Heart of a Hero, Mind of a Pigeon


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    Heart of a Hero, Mind of a Pigeon

    Can your characters lose at D&D? Can they win? Do you want a reward, or is play itself your reward? Are you more interested in how your character succeeds, or in whether or not they succeed?

    This week, I’m going to take a look at why we crave treasure, why we might use XP more to track time than to give rewards, and why free will isn't always all it's cracked up to be. Come on along!

    The Universal Allure of Birdseed
    Any game has, as its beating heart, a shifting tension between victory and defeat.

    This is, in part, what separates a game from a toy. A game has a challenge, requires some activity, presents some rules by which you adhere, and rewards or punishes you based on your performance by those rules. A toy is more open-ended and free-form. A game like poker or football or even a slot machine possesses this tension between victory and defeat, while a toy like LEGO or The Sims is more self-directed and self-motivated. Though they might both have multiple complex interlocking rules and behaviors, and both be a lot of fun in their own ways, a game fundamentally has a goal, while a toy does not. If you sit down to an art set expecting an exhilarating competition, you're going to be disappointed, and if you sit down at a chess table expecting free-form creativity, you're also going to be disappointed.

    What this means is that games tap into our biological ability to learn via operant conditioning in a way that toys do not.

    Operant what now? Come with me in the Way-Back Machine, Sherman my boy!

    [ame="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA"]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I_ctJqjlrHA[/ame]

    When we play a game, we play in part for that reward. For us humans, skill mastery and social approval (two types of “fun”) replace the pigeon feed, but the mechanism is largely the same: the game teaches us to do a particular arbitrary behavior (run with a ball, match card patterns, roll a dice and move a token, whatever the game demands) in return for a reward. When we sit down to play a game, we are all underfed pigeons in Skinner Boxes, learning the tasks that will give us happiness.

    Ah, but D&D is different, right? It is often called a game that you cannot win or lose, after all. We don’t give out medals for D&D performances, and we never make someone stop playing. Indeed, there are some significant differences between how D&D (and many other RPGs) condition our responses. However, that doesn’t mean we escape the Skinner Box, and we shall see that this confusion actually might undermine our enjoyment of this hobby.

    I Won Dungeons and Dragons! And It Was Advanced!
    So, how do we “win” or “lose” a game?

    If our comparison to operant conditioning holds, it’s pretty clear that we get rewarded when we win, and we don’t get rewarded (or even get punished!) when we lose.

    From this primordial origin, we can see all sorts of games. Poker, for instance, has an explicitly monetary stake. It measures points and keeps score with literal physical wealth. When we perform the required actions of poker (matching cards, reading other players, predicting odds, etc.), we are rewarded with raw filthy lucre.

    Taking it one step more abstract, you can see a game like Monopoly that rewards us with more abstract money when we perform well. The money in Monopoly serves as a score-keeping device, and when someone’s score reaches 0, they lose. When we win, we still demonstrate our skills at playing the game, and get the social approval of coming out ahead of our friends, but it’s no longer a tangible reward. We can’t go out and spend the money we make in Monopoly.

    Taking it another step, you can see a simple game like Chutes and Ladders as representing a slight twist on this system. Rather than excluding those with low scores, the game serves as a race to high scores, so those who get to the “end point” first win. They don’t usually win anything physical, but they get to demonstrate their skills (in Chutes and Ladders, the “skill” is usually just dumb luck, but still!) and the social boost.

    To take it even another step, you can get a game you play by yourself, such as a crossword puzzle or a single-player videogame. The rules of the game don’t include other players, so you’re not competing with anyone, but you are still displaying mastery of the skill the game is teaching you. When you solve a crossword puzzle, that rush you get is a close cousin to the rush that pigeon gets when they figure out that turning around when a certain image is displayed gives them food.

    When we say “D&D isn’t a game you can win or lose,” we’re usually comparing it to these other games, and pointing out how D&D isn’t competitive, for instance. The players and the DM in a typical D&D game are working together to have their fun, not against each other. The game also doesn’t come to a natural end, necessarily. It would be like playing poker, only when someone went broke, they got to magically create another pile of wealth. It could potentially go on forever.

    Those are very key distinctions for RPGs as a game genre, and they certainly defeat typical notions of winning and losing.

