Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Fantasy Objectives (Part 1)

Last week, about five minutes after finishing up my post on Bean Counting, I began writing the follow-up post entitled something like “Adventure Objectives: Yes, THAT…Again.” If you run a Google search using the words “blackrazor” and “objective” you’ll find a bunch of past posts where I tried (without much success) to nail down some amorphous ideas I had regarding game objectives…ideas which met considerable resistance from some readers.

At the time, I didn’t really have a dog in the fight – that is, I wasn’t too concerned with resolving anything regarding “objectives.” I said my piece (such as it was) and let it go, moving on to other thoughts and topics. It wasn’t really imperative that I crystallize my thoughts on the concept or come up with any type of “plan” for anything I was working on. But in writing my Bean Counting post, I realized that going forward with my ideas for a new type of fantasy adventure game would absolutely require me to return to the subject. Because a game isn’t a game without real, concrete objectives of play.

I wish I still had my notes from psycho-physical development class (my Jesuit prep school couldn’t just have “P.E.” like normal high schools). Dragging my memory (freshman year was more than 25 years ago), I can recall that we had some pretty specific definitions of the concepts “play,” “game,” and “sport.” They were differentiated somewhat like this: 
  • PLAY: has no set rules, goals, or time limit.
  • GAME: has specific objective of play (and thus rules to determine how the objective is reached), but no limit of time.
  • SPORT: incorporates a limitation of time in addition to specific objective of play.

There are a myriad of degrees or levels within each category of course. Football (pick your preferred type) is a fairly different animal from competitive bass fishing, for example, but they both fall into the “sport” category. The vast majority of tabletop games (card, board, role-playing, war) are correctly labeled in the “game category” because there’s no expectation of time constraint. You can walk away from it and come back later (if you so choose) to continue the game.

However, for a game to be “a Game” it has to have a specific objective of play and rules governing how one reaches that objective.  Settlers of Catan, checkers, pinochle…all these games have an objective of play and rules that govern how that objective may be met. People playing Warhammer 40K don’t just set-up and move models willy-nilly; they’re required to use standard army lists and follow a detailed order of play with every turn (including the set-up of the board). Contrast this with a pair of children simply playing pretend with the 40K miniatures – or action figures or toys or whatever – with no specific rules (or an ever-changing rule-set based on social contract) nor objectives of play. It might look like a “game,” but really it’s just play…important to a youngster’s development, certainly entertaining, but lacking a level of intensity and sophistication inherent in the definition of game.

Role-playing games are not sport; while I suppose the tournament setting of previous decades injected a constraint of time into some types of RPG play (the wargame styled RPGs of TSR, like original D&D and Top Secret), the degree of latitude given to the “referee” to make rulings, the variation in possible number of participants, and the procedure by which play precedes in-session would all seem to prohibit the “sport” label. On the other hand, RPGs are not simple play; RPGs have rules that constrain play, even if the extent of those rules vary from game-to-game (the rules found in Puppetland are much “lighter” than those of, say, Champions but both have a set of written procedures that provide boundaries for all participants, players and GMs alike).

However, while RPGs may fall into that middle category of “game,” few provide actual specific objectives of play, which is the main thing that distinguishes a game from simple play. Having a set of rules (any extent) isn’t enough…game rules are designed (or should be designed) to facilitate play with an end objective in mind.

And “fun” is not an objective, despite the text of many of these RPGs. Fun is something inherent in any of these pastimes (play, game, sport)…if it’s not fun, why should we take part in these things? For ca$h? Sign me up to be a professional game player!

No, “to have fun” is not (despite the text found in many RPG’s introduction) the object of the game. No one designs a game with the express purpose of making it un-fun. Well, maybe some particularly misguided or masochistic type. However, even designers who write games that are so crunchy as to be near-unplayable due to the extended search & handling time...even these were designed by someone who felt that it would make for a fun game. No, fun is not an objective of play…it’s an expectation.

