The Work/Theme Dichotomy in Games

This is more about boardgames than about RPGs, but I think it could apply to both at some level. I don’t like doing work. I don’t mind a game being hard, but I don’t like it to only be hard. I see a lot of people playing casual games – timewasters – and I’ve tried a few myself. They always feel like I’m just doing work disguised as fun. There is no connection, no engagement, just a relentless task to be completed.

I want something more. Then I think about the games I do play and claim to enjoy and sometimes I realize that they are just as much work and don’t really improve on the engagement aspect to make it feel like fun.

The DC Deckbuilding game is a perfect example of this. Even though the game is splashed with pretty art from the comics, the game itself is very repetitive, only focused on victory points, and doesn’t require much from the players in terms of engagement with the theme. We don’t think about the cards in terms of how much we want to play Aquaman or Green Lantern, we think about how many points of power Solomon Grundy generates or whether or not we have Bizarro when it comes to racking up Weaknesses. Ultimately, even though the game designers did make an effort at tying card effects to the character pictured, the game is still just a task oriented effort.

The Car Wars card game was surprising to me in that, for all its simplicity, it manages to evoke a certain feeling of whipping madly around an arena trying desperately to hammer the other cars into submission. Even though there is no difference between the cars you can play and no difference in the hand mechanics from player to player, the game feels really fun.

Some games, which are otherwise excellent, like Lords of Waterdeep, can easily fall into the trap of being work. I have noticed when I play that I’m the only one who refers to the adventurers (resources) as Fighters, and Thieves. Everyone else just says, “I’ll take a purple and a white” and then we don’t even read each other our quest cards – we just pile them up and add victory points to the total. I can’t be upset with the other players because they are playing the game and having fun, but when we play that way it all just feels like a task we’re completing rather than a truly enjoyable experience.

I suppose the better way to say this is not, “I don’t like to do work” but rather, “I don’t like to do work for the sake of work.” Honestly, it’s why I never liked chess but I love Diplomacy. Chess is a pure, diceless strategy game but it’s lifeless to me. Diplomacy is a strategy game with a social/bluffing element which really puts you in the life of the general moving your armies around the board. It almost tricks the player into a deeper level of engagement.

This has led me to consider that as I weed games out of my collection (which has grown too large to be playable at this point) that my criteria might be less, “how often do I think I’ll play this” and more “what do I get out of each experience of playing it?” Is it fun, or is it just work disguised as a game?

Perhaps I haven’t articulated this well. Does anyone have suggestions for games that really brim with theme and engagement and slough away the cold mathematics of victory points?

Thanks for reading.


5 responses

  1. Hi Mike,

    I do not have a suggestion. I left the hobby for the very distaste you articulate from some games. I could not find a set of players with my taste for engagement. What you are seeking is a specific play experience that used to be very common in the 80s and has progressively become rare over the decades as RPGs have become more rules heavy. (see that graphic I shared with you a year ago.)

    Take a game like 5e. Roll yourself up 6 – 8 PCs. Build them. You can use random dice or assigned totals for ability stats. Start them all at level one. Then go to the store, buy a module (as we used to call them), and you can play the adventure alone. You can imagine whatever background for these characters you want. You can handicap your play under the auspices of “meta-game” as you wish: But, in the end, the game runs itself. The module says do not tell the players the bad guys’ secret(s) so you must roll on the skills table just in case one of your PCs would know. Hand out those PCs to a bunch of 6 – 8 gamers and the result is the same solo-play feeling, which gets the term “creative” and role-play. But everyone remains “immersed” inside their bubble of rules – like a chess piece. Sometimes like a broken chess piece to forego the monotony.

    The monotony of work; verisimilar to the monotony of a game where the spark of collaborative tabletop creativity from the old days is reinterpreted these days as arguments. In those days, the rulings made the game dynamic. These days the rulebooks require a type of psychological self-aggrandizement of player-worth because there is less of the player in the PC. Like the frustrated janitor who gave the CEO a product idea and now forever believes himself to be an advisor within the company; being the janitor is just a step below senior management. Cue the whining how “they” got it wrong and how you “would do it better” because your engagement is not essential. Same thing.

