to music (which is true) and that there's no point in trying other things (which is totally false).  Sometimes people need help finding new stuff to like.  Sometimes people just need to be left alone, so they can grow out of that phase on their own.  Some people will be wearing a different Priest shirt every day for the rest of their lives.  I tend to feel that individuals' tastes in roleplaying are similar.

If you think you're gonna make much headway trying to convince the existing roleplaying community to get more variety in its diet or to reconsider what storytelling is, I wish you the best of luck, but I don't think you're liable to get very far, especially if you begin by criticising their favorite variety of play.  In my experience, roleplayers (whether new or exiles) who are not interested in the existing hardcore community seem to have more diverse interests in general, including a broader interest in exploring different types of storytelling.  That's where I'm focusing my own attention and hope.

Levi Kornelsen

I don't agree, here.

Something has often been dressed up as collaborative storymaking that is not.  With that, I'm onboard.

The acceptance of this falsehood at face value has created habits.  Still onboard.

These habits aren't easily broken.  Yep.  Still along.

These habits have done actual damage, as opposed to merely creating habits that can be surmounted?

Nope.  Not onboard.  Simple as that.

My experience simply does not match the assertion.

Keith Senkowski

I don't have all that much to ad besides my agreement.  Well that and how I would say it. 

These behaviors are like smoking.  They fuck everyone up to a greater or lesser degree causing damage.  They can be beat down.  For some people they can go cold turkey, and never look back.  Others are constantly quiting and coming back for more.  Others work damn fucking hard for the rest of their lives to beat that fucking monkey. All of them wax nostalgic about the good old days when they smoked.  How they would run a mile easy or play basketball all day with a cigarette hanging out of their mouth.  But this shit is just nostalgia.  The behavoir is still fucking damaging.

And what about those that keep fucking smoking?  Some are aware of the damage and just don't fucking care.  Others are blissfully ignorant.  The majority die from it and a rare few get hit by a bus instead...

Conspiracy of Shadows: Revised Edition
Everything about the game, from the mechanics, to the artwork, to the layout just screams creepy, creepy, creepy at me. I love it.
~ Paul Tevis, Have Games, Will Travel



I curious how much of what you talk about was forumulated in the early years of RPGs. Reading through your "the details" post, I see some things that definitely have gone on in my gaming experience. You mention AD&D2 as being a foundation, but when I look back on my gaming, I started into a lull in gaming just before AD&D2 (I was gaming heavily for a couple years or so after, but it was all Cold Iron). Between then and my Arcana Unearthed campaign, the only long term campaign I ran was a Rune Quest campaign. Now I did get at least somewhat involved in a couple of the "story" games, 7th Sea, and Deadlands. But I've got 2 game sessions experience with each of those, a 7th Sea demo, playing 7th Sea with my friend once (both using their first module), playing Deadlands with my friend once, and running an RPGA Deadlands scenario at a con. The RPGA module was a horid disaster and when my friend and I played the 7th Sea module, we saw right through the "story" and that was the end of 7th Sea (though consumerism kept me buying the books until recently).

Frank Filz

Darren Hill

So, let’s say I have this gay friend. I tell him that this lifestyle he’s chosen is causing him damage – he’s facing discrimination at work because his colleagues find him uncomfortable company, and he and his partner are facing higher taxes than his married friends, and occasionally bricks get thrown through their window, and so on. Life would be so much easier if he gave that up and became heterosexual.
He looks at me like I’m a loon, and tells me it’s the way he is wired.

I’ve often wondered about the term gamer baggage. Is it possible that these people are drawn to roleplaying games because that meandering, worthless (from a creative agenda POV, or at least narrativist/gamist POV) style of gaming is exactly what they wanted?

I have no idea. But if so, why would people thing gamer baggage is a result of gaming? I can think of some possibilities.

Maybe the reason Ron sees the greatest resistance to narrativist-style games from gamers, is that the gaming hobby (in its current form) actually appeals to those people whose brains are wired in such a way that they will find narrativist games hard. If so, you could easily expect to find a higher proportion of people who appear to be ‘brain damaged’ among gamers than other groups.

The advocates of narrativist games often claim that newbies pick them up quicker than established gamers. If the above hypothesis is true, this would in fact be expected. But there might also be more at work.

For example, confirmation bias. A narrativist GM runs games at gaming convention after gaming convention. He comes in contact with new gamers and old gamers in large numbers. When he encounters new gamers, and they learn his games quickly, he notices that, and mentally stores away that evidence of his theory. When he comes across a traditional gamer who struggles with these games, he also pays attention to that, and stores it away.
But, he also encounters novice gamers who struggle with the games, and traditional gamers who don’t – but his memory of those numbers might be unreliable, because confirmation bias will encourage him to forget or at least minimise those that don’t match expectation.

Even worse, the experienced narrativist GM might be reaching out to new gamers, so when he encounters them, he showers them with more attention and teaching effort than he would traditional gamers. Plus, if he expects traditional gamers to struggle with his games, he might inadvertently give them less attention, because after all, it’s a lost cause. This would reinforce the teacher’s pre-existing prejudice, and the teacher would probably be unaware he was contributing to it.

I don’t know if my counterpoint above holds any weight. But if it does, it means there’s a substantial body of gamers out there who aren’t, or don’t want to be, creative as defined in the creative agenda model. I think this is plausible.
I’ve known gamers who like random roll character design, so that they don’t have to ‘create’ their character, and gamers who prefer point design, so they can basically create the same character over and over. I’ve known gamers who (appear to) like the GM to do all they creative work, they just turn up to play through the process of discovering his plot.
I know one player who, when presented with a new indie or forge game, is the first in the group to grasp how the game rules work, how they contribute to encouraging a creative agenda, and leads the rest of the group in learning how to play. Then after playing, he points out how much he hates those games, and can we get back to playing proper games like Vampire.
All of which is anecdotal, and thus must be taken with a pinch of salt. But the point here is that there might be gamers for who roleplaying is not a creative social hobby, but is just a social hobby.

Ron outlined three things gamers must be; the third one was:
Quote3. You have to try it out, to reflect meaningfully on the results, and to try again - if it's worth doing, it's worth learning to do better; failure is not disaster, improvement is a virtue

I have a bunch of friends who get together every few weeks to play poker – not for money, just for fun. One of those has clearly been improving since we started, while the rest of us basically haven’t. We haven’t taken the time to learn how the game really works, and what the best strategies are. We haven’t reflected meaningfully on the results, we just turn up to kick back and have a bit of fun.
It’s just a social pastime.
I think it’s possible that for these gamers we are talking about, gaming is just that kind of social pastime. The creativity that occurs is similar to the kind of creativity people show when watching a whodunit or sporting event and start to imagine what might happen next, get excited and start shouting out or telling each other. (And maybe getting creative with their insults at the opposing team, or getting in convoluted debates while trying to establish who has the best understanding of the plot.)

I do agree that the social environment needed for this approach to the hobby is highly disposed to producing the kinds of dysfunctional relationships Ron has highlighted. But if such gamers are not created by the hobby, but are instead naturally inclined to seek such games out, then such dysfunction is just an occupational hazard of gaming in this way– in much the same way that boxers risk brain damage just by taking up the sport.

Seth L. Blumberg

So...Ron, if I understand you correctly, you're not saying that the brain damage comes from playing these games (Vampire et al.), it comes from playing these games in the expectation of creating story. At that point, the product of the game starts to displace your native notion of story, and you are crippled in ways that extend beyond role-playing.

Am I getting it?
the gamer formerly known as Metal Fatigue