Thursday, January 7, 2010

Different Quits for Different Games

I've been thinking about why I do or don't play some games, and the different dynamics of "getting out".

Not Playing Board Games
In the case of board games, I'm pretty open-- a statement of course I have to modify immediately. Generally I'll play most games at least once to try them out, but after that I'm a little more picky. For example, I've found my usual tolerance for board gaming is about two hours. If a game's going to go longer than that I know I have to set up a special time and space to play it in. So I have a number of games I like-- Starcraft, Warrior Knights, Arkham Horror for example-- that I know I'll only get out on the table once in a blue moon. I have several monster games I haven't even played because of those limitations.

But some other games I won't play again-- mostly for one of three reasons. Some games are just really badly done, with runaway leader problems, bad graphics or design. I'd count Wasabi, Heads of State and Phoenicia among those. I won't play those again if I have other options. Some games rely too much on negotiation and risk real king-making. That's why I don't like Settlers of Catan, where one player can make the lives of others really miserable. I'm not against negotiation/diplomacy games-- Illuminati and Senji spring to mind as games of that type I like. However Settlers and some others make it too easy to completely block players out, restricting their other choices. Finally there are some games, like Puerto Rico, Caylus and El Grande that are perfect information games. They might have a dash of randomness (El Grande varies the available action cards) but these are games that some people get really good at. There are optimal moves at any point. Not making those can put you out of the running early. In those cases I don't like playing them with people who really know the games, have studied the strategy. It isn't that I don't like losing, I just don't like losing to sharks who take these things too seriously. When you're learning a new game like this and a player mentions they've played it 100+ times, I know I'm going to lose. I enjoy playing in an atmosphere of parity-- with the illusion that everyone has a shot. It is why I like my Tuesday Night Boardgame group. We're all on about the same level-- though I know that Mark and Jan will pick up on details of the game faster than I will. They're more likely to have a coherent strategy the second and third time we play something, especially if we play it a couple of weeks in a row. But that isn't set in stone and I rarely feel like I'm being blown out of the water.

Walking Away from Video Games
I've got a number of video games that I want to love-- want to be able to play, but my skills just can't match up to them, even on easy. Drakengard, Devil May Cry, a couple of the Castlevania games, Assassin's Creed. I wanted to like all of them, but I barely got out of the gate. They have interesting stories and neat stuff going on, but there's a brick wall I hit right away and I know I'll never be able to move past it. I love Thief, for example. I've read everything I could about that game. But when I can't even complete the first baby mission, then there's nothing I can do. On the other hand, I've got a number of FPS games that I spent many hours delving into: System Shock 2, Deux Ex, and Half-Life come to mind. I played the hell out of all of those. But there comes a point that even with care and practice I just can't move past. And I'm talking about getting more than half-way through the game or even to the last level (Armored Core) and then just being stuck, even with FAQs and advice. So I quit and, in the case of most PC games, time goes by and they no longer run on my machine. I'd love to play Starfleet Command again but I'll never be able to.

On the other hand, for my favorite genre, video game rpgs, I've got other reasons for stopping. I've finished many rpgs, but I've got many more that I just never bothered with. One might imagine that I play these kinds of games for the storylines-- I'm at heart a role-player, so that would seem obvious. But really I don't-- I enjoy the stories as they roll along, but that's a lot of hours of minimal interactivity to invest in. If the story is good (Final Fantasy VI and X, Valkyrie Profile, Suikoden III) then that will give me an added push, but generally I like small constant rewards that these games have. You're leveling, finding items, getting stuff...

...and it is incredibly easy. The fact of the matter is that turn-based rpgs are, for the most part, incredibly easy. If you put the time in and play carefully, you will win. If you lose you can restart and perhaps you've lost a little in the way of resources. But generally if you expend time, you will get success. And that time is often spent in repeated and potentially mind-numbing repeated actions. Me-- I like that stuff. I like inventory manipulation, maxing out stats and hunting down every last tidbit in a game. At least generally I do for a while. Sometimes I'll make it through, especially if the system is friendly and I can slowly roll along with new interesting abilities and means opening up over time. But then sometimes I'll play one of these games for hours and hours and then just stop. I have at least a dozen rpgs, each with dozens of hours invested, that I could go back to finish but I don't.

Often I'll have figured out the system pretty heavily-- how to play, how to maximize things, where I need to be. If I stop and try to pick it up again, then I know I'm looking forward to relearning all of that. And that isn't what I want out of those kinds of games-- quite frankly, I want comfort-- something crazy mindless. I don't want twitch reactions, but a slow progress where I can have some low-key mental stimulation without stress. I'm the guy who has hundreds of hours invested in Civilization and Alpha Centauri but has never played anything higher than the most basic level of difficulty.

For me a video games more of a constant, low hum of entertainment-- a modest challenge event. If it eats up time in a relatively interesting way, I'll keep going. Board games serve another prupose entirely for me-- social interaction and the thrill of the play. I want more challenge there, but I'd rather not play against others with 'God-Mode' currently set. I think we've only quit one board game in mid-play over the years-- by mutual assent. If I'm not enjoying a game we're playing I try to stick it out and hold back too much criticism until the end. There's nothing like constant complaining by another player to crush what enjoyment you're getting out of an experience.

