Should a guitar play itself?

Recently I’ve been playing some more Dungeon World, this time as a player, kind of coaching an unexperienced GM through the game (it unfortunately requires this, due to the numerous unclarified rules). We’re at our fifth session and we’ve started to really hit it off a couple of sessions ago. Me and the GM often have really nice post-game reflections and the topic of “game as a musical instrument” came up. This topic also came up in a discussion on the La Locanda forum about a third party class called “The Mage”. If you’re interested in the rest of context of the discussion, I can further elaborate in the comments.

I’m not going to claim this as anything original — in fact, I believe I got the entire concept from hanging out here. I would still like to explain my interpretation of the subject here and see what you all think of this. Please let me know if this post is too abstract.

In short, I often see the overall quality of a roleplaying game text defined by how much it’s able to be effectively played just by reading it and trying with little effort. This is often left almost unsaid and assumed. While this could be a desirable quality (ease of use can be a target), it really doesn’t have anything to do with how much fun you’re going to have at the table. The player is an active participant in the game-realization process, which I would describe as reading the text, creating the system by applying it, and interacting with the system by using it.

I also see a lot language that frames games as ‘experiential’, both in the context of roleplaying games and videogame design discussion. This essentially frames the player (include a possible gm in ‘player’) as a passive entity upon which the game ‘experience’ that has been crafted by the game designer is subjected, rather than an active participant with agency, using the game as an instrument and with that interaction making the game and experiencing it.

I’m also rather surprised, because I originally conceived of this mode of thinking as adjecent to Ron’s, but I’ve started to see it as rather divergent.

I’ve also started to see this type of language in all sorts of conversations outside of games as well, and my sad conclusion is that, at least in the culture I’m immersed in, we really have zero respect of other people’s agency.

Being that Ron often frames this as instances of play being jazz jam sessions and the game representing the instruments, I’ve started framing this problem as “Should a guitar play itself?”. That is, is a guitar that doesn’t immediately teach you how to play just by picking it up a bad guitar?

Obviously, a guitar can inspire you to play a certain way and not all guitars are equivalent. I might want to play jazz with a hollowbody with some fat, warm humbucker pickups, country with a resonant Taylor acoustic, funk rock with a Stratocaster-type and modern heavy metal with a 7-string with high-output. Exactly like that, not all game systems are equivalent and they will produce different effects.

However, the guitar doesn’t play you. I can play horrible music on the most expensive high-end Strandberg. A beginner with a Stradivari violin will sound just as harsh and badly intonated.

With this I’m not trying to create some gatekeep out of player ‘skill’, but to say that the way that the player actively chooses to use an instrument has a real effect on the result, and with a specific instrument some methods are just more effective. Which, sometimes, might not even be the ones the creator intended — experimentation is great! But the player itself has responsibility in how they make use of the instrument.

I’ve started to notice that by actively taking on this responsability of “I have to find and create the fun for myself”, I’ve just been enjoying roleplaying more.


18 responses to “Should a guitar play itself?”

  1. Other fields

    To list the other contexts in which I've heard discussions framing people as passive users that are manipulated by the product or work or subject of discussion:

    • Cinema
    • Software API design
    • User experience design
    • Social sciences
    • Government policy
  2. Agency-denial

    In essence, I guess this is the equivalent of railroading or other types of agency-denial (intuitive continuity, etc.), but just from the perspective of game designer <–> game user.

    I've taken a hard look at the question of agency in the last year and I've seen that for me it actually applies to many relationships, even outside of the context of roleplaying games.

  3. A couple observations.

    I have long struggled to reconcile with some design trends that are particularly prevalent in the italian design community; particularly the idea that "focused" play equals to super-engineered and carefully designed procedures that lead to an incredibly specific and extremely predictable experience. If I am not mistaken, it's the phenomenon Ron refers to as "widget games" and it's so incredibly prevalent right now in the so-called indie scene that you'd easily believe it's the only form of "good design".

    I'm seeing designers progressively going from "this games is played out in scenes" to "this game plays out in N scenes" to "this game has THIS scene, than THIS scene, than THIS scene"; and going from "characters in this game are about this and that" to "each player has to cover one of these roles" to "your character in this story is supposed to do this". 

