Friday, September 16, 2005

General gamism #1

This is the heading under which I will discuss what you might call games theory. Longtime readers might recall that I touched on this from day 1 here at RD/KA! . Otherwise, you might’ve noticed the odd aside in which I expressed games-theoretical opinions in other articles. I would even go so far as to venture the hope that some regular readers will have been waiting for just such an article as I now propose to deliver.

So, without further ado: RD/KA! presents the first of JMcL63’s discourses on ‘General gamism’:

Player use of non-PC knowledge: metagaming munchkinism; or sane and sensible roleplay?
This theme is immediately inspired by 2 things:
  1. Andy P’s witty remark about the ‘4th wall’ in response to an early ‘My little Old World’ column.
  2. My subsequent experience of the issues Andy’s remark raised while GM’ing my WFRP2 campaign.
What I intend to expound are my thoughts on the apparently quite widespread opinion that there is a conflict between: good roleplaying, on the one hand; and players’ use of their own (ie. not their PC’s) knowledge of a given setting or system during play. In other words, the opinion that if a PC don’t know it, the player can’t use it.

My attitude to this can be summed up quite straightforwardly: the pox take anyone who tries to belittle my (or anyone else’s) roleplaying because I am willing to use my non-PC setting and/or system knowledge to roleplay more effectively and entertainingly (not always as synonymous as they might appear btw).

In my- admittedly limited- knowledge of contemporary roleplaying theory, this kind of play is typically stigmatised by 1 of 2 terms. These terms are: ‘munchkinism’ and ‘metagaming’. The application of these terms seems to vary according to:
  1. The kind of player whose roleplaying is being so done down.
  2. The kind of player who is dishing out the doing down.
I won’t be spending any more time on that stuff. Except, that is, to issue an obligatory and fairly obvious disclaimer: rampant munchkinism (a.k.a. powergaming) is A Bad Thing. So is rampant metagaming. But so, also, is rampant pretty much anything else in roleplaying, according to the old nostrum- “too much of a good thing”. (NB. Even that disclaimer needs its own disclaimer, but I’ve no intention of falling into the fallacy of the infinite regress in RD/KA!’s first ‘General gamism’ column.)

Anyhoo, to my point. It seems to me that this particular brand of roleplaying One-True-Wayism (OTW Ultra-Immersion Theory… hmm, that has a nice ring to it… OTWUIT - crap acronym though); anyhoo, this UIT strikes me as fallacious on 2 counts:
  1. It is psychologically implausible- for the players
  2. It is psychologically implausible- for the PC’s.
Is that too cute? I don’t know. I’ll take these in turn, as is my wont.

Impossible demands on players
In essence this is not a complicated matter: it is psychologically impossible to erect an impermeable mental barrier between your own setting/system knowledge, on the one hand; and your PC’s notional self-consciousness, on the other. To attempt to do so is frankly barking; to succeed would be quite literally schizoid.

Moreover: GM’s make use of precisely this kind of knowledge, if they are any good at their jobs; eg. designing NPC’s tweaked to a given PC’s weaknesses. If this is fair- indeed: to be expected- as GM, why should the exact same mode of play be considered intrinsically unfair as PC?

This is to begin to home in on the gist of my dislike of this stance. What I mean to say is this: even if a hardline application of UIT weren’t to reach genuinely psychotic extremes, it strikes me that it would be the kiss of death to enjoyable roleplaying in any event. Why do I say this? Because it invites- if not actually requires- players to become their very own ‘thought police’, in the service of their very own ‘Big Brother’- the exact opposite of free creative expression in other words. That this is to take place in the pursuit of a psychologically impossible goal strikes me as a somewhat disturbing addendum to thinking that is, in the end, really rather counter-productive.

Part of what I mean to say here falls under the next topic. The other part is this: if, as I argue, this UIT is indeed psychologically impossible, then why get so twisted up over player use of non-PC knowledge? Just like anything else that is inevitable in roleplaying, good players- be they GM or PC- will simply take it for granted, and exploit it for maximum entertainment value.

Hamstringing PC’s
In a roleplaying game PC’s are inherently limited by virtue of what they are: ie. abstract constructs in pencil and paper (P&P) rpgs. They have no sense of self, no senses, no independent perceptions- nothing. Sure, a good GM will try to compensate for this, try to bring the PC’s immediate surroundings and their wider world(s) to life as vividly as possible. But at the end of the day even the greatest GM’s will be both limited and partial.

Limited: because they cannot simulate even a fraction of the real modes of experience (of ‘reality’, not EP’s, you munchkins!) that PC’s necessarily lack. Partial: because GM’s have no choice but to focus on the particular mote- of that fraction- that suits their own immediate purposes in the game (and hopefully everyone else’s too).

What these remarks amount to is an argument towards this conclusion: UIT is bad thinking because precisely what it disparages is the great equaliser in the situation outlined above. That is to say: the sole conceivable means available to players to give them a real form of knowledge enabling them- to some degree- to circumvent the inherent limitations of PC’s as gaming constructs. In other words: a kind of knowledge which- in substituting for all the inevitably lacking modes of experience of a real, thinking being- can give depth to PC’s and bring them to life (subject to all the all-too-familiar disclaimers, naturally enough).

According to the case I have here presented, there is a widespread consensus among a section of roleplayers in favour of a conception of intelligent play in roleplaying that is simultaneously psychologically inane (which is being kind) and crippling to rich play of PC’s. There is a definite subtext to this it seems to me: disabling the PC’s; which can, perforce, only spuriously empower the GM. And this in the name of good roleplaying? I beg to differ.

My fellow blogger RPGpundit has already had much to say about this fairly obvious subtext to this thinking. I have to confess that I sometimes shudder at his invective. But I’ve always agreed with his arguments.

Corrected link leading to wrong page.
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