    Angry DM/GM wrote a piece about how some gamers “engage” while operating game systems that have the methodology of a computer punch card. Cue narcoleptic snipers.

  2. You obviously play the DC Heroes DBG with a very different group from mine. We almost always play to character theme and agonize over choosing effectiveness over theme unless forced to. But I have seen it played very mechanically too (which is, as you say, not much fun). In any case, have fun.

  3. I don’t want to say anything bad about the people I game with. They’re great. I just prefer a level of engagement with theme that it often seems other players don’t. I attribute some of this to not getting to play often enough and so seeking ways to play “faster” when chances arise.

  4. How do you mean “play faster,” Mike? At whom are you targeting this concept?

    I think we have to stop cajoling ourselves with the comfort “there is no wrong way to play.”. In a “collaborative” game, such as RPGs, the idea of a lack of group cohesion amongst the players is a wrong way to play. Not everyone gets the same enjoyment, and we need to be aware and flagged to this – particularly new people who do ask and wonder: “how do I play this game (right/properly)?” And second, RPGs were originally designed to be the game of player engagement you enjoy, not unlike bookshelf games of the same period, like Point of Law, that no doubt influenced play at the time. While not a theatrical role assuming game, such games did put players into roles and promote collaborative narratives/storytelling with a master of the game being the one administering the situation. This GM role could be passed around the table, giving everyone the chance to play the role suggested by the game.

    A good example of how to play engagement games wrong would be to play our example, Point of Law, with a stack of law books (or, today, Google on tablets) at the table. This would make such a game less fun and more in line with schoolwork. The idea of player skill is at the fore in such engagement games, championed by not insisting everyone be a judge in real life to play. [Now think back on how people say you need to know the rules of a game of make-believe in order to play it. Can you imagine your child’s face when you tell this to your child?]

    Think upon the rules heavy character-build. How much player investment is immersed in the if-then-else programming statements? It is the equivalent of having that stack of Britannia on the table, which would turn off people wanting to be engaged in the game (rather than by the game system). War games and strategy games need a level of proficiency with rules that role- playing should not – this was the evolutionary breakthrough of Arneson’s role in Braunstein.

    So, yes, there is a “right way to play” RPGs just as there is a right way to play every game. A right way frames the concept of what it is to role-play in the minds of the players. RPGs were not meant to be board games or substitutes for computer video games. If someone wants to corrupt this with a style that is less engaging to role-players, then that is what they are doing – and it is their entitlement to do so. But let’s call it what it is otherwise RPGs get explained as “a game of Monopoly with funny voices” and suffer more strictures by rules in subsequent design iterations.

    That’s not saying anything bad about a person anymore than saying Arneson’s famous game play in “David Wesely’s Braunstein” was not according to Braunstein rules. That’s just a point of view.

  5. I mean play “Faster” in a very literal sense. To speed up play by choosing not to take time to luxuriate in the theme/engagement portions of the game but rather to focus on the procedural tasks of accomplishing the game objectives.

    For example, when you play Pandemic or Forbidden Desert, you are not really trying to stop a disease or escape before you get buried in sand… you are doing procedural, mechanical tasks to defeat the game scenario. For my own enjoyment, I can’t really get much out of a game if the focus is on the procedural tasks unless they are couched in a layer of enjoyment of the theme/engagement angle. Some games do this better than others but even games where it is well presented can be subverted by a player focus on task accomplishment.

    With more complicated games, I especially find players willing to subvert the thematic joy of a game to accomplish the tasks in a more efficient (faster) manner.

    This shows up in all areas of gaming. I have a friend who plays a lot of Battletech and they speed up their games by eliminating the Fire Declaration step. This drives me crazy to think about because that is a fundamental element of what makes BT work as a balanced system but also really drives home the tech dichotomies and the feeling of piloting a mech with careful balances of heat. To play this way speeds up the game but at the cost of both procedural and thematic elements that are integral to the game working as intended as well as “feeling right.”

    I don’t disagree that we shouldn’t say “There is no wrong way to play.” I find myself very much a RAW guy most of the time. It’s hard to judge other players for their actions though because I can understand their motivation even if I disagree with their solution.

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