    I'm not saying that there's a good and bad side of those spectrums, but I'll admit that when a game text tells me that my job in the story is to object and oppose that other character's goals, not in a "I'm going to make you (want to) do it without telling you" (good! see My Life with Master) but as "It's literally the only thing you get to do" I pause. Claudio does a fine job in pinning down the issue to agency; I guess that's what bothers me the most. 

    Moving from complaining to proposing something, I feel like there's two layers to the issue of "learning how to play". 

    On one hand there's the idea that regardless of the complexity and quantity of mechanics and procedures in an individual game, one may become better at playing by playing. In this light, it's not about understanding how the game works but learning how to use the tool better. Using the guitar example, it's as if picking up playing was a trivial, 20 minutes issue but we learned over time how to make better music; anyone can play, but you learn how to make it sound better by playing it over and over. What's interesting in this case is that this can be specific to the game played (I need to play X to learn how to produce better play with X) or work across games (the lessons I learned in playing guitar help me when I'm playing bass).
    It goes without saying that there's potentially negative trappins – I played a lot of bass and picked up some automatisms that get in my way of playing drums well.

    On the other hand, there's the idea that a game's procedures do not need to be simple for the sake of simple. I.e., learning how to play a game may be somewhat challenging, in terms of picking up procedures and learning how to use them. This scenario is the "It's gonna take a while before I can play guitar" one.
    I have strong feelings about this – the attitude I generally encounter in roleplaying games discussion is that easy and simple to pick up are sacred, divine attributes that you should never forsake. It's like a mantra – you can learn this game in minutes, there's only one unified mechanic to remember, making a character takes 30 seconds. I enjoy that but I don't mind the idea of more complex games with a learning curve.
    You find this frequently in other, adjacent hobbies. You get better at boardgames the more you play them, and you almost never have a clear picture of what the game is about in your first 10 games. I mentioned playing videogames in another post – becoming *decent* at Monster Hunter takes dozens of hours. This would be a net negative if it wasn't for the payoff of overcoming a challenge and the fact that you take a lot of time because there's a lot of stuff to take account of. Your weapon's sharpeness, what buffs to use, what skills, the monster's moveset. When it "clicks" and you move from being flung around by a 3000 pounds lizard to playing *well*… it's very fun. It wouldn't be as fun without the struggle.

    This echoes our D&D4E experience. We started playing and it felt like a clunky mess of boardgame maneuvers and overdesigned procedures. We quit. I read it again. We started playing again and over time we figured out how to use powers as in-fiction entities beyond their immediate mechanical use, how to use skill challenges to descalate or escalate conflicts, how to use skill challenges and skills in general in combat. We got "good" at it and it became immensely fun for us.

    The question is: could it be as good if it was simplier? Is it just a matter of presentation, or it's acceptable that there may exist roleplaying games that you can't simply pick up and play efficiently, because there's a payoff to that complexity?

    • Could it be as good if it was

      Could it be as good if it was simpler? I think the answer to that is no. I do not think there is virtue (or a lack of virtue) in a simple game. The same goes for a complex game. And in examing the life of 4th Ed, while I am still not sold that it is a good system for D&D (yes it works, yes people love it), I do think the system itself has a lot of merit. I think it is a good design that has a lot to explore and I think this is because it is complex. Complex in that it has a lot of moving parts. But the parts work well together.

      Forge out of Chaos is a bit of a mess; not complex but its a Frankenstein's mmonster with a little bit of everything in it. The system itself is easy to implement and in my experience very hands off during play. But is it a "simple" design? I do not think so, even though it is simple in play. 

      Having a steep learning curve is not an issue as long as the landing spot is smooth. The opposite is another D&D example, which is 5E. It is light and easy to jump into. Roll this d20, add some numbers. Okay there you go. And they restructured magic so it was less powerful in terms of individual spells. But the landing spot is more complex, because as characters rise in level and as content available to the player is added, the game gets more confusing. I still find it playable, but its never smooth. Of the two, 4e is probably the better machine than 5e. 

    • One comment here Lorenzo, as

      One comment here Lorenzo, as something you said was helpful in clarifying something I've been thinking about.

      I'm not saying that there's a good and bad side of those spectrums, but I'll admit that when a game text tells me that my job in the story is to object and oppose that other character's goals, not in a "I'm going to make you (want to) do it without telling you" (good! see My Life with Master) but as "It's literally the only thing you get to do" I pause.

