Everything Is an Argument

When I was teaching writing a few years ago, we would get approached by vendors from various publishers – hoping that we would adopt their book for our classroom use. One such book that I got a sample copy of and used a few times was titled, Everything’s an Argument. The fundamental idea is that everything is persuasive. Students were exposed to the idea that they were surrounded by argument in their lives and attempted to prepare them to not only analyze arguments but to write their own effective arguments.

While I find some value in that approach, I find that overall I’m uncomfortable framing the world with the idea that everything is an argument. I mention this mainly because I think one of the things I find myself disappointed with in most of the conversations I read about gaming these days is the idea that the players and the gamemaster are in an argument-space when they are playing. Even if not specifically adversarial I get the sense that the belief is that the players and GM are in some form of opposing alignment. And I think that is a fair characterization of many games but I would propose a different perspective.

Everything is a conversation.

I know, before you ask, that I am splitting hairs. Sometimes the players and GM are going to work to persuade one another (and I’m completely okay with that) but I find that shifting the basic premise from persuasive argument to collaborative conversation is a small rhetorical shift which potentially pays big dividends. Characterizing the interaction as collaborative conversation – if everyone is willing to go in on that together – has often been enough to improve my gaming experiences.

Here at the Rhetorical Gamer I’ve made little secret of my love of the Amber Diceless RPG. Amber and 2e D&D are the games where I truly cut my teeth as a gamer. 2e D&D taught me a lot, but Amber taught me how to really be a GM. I didn’t have to supply adventure, didn’t have to worry about playing “DMPCs,” or feel like I was working at cross purposes with my players. Amber taught me to relax and just embrace the flow of the game. I learned how – or perhaps taught myself – to just be a part of the game at the table beside my players while still existing in a space where I was able to help them shape the game, adjudicate their encounters, and set stages as needed. Usually, in Amber, I was the most comfortable I ever am when running a game.

Because the game is a conversation. The rules are so light but so useful that I can improvise anything I need to. More than that though, the game creates an incredible space for just diving headfirst into the play experience without pulling up short. I am able to embrace the spirit of conversation with my players.

And while I don’t want to speak ill of rules-heavy systems – I am a very happy Pathfinder player – I can say with confidence that one of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King System has been the fact that I feel that same freedom to embrace the play experience and just immerse myself in the conversation of the game. When I was running 3.5 and 4e D&D I often felt constricted – like if I didn’t know the rules inside and out I was somehow letting my players down. But have you seen the Pathfinder rulebook? It’s hefty. And I know that my attitude about the game is my problem. But it’s a fair cop to say that Pathfinder, 3.5, 4e, reward player skill in the form of system mastery over other values.

I find that small shift in perspective also makes a significant difference at the table. It changes and shapes the conversation at the table. And that’s a fair trade-off if that is the gaming experience you want. I try to embrace the spirit of conversation even when running a rules-heavy game but it’s harder. The weight of the rules tends to overshadow things and the desire to create argument tends to creep back in.

As I write this I understand (and kind of discover) how counter-intuitive this seems. It would seem to follow that a tight, comprehensive rule set would discourage argument more than a loose, interpretive rule set. But I find that my players relax more too when the rules are more open. No one is quite as tense to make sure that we are “doing it right” or taking advantage of every corner of the rules. Trust between players and GM is one of the hallmarks (perhaps the most important) of a good game in my mind. Framing the game as a conversation really makes that so much easier.

This attitude is also why I can’t frequent gaming forums anymore. The contentious nature of most boards is painful to observe. I have to wonder if those people are even having fun at their home tables. If they are, good for them.

But I suppose for me the game only really works when I work to remove the sense that Everything is an Argument and re-frame the table space as an ongoing conversation larger than one session, one fight, or one character.

Thanks for reading.

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9 responses

  1. I think you are not splitting hairs in making the distinction between having an argument and having a dialogue. While all parties utter messages, and so it appears to be splitting hairs, the reason to listen is different in collaboration than it is in argument. Wow. Not splitting hair at all and you can believe in that.

    In public relations I use research. In marketing, they use research. I was once asked what is the difference in the two researches. My answer was the premise for the research. I mean, the actual tools are the same: telemarketer, questionnaire, coding, etc…. The premise for the research and the hypotheses that go into forming the questions for research are totally different.

    An RPGs group actually based on a collaborative game (game-system) does not need a rulebook (mechanical-system) to appeal to. There is a table full of people for that.

    An RPGs player bred on a system of collaborative conversation can play very comfortably in a game system based upon argument. (Basically, you can say the GM is always right and avoid the argument and, as you say, go with the flow – a perfectly acceptable play style in collaboration.) But the same cannot be said about RPGs players bred on the argumentative play approach. Not in my experience, and I have given it the old college try with players of the argumentative play style – even when finally throwing up my hands and saying GM is God, the arguments (appeals to the rulebook) continue. Arguments are basic to their fun, but not so for collaborative players. In my experience, new-to-the-hobby people flee the geek pigeonhole this style accentuates.