    And yet, when we play an RPG, we still feel that rush of victory, and we still feel the tension of defeat. We celebrate 20s and we bemoan 1s. We roll dice and eagerly await the results. We fear loss, and we celebrate victory…but it doesn’t quite look like it does in other games. Namely, because the victory we’re celebrating isn’t our own, it’s that of an imaginary person.
    This is a key distinction in RPG’s. We personify our game mechanics, and that leads to winning and losing that looks a little weird from the perspective of other games. It is yet another step removed. Rather than accumulate points ourselves, we help our characters accumulate points. Rather than display our own skill, we help our characters display theirs. We experience our wins and losses vicariously.

    Mostly.

    How Will Our Heroes Get Out Of This One?
    The uniqueness of personifying game mechanics in RPGs leads to an interesting overlap in our game with forms of storytelling and performance. We create a fictional person out of our math bits, and then we play with it.

    In early D&D, that was the big innovation. Emerging from wargames (which are more like a typical game – competitive, with conditions for victory and defeat), D&D cleaved strongly to a classic model of winning and losing. Every character had an implicit game goal given to them by the player (unsurprisingly, filthy lucre) and risked permanent, irreversible death to go get it. This set up the Skinner Box: treasure was the bird feed we were trying to get, and running your character through deadly hazards was the way to get it. D&D had an element of skill to it: you could play your character well, or poorly. Characters played well lasted a long time, gained levels, and did not die. Characters played poorly died silly, avoidable deaths. D&D already had those elements of potential infinity and non-competitiveness (though adversarial DMs who didn’t “get it” could certainly be a problem), and it was using personification as the reward for the player. If you succeeded in guiding your character to vast wealth and back home, you demonstrated your D&D skill, and you got to keep playing the character. Fail, and your character was dead, and you had to leave them behind.

    As D&D changed and grew more into something more grounded in the role-playing of the character, however, the player reinforcements stayed surprisingly the same. The most recently released edition of D&D still uses character death, and treasure and XP as a model of loss and victory. XP and treasure are assumed, and character death is severely curtailed, but the game still pretends in the rules that these are the carrots and sticks that are effective for play. Unbeknownst possibly even to those who have been ushering in the change, that’s no longer the case. When GP and XP measure time spent with a character, and when that character doesn’t have a very big threat of death hanging over them, these cease to be things we as players get excited about winning or scared of losing. It’s no longer a high score, it’s just a way to keep the game changing as time goes on, and a way to keep a vague threat out there somewhere.

    What has become more important to a significant chunk of players in these newer editions is individual character goals.

    This makes some sense, when we see the uniqueness of the personification of game mechanics. James Bond and Frodo and Harry Potter don’t really risk death. In the abstract, yes, they could hypothetically be killed, but because they are fictional characters in a fictional story, so you can be fairly certain they won’t die unless there’s a reason (or unless Joss Whedon is involved…poor Wash…er…anyway…). You’re never really worried about their fates. You’re more interested to see how they get out of their current dilemma – how they manage to achieve the victory you know is coming and what, exactly, that victory looks like.

    Our more modern D&D games generally replicate this feeling. You are fairly certain your 4e character won’t die and that they’ll succeed and get XP and treasure and grow and change. What you aren’t certain of is how that will happen, or what that will look like. You want to see what happens to them, as they go on adventures and become a great hero. The question isn’t really will they succeed, but rather how will they succeed. Our characters have moved from possible heroes trying to get rich into true heroes displaying their heroism. We’ve moved from a game-like system of wins and losses to a more narrative-like system of interesting scenes that tell a story. Now, rather than getting our pigeon feed from displays of skill and overcoming obstacles, incentivizing us to go and get points, we get a steady stream of food while we play, interact, and generate.

    What hasn’t been really acknowledged is that these are two rather fundamentally different approaches to getting our pigeon feed, and that this difference mirrors the difference between a game and a toy, the difference between having a strong operant conditioning box to reward us for performing a specific task, and being asked to just free-form play with some LEGOs. They can both be a lot of fun, but if you expect to get one and end up getting the other, it’s not going to be satisfying. They’re fundamentally different sorts of fun, one showing skill and risking failure and the other more open and free-ranging.

    I’m too out of words to go deeply into these different sorts of fun this week, but let me know in the comments how you play D&D and other RPGs according to this rubric. Is it like a game to you, with a strong Skinner Box that offers you only a chance at victory and a functional, frequent risk of defeat, or more like a toy, with less risk of catastrophe but more constructive potential of building something together with your DM and fellow players?
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    It's both, sort of like minecraft.

