Reading Apocalypse World also crystallized a few other thoughts for me. This is not going to be a post about Apocalypse World, mind you, but it is at least tangential to it.

Part of the reason I end up dwelling on the importance of setting in play is that I want my play to have meaning. Not in any grand, deep sort of sense, but rather the small, mundane sense of satisfaction I might get out of finishing a good story. The events and people involved may be fictional, but despite that I am made happy that they have faced their problems, resolved them, and brought matters to a close. Life is, of course, hardly that tidy, and the emergence of new problems is fodder for sequels, but those are matters for another day. Today we have overcome, and we have earned our rest.

This is surprisingly tricky in RPGs. A good ending is something I’ve talked about before, but it’s only part of the picture. The problem is this: the GM has an infinite budget of trouble. There are always more dungeons, new threats and fresh problems to throw at players. Since dealing with those things is the basis of play, that’s mostly a good thing. With an infinite budget of trouble, there’s no reason anything should ever get boring. However, it is very easy for that budget to turn into a treadmill. Your victory today can become meaningless because the empty spot will get filled by some fresh trouble.

When it reaches that point, that’s where I get dissatisfied. The treadmill of trouble usually means that any change I can make in the world is transient or meaningless – it’s just new fodder for trouble. In the worst sort of situations, this is why some players end up making lone wolf orphans. It’s not that they don’t _want_ to have connections to the world, it’s just that they’ve been trained that any connections they have will be used against them as a blunt instrument.

All of which is to say, it’s a balancing act. If EVERYTHING is trouble, players have no incentive to invest in anything.[1] But if nothing is trouble, then the game is going to get pretty dull. Finding the path between those things is one of the challenges that every table must face because there’s no one right solution.

This is where I come back to the quest for meaning. I invest myself in the setting so that I can, in turn, find meaning in the losses, victories and changes. That helps me find a path towards more trouble, but gives me some anchors to keep me from going over the ledge (as I perceive it). Since other people gravitate towards different paths, the fact that meaning is such a soft idea allows me to plant a flag in a _general_ area without pinning it down precisely.

The trick with meaningful things is that they merit respect, and respect is more nuanced than a simple “on the table/off the table” split. Meaningful things are always on the table, but in a way that _reinforces_ their meaning, not in a way that simply uses them as fodder.

To illustrate, let’s say your players have rebuilt an orphange. They’ve put time and effort into this, and it’s an important element of the game. If the orphanage is protected (that is to say, immune to trouble) then it’s not going to be threatened by events in play except in purely cosmetic ways. If it’s “on the table”, then it’s now a valid stake in play, so plots threatening its destruction are a valid way to engage the players.

If the orphanage is meaningful, then it can be threatened, but it should not be _existentially_ threatened. That is, the stakes should not be that the orphanage is destroyed or irrevocably changed, but rather that the orphanage is the source of other plots. This may sound familiar to folks who saw my last trick – rather than use the thing itself as the hook, find the things around it and connected to it. This way, the threats _reinforce_ the importance of the meaningful element rather than just treating it as a punching bag for the GM.

1 – Even if they’re willing too, it’s ultimately meaningless, since everything is fuel for the great machine of trouble.

4 thoughts on “Meaning

  1. Cam_Banks

    One thing I believe games with more collaborative (or, hell, antagonistic-collaborative) player structures have over the traditional “party of adventurers braving the world of danger” model is that the GM can shift his role to that of a facilitator for conflict, rather than the infinite engine of challenge.

    Smallville goes right to the core of this because the game is even more about the players than many other games. They are the focus, and are often at odds with each other; it is uncommon for the focus to be on some GM-controlled opponent. Even when there is such an opponent, that characters job is to exacerbate the relationships between the Leads. And I think that can shift attention away from the treadmill a little.

  2. Paul

    This is why I don’t buy the whole “immersion” issue. I frequently encounter people talking about how concern for the rest of the story or meta mechanics interfere with their ability to dig deep into their own character and play the game in a strict, first-person perspective.

    Yet the same people feel deeply invested in and connected to non-rpg fiction without this requirement. This is why I suspect this is a false-but-plausible grasp for analysis of their own preferences; but if you accept the issue at face value, it’s an interesting discussion even if their Immersion argument still falls apart.

    If you only look at things through the eyes of your own character and anything else is a distraction, the game is necessarily unsatisfying if you don’t get what that character wants. Which means you only care about “winning,” which is a problem attitude in most rpg’s; or you’re already building your character with interesting desires, which means you DO have consideration for the rest of the story.

    I think that getting people to expand their comfort zone in gaming very frequently requires getting them to discard expectations OR accept their expectations for what they are. It’s difficult to get people to accept that their tastes are valid no matter what, yet the justification for why they have those tastes is frequently bullshit that misleads them.

    So, lately, I’ve been thinking that games that are more about authorship than roleplaying are actually a better starting point for expanding minds – only gravitating back to roleplaying later. And this makes a lot of sense, because all of the advice I love ends up being FIRST from the point of view of dissecting how we enjoy narrative media, and THEN how it applies to a game.

  3. Marshall Smith

    @Paul – Part of the issue with the need for immersion is the search for meaningful and effective choices. Basically, you want to know that if you choose to turn left at Albuquerque, there’s something there, and that something will make sense.

    Note that this is not always true in the real world. But, fiction is always held to a higher standard than truth.

    When you are along for the ride in non-RPG fiction, you don’t have to worry about things making sense. Because you have no decisions to make. Magic does exactly what it needs to for the plot to advance. It takes two sentences to move from point A to point B, actual distance be damned. No matter what choice the hero makes, it will either be the right choice, or will be wrong in a dramatically appropriate way.

    When I have to make those choices, I need to have some concept of what the consequences will be. That requires at least one of three elements to be true: I get to dictate the consequences, possibly spending game currency to do so; I have real trust in the GM to make it all work out in a fun and meaningful way; the world is consistent enough that I can apply logic and risk assessment with some faith that it is valid.

    It’s extremely easy to go too far. Too much “realism” and the story actually becomes a lot less predictable (and, nine times out of ten, less satisfying). It also can devolve into bookkeeping, engineering solutions, and endless metagame discussions.

    (I seem to be repeatedly failing at expressing my intent here. I’ve tried to comment on this post a few times, and it won’t gel. Clearly, my opinions are not as well-formed as I thought they were.)

  4. Paul

    @Marshall – Maybe this discussion starts off damaged because it’s at least partly a semantic one. I think what you’re talking about is relatability or investment or even game-logic. Immersion, as far as I understand its use when talking about gaming, is the idea that you and your character overlap in the most complete way. You think only of his concerns, and respond how you think would be realistic for that character, regardless of the consequences in the fiction.

    That’s where it sounds like you, specifically, don’t need immersion or verisimilitude or any of the false holy grails. You just have certain requirements for investment. In fact, your desire to know the consequences beforehand as one of your preferences seems to go against every argument I’ve heard in favor of immersionism. So it seems like we’re on the same page to some extent.

    Anyway, I don’t think that non-rpg fiction doesn’t need to make the same kind of sense. In fact, I’m not into most fantasy for exactly that reason – the magic is a very obvious cheating tool for the author. And it’s almost always a tool for plot rather than something that is symbolic or otherwise meaningful. To me, it’s no more ridiculous in other media than it is if nonsense magic dictates events in an rpg.

    I’m also not usually drawn to fiction in which the morality of the protagonists is so clear.

    So I don’t think that having or not having those things in an rpg affect investment, or even immersion. Those things might turn someone on or off based on tastes in genre or something like that. But that’s another issue.


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