This is a compilation of my game theory posts from the Discord of Many Things, my tabletop RPG haven and home online. Since the Discord of Many Things is focused primarily on 5th Edition and my own GMing style is primarily influenced by the Principia Apocrypha, and more generally the OSR movement, these posts will have strong leanings towards those two bases.
The original posts took the form of 16 separate streams of consciousness, so polishing and editing them with links and images will take time. Without further ado, let’s begin!
Opus I: The Pentagonal Model
A lot of people play games. But what makes up a particular game experience? This isn’t really fertile ground for discussion, mostly cuz game theory is sort of a trap – studying the economic principles of game theory, and then the interdisciplinary fields behind game design, doesn’t make you a better gamer. It just makes you able to spout more words, like I’m doing here.
Nonetheless, people do look into this sort of thing, and there are a lot of theories of how a unique game experience might emerge, from strict design theories like that of mechanism design to more widespread psychological theories like classical/operant conditioning. So I’m adding to that pool with a fairly conservative idea I’m calling the pentagonal model. It will be the foundation for a lot of my other Opus posts.
The pentagonal model’s central conceit is that when it comes to tabletop game experiences, any given gamer’s experience at the table in the actual instance of play cannot be explained by any single source, but rather that it comes from five distinct sources. To the layperson, the idea that gamer experience might come from more than one source isn’t controversial, but my formulation might be a bit more contested:
- The Game Master influences the game. They are going to bring their style of running, and that style is going to affect which strategies work and which do not, as well as the overall texture of the experience at the table.
- The Players influence the game. Each player brings strategies, acting quirks, expectations, and their general personality to the table, which in turn affects the way the game plays out.
- The System influences the game. If you only give players a hammer, then the world looks like a bunch of nails. The idea that the system influences player behavior is the crux of the theory of mechanism design, and the particular influences are often compartmentalized by affordances and expected utility. More on these in later opus posts.
- The Community influences the game. This has a plastic boundary condition with what the players and the GM bring to the game, but it’s still worth highlighting as something that designers and players hoping to join a game should be aware of. A game’s text can be entirely milquetoast for example but can have a particularly toxic community, which impacts how many people may view or interact with the game.
- Reality influences the game. This has a plastic boundary condition with every other thing that is listed, but basically it’s the acknowledgement that unlike video games, there is no physics engine or exhaustive programming for everything a player does – a lot of adjudication of what happens is based on common sense and our shared experiences in the real world.
I do want to talk a bit more in-depth about two of the less obvious tenets of my formulation: community and reality.
I do acknowledge that it is possible to completely extricate ourselves from the influence and context of a gaming community. From the origin of our hobby, this has been done. There’s a sliding scale for how much community will impact your personal game, so it can be tempting to strike it from the model and leave yourself with a square.
However, the community matters significantly to the overall health and longevity of a game – just as MOBAs die out without a vibrant player base or if their player base is particularly hateful, so do editions of D&D. Community also matters to a designer of a game – the reason designers take care to work on semiotics, public relations, and marketing is because they realize that without the “down payment” effort on those fronts, their community can take the game in a direction well outside their control.
As for reality – there are some games which actually offer enough detail that it can be argued they do have a ‘reality engine’. Hypothermia, gravity, the speed that gases spread…these are carefully detailed in games like Pathfinder and GURPS. However, in games without such detailed mechanics, we would still understand and find it fair if falling into freezing cold water for a bit will result in hypothermia. Note that if the Game Master says “hey, after 10 minutes, I think you’re going to get hypothermia” and one of the players says “wait, I’m a paramedic, and you definitely don’t get hypothermia that quickly”, this is likely going to be something that will alter the Game Master’s ruling.
If this does happen, as I noted above, there is a plastic boundary between whether this is due to player expectations or GM lenience or a mix of both. The reason I include “reality” as a separate category is as a reminder to gamers, especially to designers, that your players may appeal to real-world facts as a tool when running the game.
I do want to adopt a more casual tone and say that generally speaking, when somebody plays a game and they have this gut-feeling that it sucks, it’s due to some major disconnect with how the game handles one or more of the sides of the pentagon. So in a way, the pentagon can help us troubleshoot things like “Hey in this GM-less game, where are the traditional responsibilities of the GM shoved among the other 4 sides?” or “Do the murderhobos so common to my experience of this game emerge as a result of the system, the community, both, or neither?”
Opus II: Reality and Community, Further Expanded
I insinuated in Opus I that reality and community are areas where a designer must pay more attention than your average Joe. It’s true that when it comes to direct and immediate influences to game experience, Joe can just think about it as emerging from the GM, the players, and the rules.
A designer does not have this luxury. Communities can drastically affect how a game is received. Larger communities can be very vocal about the “correct” way to play a game to anyone who seeks advice online. Similarly, the social reality of communities may make it so that a designer needs to either design for or around aspects of reality in order for their game to be successful. A few sprinkled examples below:
Book of the Righteous explains that the reason its authors created new gods and a cosmology distinct from any real-world religion is because of the conflicts that can arise from attempting to represent real-world religions in an improvised game setting. In every edition of D&D, real-world gods are presented as options for GMs to use. A large part of why BotR appealed to me was that it acknowledged the nuances of real world religions and talked about how it was fraught with potential appropriation to utilize such gods in a campaign, especially if the GM is not from the culture where the gods originated from and one of the players is.
