Tuesday, February 21, 2023

My Life As A Gamer: Fixing The Dysfunction In RPGs (Part Two)- The Workload Dysfunction

(This is the second in a series. The previous post is here.)

The Dysfunction: The Unequal Workload

The typical tabletop role-playing game presumes that the Referee does all of the work, while the players need only show up and participate as the Referee directs.

This workhold disparity is a known issue in the hobby. Many videos on YouTube, articles on blogs and magazines, etc. have complained about how burnout is a common issue for the Referee due to how much time and effort he must put forth week after week. Just as many complain about aberrant misbehavior by players due to a lack of respect for the integrity of the campaign due to a lack of investment in it.

The proofs are many, but one need go no further than that a massive comic book series all about these dysfunctions (and others) not only got published, but achieved a large and enduring popularity such that--in a closing of the loop--turned into its own tabletop RPG and had a boardgame adaptation.

On the part of the Referee, burying them in hobby work means determining where all of the major actors in the campaign are and what they are doing. Inevitable is that Referees will use shortcuts, and those shortcuts inevitably rely on Narrative logic for their justification. The scope of play narrows only to one specific party and what they encounter; for all intents and purposes, nothing else exists and no time exists unless and until the party is present.

On the part of the players, shirking their work means that they have no motivation for doing anything but showing up and either going along with what the Referee presents or abusing him further by acting like hostile aliens in Europe preying upon the native population. One True Party and Only The Table Matters errors arise as natural consequences of this dysfunction organically.

Combined this creates the fetid environment wherein the temptation to resort to Narrative logic to alleviate overburned Referee workloads becomes a strong one.

The campaign setting becomes a Potemkin Village. Illusion of Choice becomes the norm because it's a lot easier to just prepare one series of events and make how the steps are taken irrelevant.

This hollows out the substance of play, leaving only the style, at which point it's a short step to go full Writer's Room and only allow whatever spectacle creates the biggest dopamine hit- and to see how that ends, see the complaints about Current Edition and how failing is nigh-impossible because Muh Narrative.

Burnout on the part of the Referee and disinterest on the part of players contribute to the self-destruction of one would-be campaign after the next. The dessicated husk is now a skinsuit for a demon riding that husk as a puppet, pantomining a mockery of a game that satisfies no one but narcissists and spoiled children- Candyland is more of a game.

How The Proper Structure Fixes Things

Players shouldering their share of the work solve these problems.

The Referee does not need to decide on his own how the major parties in the campaign operate. He hands control of those parties off to the players. He lets them plot and scheme against one another. He receives their orders, administers their actions, adjudicates the interactions thereof, and reports back on the consequences. This is straight out of Kriegspiel.

During this process interactions with uncertain results or that are contingent on other events will arise. These are the scenarios that are up to be resolved at the table, and it is this process by which what happens away from the table (the strategic level of play, by players playing Patrons and running Domains) interacts with what happen at the table (the tactical level, where ordinary player-characters make their presence felt).

These smaller scenarios are just as driven by objectives as the overall campaign play is. Players may play subordinates of a major actor, the major actor themselves, third parties pursuing their own objectives, and so on. This is where the Braunstein influence is most obvious.

This is where most typical RPG gamers will find what they are familiar with as RPG play. Many Referees will run the Opposition Forces themselves, as is typical, but that is not required. For most players, remaining sensible people, this is sufficient to achieve the desired result of satisfying gameplay.

Having the task of running Opposing Forces in the hands of other present players is an option. With the Referee solid in his place as a disinterested adminstrator and adjudicator, fairly and impartially applying the rules of the game to all present, no Narrative logic will be permitted because no player will accept- it is an adult version of "I shot you!/No, you didnt!" being avoided by having a third party on hand to settle things.

Instead, players that want to win will have to demonstrate that they are worthy through exihibition of superior skill and acumen in the moment- and if that is not enough, then hoping that luck favors them when the dice get rolled. Misbehavior such as cheating will not be tolerated, regardless of how it is couched, because no one accepts "You lose because I say so."

With a properly-distributed workload, as Kriegspiel/Little Wars/Braunstein/Chainmail/AD&D1e all promote, all participants make quick and light work of what needs to be done and the campaign will go in directions that no one can anticipate. Furthermore, by keeping the Referee's hands clean and his position above reproach it makes the eventual conclusion of the campaign easy for everyone to accept even if it means that everyone comes to terrible ends because win or lose, it's entirely their fault.

That is what naysayers forget: RPGs are games and games have to end. It may not end well, but it is far more likely to be satisfying played properly than dysfunctionally.

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