    You can use the "Lego" function of minecraft and build a world to your desire and/or use the "Survival" portion of the game striving towards the goal of getting better. You can even use the "Lego" mode to develop something with a goal in mind. But even in "Survival" mode, you don't have to work a goal of finishing or winning - you can simply create something and see how long you can sustain it or grow it. And even if you "win" it, that's not the end - you can keep on going to try something new or different.
    "If it has stats, we can kill it." - T.G. Jackson, intro to 3rd ed Hackmaster

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    So, in Minecraft, it's pretty clear when the "toy" phase of play ends and the "game" phase of play begins (when night falls!). They're pretty clearly delineated, which is I think pretty smart design: you know when to expect one or the other.

    In D&D, I'm not so sure there is a strong division. If you don't often risk "losing" in combat (because the game has a pretty low mortality rate), where do you risk it? If you ONLY risk "losing" in combat, does that mean that people looking for a stronger Skinner Box are only going to enjoy the combat part of the game? If you risk "losing" outside of combat, how is that accomplished? Where might D&D benefit from a stronger division? Where do these goals work against each other (ie: "I died from random die rolls, not when it was important!" vs. "There's no real threat to the game, you can't just die from die rolls.")

    Those are mostly rhetorical questions, but feel free to answer them if you think you want to!
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    I generally prefer Bauhaus over Burrhus any day -- but thanks for asking, anyway.

    Having said that, however, I'd also like to respond to the question in the OP, thus:
    Advancement makes for a more fully-realized character, and that's desirable for roleplaying reasons. The XP and death considerations merely tell me when and whether such advancement occurs, so they're mostly a matter of timing for me -- in the sense of "next week" or "next month" or "next year," or "never": they're more a matter of "context" for me than they are a matter of "carrot and stick" (or "bird seed" for the bird-br?????).
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    I sometimes think we spend too much time analyzing RPGs, and not enough time playing and enjoying them.

    Of course, some people get their enjoyment from RPGs from analyzing them!
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    Quote Originally Posted by Kamikaze Midget View Post
    So, in Minecraft, it's pretty clear when the "toy" phase of play ends and the "game" phase of play begins (when night falls!). They're pretty clearly delineated, which is I think pretty smart design: you know when to expect one or the other.

    In D&D, I'm not so sure there is a strong division. If you don't often risk "losing" in combat (because the game has a pretty low mortality rate), where do you risk it? If you ONLY risk "losing" in combat, does that mean that people looking for a stronger Skinner Box are only going to enjoy the combat part of the game? If you risk "losing" outside of combat, how is that accomplished? Where might D&D benefit from a stronger division? Where do these goals work against each other (ie: "I died from random die rolls, not when it was important!" vs. "There's no real threat to the game, you can't just die from die rolls.")

    Those are mostly rhetorical questions, but feel free to answer them if you think you want to!
    Once again, I think minecraft give some insight into this area.

    You can put the game in "Survival" mode and turn off the monsters and still have the risk of losing it - to the environment. (By the way, with monsters on, some creatures are still dangerous during the "day').

    You can starve to death.
    You can drown.
    You can accidentally blow yourself up in mining (No no no! Don't tell me I just left-clicked the dynamite!), or fall into lava (I've done some cussing trying to mine diamond near lava just to accidentally fall to my death).
    You can simply fall from a great height and take yourself out.
    Attack or accidentally strike a wolf that normally would ignore you, and you may find yourself being hunted down.
    You can mine an area to depletion and have to move on (or starve, as above); possibly even abandoning a project because you no longer have the resources.
    Lightning can burn down wooden structures you've made (and of course, you can burn to death as well; you can even get caught in "wildfires" from lightning striking trees and setting forests ablaze).
    You can accidentally bury yourself under gravel.
    You can kill yourself in a cactus maze.
    An iron golem can kill you if you attack peaceful villagers or steal from them.

    Or you can even find yourself carried by flowing water into a lightless crevasse and give up on the world in frustration because you're so deep underground in pitch black that you'd have to have the patience of Job to extract yourself (yeah, that's a personal occurrence).

    And these are just the natural environment - there's a whole additional slew of challenges you open up when you get more than one person in a game and they have different (and not necessarily opposing) goals.
    "If it has stats, we can kill it." - T.G. Jackson, intro to 3rd ed Hackmaster

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    It's still worth pointing out though that there's two ways of playing Minecraft, regardless of the difficulty or the Survival/Creative divide.

    There's 'goal oriented' play, which can be to reach The End, or to build a specific thing...and there's more open 'I'm just kickin' it' play, where you don't necessarily have specific goals, and just hop along from one thing to the next without really planning a lot in advance.

    You can have goals in Creative, or just freeform in Survival. The nature of the challenge changes, but the emotional drive that makes you keep going is different.

