The Seven-Sided Die

The Fear of Unfun

Posted Saturday October 11, 2008 at 04:27 PM

There has been a bit of chatter about the Tyranny of Fun[1. I picked that post because it excerpts the core bits of Melan's larger post at the RPGsite, which you can read here: The Tyranny of Fun: status report.] that has come to dominate the design of D&D. I have some sympathy for those on both sides of the argument. Chatty points out that it injects more incendiary material into the edition wars. I agree that demonising fun is stupid.

On the other hand, I do see a problem with thinking of fun as most important (it creates an false dichotomy between fun and whatever is supposedly sacrificed in its name), and I do think that because 4e tries to make everyone awesome[1. RPGpundit has more in The Tyranny of Fun pt. 2.] it ends up making awesomeness meaningless.

However, I think that the people arguing that a Tyranny of Fun exists are missing the real crux of this issue.

A commenter on a Paizo forums thread about Gygaxian Naturalism said this:

3e rejected a lot of Gygaxian crap, and boy am I glad it did. Some people might like the idea that a 2nd level party might wander into an ancient red dragon's lair, but I wouldn't want to waste my valuable gaming time with such stupidity.[1. pres man, Sun, Oct 5, 2008, 11:41 AM, in 4e's Rejection of Gygaxian Naturalism]

What makes me cringe when I read that is the idea that our time is so scarce and precious that we cannot afford to make any mistakes on the way to Maximum Fun. This idea is of a particular structure that, in leisure pursuits or love, promotes a race to the bottom.

The unfortunate reality is that safe, guaranteed fun does not exist. Seeking it leads to the rejection of anything that might be only perceived as a threat to that guarantee, regardless of the actual value of a new idea. The irony is that we, as humans, are not maximally entertained by the predictable and the routine, so standardising and formalising the elements that make play fun encourages finding a lowest common denominator. Seeking Maximum Fun forces us to aim squarely at mediocrity.

How does this relate to Gygaxian Naturalism in that quote above? Much of the success of D&D is that you can do anything. You can do anything in one sense, in that the DM can theoretically allow anything to happen; but the real impact of that feature of roleplaying games is that you can try to do anything, and see what happens. If you can't choose to walk blindly into that ancient red wyrm's lair at second level, there are hundreds of other things that you can't choose either that might end up being fun in ways that nobody at the table could have predicted. Constraining action to only what will predictably result in fun tears the entire foundation of D&D's fun out of the game.

It's not a Tyranny of Fun, really. It's a Fear of Unfun.

Comments (15)

Monday October 13, 2008 at 12:15 AM

"but the real impact of that feature of roleplaying games is that you can try to do anything, and see what happens" I've run into this before at lamentations of the flame princess.

Do you think perhaps its the very notion that you can choose anything, that is fun for you? That what you choose might also be a kind of fun, is just a secondary thing?

I think it is, but it seems many people who pursue 'being able to choose anything' can't or wont describe it as their main fun. That is why their getting run down by the gamist players or mediocity players.


Monday October 13, 2008 at 10:47 PM

I think that's a large part, but not the whole or even most important part. I think that the freedom to try whatever and go wherever increases the unpredictability of the game, and that leads to more emergent play.

Emergent play is profoundly satisfying to me, since it has the potential to be more real and have more depth than one person alone can generate.

That's why the fear of unfun is such an unpleasant element for me to see getting built in to rulesets. A ruleset that tries to maximise fun—instead of maximising choices and emergent play—narrows down the possibilities to those that the designers think will be most fun, which necessarily makes it hard to do anything else. The fear of unfun has has a dampening, flattening effect on play.

So I guess that means I see freedom to choose as being valuable as an instrument toward enjoyable play, rather than the direct source of enjoyment. Certainly I can enjoy games that are more constrained and not sandbox games, but they have to somehow enable emergence.

Wednesday October 15, 2008 at 07:40 AM

I don't understand. Wouldn't emergent play have rules that emerge with it?

