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You Play the Game to Win

 ·  ☕ 8 min read

Playing the Game to Win

In a previous post I discussed why people buy a given set of rules. While I agree with my original premise, I still felt as though there was something missing. It wasn’t until I saw this tweet from Krafty Matt that the missing bit clicked in my brain. What is the win condition of B/X, of ACKS, or anything else? Some even go as far as to say there is NO WINNING. This is objectively not true. While it is true that there is not a defined point at which the game ends and a winner is determined based on a points system, this doesn’t mean there is no winning. All it means is that ttrpgs are not finite games, they are instead infinite games. And, luckily, a whole bunch of math nerds have spend alot of time studying the differences in winning finite games vs infinite games. That’s right, it’s time for the Game Theory post.

Actually, there’s not too much to talk about. A cursory google (or chatGPT ask) will tell you that “Unlike finite games, which have fixed rules and a clear endpoint with a winner and loser, infinite games are played with the goal of continuing play and perpetuating the game itself.” Hmm, that sounds familiar. In fact it sounds like suspiciously like what the BrOSR would say a successful campaign is. However, there something else in that definition. “Unlike finite games”, which means that finite games DO have fixed rules and clear endpoints. Which sounds a lot like a session under 1:1 time. In fact, it sounds like sessions are finite games that are used to continue and affect an infinite game. Something else that Game Theory predicts and talks about. When you approach a session, you should approach like you would a finite game, however when you approach a campaign you should treat it like an infinite game.

In the tweet Krafty compared Street Fighter mechanics to rations, time and arrow tracking. Specifically saying that while certain mechanics may seem unfun when you lose, banning them reduces your experience and possible fun. If you are playing Street Fighter, you are playing to win. Winning Street Fighter means that you use all the mechanics to reduce your opponent’s HP to zero. The fun1 comes from learning the mechanics and how to overcome them. Like a game of Street Fighter, a session is a finite game. Players win it by returning to town with loot. Krafy points out that Tracking time, rations, arrows, etc is the same as “unfun” mechanics in Street Fighter, and playing without them ruins the experience. You play sessions to win them, and arrows, time, rations, etc are all mechanics designed to challenge players. The fun is over coming those and winning the session. The outcome of this finite game then feeds into the infinite game of the campaign, where the goal is to continue the campaign. Losing happens when the campaign falls apart.

This has all been very vague an abstract, so I am going to write out some concrete examples for my own benefit. Starting with traditional Dungeons and Dragons (adnd, od&d, B/X).

Dungeons and Dragons infinite game: Run a long term campaign, with war game elements.
Dungeons and Dragons finite game: Go into the wilderness and recover resources, return to town in a given time frame.

Notably in Dungeons and Dragons it is generally the referees who are playing the infinite game, and players who are worried about the finite game. I.e. Referees win when they successfully have players return for session after session. Players win a session when they return to town with loot in town. Patron players are unique in that they play both. They have a vested interest in the outcome of sessions, as it might increase their resources. These resources are then used in the campaign as a way of generating more content and furthering it.

Next, a system I like but rarely play.

Ryuutama infinite game: Generate an evolving story of a region over a timespan.
Ryuutama finite game: Go on a journey in the region, from one safe area to another.

With Ryuutama, the focus on the infinite game is generative, not competitive. The line between players and referees is more blurred, as contributing to the story is the point of both a session and the infinite game. The focus is what changes, as a given session generates the story of a single adventure in the region, while the infinite game collates these into the region’s story. Players are encouraged to help generate aspects of the world during sessions, a mechanic that I h ave had mixed results with. But the point remains in that it is very clear how individual sessions feed into the infinite game.

Finally, everyone’s favorite method of meeting goth chicks, Vampire the Masquerade.

Vampire the Masquerade infinite game: Long term campaign with complex inter-player politics
Vampire the Masquerade finite game: Deal with an extant threat to your city or power base.

This game is well known for two things: primarily being played by people who want to meet scantily clad goth women and it’s focus on inter-player politics. In any given session, the main objective might be to kill or remove a threat to all the players in an alliance, but players must not give up too much in the process, otherwise they may be forced to drop out of the infinite game by stronger players. Once again, the sessions are tied intrinsically to the infinite game.

The most interesting thing to note is that of the three systems, Dungeons and Dragons has the biggest division between who is playing the infinite game and who is only focussed on the outcome of a session. There is a long standing idea that players graduate to patron play after winning enough sessions. Frankly, I am beginning to believe that this is the source of a lot of misunderstanding of what the goal of playing is. Players generally feel as though they have no agency over the campaign for a large percentage of it’s run time, and referees feel as though they have to be running all of the antagonists to create a living world and continue presenting interesting challenges for the players to overcome in sessions. This friction is where I believe the main rebuttal to 1:1 time I hear comes from. Namely, that players shouldn’t be forced to end a session in town for reasons outside of the game, namely the real life length of a session. It feels unfair that just because they are only playing for four hours, they should have to cut their delve short if their characters could continue.

It feels unfair because the players are viewing the individual sessions as the infinite game. The point of Dungeons and Dragons is to play Dungeons and Dragons after all, so why should they alter their playing for reasons outside of the game. However, this is a wrong view. The sessions themselves are finite, and can be restricted by any number of rules, and end once the time is up. They feed into the over all campaign, which is infinite and changes based on outcomes. Players in conventional play rarely see the fruits of this change however, so they attempt to stretch the definition of the session into one that allows for infinite play. Which, is fair enough. Players want to participate in the campaign elements, and artificially restricting them fr`om it leads to frustration. The BrOSR solves this by allowing patron players out of the gate, no need to win a certain number of sessions. ACKs has rules for rolling one character at the low level, mid-level, and patron level right at the beginning of the campaign, which may help as well. Either way, the artificial distance between players and the campaign for a long stretch of a campaign is the friction point I think a lot of issue has stemmed from.

So where does this leave us? “You play the game to win” is good advice for finite games. For infinite games “You win the game by continuing to play” is more accurate for infinite games. To synthesize what I said in the last few posts with this: A referee picks a ruleset because he believes that it will allow him to run a game with a experience2 he likes. Playing the game involves both an infinite game and a series of finite games. Continuing the infinite game is the referee’s goal (You buy the rules to play them). Winning the finite games is the players' goal (You play the game to win). Sometimes, a referee may want an experience that no rules offer, or offer imperfectly and this is from whence homebrew arises.

I still believe somewhere there is a synthesis between the BrOSR ideals of Braunstein, 1:1 time, and large player bases, and the more traditional single table play. I don’t think I have found it yet, and I am thankful that BrOSR is around to actually facilitate this discussion. That’s where I’m going to leave it for this post, so for now

Sail On!

  1. The term “fun” is not a great one, since it is somewhat subjective. Not everyone finds Street Fighter fun. For now, assume that fun is derived from overcoming limitations and challenges. ↩︎

  2. Experience being a conglomeration of tone, genre and game feel, not the goals of the game. ↩︎

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