    That's my takeaway.

    A similar divide exists in RPGs between play focusing on specific goals (save the kingdom, kill the monster, destroy the artifact) and on just kinda tooling around the game world racking up points/gold/etc.

    Granted every RPG involves immediate goals like quests and so on, but I'm talking about larger, longer-term things.

    My sense is that most games actually traverse from one to another too. Starting out, one's goals are nearly always pretty short term. You're vulnerable, and even generous systems like 4e might kill you. The reward for long term goals is iffy at best. You stick to racking up points.

    Then you reach a stage where you have more confidence, and start thinking ahead more. Accruing ever greater power is still important, but not necessarily just for its own sake. Now you need more power so you can slay that dragon, so you can become king. Not just because you want its hoard.

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    As a GM I definitely run Skinner Box D&D. My players seem to want a mix between the two sorts of play you describe; those who don't want the Gamist side will find my game frustrating.
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    I would say that my incentive is game-oriented in that I prefer the game have more goals and structure than a toy would necessarily provide. I also, however, think that the How is more important than the If - it's my experiences that games built around the If tend to lean heavily on character optimization, whereas games centered around the How tend to let characters be off the beaten path and still be not only viable, but entertaining. If there's less of a need to ruthlessly optimize for every contingency, then the party doesn't need a tracp-checker if no one wants to play one, and they can play oddball combinations like Warforged Warlock that might be mechanically suboptimal but have interesting roleplay opportunities.

    However, I also have to admit that the goals that D&D provides me with (XP and treasure) aren't that satisfactory by default.

    Gaining more money inevitably presents me with two problems: the sheer lunacy of D&D economics, which have gotten harder for me to ignore since my college courses in micro- and macro-economics, and secondly, the notion that if I'm in it for the money, why not just settle down now that I have enough to live off of for the next fifty years (which happens around, what, level four?) Sure, there are personality types that are like money-sharks, moving forward constantly at the sniff of treasure and constantly demanding more of it, but I've met too many of those people in real life to enjoy pretending to be one in a game.

    Then there's XP, which presents a deeper problem: namely, that it can either not change your character at all, since your challenges are keeping pace with you, or it does change your character, in which case, you're playing a different game suddenly. The former renders XP a calorie-free pellet that is dispensed out of the Skinner Box when the lever is nudged with our nose; the latter means that suddenly we're not playing the version of the game we were before, sometimes unexpectedly. The difference between firing a magic missile to feeding an entire kingdom is vast, not just in scale, but in tone (one is pure violence, well-modelled; the other more socio-economic, historically not modelled well in D&D at ALL.)

    This was the core of the 3E-4E debate, with 4E trying to make a game out of the sweet spot, reasoning that if the game is radically different at high levels then that creates the possibility that a player won't WANT to advance, defeating the purpose of the carrot. Frankly, who can blame BMX Bandit for not wanting to play up to the levels where he will be outclassed by Angel Summoner? But critics of 4E say that such a goal makes all the levels feel samey, in which case, why bother advancing out of the heroic stage at all? All the math needed to level a character becomes needless busywork.

    Neither system's to my satisfaction. But I admit, that's just me. There are plenty of players out there who derive their enjoyment from making the numbers higher and they're not having Wrong Fun. I just think that having your numbers get bigger as the chief incentive can neglect or even exclude a lot of interesting possibilities, such as someone who is terminally ill and is not going to be getting any stronger. It may be that I've just hit a certain age - when you're young, XP systems make sense since "constantly getting better at everything" is what you're doing. Past a certain point, that ceases to really be. (Maybe D&D is best served as a metaphor for growing up?)

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    For me, "winning" when playing D&D comes when I play my character well, and in such a way that it enhances the game experience of the other players. When I DM, it's mostly about making people have a good time. Grasping victory from the ashes of defeat.

    "Loosing" comes when my players become bored and can't get into the game. They don't identify with their characters or don't think they can make any meaningful choices. As a player, I loose when my character just becomes this sheet of paper with black symbols on it.

    I am known in my group as a "powergamer" or a "munchkin", but I am not really either of those. I like creating characters that have meaningful choices to make. I dislike creating characters with a "I win" button or characters that can't put his shoe on right. My characters are typically mechanically strong in several areas, of which I most enjoy social interaction and combat. I avoid one dimensional characters.

    To me, D&D is more of a toy than a game. I do treat combat as a game within the toy though. Although, not at the cost of doing something my character wouldn't. I treat social interaction much more like a toy - it's more important to do it believable and in character, than to succeed.
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