      I would, personally, put games designed to 'nudge' players toward a specific behavior, consciously or no, on the same spectrum of 'widget' games. Here's how I'm thinking about it (and please do feel free to disagree – this is my first time working through this idea & it's in process).

      It's akin to mobile app design, where users are encouraged to perform a 'fun' behavior (launching the Angry Birds, aligning the gems, etc.) in order to encourage a 'real' (monetized) behavior, like viewing ads, that isn't acknowledged as the goal of the app.

      Compare this to design tools like (say) InDesign. Obviously there's still profit motivation there. But the program is there to equip a conscious user to accomplish their own design goals. And success in the space is measured by how successfully the program equips its users to, well, design things. Most importantly, InDesign benefits from a community of conscious, aware users. Whereas Angry Birds, Twitter or what have you suffers as its users become more aware of the underlying design.

      I'm thinking of Burning Wheel Gold as an exemplar of this latter type of design. There are certainly 'emergent properties' to the system, but these aren't designed (or presented) as ways to entice stubborn/'trad' players (insert whatever grognard du jour you like here) with the offer of cake (i.e., 'fun' mechanics or incentives) if they eat their vegetables (i.e., roleplay 'well,' in whatever way a specific design community has defined it). The rules and procedures are presented very transparently as instruments players can and should reach for in play, with the guarantee that they are designed to work.

    • Noah, I really like how you

      Noah, I really like how you put this. As a software developer, I struggle with the exact problem you described when talking to designers on how to design tools.

  4. Music is the Goal; Agency Improves the Song

    There is more to play than the instrument. System matters, I think we can all agree on that and the system needs to be something that you can put your hands on throughout the game, without need to make major alterations to allow for play. 

    But system is not all that matters, because the end goal is a shared experience that transceneds the system and the experience of the players. In solo games, this would be something that transceneds the individual's experience. The end goal is not system; the end goal is play and system is only part of that. The end result, that play experience, is what matters most. 

    Music comes from sounds and thoughts and ideas. The inspiration for actual music comes from a lot of different places and the approach to it comes from a myriad of places as well. Through instruments we express the sounds and turn it into a song. A song that has a unique quality to us even if its the same notes and chords and presentation. Hell even if its the same basic instruments.

    There is a YouTube channel which is put up by a music school, where kids play rock and metal songs, most of them what we might term "classic".  At some point they had several different groups, though some members were in more than one group, play Tool's The Pot. To say I was blown away by the different approaches to the song would be an understatement. Different instruments (system), different approach (player experience), same song. Well, same words, not sure its the exact same song (a matter of personal debate).

    Glorantha is the song or song-style. Runequest, HeroWars-Heroquest-Questworld, and 13th Age are the different collections of instruments and presentation available. System matters but we get too hung up on it, because system is not all that matters. 

    So what does this fuck all have to do with agency? Much like play, agency is a more nuanced topic than a simple, has it or does not have it. Because agency is a cart and the horse that draws that cart is consent.

    Now, I am not talking (or just talking) about the current topics of consent with regard to social dischord and bullshit behaviors. I am talking about (informed) consent when it comes to choosing an instrument (system) to play with. And to some degree this is a spectrum, as running a convention game does not allow for the depth of discussion as running something here at Adept Play or in your mom's basement. 

    Informed consent is knowing something about the system and the situation. If novices are invited to play, then informing them of what system is being used and where they can find it or at least some version of it, is important to providing the player actual agency. A player can and will agree to a narrow definition of play, if they are afforded the proper information. It is when a player consents to play without being properly informed of what their potential options are that agency is lost.

    And it is true that some systems are easier to provide informed consent than others, but that does not mean that a more complex system is consent-averse or agency averse. It just means providing informed consent takes more work. 

    I do not think you can just look over a game and decide if it gives players agency or not. I do not think agency is synonymous with having a wide variety of choices. Within the realm of rpgs, agency is the ability to have an affect on play through the medium of the character and whatever authority goes along with that. I am also of the opinion that agency as used is part of the GM vs. Player dynamic, because in my experience discussions on player agency are always about player agency and the zero-sum game of taking authority from the GM-figure to let players have more control. If we are talking player agency, this needs to include that player doing the GM tasks, whatever that systems assings these tasks to be. 