    What brings the players together: does the game exist for the group or does the group exist for the game? Sure you can play the same brand of game (identify yourself as a D&D player, as a brand, whatever iteration) but the dynamic is totally different. The players’ expectations shape it so there is no way out of the difference.

    And if it is too wide a difference between players, the group/game collapses.

    Hardly splitting hairs.

    1. So sorry for not responding to the comments. I appreciate the support on the position I was taking. I think asking if the game exists for the players or the other way around is an important question that sets a tone for the party.

  2. I definitely agree with the assertion that argument is not the most useful mode of communication at the game table. Adversarial relationships between players tend to sap games of much of their fun for me, including the GM in the collection of all players.

    This drives to the heart of the question that underlies every discussion about successful games – what is it that your audience is looking to get out of the session? If you’re lucky, everyone is within a few degrees of the same attitude, but all it takes is one person well out of sync to cause a disruption throughout the system. Sadly, the argumentative types – Killer DMs, Rules Lawyer Players – are the ones most likely to be disruptive. As R. A. indicates above, it’s easy enough for a collaborative player to just continue to collaborate even when surrounded by those who’ll take his good nature for weakness.

    More time and angst could be saved if gamers who came together were up front with one another about what they wanted out of the game. It might wind up with the group being smaller by two, with the other pair at a nearby table playing cutthroat cribbage instead, but at least you’ll nip some of these arguments early.

    1. I think open communication and awareness of expectations really would save a lot of gaming groups a bunch of heartache. If only we all were so open with each other… right?

  3. I think this is a fine post and a fine distinction. I get enough argument in real life and sure don’t find it pleasant at the gaming table.

    1. Thank you. I feel you. I get enough argument every day in real life too…

  4. Here! Here! @Alec. I think more people would be into the hobby if there were less real life issues designed into tabletop RPGs. There is always the possibility for an asshole at any social encounter but to precipitate the rules of interaction with an assumption of argumentation informs its participants: what has been seen cannot be unseen, or truly forgotten.

    Can these two player paradigms harmoniously co-exist at the same table? I seriously doubt it.

    If I read RPG forums for a pulse of the hobby today, one of the issues this article implicitly touches upon is the issue of trust between players. There seems to be very little trust within the hobby now relative to when I played in the early 80s. In the early days, I do not recall having to call out that a GM was a player too, for example. The role did not exist outside the game, as it seems to do now. The GM seems to have become one of “them” rather than one of us.

    Hand in hand, I have seen topics asking if the GM can veto what game is to be played, which I presume extends into the administration of said game. I have seen people post monstrous stories about people subjecting others to uncomfortable descriptions in the name of the game. Tell me this is not about trust issues: from others and from oneself.

    Of course, when I first learned the game I had-to trust those who taught me. And they taught me through experience. When I GM new-to-the-hobby players, I do not lecture or workshop the mechanics I use. As probabilities present themselves to me through game play, I present them to the player who may or may not choose to roll the dice. Some will argue, obviously, that the concept of GM having sole ownership of the rulebook is unfair. I disagree with that premise; but I do not play RPGs as a competitive game established on adversarial relationships. Every game requires risk and the possibility of overcoming risk otherwise it fails to be a game. Player agency, especially in the determination of risk, is different in RPGs than in other games. Agency is founded upon players’ collaboration, and is not a simple matter of a chance mechanic or a bell curve probability. People who play do not need to be mathematically inclined. This inherent player agency is beyond the scope of a game like Monopoly. Board games are an entirely mechanically driven game system with player agency limited to strictly defined rules. Bennies, GM fiat, die fudging, the player’s refusal to take a risk, and even to operate within unlimited parameters are unique to RPGs. Not “Passing Go” to collect a weekly salary is an acceptable way to participate in RPGs that is intolerable in Monopoly, or a Scrabble or even in a collaborative board game where arguments about such things would ensue.

    That tangent brings me back to the essence of how important it is to decide what derives the fun for the group. Is an elitist debater’s club for geeks fun, or does fun originate from something more resembling an inclusive conversation? Do you suppose understanding this might have an affect on RPGs sales today, as it once did for Dungeons and Dragons in the mid-70s?

    How new-to-the-hobby persons are educated to the hobby is important to their enjoyment and to how the hobby grows itself. I do not need a fantasy game to extend the unpleasant arguments in my real life but I wonder, from looking at the social interaction on hobby forums, how many in the hobby can actually understand that?

    1. Can I even express how much I enjoyed the phrase… “elitist debater’s club?” That picture fit exactly what I pictured in my head as I think about the group I don’t want to join. I feel like a free flowing conversation that is always growing and building on itself is a great way to picture the game as I want to play it. Thanks.

  5. […] Theory (The Rhetorical Gamer) Everything Is an Argument – ”One of my favorite things about the old school spirit of Adventurer Conqueror King […]

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