Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Mob Rules

Close the city and tell the people
That something's coming to call
Death and darkness are rushing forward
To stamp light from the wall!

Oh! You've nothing to say
They'll drag you away!
If you listen to fools,
The mob rules, the mob rules

—The Mob Rules, Black Sabbath

On Saturday night I attended the final regular-season home game for the Seattle Sounders FC, our local football club. Our seats are next to the section granted to fans of the visiting club. Needless to say there is a high potential for trash talk across the aisle. Since the advent of fan hooliganism, brought to light (at least as far as mass media is concerned) by European football fans brawling and worse in the stands in the last decade or so, there has occurred this sort of glamorization of fiercely-loyal tifosi, and their penchant for drinking, chanting, singing and brawling their way through an afternoon at the stadium. Some intense groupthink and crowd psychology is going on.

The game at hand becomes secondary (or even tertiary) to the activities of the group. So, I found myself wondering, what exactly are these folks getting out of the event? And further, do any of the dynamics of groups like this appear at my gaming table, or in the gaming community at large?

Well, I don’t have players chanting, singing, or hurling insults at one another across my table. Yes, we sometimes toss back a beer or two (wine for some) while playing. But no one is getting drunk or disorderly (amongst the players, anyway. Characters can be another matter.)

Groupthink is one of the behaviors that groups exhibit when they start to try to solve problems while being focused on group harmony at the expense of entertaining a wide variety of possible solutions. (I’m paraphrasing from things I’ve read online, for purposes of discussing it in a gaming context.) When RPG design becomes focused on group harmony and balance, I think some creative, alternative elements get left behind.

Gamers tend to be a relatively homogenous community. This, among other factors, can lend itself to groupthink. As a “crowd” we gamers take positions on our sides of the aisle, just like the tifosi at a football game. We start hurling insults at one another, and generally behaving boorishly. Individuals who express different opinions are quickly labeled and derided by the group. The focus shifts from the action at the table (the reason we all showed up in the first place) to the politics of who is with what group, and how best to bait or flame them into submission. Just like the football fans, we gamers draw up cool logos to advertise our allegiances and stamp them on our blogs like they were gang tats.

I’m generalizing of course — to a point that could be considered inflammatory — which sort of defeats the point that I was trying to make. Essentially, what I’m advocating is critical thinking about the games we play, and how we represent those to our fellow gamers. What kind of respect, or disrespect, do we offer one another to reflect our standing in the gaming community?

In addition, I’d encourage you to take a look at the rules you’re using in your game, and how they’re working or not working for the gamers at your table. Do the rules you use encourage groupthink, or do they encourage individuals to come up with creative solutions to the problems the game master presents?

Most RPG rules tend to acknowledge that people prefer different styles of play. In 4e D&D these different play styles are formalized as roles; Defender, striker, controller, etc. The idea, as I understand it, was to give everyone at the table something to do. A game-mechanical “button” that they could push to participate. I think the game mechanics and the presentation are very well done. However, what I’ve observed in play is that players tend to self-limit to the mechanics of that role or character. Given the “defender” button, that’s all they push.

Class-based RPG rules tend to encourage similar player thinking. Of course classes are one of the major tropes of fantasy RPGs, and they can be an integral first step in the definition of a character. We, the gaming community, go along with class-based systems because they’re part of FRPG tradition. But, are we becoming too insular in our thinking? Are there other ways to define our characters that might encourage more creative play? Or, is the “role” you’re playing strictly defined by the profession of your character?

The Dragon Age RPG says:
When coming up with a character concept, remember that one of the conceits of the game is that your character begins as an unknown and struggling adventurer. You don’t get to start play as the crown prince or an archmage. You have to earn your honors with deeds, and you can be sure there will be a price. So start thinking about who your character is and how he became an adventurer. Here are some example character concepts:

•    A guttersnipe raised on the streets who’ll do anything to survive.
•    A free spirit who fled from an arranged marriage for a life of adventure.
•    A naïve farmer who wants to travel farther than 5 miles from where he was born.
•    The child of a disgraced knight who wants to return honor to the family name.
•    A cynical mercenary who trusts little but coin.
•    A seeker of forbidden knowledge who often acts before thinking.
•    An artist seeking inspiration in dark and dangerous places.
A key element of character creation in the Mouse Guard RPG is the character’s belief:
A Belief is a code or ethical stance. It’s a snapshot view of how your character thinks. Sometimes you’ll act in accordance with your Belief, sometimes you’ll act against it.
Savage Worlds RPG says:
Great heroes are far more than a collection of skills and attributes. It’s their unique gifts, special powers, and tragic flaws that truly make them interesting characters. Characters can take Edges by balancing them out with Hindrances.
The FATE system invokes and compels aspects, which are, “relationships, beliefs, catchphrases, descriptors, items or pretty much anything else that paints a picture of the character.”  An aspect is invoked by a player for a game-mechanical advantage, and compelled by a player to allow the game master to add a complication to an encounter (e.g., a “stubborn” character might have trouble negotiating a diplomatic resolution to a conflict.)

Those are just a few examples of other ways to differentiate and define your character. They could be adopted into almost any existing set of rules with little effort, and may be useful to some players in defining their characters.  By customizing your rules to suit your game and group, you can expand the options your players have to define their characters. In turn, this may encourage more creative play and a richer experience at the game table for everyone.


  1. Why do you say gamers are a "relatively homogeneous group?"

  2. Hey Anna, thanks for commenting! Relative to the overall population, gamers are (in my experience) more likely to be white males who work in the fields of the sciences, or in media.

  3. I used to think that too, but, in the Camarilla, which is the local WoD gaming group, about half the members are women. About half the STs (or DMs) are women and there are at least two females I personally know that can rival any man on rules. We have a mix of people from blue collar workers to attorneys, from tech-support to game designers to office administrators to actual actors. As personal friends, I know more female gamers now than I ever thought possible. Of course, Patrick's Thursday group is all white male, but they are outside the Cam.

    Perhaps horror draws a different crowd than fantasy/science fiction? Who knows?

  4. I should add that there are non-white players as well. Again, perhaps it is the venue.

  5. Very cool, Anna. It could be the genre, or the rule structure (or both). I suspect the tabletop FRPG community could benefit from some of the ideas that other RPG communities employ, which was the point I was hoping to make. The ultimate goal being a richer game experience for everyone.

  6. I think women play rpg's, but tend towards the more social aspect of gaming. That's why they would more likely gravitate to World of Darkness Larping. And games like WoD or Call of Cthulu are more character driven.

    I am, of course, generalizing. D&D does have character development, and WoD has it's share of combat. And that is also not to say that women dislike fighting per se or that men don't like to socialize or explore character development. But I would agree that games like D&D, which grew out of wargaming, tend to be more guy oriented. And I would put my Hero game in that category too. It's more action oriented.

    I would also add that I really really dislike classes. I find it too limiting. Once I choose it, I feel like the doors close on many aspects of customization. I prefer systems where you start with a baseline and spend points on skills (WoD, Hero, Gurps). That's just a preference. I get that there is a logical game mechanic reason for it. I do wonder if Gygax did this because of it's adaptation from wargaming (infantry vs engineer vs artillary). That's just speculative. I have nothing to back that up.