    I think informed consent leads to greater player-agency and thus to better play. 

    Here is a YouTube search where you can find the O'Keefe school students playing five different versions of The Pot

    • Hey Sean,

      Hey Sean,

      I was following along with your comment until you started mentioning informed consent. I'm really not sure I follow.

      Please correct me if I've misunderstood you, but are you suggesting that by proposing to play a roleplaying game without explaining it properly one is essentially committing some sort of socially violent act? This proposition seems rather … troubling to me, and not at all what I intended in the opening post.

      What I was trying to talk about is the relationship between one who designs a game text and one who consumes a game text to play it, and how that game text may be called good or effective by each of them. The discussion regarding agency is purely 'internal' on the part of the game writer (or the critic making a value judgement), i.e. not in the sense that they are actively removing agency from the game user as a person, but that the design or evaluation framework are axiomatically framing the user as lacking it — which I consider just wrong, in the sense of not true.

      I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say, rather than muddy the waters further.

    • No, informed consent in this

      No, informed consent in this case is not talking about a socially violent act. In this case it just means that everyone is infomred about what is going on before making decisions. 

  5. A few thoughts

    1. Back when I was participating more in conventions and gaming clubs, I played a lot of games on the "widget" side of things. They tended to be reliably fun and especially good when playing with people who had never played games like these before. But when I would play S/lay with Me (which due to its focus makes it superficially appear similar to some of the widget games) in those settings, the results were almost always not-quite-satisfying; it was harder to get into the rhythms of the give and take required, and there was more room for us to make choices that aesthetically didn't gel. However, I "burned out" of playing those widget games rather quickly (they seemed too much the same thing and were so "reliable" that it didn't seem to make a difference with whom I was playing), whereas S/lay with Me is something I've continued to pick up and try to get better at (and having just picked it up again recently after a few years away from it, I'm definitely feeling rusty again). The risk of playing a game where you really do have agency is that you may not be good at it and that it isn't "reliable". 

    2. As I mentioned in the "what have we learned" reflection video, one of my big insights of the last year or so of participating here came about from watching the videos of the Darkurthe and Undiscovered games and then playing Legendary Lives and Forge: Out of Chaos: basically, that though I understood on a cognitive level what Ron had meant by his metaphor of a system being like an instrument, it wasn't until my experience playing and watching play of these Fantasy Heartbreakers that I "got it" on an instinctual, fully-felt level.  Because it wasn't simply a case of "we're good players so we can make even these games fun" (a line of thinking that veers close to "system doesn't matter"), but, rather, despite surface appearances, these Heartbreakers actually are instruments that can make good music (they have all been thouroughly baked through playtesting) though they don't come with all the instructions on how to use them to best effect.

    3. Maybe this is tangential, but as someone who has a real appreciation (if not an outright preference) for complicated systems it kind of bugs me that the standards in this hobby/activity are such that it is generally accepted that only one person ("the GM") really needs to understand the system. That really isn't how it works in boardgaming or wargaming, where even though there is a spectrum of complexity among various games, there is still an expectation that it is on you to develop your skills at the game and you are not expecting someone else to do that (potentially) heavy lifting for you.

  6. Communication of System

    One thing I see that has an influence over this notion is how the system is communicated to them in the first place. There is a strong oral tradition in RPGs where the game is explained verbally and learning is conducted in play (with or without some degree of structured progress). Jon Hasting's third point is one example of this where the expectation seems to reside on the GM getting and learning the rules alone, and then teaching the others to whatever extent that group requires for their fun. Jon's point matches my own experience about other table top games – there are a lot of people who are willing to show you a game and invite you into a community, but the onus is on you to learn to play it and perhaps to learn to play it well. 

    How the game's text is written directly impacts that learning experience whether each player chooses to read it or if it is foisted off on one player to handle and disseminate, and we can see an interesting divide among game writers about how that can be undertaken. We see text organized in a linear fashion with degrees of thought given to the sequence of presentation of concepts. This has utility – when done well – in aiding initial learning at the surface level, but can — unless done very well — interfere with deeper learning from review and interaction with the text in play. The advantage is that the game is perhaps easier to get to the table than some other approaches. The reverse, organizing the material for ease of reference, is understandably harder to grasp in a coherent fashion and that has an impact on getting the game to the table at all. However, once in use, expanding the groups understanding is much easier as specific concepts are easier to find and verify or simply add to the play experience. 

