Monday, August 26, 2013

RPG Expertise

CV of Aristotle Bancale
Malcolm Gladwell popularized the "10,000 hour rule" in his book Outliers. The book makes the case that an investment of 10,000 hours in an activity can make you reach master level in an activity. While this is disputed in some cases (natural talent, activities requiring very unusual capabilities, and certain innate limits) the basic idea that "practice makes perfect" (or, perhaps that "perfect practice makes perfect"--or even that consistent practice leads to improvement) should not be alien.

I have been gaming for roughly 35 years. As I have almost unquestionably put in over the 285 requisite hours per year, I am now Gladwell-qualified to be a Master Roleplayer.

If such a thing were even possible what would that mean?

Expert GMs? Expert Players?
Someone once noted that, when it comes to "growing the RPG hobby" the problem isn't a lack of players--it's a lack of GMs*. I don't think it's controversial to say that Game Mastering has recognized levels of mastery or excellence. It's my observation that we generally don't for players with the exception of players who evidence a mastery of a game's rules--and often this isn't a compliment.

When asking if someone's an "expert"--I'm asking myself if I'm an expert--we need to start with our criteria. How would we judge? Let's look at a few axis of potential expertise.

Rules Expert
The first and most obvious place to look is the game rules. If you spent 10,000 hours playing Game-X and were hard-core using the rules (looking them up, referencing them, memorizing them), by the ten-thousandth hour you would likely evidence "mastery" of them. You would know where that hit-location chart breaks down if you use a pole-arm at close range and then can't hit anything but the groin.

You would know that if charging the auto-cannon with 21 people the auto-fire rules for it don't allow anyone to be hit.

You'd know what page to find the Healing Tables For Fire Damage (With Disease) but you wouldn't need to look because you'd have memorized them.

Certainly, if there is expertise in a given game, the 10,000 hour rule works.

But that's a boring question. What does it mean to be an expert player or GM for any game? Can such a thing exist? And, let's be real, there are a lot of games out there where the system just isn't that deep or fiddly. I might get my master's-worth out of Rolemaster--but The Window? I think not.

Expert RPG Theorist!
A great deal of electronic ink and Internet battle has been spilled and waged over the idea that there are several different "types" of play and that these distinct experiences, goals-of-play, and 'agendas' can be used as a sort of set of 'requirements' for your play experience. This is interesting from an engineering standpoint: Quality in the engineering discipline is described as adherence to the requirements.

Generally these categories are something like:

  • Game-ist: you are looking for overcoming a challenge and demonstrating mastery with the rules-system. You want a competitive experience (not necessarily with the other players). You want (to a degree) to "win."
  • Dramatist / Narrativist: You want the game to feel / play like a story. In the Narrativist category you want, as a Player (not a GM) to have the plot turn explicitly on your decisions (No railroading!!). 
  • Simulation of Some Sort: You want the game to feel like "real life"--possibly "real life in a fictional world" or even genre. In other words, things don't happen because they are more exciting or move-the-plot-along--but rather because "that's what would happen in real life."
  • Experiential: that people play for a variety of specific experiential reasons ("I want to feel like I'm an elf!") and while that may map to one of the above categories, really, there might be a number of different modes that could achieve them. 
Needless to say, all of the above are gross simplifications of ideas that some people think are very complex / important. The question I'm posting here, however, is this: if you were given one of these theories--read all the Internet posts on them--did all the research--could you then run a game to those specifications? Would they be "actionable?"

I think the answer is more-or-less 'yes.' After all, while the above theories all break down (in some cases, immediately) on contact with reality they are passable at the 30-thousand-foot level to dictate how a game might play or look.

The problem is, despite what people have said, I think that as a manifesto of "how I want to play" any of these will, in practice, be a warning label. If someone comes to you and tells you they're an X-ist, unless you are a member of that tribe and describe yourself as an X-ist, my experience is that you ought to run.

Why is that? I think it's because most play that I've seen that's been fun is not designed by trying to adhere to a specific set of conventions of play and most of these categories are, in practice, negatively defined ("Don't do THAT to me!! NO! NO! NO! Bad GM!"). They are also subject to a lot of different approaches and not all of them will work for a given person.

Expert Improv
RPG-Play has been compared to Improvisational Theater. The idea that everyone is (a) playing a character and (b) to a degree, at least, making it up as they go along is pretty interesting. There's also an element of having things thrown at you whether you are the GM or a Player. Which ever side of the GM's screen you "sit on" it's generally better to "roll with it" than to be inflexible (in the GM's chair this leads to railroading--for the Players, it's usually power-struggle).

What if being an expert RPGist meant you were really, really good at interaction with others?

What Do I Think?
I've played RPGs with indie groups. I've played Hero Quest online with Mike Holmes. I played Forward to Adventure down in Uruguay with The RPG Pundit. I've played--for well over a year--online with Clash Bowley. I've played at cons. I've run games for church groups. I ran a game for my parents in 2004 when we were trapped in their house after a hurricane knocked out South Florida.

I think (blows on fingers), I'm an expert.

I think, online, almost everyone thinks they're an expert (and not just at RPGs--at everything--read a message board sometime!). 

Of the above list, it's that the last--the Improv one--that is the closest to the truth. Gaming is a complex interactive dynamic and having a spirit of openness and a willingness to compromise (at least to a point) is useful at home, at work, and at the gaming table. What I "get out of play" is a multifaceted thing. If I were trying to use RPG Theory to tell someone "What I wanted" I would have a hard time of it--and I've read pretty much all of it

When I'm playing with someone it turns out that what I want from them is always the same anyway: the best they've got at that moment. I expect a certain degree of adult team-work. I want to be able to call a time-out and talk about things if it feels like the game is going to fall apart (this happened once in the IRC game Clash was running--to dramatic effect--maybe I'll blog about that some time). 

I'd like to have feedback from players when something is working--or when it isn't--but mostly? It's my experience that, just like life, if everyone is doing the best they can then your odds of success are the highest. 

Next Up: What Would You Pay For A Great GM?

* In some formulations the response to this has simply been to do away with the Game Master role altogether--many indie RPGs do this. This is fine so far as it goes--but the resultant game is not a traditional RPG and is outside the scope of this post.

1 comment:

  1. Best post yet, Marco! I agree, Improv is the closest you can get to roleplaying as an experience. Thing is, the 10,000 hours thing has got to be bunk. I have close to twice that as a GM, and I'm learning new things every session.