Is it a fear of unfun, or is it writing down the rules of certain emergent play, because that play was fun?


Wednesday October 15, 2008 at 08:11 AM

Perhaps the choice is its own kind of fun. I know for me, a lot of fun comes from the choices, from strong in-character emotions of any sort (particularly fear, which from the little I've played strikes me as something 4E wouldn't be quite as good at), and occasionally even from finding new and inventive ways to either fail or reject the win/lose binary.

I'd assume people like me drive game designers crazy.


Wednesday October 15, 2008 at 04:14 PM

Emergent play doesn't necessarily need emergent rules. Roleplaying games are naturally emergent, in that something much more than just the rules happens when you sit down with a table full of other creative people with input into what happens. So when I say a game should maximise emergent play, I'm saying that it should focus on fostering something that all RPGs already enable.

So, roleplaying by its very nature is emergent (i.e., nobody knows exactly what will happen during the game because it's a multiple-person creative activity), but some rules actively encourage emergent play while others discourage it. An example of one that encourages highly-emergent play is Universalis: even without using the rules-creation possibilities of Universalis, nobody knows where the game will go next because everyone can, at any time, introduce completely unexpected plot twists and events.

An example of a game that really discourages emergent play is D&D 4e: players have limited tools to affect the story, the norms of what a play session will look like are very strong (i.e., always expect combat, and opponents will always be in a certain range of difficulty), rewards are charted and predictable, and one participant has all the power to determine the direction of the game.

That said, games with emergent rulesets are likely to also strongly encourage emergent play, but you can have emergent play without them.


Wednesday October 15, 2008 at 04:14 PM

Welcome, Ravyn!

No, there are game designers aiming squarely at giving players like you as much emotion-laden, failure-can-be-fun-too, character-driven play they can handle. 4e is certainly not one of them, but the indie stuff that's exploded in recent years might be right up your alley.

Games I would recommend at least reading reviews about at RPGnet, although I haven't played them all:

The biggest challenge with character-driven rulesets for me is that they're such a departure from the first 15 years of my gaming experience (mostly AD&D) that it's hard to get a grip on how to not play them like D&D and thus miss out on their individual strengths. It's like learning to roleplay all over again.

Most of the attention-getting indie games I've discovered I found by just reading RPGnet reviews that catch my interest. Games are frequently compared to other similar indie games, so I ended up hearing about the really good ones over and over again.

Thursday October 16, 2008 at 12:18 AM

No, I mean rules for a particular emergence of play.

For example, say someone was playing and it emerged that their all priests going into a town to judge the citizens there (alluding to DITV). Say a player really dig that.

Okay, next time they play, emergent play takes them to racing space beetles on the dark side of the moon to regain their souls and...that player would rather be doing the priest thing again. So he writes rules that are for doing the priest thing.

Was DITV designed around fear of unfun? Or specifically aimed at PC's judge towns?

Is D&D4E designed around fear of unfun, or specifcally aimed at combo moves are made to defeat evil and win?


Thursday October 16, 2008 at 05:42 AM

There's two things in there that need to be separated. First, I think of the Fear of Unfun as something that players bring to the table, as in the quote in the OP. That can be reinforced by the rules when designers Fear the Unfun (as 4e's designers publicly wrote), but it's primarily player-driven.

The second is that a game can be designed to either inspire creativity or to channel action into a narrow style of play. Narrow rulesets tend to synergise with players' own Fear of Unfun, but they don't necessarily lead down that road. So, those two things have to be considered separately, though they interrelate.

When I talk about emergent play, I'm thinking specifically of the way scenes and events unfold in an unpredictable way. Though games that are very emergent might result in Mormon judges one session and beetle moon-races the next, that's not the sort of emergence I'm thinking of when I'm talking about freedom of choice and action in a game. That kind of freedom and the resulting unpredictable (i.e., emergent) scenes and character developments can happen even within a fixed set of genre expectations and a set of unchanging rules.

