Worlds of Design: There is No Spoon

Following up on the previous column “You’re Playing it Wrong!,” what should the “spirit of a game” be?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Neo : There is no spoon? Spoon boy : Then you'll see, that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself. --The Matrix

The Wrong Way to Play?​

Can there be a “wrong way to play” in games? This is a difficult question even if we don’t get tangled up in notions of “sportsmanship”.

For video or board games, of course, if you don't play the way the game is intended you often can't play at all. Single player video games are frequently puzzles with one or more correct solutions. If you don’t follow a correct solution to the puzzle then you don’t succeed. If you aren’t worried about succeeding, then you’re still not playing it wrong; but if you want to succeed you’ve got to play it the “correct” way.

If it’s a boardgame you can play it by not following the rules; but if you follow the rules then you may be playing it “wrong” in a sense because you don’t win the game. It’s certainly likely that, if you don’t play according to the rules, the game will not work as well as it could.

It's different for role-playing games. When someone declares there’s “One True Way” to play RPGs, or even to play a particular RPG, then what they really mean is there is one way for them to play, regardless of how they may think of it. Role-playing games, by their nature, are more free-form. And as a result, every game is unique even if the players follow all the same rules. The players involved greatly influence the game's outcomes. It's a collaborative work.

Here's an example of how this works in other mediums: Bob Dylan is one of our great songwriters, and his most covered (played by other groups) song is “All Along the Watchtower”. When Jimi Hendrix played it, it was quite different from Dylan’s own rendition. When Dylan heard it, he changed how he performed the song. In other words, if Dylan was the game designer of his song, he watched how someone else played his game, and then changed how he played it because he thought the changes were an improvement. Having heard both, I think Dylan made the right choice.

So What’s the Right Way?​

Some games are more “robust” than others. The more robust the game is, the better the game will work even if the players get a rule or three wrong, or deliberately change the rules. Keep in mind, players are likely to get things wrong. This is why I include a one-page summary of play (“cheat sheet”) in my board games that some players will read.

RPGs, which are intended to be modified by the players and GM, can be played different ways to accommodate different styles, I don’t treat rules as law. Rather, if I read a rule and question either its clarity or its intent, I ask myself, “as a game designer, what way do I think is best?” Speaking as one of the prominent people who advocated for D&D as a wargame way back when (see Jon Peterson's book "Elusive Shift"), here is my view: there is no wrong way to play D&D, but some ways remove it from the realm of "game" to something else.

In a boardgame, as a player I am much more likely to follow the rules as written, compared with an RPG. Boardgame rules ought to be much tighter, much more well-integrated, than an RPG, because the boardgame covers a very limited situation, and because most boardgames are overtly competitive rather than (like RPGs) normally co-operative.

The Only Wrong Way​

I had a student who liked to use software exploits in online video games to screw up other players, an unfortunately common occurrence in such games. He thought it was funny. I reminded him that his victims were unlikely to think that, but it didn’t change his mind. He was an unusually nice person normally, yet this was “wrong” fun. When it comes to griefing, screwing people outside the rules, bullying, mocking, trolling -- I consider all these approaches to gaming the wrong way to play.

Your Turn: Is there a right way to play?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Kannik

Hero
There might not be a wrong way to play, but there are certainly poor ways to run games.
All games have some flexibility in what you do with them, but when you try to force the rules to do something they are poorly suited for, the game is just going to be much less fun than it could be.
Well put. In addition, in changing rules (including to a completely different ruleset) it's well worth being aware that it will also change the nature of the campaign. For example, playing Mouse Guard using 5e rules, you'll be more so playing D&D with mice rather than playing a/the more character-driven campaign that MG and it's rules structure enhance and are intended for. Even if switching to FATE or Cortex Prime, there are some things that will be lost if not actively replaced or ported over.
 

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EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
Well put. In addition, in changing rules (including to a completely different ruleset) it's well worth being aware that it will also change the nature of the campaign. For example, playing Mouse Guard using 5e rules, you'll be more so playing D&D with mice rather than playing a/the more character-driven campaign that MG and it's rules structure enhance and are intended for. Even if switching to FATE or Cortex Prime, there are some things that will be lost if not actively replaced or ported over.
A game, like anything designed, is made to perform some task when used; its design goal. It may perform that task well, or poorly. This is, as I referred to above, "a right way" rather than "the right way." If it can be used for other purposes...cool! Nothing wrong with finding new applications for existing things.

But somehow, the fact that a designed thing can be used for things other than what it was designed for has become a reason for never bothering to check to see if the thing actually works for what it was designed to do. I find this stance completely bizarre, and the fact that people insist so strongly on it is just deeply maddening. It's like saying that, because a compact SUV can be used for hauling and cross-country driving in addition to being a flexible, high-fuel-economy city vehicle, the designers should stop caring about whether it has high fuel economy or adequate leg room or whatever else.

Yes, you can use a "crossover" vehicle for a lot of different purposes. In a pinch, it can substitute for a more specialized vehicle in various ways. But it should still actually be well-made for...well, whatever it was made for! Being good for an intended task is not, at all, the same as being bad at everything else.
 

RareBreed

Adventurer
I believe that certain game settings and systems were designed to be played in a certain way. I also have never been too thrilled with the notion that games should be fun. Fun is not, or at least doesn't have to be, the be all and end all of any endeavor worth pursuing. So I would argue that "The only right way to play is when you are having fun" is also too limiting of a definition.

Is exercise fun? Perhaps to some it is. Is it good for you? Absolutely. Does it make you feel good after you do it? I think most people (as long as they aren't terribly sore) would also say yes.

Is watching a sad movie fun? I suppose if you have an odd definition of fun. But is it moving and can we learn from it? Hopefully yes.

A game session doesn't have to be everyone laughing, having a jolly time, and congratulating themselves on a victory (even if perhaps there were missteps and loss along the way). A game session can be educational, thought-provoking, inspirational, or therapeutical too.

All my most favorite TV episodes and movies are ones that were usually either sad, or made me think deeply. My favorite MASH episodes were the sad ones, my favorite Magnum PI episode was where (seemingly) Magnum murdered the Russian, and my favorite Avatar episode was where Iroh paid tribute to his fallen son, Lu Ten. Because I watched Asian cinema way before it was en vogue in America, someone once asked me, "how come so many Asian movies end with the hero dying?". I explained that in Buddhism, it is said that one does not commit to seeking the path until one has become truly tired of suffering. Or as Aeschylus said in Agamemnon "Zeus, who guided men to think, has laid it down that wisdom comes alone through suffering".

So here is I think the real question: what do people want out of their gaming sessions, and how can the game system or setting help provide that? The "right way to play" is really a question about "what do people want to get out of this game?". And the more thorny question is "what if some people want a grim and gritty campaign, and the others wants swashbuckling high stakes drama?".

Potentially, you can have the same game system play either style, but the GM may differ in adjudicating some rules, and players will act according to what they perceive as fun and therefore the right way to play. I liked the very detailed and crunchy Phoenix Command Combat System. But I think it would bore players to tears who want quick and dirty action that focuses on the outcome rather than the tactical decision making.
 
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