March 22, 2012

Precisely Subjective

At Gaming as Women, Darla Magdalene-Shockley posits that subjective reward mechanics, dispensed for entertaining roleplaying, carry the risk of unconscious gender bias. Regarding actual play with Paranoia XP, she observes:

[W]e are all socialized very strongly to view women in certain ways. We expect women to be responsible, do the boring administrative work, and in general shut down the fun.  We emphatically do not expect women to be silly.  So women are less likely to be silly, and everyone is less likely to notice when they are.  The Paranoia GM (despite being quite the stand-up guy) is less likely to notice and reward it.

Unexamined assumptions at the gaming table, including those surrounding gender, can certainly play havoc with what is meant to be a facilitator of gaming fun. Many people first came to RPGs as a structured way of overcoming shyness. Quiet, uncertain or casual players, whether they’re that way out of socialization or inclination, or both, will get left behind by rules that do this—and maybe feel uncomfortably singled out when the GM takes compensating measures.

On the other hand, all games inevitably favor certain personal traits over others. The vast corpus of traditional games reward math savvy, recollection of complex rules, and willingness to spend time poring over rules text searching for optimal character build choices. In this context it hardly seems unreasonable that players with confident performance and improv skills will prosper in games falling on the story side of the spectrum.

A middle ground can be found by narrowing and defining the subjectively rewarded activity. The Dying Earth and its descendants, Skulduggery and The Gaean Reach (which I’m working on now), all mechanically encourage you to weaving taglines (supplied lines of dialogue) into the session. They bribe you to talk like Jack Vance’s characters, an essential element in creating the feeling that you’re exploring his worlds.

The GM does judge how effectively you use a given tagline, but by gauging the reactions of the group to your bon mots, which takes into account an observable, gestalt subjectivity if not objectivity. Where the instruction to “be entertaining” is broad and hard to define, the metrics for taglines are clear and simple. If, for whatever, reason you’re less than voluble, taglines give you highly structured permission to seize spotlight time.