Think of it as the difference between a play session that is just a dice-slinging slog through a prepared DM plot, and a session that's a rollicking festival of player-initiated and interwoven creativity. The first is non-emergent, while the second emerges from the combination of the simple ingredients each player brings to the session.

(Yeah, there are other sites of potential emergence in roleplaying games. I'm not opposed to discussing those; I just want to get on the first page before turning to the second.)

Michael M

Thursday October 16, 2008 at 05:54 AM

(Just recently started reading the blog, love it) I think this pins down some of my thoughts on 4e nicely. 4e is a good system, but it doesn't fit my tastes. Funny enough, Rolemaster does.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about fighting dragons in RPGs. I've never fought a dragon before, because in my experience of gaming, Dragons were fierce, deadly beings that one feared. My friend said he'd fought them in a game run by a DM who was more into feeding power to players, and the Dragon was mostly numbers.

This is what I feel is happening. Yes, Dragons are represented by numbers (big ones!), but in the case of my friend's experience, the problem was that the Numbers were represented by the Dragon. I love this notion of Gygaxian Naturalism, and it resonates with me well. 4e is not a bad game by any means, but I don't want to be a badass, I want to become a badass.

Thanks for the post!


Thursday October 16, 2008 at 06:52 AM

Welcome Michael!

I must admit a personal dislike for Rolemaster, but I do appreciate the system for what it is. Just not my bag! (Then again, I might like it more now than I did as a teenager, especially since my GM was all about ignoring the limitations and encouraging stupid bonuses.) I do have a special place on my shelf for Gamemaster Law, though.

Your observation about numbers representing the dragon versus the dragon representing the numbers is great, and I couldn't put it better (or as succinctly) myself. My thoughts on 4e's mechanics' disconnect with the in-game fiction are heavily influence by Justin Alexander's article Dissociated Mechanics. You might enjoy reading it. He gives a lot of good examples of mechanics that don't make sense if you try to figure out what they mean in-fiction.

My own anecdote about the 4e numbers game: I ran a 4e combat with five level 1 PCs and one level 3 solo creature (a customised Balhannoth spawnling) and it was really disappointing. The highlights were when it used its special abilities, in a purely "that was cool! / oh crap that's scary!" kind of way. But, the bread-and-butter of the combat system was dead boring and interminable. It was just whittling away at numbers, with some inconsequential fluff text and irritatingly detailed grid positioning discussions on the side. I don't need a system to portray a horrifying creature with awe-inspiring powers, so the good moments weren't something that 4e delivered. The finicky handling the combat system required was all 4e, though. That was the last session we used it.


Thursday October 16, 2008 at 10:58 PM

That dragon represents the numbers is an good short hand, Michael! I'll remember that for latter use :)

On the subject of 4E, I thought it was supposed to do emergent gamist tactical play, in the same way chess generates emergent gamist tactical play.

That it could be designed entirely in trying to avoid unfun instead, I hadn't thought of it. I mulled it over - it could be, and it'd be really sad if that were indeed the case. Again it would be designers making something into what they don't want it to be, rather than what they do want it to be (I saw alot of this at the forge - people could only talk about what they didn't want the game to be)

Though currently I think 4E just tried to foster emergent gamist tactics, and failed at doing so. If you go into a room and fight an orc, it's very predictable and flat. Then everyone tells you that your supposed to design complex rooms, which is just the story of stone soup happening again (if everyone adds nice ingrediants to stone soup, of course it tastes great. That doesn't mean stone soup is actually good, though).

On a side note, tunnels and trolls had an interesting mechanic - the monsters suffered death spirals, but the players don't. That means a monster is scary damaging, but whittle it down and it's less so AND it's easier to whittle down. If your first roll fails to whittle them down a bit, that is a BIG DEAL!!! Each roll counts and is tense. While in D&D it's flat - damaging them doesn't effect anything about hitting them or damaging them. So the first and following rolls don't matter except in terms of the average.

