Is Call of Cthulhu a toy (rather than a game), and does that matter?

edited January 2015 in Story Games
So, labeling an RPG "not a game" as a gesture of dislike or disrespect is something that's been done a bit on the RPG internets, so I feel the need to clarify: I'm not doing that. I like games and I like toys. I feel like old Vampire is probably a toy, and I love it because so many of the doohickeys on it are well-suited for fun play.

In fact, I don't think it's quite accurate to call any RPG a toy. A good, long, option-filled RPG book is more like a box of toys. Another label I've used for such a book is "RPG tool kit".

So what is an RPG tool kit? (Or toy, or toy box?) It's a chunk of material that can be played with in various different ways, constituting meaningfully different games and/or non-game modes of play. By "meaningfully different" I mean having different goals, objectives, win conditions, formal rules, informal rules, and tests of skill.

How does that differ from a game? A game is a chunk of material that can be played with in various different ways within one consistent framework of goals, rules, and struggle. Color, tone, pace, IC/OOC focus, level of participation, immediate character goals -- these can all vary from one group or session to the next, but the fundamental reason to play is constant.

(This definition isn't rigorously constructed. Feel free to disagree with the premise in the comments, but please don't bog the discussion down by nit-picking my precise wording. If you have better wording available, private message it to me and perhaps I'll use it.)

So, how is Call of Cthulhu a box of toys instead of a game?

Call of Cthulhu contains the following:
  • Loads of Lovecraft material to inspire you to do Lovecraftian things. What did Lovecraft protagonists do? Alone, they stumbled upon something interesting, kept looking as more and more was revealed, got to some climactic revelation, and went mad.
  • Rules for creating varied characters, and advice for running for groups. No single protagonists expected.
  • A system for keeping track of Sanity, including which experiences lower it, and what lowering it does to the character.
  • Rules for resolving success or failure on various skilled tasks.
  • Rules for resolving success or failure on various types of knowledge-hunting.
  • An apparent expectation that the group, as led by the GM, will treat the fiction as plausible and causal with respect to when these rolls should be employed. You can't shoot something that's out of range, you can't research if there's no library, etc.
  • Advice and modules for the GM to use in providing collections of clues that comprise supernatural truths.
  • Many monsters which will probably kill the PCs as soon as they appear, plus a few that won't, sometimes contingent on what the PCs have learned so far, but often not.

So, what's the fundamental reason to play? Various groups have come up with very different answers:
  1. Audience. Witness the unfolding horrors. No player participation required beyond deciding which door to open next.
  2. Portrayal. Witness the horror and also add some dramatic reactions.
  3. Struggle. Use your wits, acting ability, knowledge of physics, in-fiction strategy, rules mastery, and assets on the character sheet, in order to pursue a goal.
    3a) Attempt to discover the full truth of a secret.
    3b) Attempt to completely escape a death trap.
    3c) Attempt to vanquish a threat.
  4. Some GMs, sensing that one player wants to be audience, another player want to get their thespian on, and a third player wants to problem-solve, have tried to accommodate all three in the same game, taking turns between info-dumps, horror stimuli, and cleverness challenges.
I think I have some more support for this assessment below, but fundamentally, this is why I view Call of Cthulhu as a box of toys.

How is that a good thing?

3+ games between two covers! With the same awesome flavor available to all! Flexibility to import bits from one game to another at will!

How is that a bad thing?

The book doesn't tell you what the 3+ options are, and it doesn't tell you which pieces to use in which ones, and it doesn't actually offer full support for all (any?) of them.

Or, to put it another way, if the audience isn't already sold on the "RPG as tool kit" model, and think instead they're buying a game in the sense that I defined above, like how a board game is a game, they're going to be really disoriented.

It's not just a matter of "you can decide on which pieces work for you" -- instead it's a matter of "you have to decide on which pieces work for you." And it doesn't say that on the back cover of the book.

In my experience, there are two main results:

1) If you go to a con where it's mostly D&D and Call of Cthulhu, the Call of Cthulhu games are the places to go for players who like acting and roleplay and adding to the mood. The GMs vary, the adventures vary, but a large percentage of players who've continued to play Call of Cthulhu are the ones who can make it a fun experience regardless of the scenario's particulars. Some of them think Portrayal is, in fact, the reason to play; others hold onto what drew them to Lovecraft in the first place, the horror vibe; and others have learned that many an aimless clue-hunt is spiced up by some emoting.