This is not a gaming limitation – Osiris and Guan Yin and Allah are perfectly game-able, and in fact used to be part of Planescape back in 2nd Edition. Rather, BotR acknowledges that sometimes it’s worthwhile to be sensitive to how difficult it can be to represent those gods. I thought it was one of the major strengths of the book.
Now, at a given table, if the GM chooses to run real-world gods anyway, this means that if a player has a religious studies major or has experience within a church, they might speak up in response to misrepresentation. It is not that this is necessarily undesirable for a given table. But it is something that designers should be cognizant of.
Adventurer Conqueror King is another good example of community and reality impacting the way a game is received. Mechanically, ACKS is a logistics-heavy improvement upon D&D B/X with no particular political or social leanings in the rules-text. However, it has proven to be very commercially unsuccessful and socially condemned because of the in-real-life politics of the author, who served as the CEO to Milo, Inc. from 2017-2018. The particulars of this go beyond the scope of this opus, but suffice to say that ACKS, whatever its mechanical merits, remains anathema to many gamers in the OSR community and in the broader tabletop community for this reason.
The final example I present is Bluebeard’s Bride, a game based on a fairy tale. In it, a young bride is wed to a powerful man who uses his position in society and his dominion over her as his new wife to manipulate her. For those unfamiliar with the story of Bluebeard, there are parallels to the first half of Beauty and the Beast. A lot of players have said their love of the game comes from the fact that it speaks to the female experience – that it can be powerful when a game examines sexism not only as an existent feature in the lives of women, but also as a patently dangerous facet of society (Bluebeard, the eponymous rich man, has a room filled with murdered past wives).
The authors dove deep into the occult, into Gothic horror, and into women’s lived experiences to make this visceral game possible. These elements shine through every element of the game: Bluebeard’s Bride is so powerful because it’s so real – it would not be such an acclaimed game were it not so resonant with the subject matter it forces players to examine.
When one tries to discuss the success of BotR and Bluebeard’s Bride and the flop of ACKS, it’s hard to have that discussion if the scope of what we consider is limited to GMs, players, and system only. In large part, the above games are praised and condemned for their handling of reality and history and literature and for the types of communities they encourage and engender.
Opus III: The Problematic Comfort of the “That Guy” Trope
It’s my personal belief that the player isn’t talked about enough in tabletop RPG discourse, at least not when it comes to improving player habits, etiquette, and tactics. We do talk, endlessly, about how the game should better suit and accommodate our players, about GMing in ways to amplify their fun, whether it’s tailoring CR for them or allowing them more agency or letting them be more epic.
It’s not that I want all of that to stop. It’s good to center conversation on positives rather than negatives when it comes to building a community and building goodwill. However, there is such a thing as the “tyranny of fun”. I highly encourage you to read the original rant about this concept here. Yes, the post is harsh and hyperbolic. But there’s a kernel of truth to what is being stated.
The entire idea of “tyranny of fun” is built around the idea that as long as players have fun, you’re running a good game.
But it is rare that we actually are able to have a conversation about what makes a good player. There’s the absolute worst player, the That Guy, and we discuss That Guy often and with much ridicule. But that’s about as far as people are willing to go. This is frankly bizarre to me. In team sports or even in cooperative video games, there’s a lot of effort dedicated to trash talk, sure, but also a lot of effort dedicated to the habits coaches and team members want to see. With tabletop RPGs, more often than not the conversation starts and stops with the trashing of That Guy.
You can be a poor player behaviorally in soccer if you never pass the ball. You can also be poor technically, if your dribble isn’t tight or if you can’t quite accurately aim your shots and passes. There’s ways to improve, exercises to do.
Soccer has a That Guy too, a guy who is so exasperating that he makes the entire game worse, but he usually isn’t talked about. Instead, bad habits get discussed, and the caricature of all those habits combined is rarely mentioned. As a result, self-improvement in soccer involves making individual habits better.
Self-improvement in tabletop RPGs is often a depressingly low bar: make sure you aren’t That Guy, and you can relax.
Psychologically, I get this. Making a caricature is comfortable. It allows us to put more of the onus of making the game “better” on the GM. As long as the group doesn’t have any That Guys, it is the GM who messed up, who railroaded, who didn’t listen, or who otherwise killed the vibe of a session. Or, maybe the system is to blame, and we should change that! Responsibility is repeatedly shifted to those two areas and it is rarely challenged.
The pentagonal model suggests that players have a commensurate role to the GM to the game experience. If players kill non-violent NPCs, that impacts the campaign. They don’t have to be a murderhobo or That Guy – we can talk about this without caricatures. They can kill the NPC for what we may agree are fair reasons, yet this can still change the tone of the campaign negatively. Somebody new to D&D will have a much more violent impression depending on how the execution is explained, and this impression will remain even if the explanation is accepted.
Similarly, if players method-act as dedicated inhabitants of the world, asking about their families, getting involved in the city’s economic engine, and repeatedly coming back to a home base to tell tales and recover, this impacts the game. Somebody new to D&D may associate this with the system or the GM, but the truth is that even if the system and GM change…if this group of players maintains their camaraderie, a new player might reasonably assume that the two systems aren’t that different after all.
My point that players greatly impact the game is a simple one. My point that caricatures are at least partly a product of psychologically comfortable safety nets is equally simple. The solution, that we should talk more about the player’s role in things, is easier said than done.
Featured Images are all cover art pieces. Respectively, they are from the D&D 5e PHB, Book of the Righteous by Green Ronin, Adventurer Conqueror King by Autarch Games, and Bluebeard’s Bride by Magpie Games.