Michael M

Friday October 17, 2008 at 07:32 PM

Rolemaster has a disheartening amount of number crunch, but the other part is that I had a great DM, who did a lot of interesting house-ruling (for example, if a non-magic user wanted to learn magic, he would use the Rolemaster mechanics to learn AD&D spells). And thank you much-ly for the link! It sums up my look at 4e pretty well. (Not to mention how awkward it is for half-demons and half-dragons to be PCs, but turn gnomes into monsters? At least hold them off for a later supplement.)

I see what Callan means about it being very gamist. Looking at the DMG, I want to say that it's emphasizing group vs. group combat. Good combat requires movement. A group of monsters is what I'll call horizontal movement (positioning and going from minion to minion), and solo monsters such as dragons I'll call vertical. Horizontal movement is fun on the board. You can move and position your minis in different places, and it becomes dynamic. But when movement becomes vertical (climbing a dragon's back, flying up to the dragon's face, running under his belly) all you can really do is keep the minis stationed around the dragon figure. This makes mini-based combat less fun.


Friday October 17, 2008 at 08:33 PM

Callan: To be fair to 4e, it does do tactical play rather well. I take issue with some of the details, but overall it's quite good at it. It's just too much a tactical game for my tastes (I play wargames for that).

To be fair to the designers, I don't think they designed only to avoid unfun. Advancing an exception-based design and creating a non-Vancian magic system were probably high up there as well. That they were also aiming to design a game with Guaranteed Fun was evident from how they compared it to 3.x and their own avowed design goal of fixing all the things that sucked the fun out of D&D. I agree that aiming to not do something is a generally bad idea. Much better would have been for them to focus just on making a fun game and not on eliminating un-fun elements. A lot of those things are just such a matter of taste and were going to take away what makes D&D fun to us personally.

Michael: I hadn't thought of combat movement like that! It really puts into perspective why that Balhannoth fight sucked so much. As an addition, group-based combat with a lot of ranged-based opponents would have a similar effect. Unless they are near enough that the melee PCs can close with them and turn it into a melee instead of ranged fight, the long distances make maneuvering rather pointless. A distant archer has every motivation to stay put, and that means the zones of cover stay static and heavily encourage the PCs to keep inside or near them. The result is a similar kind of standing around, except it's just a long-range snipe-fest instead of a toe-to-toe swing-fest. That explains why the fight with the skeletons I ran just before the Balhannoth left me sour too.


Saturday October 18, 2008 at 11:55 PM

I think perhaps if they tried to head toward a particular fun, they would leave behind what certain (significant?) demographics found fun about D&D.

On the other hand, trying to just get rid of unfun can do the same thing.

Though I will say the grappling rules in 3.x just seemed bad, and it was something they were going to change (bad as in the rules were quite different, yet they came up not very frequently, so you never played them enough to remember and always had to look them up again, stalling play).

On the other hand, I think I skimmed grappling in 4th and it looks like it hasn't changed much. I should check again, I suppose...


Sunday October 19, 2008 at 08:56 PM

The particular fun they headed toward, I think, is the fun of building and maintaining a mechanically-complex character. It's something that was a big part of 3.x for some groups or people, but was virtually non-existent in 2e and earlier. Earlier editions just didn't put much in the way of mechanical choices in that part of the game. I personally never liked having to optimise a character in order to not get thrashed in-game, so I didn't care for that part of 3.x and mostly ignored it. 4e made it central.

They did make grappling much simpler in 4e. It's a simple attack roll that gives the target a condition that amounts to "can't use move actions". That does oversimplify wrestling, though, so it's not to everyone's taste. Fortunately there seems to be a good solution for 3.x: much of the problem with grappling in 3.x is that the rules are scattered all over and gathering them together for easy reference would make grappling easier to exploit (for players) and to adjudicate (for DMs) and for everyone to understand overall. SORD does this for all combat manœuvers including grappling, and for a mere $5 I'm definitely going to get a copy next time I run or play a 3.x game. It looks like it will radically change how well and quickly combats play out.