Pulsipher Game Design

This blog contains comments by Dr. Lewis Pulsipher about tabletop games he is designing or has designed in the past, as well as comments on game design (tabletop and video) in general. It repeats his blog at http://pulsiphergamedesign.blogspot.com/
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A Lesson in Absolutes

Lewis Pulsipher
United States
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Microbadge: Constantly thinking about game designMicrobadge: WriterMicrobadge: Game TeacherMicrobadge: Britannia fanMicrobadge: Dragon Rage fan
This comes from the pandemic but can be applied to game design as well. In the pandemic the general advice from medical people is that you need to wear a suitable mask and stay at least 6 feet away from other people, and that will go a long way to keeping you safe from the coronavirus. This is where the absolutes come in. People seem to think of these as absolute limits, but they're not. Somebody somewhere decided that 6 feet was good enough. And maybe the risk there was 95% risk free or 99% or even much better. But somebody had to decide that this was good enough. Because you can be much farther away and still get the virus, or you can be closer and not get it.

In the same way masks are quite variable. There are masks that are a certain standard that we hope medical people are able to wear, that is supposed to protect them very well, whereas some homemade masks are not going protect people well at all. As I understand it the coronavirus has very small airborne elements and if a mask isn't good enough the airborne elements can get right through the mask. But instead we get this absolute idea that it’s perfect. No, it’s not certain protection, it's just that a mask helps a lot.

Washing hands isn’t perfect either. It's a good thing, but it's not perfect, and of course it depends on how well you wash your hands. Washing hands for five seconds is not as good as if you wash your hand for 20 seconds, using soap in both cases.

Now how do we apply this to games? Games of most types have absolute rules: either you can do it or you can’t do it, although sometimes miniatures seem a bit different. I remember Don Greenwood saying that miniatures rules seem to be negotiable. Role-playing games can be similar. In fact you can see the entire play of RPGs as a negotiation between players and the GM. Of course, poorly written rules aren’t absolute, there’s wiggle room or room for misunderstanding. You want your rules to be absolute, but in practice if 99% of the time they’re understood correctly, you’re doing well.

(I ignore the wannabe rules lawyers who proclaim that if the rules don’t say they cannot do something, then they can do it. Nonsense.)

I've also observed that gamers are much less likely to change game rules (whether via House Rules or formal variants) than they used to be. It used to be very common for people to make variants of games. I made bunches of Diplomacy variants as I learned game design. A lot of the RPG material that is published is variants of existing RPG rules. I believe people today are much more likely than in the past to accept the rules of a game they buy as absolute rather than something that can be changed. In older days a lot of people would change the rules to make a game work better, or at least work more like they liked it. Nowadays they give up on a game and move on to the next game. (This is partly a function of having so many more games to work with than we did 40, 50 years ago.)

I think it's also a broader attitude. For example, there is a notion/habit with toys that you don't make up stories for your toys, you use the stories that have already been created by the publisher or the fiction the toys are based on. Whether it’s G.I. Joe or Barbie or Star Wars or something else, many people expect the corporation that released the toy to provide all the stories. In a sense they believe the corporation is still the owner of the toys. Or look at the attitude toward board game expansions. People won’t change the rules until an expansion comes out, then they expect everyone to play with the expansion. Because the corporation (publisher) says so.

It's a very different attitude to what older people are used to.

Originally, the above is all I had to say, but I’m going to add how this belief in absolutes affects in-person game conventions, as I keep hearing about one intended to take place before the end of February. There seems to be a notion in some quarters that as long as you spread people out and they wear masks they can safely attend an in-person game convention, that is to say spend several days indoors with a lot of people, staying in a hotel, and eating in restaurants (the latter being two of the five best places to catch Covid -19 because there are a lot of people confined in an enclosed space). This notion seems to stem from the absolutes I’ve been talking about, as well as from a mysterious refusal to recognize that more than one in a thousand Americans is dead from this disease.

Getting infected with an airborne disease is not an absolute yes/no proposition, insofar as the more exposure you get, the more risk you take, the more likely you are to get infected. Six feet is not absolute protection, it just reduces risk to a level that someone thought was “sufficient.” The more time you spend even at that 6 foot range, the more likely you are to get infected. Add being enclosed, add being in the convention where a lot of people are moving around, add the poor ventilation of many convention rooms, add playing games where at some point people have to be adjacent to the table in order to make their moves, and you’re just asking to get sick. Even if you are vaccinated, remember that vaccinations are not 100% protection, especially if you only have the first shot. The more risks you take, the more likely that inoculation won’t be sufficient.

We can even make an analogy to Dungeons & Dragons. My view of D&D is that you’re trying to minimize the number of times you have to get lucky with the dice in order to survive. (In a sense life is the same way - see "RPGs as Microcosms of Life,"
https://www.enworld.org/threads/worlds-of-design-rpgs-as-mic... .) When you attend an in-person convention, at least in the first half of 2021 and probably later, you’re rolling the dice a lot more times than is desirable. As Dirty Harry said, “Do you feel lucky, punk?” But at least Dirty Harry knew how many shots he’d fired: you’re not going to know how many people have brought the disease to the convention, how many are foolish enough to refuse vaccination, how many are going to be idiotic enough not to wear masks, how many are wearing poor quality masks or wearing them incorrectly, how many just don't give a shit. Maybe there will even be one who still thinks Covid-19 is a hoax! Good luck.
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