2) If you want meaningful decisions, skills and die rolls that matter, clues that add up, and/or dramatic pacing, it's time to cross your fingers and pray. Even many "amazing CoC GMs" are extremely prone to filling up play time with "roll until you find the useless scrap of data in this location" drudgery; failing to signal when options are immaterial or dead-ends; haggling over minutiae with players who are seeking advantage where there's none to be had; and random TPKs without satisfying conclusions to arcs of discovery. I've yet to actually meet a Call of Cthulhu GM who said, "Skill rolls are just for momentary color; you're here to portray your characters going mad as I show you cool horror stuff." The "making a game out of the toys" process seems to be almost entirely unconscious, and is thus prone to all sorts of imported baggage.

If you look at Trail of Cthulhu, you can see that it's a reaction to this -- the way it handles clues and prep is targeted at eliminating clue-search drudgery, and the explicit Purist/Pulp division, while primarily a matter of color, may help groups nail down some starting assumptions. Whether you think ToC is better or worse than CoC, I think its publication and continued existence speak to some distinct flaws in the older model -- as far as I can tell, it's basically selling on "exactly like Call of Cthulhu, but with some different rules!"

My takeaway:
Even though I like toys, I find it very frustrating when a toy box comes labeled as a game and doesn't help me turn it into one. To the extent that "that's not a game!" makes sense to me as an accusation, it's not a matter of design, but rather one of self-awareness. If the makers of Call of Cthulhu acknowledged that they were selling a toy box, I can only imagine that it would be organized and introduced differently, the better to help seekers of Audience, Portrayal, Struggle, etc. hit upon the optimal tool usage.

(continued below -- last paragraph didn't fit)
«1

Comments

  • edited January 2015
    I'm not saying that, in the abstract, all toys should come with instructions to gamify them. I don't believe that. A frisbee is still fun even if it doesn't comes with the rules to ultimate frisbee. However, in the case of a box full of toys which may work well in some combinations and poorly in others, I think some assembly advice of that sort is required. Look at my bulleted list of Call of Cthulhu features -- do you think these can be combined in any old groupings? If not, would you trust yourself to pick the right combo on the first try? How long might you play before you even thought to approach this selection consciously?
  • i haven't played Cthulu in quite a few years so what I say here should be taken with a grain of salt I suppose. I think the issue you run into with this kind of RPG having instructions for pursuing specific uses is folks might feel limited to the choices you present and in my experience most groups are a broad mix and kind of cobble together whatever works for them. I wouldn't want to feel like I have to choose between playing three different versions of Cthulu for example, because I have developed my own way with the game and I am not sure it fits neatly into any particular category. I mean when we play a game like that there is strong investigative element, a strong element of exploration, an element of drama and also this kind of situational chemistry where things just arise organically from the combination of characters, the threat they face and how they respond to it.
  • edited January 2015
    I would guess that that does fit into a particular category, but yeah, point taken on the "here are the three options" schema feeling limiting. If I were writing the book, I'd certainly be sure to emphasize the diversity of sub-options within each of the three (or however many) broad options. My breakdown really isn't about the content of the fiction at all, but rather about the players' orientation to it.

    Honestly, I'd like to posit a book broken into rules and GMing widgets where each widget comes with notes about how it interacts with other widgets... but then my brain starts hurting.
  • Imagine a toolbox game has three dials, each of which has 10 settings. Then you've got 1,000 different games! I mean, they're unlikely to all feel truly distinct, as 1-1-1 will be enormously similar to 1-1-2, but my point is that it might be useful to think of some of the issues Dave is pointing out here as lying on a spectrum.

    Serious/Silly, Scripted/Improvisational, Lethal/Forgiving, Episodic/Serialized, and many issues of creative import in roleplay are rarely binary states. But they are still issues about which decisions must be made by each individual playgroup *if* the game's rules don't dictate where we're supposed to fall on each of those spectra.
  • @David_Berg,
    Excellent breakdown, I think my takeaway is the same as yours.
    I'm not saying that, in the abstract, all toys should come with instructions to gamify them. A frisbee is still fun even if it doesn't comes with the rules to ultimate frisbee.
    Right. But when a group plays with a frisbee, there's a negotiation about what that play will look like. As a toy, it implies that multiple modes of play are possible, and so the group must negotiate and select one. Sometimes, there might be disagreement about whether to play ultimate, or golf, or just play casually, but the conversation is easy to have because no correct mode of play is implied or assumed.

    By presenting itself as a game, Call of Cthulhu preempts that negotiation. It implies a correct mode of play without stipulating it. So there's a lack of discussion about, but also a lack of imposition of the procedures and agenda of play.

