Stockholm Syndrome in Game Design
I’m loving Apocalypse World right now. I should just get that out of the way. I’ve played it a few times, sadly just as one-shots or really short games. I’ve run it once, as a con game. And I’m even now starting to make notes for a hack, where I marry AW’s play style with the sweet, sexy stylings of Unknown Armies. (Forum post about it on Story-Games, in one of the sections that for some reason requires you to have an account to view. Easily enough done, though.)
I was talking about AW with folks at PAX this past weekend, and one thing that came up was how I don’t like how History is explained — in that it’s poorly explained and confusing as hell. Things made more sense when John Harper talked about how that was Vincent’s intent, how he sees frustrations a group has to overcome as a bonding experience. (Hopefully someone on the Internet can point me to an actual discussion, as while I totally hear what John’s saying, I’m curious to read Vincent’s own words about it. Thus, the rest of this post is about what John said rather than anything else. EDIT: See the first comment for actual text.) I flippantly replied with something like “Yeah, and Stockholm Syndrome is a great way to meet women.”
That decision to inject frustration there for the point of the experience sort of bothers the fuck out of me, and sort of doesn’t in the least. Yay for ambivalence. I wanted to take a moment to unpack my thoughts on that.
How it doesn’t:
- Shared experience is the heart and soul of RPGs, both in the direct sense (my group did this thing, and we can keep talking about it) and the indirect (my group did the same scenario your group did, and it’s neat to compare/contrast).
- We should admit that game design is mind control. There are tools and techniques at our disposal, and as game designers we play the role of amateur practical psychologists. We already do it with reward mechanics, so why should this feel different?
How it does:
- You can come off looking fucking incompetent — either as a designer or as a writer. Remember, those are different skills. And if you don’t communicate your intent to frustrate in even a roundabout way, well, it just looks like shitty text. I personally give Vincent credit in this arena, but if some designer I was completely unaware of pulled the same trick, I would throw the book across the room and use impolite terms to refer to his or her parentage. So one really only gets a pass if their readers know you enough to, well, give you a pass. (Edit: I should also note that I didn’t realize it was intentional until John said something.)
- It might not work. I’m frequently in unequal states of mastery at a table, and AW is no different. When I ran a con game last month, I walked them through Hx saying “Yeah, it’s confusing. Here’s what you do.” I overcame the frustration for them, because I didn’t have the time to deal with it nor the desire to make my players hostile against the game.
- I see little benefit in turning the players against me and questioning the confidence in my text. Especially as early as character creation. If they get past this frustration without realizing that was the point of the exercise, any later legitimate frustrations they’ll have will be colored by that earlier experience, and could lead to judgement calls that go against the game and break it.
I’m not trying to say that Vincent’s call is bad. Really. It is fucking interesting. And as I always do, I applaud those who try interesting shit because it gives the community more data and more thinking points. Of course, AW is working for a shitton of people, including me and the folks I’m going to keep running it with. But contact with this idea makes me better understand where my own lines as a designer & writer are.
And I’m not against frustration in games per se. Overcoming adversity, including in frustration, is the hallmark of adventure design. Keep on the Borderlands, man. Shoot, it’s a hallmark of much of computer gaming. So I’m not at all knocking that as an idea. But I better understand now why it’s a writing choice that’s alien to me.
Still, I’m glad Vincent did it. I learn more from people who present very different experiences and viewpoints than when I live in a damned echo chamber. And now I’m left wondering how to achieve that effect while minimizing those issues of mine mentioned above.
(Now let’s see how flamey the responses get as people assume the tone of voice I’m using is harsh. Yay for inflectionless text!)
 Those who know me know the highest praise I can give a game is “I think I want to use this to play Unknown Armies.”
 Doing posts of PAX recaps seem to be all the rage. Perhaps I will as well.
 Responses that don’t get this will be deleted. Fair warning.
 My lines as an editor are, funnily enough, somewhat different.