The Dynamics of Getting Out: RPGs
Which brings us to RPGs. There's a common slogan in our gaming group: if you're not enjoying a game, talk to the GM. If you're still not enjoying it after that, don't play. That kind of unhappiness gets transmitted at the table. It brings down the other players and the GM.

But more often than not, I've seen players stick around and turn to a passive-aggressive approach to play. They ignore what the other players want to be doing, cause deliberate problems for the group, play chicken with the GM and, in short, quietly do their level best to short-circuit the game. I don't know if they think they're being clever or subtle, but most of the time they aren't. I was struck by this a few months ago when we had a couple of new players suddenly shift into this mode-- complete with smirks of self-satisfaction, especially when the other players tried to keep the game running smoothly. The problem's two fold-- players confronted on this will usually deny what they're doing and it ends up putting a certain burden on good players who don't want to cause a scene.

In my case, I stepped away from a couple of games in the past because of this. Both times we had players who I clashed with. I spoke to the GM and sat out, hoping that my absence would allow the game to progress forward. So here I quit games I enjoyed in order to keep them going. However, in both cases, the players I had problems with ended up quitting after I left and I was able to come back after a time.

The problem with rpgs, and at the same time something I love about them, lies in how entangled player dynamics can be with character dynamics. I love the play back and forth at a good table. That's something which can make even a weak campaign have real spark. It also means that quitting a game can have significant repercussions, moreso if the group has other ongoing campaigns or parallel social engagement. While I can imagine you could irritate the other players in a board game by quitting in the middle (something I've never done) I don't think it would have the same impact. Quitting a game from the player's side can be taken as a judgment on the group, the GM or even particular players at the table. And frankly, sometimes it is.

When a GM quits running, the situations a little easier I think. Most players know that running a game is a significant investment of time and energy. They can appreciate that a GM may not be enjoying the story, play or system anymore. On the other hand serial quitter GMs who pick up and shut down campaigns can be irritating. We had a GM in the group who could spin out wonderful starting sessions-- great set up, excellent ideas and a good deal of energy at the beginning. However you could tell when his attention would begin to wander and play at the table began to fall apart. Generally we did what we could to keep things running, but always knew it to be a lost cause. Though difficult I think a GM who wants to shut down a campaign really needs to find some kind of hook or closure for the arc they've worked through, especially if the game has gone more than a few sessions. Doing that minimizes baggage which might come back to haunt them latter. I've had the luxury not to have to shut down any campaigns for some years. But when I did it usually cost me players, opportunities and enthusiasm in the long run. I've had some campaigns that I started to lose focus on but I've pushed through and found new hooks and pushed resolutions forward trying to prevent the spectre of another haunting, a dead and not dead game hanging around in the background.

A GM quitting also has the psychological advantage of being the one who has arguably laid the most time into the shared project. Stopping a game there usually says more about the GM's satisfaction with the job done. On the other hand, handled badly, a player quitting can get read as not taking the work of the GM or the time investment of the other players seriously. Yes, it is just a game, but usually it is one that people have put some time and energy into.

So players can get caught in a trap here. Too often I've seen players quit without giving reasons or addressing concerns. However at least in my game I try to make it clear that if players have a problem, I'm willing to talk about that problem. I'll try to find a solution if I can. If they still want to quit, I want them to-- and I'm explicit about not holding recriminations later on. Yet, I'll say I haven't always followed that advice and in cases when I have, I've seen it go awry anyway. I can think of a couple of campaigns I played that I should have gotten out of-- should have talked to the GM about what I wasn't enjoying. But I didn't. The GM hadn't made explicit the kind of contract I try to build and I was fairly sure criticism would not be taken well. So I sat though some truly awful sessions-- ironically in one case to have that GM turn around and go passive-aggressive destructive in one of my campaigns after I'd put up with his.

On the other hand, talking sometimes doesn't help. I've had that fail a couple of times when I was a player. In one case the GM simply laughed off my concerns; in the other case the GM acknowledged that some of the things I wanted from the game could be handled better and repeatedly promised some changes: plots for my character, better handling of my role instead of leaving me twiddling my thumbs for hours and so on. But none of those changes ever happened. And in at least once case when talking to a GM I managed to be overly critical and dismissive of the work they'd done.

From the GM's seat, I've seen failure on that front as well. I had a player who expressed dissatisfaction with the campaign. I tried to work through what he wanted to see and we came up with some things. However then when I put those in the game he ignored them or asked why the hell we were heading down that track. It took several tries to figure out that the player simply wouldn't be satisfied with the game: he didn't know what he wanted from it or couldn't articulate it. As a GM I couldn't fix something he couldn't define.

But I've also had it work, have had players bow out and gotten good feedback from them as to why they were leaving. I've managed to keep other players in the game by shifting things, trying to answer their needs while not pandering or stomping over other people's turf.

GM's need to be explicit early on about trying to have a game fit the players' needs-- and they need to be prepared for the kinds of criticism that comes with that. Some issues can't be resolved, but if the GM establishes the terms early on, they can prevent some future problems. On the flip side, a player needs to take some care when quitting. “It is just a game” seems to me to be just as big a cop-out as “I was just playing my character.” Players should try to identify what's bothering them about a game. Some things the GM can solve (pacing, kinds of plots) some things they can't (genre, other players). In any case a player ought to give the GM at least a shot at a fix.