So then what are we left with? What do we have if we simply delete the line that says “the object of the game is to have fun?” Well, we’d appear to still have “games” with specific rules (unlike wide-open “play”) that directs and facilitates play to…no stated objective? Yeah, for most RPGs, that’s about the shape of it.

No stated objective, i.e. no explicit objective. But maybe there’s an unstated, non-explicit objective to be found…I’ll get to that in a second.

You were looking for this, right?
Dungeons & Dragons, God bless it, does have an explicit objective: acquisition of treasure. In play, the objective of the game is to acquire treasure by exploring dark and dangerous dungeons, overcoming challenges and defeating antagonists and walking that tight rope between acceptable risk and cautious discretion. Which is why, when all is said and done, D&D is a pretty well-designed game, even if it has some warts. We can thank Dave Arneson for this particular design choice: as he described (in his own words) he wanted to create a fantasy game of subterranean exploration for his wargaming buddies. Part of his design process was establishing an objective – a reason for the characters to be doing their exploration. But this is more than simple character motivation (in terms of “plot” or “story”); when you create a game, you need to create a goal or objective for the game because – duh – games have objectives. People grasp this intuitively, even without a master’s degree in “game theory.”

[well, people other than most RPG designers]

A wargame is a game, too, and has an objective: defeating one’s opponent on the field of battle. But this isn’t a very good objective for the basic premise of D&D since the game is A) cooperative (i.e. players do better when they work together), and B) the referee/DM is All-Powerful with few (if any) limits. In a wargame, the objective is (usually) fair because the game incorporates rules to ensure a level playing field (or one with parameters acceptable to all parties). In a game like D&D, the only thing ensuring a “fair and balanced” game is the magnanimity of the DM. And sometime, that’s not all that magnanimous (see Tomb of Horrors as an example).

But assuming the rules offer some guidelines regarding a fair and balanced approach to challenge setting and an objective method of measuring success, you can approach some degree of acceptable challenge. In the case of D&D, you have treasure acquisition as the goal with random placement of treasure (see random treasure tables based on monsters encountered) as a means of making the game more balanced. It remains a game…an interesting one, a challenging one, one that encourages imagination…even though it’s a game that has the strange and wonderful side-effect of creating this escapist fantasy we call “role-playing.”

It’s not just killing monsters and collecting coin that made D&D popular.
; )

[to be continued]


  1. The fact that Arneson wanted to ersatz cave-crawl with his 70s buddies is NOT evidence that the game itself need limit itself to the acquisition of treasure. This falls into the drum I've been pounding this last week; these guys were hardly acquainted with a lifetime of playing roleplaying games at the time of actually making the games, so what they actually KNEW in the 70s is as much as a noob knows now who started in 2012. Less, in fact, since at least a noob can go read stuff on the Internet and discover almost instantly what a bloody noob they are.

    Arneson, on the other hand, having no evidence at all that he actually knew shit about roleplaying in 1975, because in fact no one did, can delude himself into thinking he's some great Poobah of Knowledge, and now others point to him as though he was, and therefore IS, a blessed voice from the past whose Holy Words now somehow prove what roleplaying is or isn't, or what the purpose of D&D now is in 2013 because Arneson was a hack in 1975.

    It's completely drivel, and its about time we started realizing it.

  2. My comment comes three years later.. In which Mr. Alexis probably won't ever see this.. But.. Who the hell cares? The guy help start one of the biggest things in History. Everything has it's place. He's a fucking Hero. Who knows.. If they didn't start it, perhaps no one would have. There's no way of knowing. Or it would have started later possibly. So be grateful, scrub.

  3. My comment comes three years later.. In which Mr. Alexis probably won't ever see this.. But.. Who the hell cares? The guy help start one of the biggest things in History. Everything has it's place. He's a fucking Hero. Who knows.. If they didn't start it, perhaps no one would have. There's no way of knowing. Or it would have started later possibly. So be grateful, scrub.