Monday, 3 June 2013

Resist the Competitive Roleplaying Hegemony

I've said before how much I love my annual Icon expedition, and I've hinted that I've made a mysterious and awesome contribution to this year's games. I've been going there longer than I went to any one school, longer than I've stayed at any one job, and longer than I've known some of my best friends. So I know what I'm talking about when I say that Icon's insistence, year in and year out, on having "competitive" roleplaying games is not helpful to anyone. This isn't a complaint against Icon specifically, as I know other local conventions run things in pretty much the same way, and I've seen at least one example - in this excellent analogy by Johnny Nexus of Critical Miss - of a similar problem with a UK convention. I just happen to know the example of Icon SA best.

There are two lines of argument against competitive roleplaying. First, roleplaying games simply don't lend themselves well to objective measures of success and quality. You can make roleplaying games with clear winners and losers (see "Kobolds Ate My Baby!"), but it'd get awfully boring if that was the way the plot was structured every single time (see "reasons for not playing Kobolds Ate My Baby! all the time"). Roleplaying is a form of improvised story-telling, even when it's most heavily weighed down with formal rules for everything (see "extensive list of games I don't like"), and as such it's necessarily going to be a very different experience for different groups with different GMs. Not only will everyone do things differently, but every such difference will also make the whole game beyond that point into an increasingly different scenario, which means it becomes even less meaningful to try to compare the experiences of different players playing nominally identical characters in different groups.

Rating someone's roleplaying or GMing prowess based on small number of brief encounters is pointless. It's a completely subjective matter, tested under completely uncontrolled conditions, using a bad test. Most of the ratings are little more than personal preferences, a popularity contest. Loud players playing loud characters and those bold enough to make sure you definitely know how to spell their names have an obvious advantage over the meek and the good players trying to play meek characters well. One of the few slightly more objective measures I've seen rates GMs on how well they appear to know the rules; I object to that one on personal style grounds alone, as I take great pride in consciously avoiding use of the rules except where unavoidable, to keep the flow of the game going more smoothly. Many players have enjoyed that style, but if they tried to objectively and honestly answer that rating, they'd be within good reason to mark me quite poorly. So is it really a good way to measure GM quality, even if it is technically objective?

It's also always carried out so poorly. I've never seen a public explanation of the rules of the competition, it's never properly explained in person, if at all, and the judging process is pretty opaque. I do NOT subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the organisers' friends always win, but I don't believe that the winners are necessarily really "the best" either, because of the silly assessment system and the piss-poor organisation. I don't think there's anything sinister or malicious afoot, I think it's just a shit idea, run by people who traditionally have pretty piss-poor organisation (see "getting Icon mugs and tshirts delivered on time", "opening Icon doors on time", "getting Icon modules released on time", etc.; seriously, go read my Icon article from last year and bathe in the list of small and mostly acceptable flaws).

So it's just a terrible idea.

But maybe it's a popular idea, no matter how misguided? Well, perhaps among those who win, or seriously aim to win, but I know for a fact that competitive play is a significant barrier for those who don't care for it. It actively chases potential players away. For one thing, the good people at the sign-in table (who generally do their job well on other counts) have historically tended to get a bit pissy with anyone who doesn't understand the competitive system (even though there's no clear, public explanation of it) or anyone who explicitly says they don't want to play competitively. I don't know enough about the organisation of the event to say whether this is because they're just low-ranking slave labourers doing their job (and thus can't be expected to do much about it), or if we are speaking to people with some authority (who should thus have no excuses), but either way, it's not the friendliest or most constructive approach. I'm not saying it's always that way, it varies from sign-up person to sign-up person, but it does give the impression that they've forgotten who the paying customer is. This like-it-or-fuck-off attitude alone has chased some of my fellow players away from convention play for good, which is damn pointless shame.

A marginally trickier problem is that of enforced splitting up. Some of us like to play with people we know, whether this is just two people sticking together to join a group of strangers (and I can see there'd be some extra brain-power required for the admin of this, but not that much; we are only talking about 50 or so players at most), or a whole regular group wanting to celebrate the convention together, as a special occasion, by running something a bit different together; this latter thing is usually called "buying the module". Convention organisers seem to hate these people, and competitive play has often been used as an excuse to fob them off. You can't play together in a competitive module, because the rules say it's got to be random players (and never mind that randomly ending up with the same person in your group would be considered perfectly acceptable) to prevent cheating. And you can't buy the module while the "real" competitive groups are playing it, in case you use it to cheat (as if knowing the plot a few minutes in advance would make you a better, more popular player?). It's just paranoia; the people asking to be excused from the competition are the ones who care about it the least, not the (probably entirely imaginary) ones so desperate to win that they'd try any dumb trick to get an edge.

To be clear, I quite like the random groups system myself. It can be quite fun and exciting, and occasionally you meet some great new people that way. For example, I originally got into Star Trek roleplaying through my friend Richard's random introduction to Jason Green, back at GenCon 2000, and that's had several huge effects on my life and hobbies over the last decade. But the point is that not everyone wants to do totally random groups every single time. Even I like the familiarity of friends, especially friends I don't see so often anymore, for at least some of my modules.

There should be no harm in letting half the players go off in one corner and be competitive, and the other half go off to the other corner and play casually. But it's such a massive fucking uphill struggle every fucking year just to get the organisers to concede that non-competitives even exist, let alone have a right to play in a different style.

I think the reason this hasn't changed in over a decade is that there's a problem of player organisation. The competitive roleplayers are pretty much a coherent, organised group by definition, because the system requires them to be and rewards them for it, so their voice is clearer and more uniform. The non-comps are inherently disorganised and isolated from each other, so even though we probably out-number the hard core of comps, it's much harder to make the organisers listen to us. Perhaps someone should start a petition or a poll, just to give us a better idea of what the true numbers are like. The trouble again is that the players who've been put off by excessive compulsory competition in the past are the ones who'd be hardest to find and get involved in such a poll, because they don't want to associate with conventions anymore.

Let me close by making a prediction: Competitive roleplayers, maybe even one or two of the organisers, who read this will get all defensive and insist that it's more than a mere popularity contest, that casual players are just sore losers or an obstruction to good admin. Allow me to suggest instead that such people try to see it from a different perspective and imagine what the current system would be like if it didn't suit you, as I've described above. Perhaps talk to your friends and fellow players who you know don't pursue competitive play and see what they think about it all. And rather than merely defending the status quo, see if you can instead suggest ways that we can make the system work for everyone, to encourage even more people to join us, not less. It shouldn't be that hard.