custom tailored challenges: a case of nested social contracts

Oddysey at How to Start a Revolution in 21 Days or Less goes over a number of interesting points about combat. She made me think much about the aesthetic of RPG combat aspects and why we still have the “problem” of uninteresting fights (more about this later).

One of her conclusions, that in some games players like fights because that’s where “the fun” is, strikes true on a group recovering from years of d20 campaigns. ECLs and CRs are there to hint at what a “bespoke challenge” for players is, in a way justifying the inclusion of the fight in the adventure as some kind of social pact: players know that the DM will have put in the adventure plot/locales fights that the group can actually not just overcome “somehow”, with tricks and smarts, but also with the use of violence.

Players will hopefully be in “flux zone”, struggling and ultimately succeeding (winning) their fights, while the GM will have satisfied players: a clear win-win situation. This is possible because RPGs support well the use of violence, with clear rules, but the same could apply to any reliable system to handle challenge. Reliable game mechanics support entwines with reliable custom-made content to ensure that all challenges are approachable by the party.

I’d go further on and say that this kind of gaming leads to different options like retreating, parlay and outsmarting the opponent stopping being meaningful because they’re more complex, more unpredictable, more like hard work than simply doing it the “right” way. More like “The game master prepared us a nice (and safe) way to handle the situation, why bother looking for something risky?”.

This is pure railroading: not in the plot-space but in the ludeme-space (as in “the base elements constituting a game”). But the usual culprit, the Demiurge-GM, this time is not entirely at fault (as if we are entitled to speak of fault) as the players want to win he (mostly) wants to create interesting worlds full of interesting people to kill and plots for players to follow.

How did I ever manage to end up in this situation? How did we?

For years, my problem has been perceived lack of player goodwill. I didn’t feel I could afford to disappoint them and to make them feel insecure that we would have a good time playing together. So I created a safe environment for them to play in.

Safety is, for me, a defining element in games. I roughly define games as some kind of “magic circle” where a social contract is in effect: players can behave in given ways and, if they do, their actions bear no consequence whatsoever on the outside of our little “magic circle”.

Inside the game there is no need for a safe environment as the game itself is already a safe environment.

Do we really need that? Do we really need assurance that our PCs will not horribly die? Do we really need a special world within a special world to ensure that the players won’t wreck the campaign world?

What are we going to lose? Security and reliability.

And what are we renouncing to? We’re limiting ourselves to the known and the acceptable. We’re renouncing emergency. Emergent campaign plots in game worlds filled with unknowns, there just to be explored. Not just unknown settings, but also unknown ways of playing.

The Holy Grail of RPGs or, if you want, how they came to be. Braunstein, Blackmoor and Greyhawk are results of broken social contracts.

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