Monday, September 28, 2009

[ 06 / 14 / 05 ] I suppose he's having fun, but...

Sartre once said "hell is other people". Well, he didn't really say that, he said the same sort of thing in French, no doubt around a cigarette and with a level of detached arrogance I can only aspire to, but the sentiment is there.

Anyway, point being that no matter how much I wish it were otherwise, my pastime, or perhaps more accurately my quixotic crusade to solve the riddle of the league will always have to have asshats like Ryan here lurking about the corners. The process of designing league rules, which are at their essence not just systems for developing abstract teams, but also means to manage and regulate interaction between the coaches themselves cannot fail to take this human interaction into account, and to make it a central motif, or at least a strongly-typed variable in the overall model. One hallmark of many games' campaign and league systems which I have noted is a fairly pronounced ignorance of the world beyond the table. Most systems seem to rely upon rather idealistic, or perhaps even naive expectations of the behavior, motivations, and even honesty of the people playing the games. While it is true that in the smallest cells of the hobby, the players are presumably friends, able to cooperate, and likely possess the same motivations and level of maturity, the reality of adventure gaming is that a great proportion of it happens among people who are not drawn together, but rather thrown together. We have a hobby which is not particularly pervasive in society, and the places where we gather, and the relationships we form in order to participate in the hobby are very often of necessity rather than preference. We form leagues from whoever can be found who might be interested in the game, and we search high and low just to make that number. The community is so small that it is difficult, if not impossible to be particularly selective and this leads to nearly every league having one or two Ryans in it.

The argument can certainly be made that rules should not be beholden to people like Ryan, and that the game should not be limited for those who can play nice with others simply because a few can not, but on this I disagree. No, I do not think that it is the job of the game to police the players' behavior, don't get me wrong, rather I think it is the job of the game designer to create a singular experience which is largely resistant to reduction by the lowest common denominator. The imperative is not on the designer to handicap the players, but rather to create a game without ill-conceived opportunities for exploitation so that those who play the game casually need not fear losing anything more than just an enjoyable afternoon to power gamers, jackasses, and the emotionally deficient.

League systems in particular have the potential to ruin the long-term game experience of the quality player by way of interactions with the Ryans, and Bloodbowl traditionally is particularly, egregiously, and infuriatingly guilty of this error. Bloodbowl's league system has always had a basic philosophy which encourages and promotes the periodic hamstringing of teams and a prolonged struggle for restoration of basic playability at its core. Bewilderingly, Bloodbowl would like you to think that there is enjoyment in seeing your team decimated and then being forced to play at a significant disadvantage for any number of subsequent matches - likely becoming increasingly reduced along the way due to your hopeless numeric inferiority. How many veteran coaches give up a team that loses three or four players in one match? How many new coaches give up the game after getting decimated in their second match? How many of us really enjoy going into a match knowing we have little or no chance because our team has been disassembled?

Maybe I should turn in my simulationists' club membership card, but this cannot be an appropriate design philosophy for a game which is supposed to occupy and enrich our free time. I do not enjoy having some childish twit foul and claw my squad out of playability - nor do I enjoy having my best friend accidentally do so with a few lucky die rolls. Rebuilding has always been so monolithically difficult in Bloodbowl, and the opportunities for even an honest, sporting player to hamstring an opponent so pervasive - nevermind the potential that exists for someone with a less than fully-developed social conscience, that there simply must be something wrong with the essential approach to the game itself, because right now, the game often just isn't fun anymore.

The failure is not simply the poorly-conceived injury mechanics or the hopeless winnings structure, it is a blindness to the reality of human interaction instead. In leagues where sportsmanship, friendship, and a love of the hobby are tantamount, you often see and hear coaches compensating for the rules in order to maintain the experience of the others - "Here, let me use my apo on your blitzer," or I'll loan you 100k to get back on your feet." Yes, it is nice that people can be nice, but clearly there is something wrong with the game when they need to be. At the other end of the pitch, usually in store leagues in my experience, there are those league full of Ryans where you simply cannot enjoy yourself for all of the fouling, the mindless and antagonistic violence, and the inevitable gloating that follows. Turnover tends to be very high in these leagues and those who stay either enjoy or learn to handle the flawed mindset that goes with these leagues.

So, what then is the designer's job? The simplest way to phrase it would be that the designer has the responsibility to create a league system that functions flawlessly among players of the highest quality and cannot be corrupted by players of the lowest. A system which has no failings which will need to be compensated for by amiable coaches and a system which a Ryan can not abuse in order to gain an undue advantage over others. The rules cannot hope to stop an asshat from acting like an anti-social baboon, but they should be able to prevent his approach to the game from impacting the long-term enjoyment of other coaches. The goal would be to ensure that the worst that Ryan could do is ruin your afternoon, but prevent him from ruining your entire league experience in doing so.

So, having gone on about this for three miles, it seems vaguely pedantic, or at least lazy of me not to turn around and outline a complete and bulletproof league system that does exactly what I'm proposing, but this column is already too long and full disclosure too voluminous for such meanderings. Begin with the Four Houserules Sublime over in "the answers" and we'll develop the idea further in future columns, because while the Four will get you started on the road to right, there's a few extra stops to make along the way.

But hey, they 'll be excuses for more comics too, so at least there's some reward for waiting about.

Maybe I can do detached arrogance afterall.