    On top of these writing decisions we have decisions about simply conveying the rules or in also conveying elements such as procedures for play and the context in which those rules and or procedures were produced. Further, we have the tone in which the author writes the book, such as to approach it like a conversation, thereby sacrificing efficiency in hope of gaining interest, or to approach it like a technical manual in hope of easing reference. 

    The hobby is rooted in its texts and how those texts are made and then allowed to interact with groups and that has a significant influence on if and how a given game is played at all. 

  7. Should a guitar play itself? No

    (this may be beside the point, in that case, ignore me) for starters, I’m neither a composer nor a conductor, but I’m a musician, classically educated, and my main instrument does not loan itself to orchestra or band – play. It is very much a solo thing. That said, I can play the piano good enough for it to help me along and I have found that I can sing good enough to be a background singer. I have an opinion about how to learn new instruments, which is: no instrument should play itself, that would make it a toy and very boring. Part of the joy of playing an instrument is learning to master it. For that you will have to invest time and a certain amount of energy – and yes, it will get frustrating, you will want to quit but on the other hand, you will experience those sweet moments when everything clicks and the tune you hear is perfect. The best of it? It never ever will sound the same twice.
    To get this around to rpg’s – I’m one of those players that like to read and understand the basics of a game befor starting to play it. That is, understand in theory, which normally is a long way from being able to apply rules instinctively or not having to look things up. There is a couple of things that do make that process easier for me – but let’s keep in mind that there are a lot of different ways to learn, some people are fine with just reading, some have to hear things or write them down to be able to comprehend and remember and some just need the hands-on experience to truly understand. For me, and that is maybe because I have been playing board games all my life, a “sheet with a short description of the main rules” and an annotated rulebook with the details (preferably in alphabetical order) and a detailed register is perfect. I like it when the setting/flavor/background, whatever you want to call it, is separated from the rules and at the beginning of everything.
    But if none of the above is there I will still try it, there is a lot of ways to comprehend what is difficult to grasp, underlining text, bookmarks, comments along the margins, all of that will help. But, however much I try to prepare, how perfect the composition may be, whether the result of me playing with others will be music or noise is depending on what we as a group can make of the sheet music – and if we are really lucky – we may end up with a jam session that blows the roof of the club. If you are lucky you will have a teacher or mentor that helps you along when you start to learn an instrument. One advice, look for an instrument you want to learn to play, don’t buy a ukulele just because everybody tells you it is easier to learn and remember, not everybody who likes music has to become a professional musician. In the end it is all about having fun together.
    Please, do not give me a toy, I may play with it, once, then it will just gather dust somewhere under my bed. Give me a real instrument and teach me to play until I feel competent enough to continue exploring the world of music on my own.

  8. Should a ball kick itself?

    Interesting analogy. I don't think of a game system as an instrument. I think of it more like a toy. A good toy teaches one how to play with it, by how it responds to the things the user tries with it. A ball bounces pleasingly. A stick rewards poking, slashing and scratching. A teddy bear is soft, and its expression can seem almost responsive to the words spoken to it.

    Obviously a boardgame is a little closer to what an RPG actually is. Many of those suggest ways to play them, even without a full (or any) grasp of the rules, and even those who do understand the rules might see other ways to spice them up.

    All I ever wanted from D&D was that it work out of the box and react in interesting ways when I tried things. Often, I have more fun just reading and imagining it, than actually trying it, the way someone might love a baseball and bat for how it "contains" the idea of home runs. 4th Edition D&D has come closer for me, more than any game since I started in the late 80s, to being fun even when the people involved don't quite understand all the rules or aren't very good at it.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot

      I've been thinking a lot about how to reply, and then realized I needed to ask you.

      So … are you looking for an ideas-on-ideas comparison, or not? I realize I don't always have to do that, nor do I always particularly want to. If you posted to state your piece, to let it reside there for others to ponder, with no need for a confrontation of ideas, that is totally all right.

      I actually sort of hope that you would prefer this gentler, pondering status for the comment. I have a term for my mind-set for the alternative, "the cestus," and I am not gentle. The result is not one of those fun pass-the-popcorn rants that dipsticks on the internet are always looking for.

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