    There are a few outcomes of this:

    (1) The group realizes and accepts that Call of Cthulhu, despite it's presentation, is a toy that supports multiple modes of play, and negotiates.

    (2) The group naturally and implicitly agrees to play with CoC in the context of a specific, externally-imposed game. Sometimes the game is an ephemeral cultural artifact, sometimes it's concrete like a pre-generated module.

    (3) The group does naturally agree on a mode of play, but, because of CoC's presentation, does not negotiate because they don't realize that multiple modes of play are possible. Expectations of play clash, and there's no clear venue for resolving that clash.

    If, in case 3, the GM is aware of the clash, they might attempt to facilitate different types of play simultaneously. I've seen this work, but it's basically a band-aid measure to cover up the initial lack of negotiation.
  • Great post, Dave!

    I'd include this post in every CoC manual, personally. Wouldn't hurt a bit...

    And while it's certainly true that it feels like there are many more than three options for playing CoC (and it may shift from player to player or scene to scene just a little bit), the broad strokes are important (e.g. "Do our tactical decisions matter?" "Is the Big Evil Monster defeatable?" "Do we accept that the story should typically end with the protagonists going insane, or are we playing to try to avoid that?"), and all the players must be oriented towards them in some coherent fashion or frustration and crossed wires are almost inevitable.
  • Looking at the description you've defined, I'm not sure I can think of any rpgs that are not toys, using your definition. Since I'm sure you probably have thought about this more than me, what are some examples of RPGs that are actually games and not toys, and why?

    Thanks.
  • @jcfiala - As I was postulating in one of the earlier threads on this topic, I think almost all RPGs _ARE_ toys. Or toyboxes. Or engines. Or whatever. And not "games" in any traditional sense. There probably are a few that are sufficiently... defined in the right ways to reach that point. Puppetland? The Mountain Witch? Certainly, many focused indie games are at least less shy about stating their intended purpose, even if they don't necessarily go on to back up the statement with a "how-to".
  • @jcfiala,

    They become games when they impose procedure and agenda to play. Some do this to a greater extent than others. Some impose one, but not the other--there's a continuum.

    Some game-y examples I can think of: Fiasco, Mouse Guard, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Quiet Year, Microscope, Murderous Ghosts

  • I agree with pretty much everything there, Dave. CoC is a game I've had quite some trouble with myself over the years, for the reasons you explain.
  • So, to start with, I came across this thread first when scrolling down the list of topics on the site, read it, made my comment, and then came across the other thread discussing RPGs as Toys vs. games. So, I apologize that I didn't realize there was deeper context to the discussion than was stated in the OP. (As a suggestion, maybe next time link to the parent thread?)

    Also, you seem to be varying on what you're saying - first you say that Call of Cthulhu is a box of toys, then you say it's 3+ games in one book. :)

    Personally, I can't say I've ever really had that much trouble with the game myself, having run a number of con games (which tend more towards Portrayal with some Struggle) and home campaigns (which tend to be mostly Struggle). I can't say I'd ever thought of splitting the game up between Portrayal and Struggle myself, although I'll admit I've often thought that if a convention game of Call of Cthulhu doesn't end well at all (or with a total group kill) it's less of a bother if it's at least been an interesting death. (But then, a total group kill in D&D doesn't matter as much in a convention game, if it's interesting.)

    I'll admit I never have run across the "Audience" style of playing, which sounds a bit like reading a "Choose your own Adventure" book out loud. Maybe I've missed it because I'm not interested in it, although (for home campaigns) it's probably because I'm often running the game.

    Do you feel the same multi-game confusion with other rulesets for playing Cthulhu-themed adventures? Call of Cthulhu D20, Trail of Cthulhu, Savage Worlds: Realms of Cthulhu, FUDGE? I'm just wondering. What about other horror games that are investigation based, as opposed to being the monsters that's been common over the last twenty or so years?

    (And thank you for the example games. Unfortunately, I've not played any of those, so it's not very helpful for the discussion, although I did watch the FIASCO episode(s) of Tabletop. But I understand they used a lot of house rules in that game.)
  • As I was postulating in one of the earlier threads on this topic, I think almost all RPGs _ARE_ toys. Or toyboxes. Or engines. Or whatever. And not "games" in any traditional sense.
    I've wondered for a while if they all aren't the basically the equivalent of a verbal action-figure playset myself.

    OTOH, I consider this possibility highly positive and worth further consideration.

  • edited January 2015
    For me, game-ness is easiest to spot in something tightly structured and limited in scope. There's really only one possible way to play Montsegur 1244 -- you have 5 acts to address the questions on your character card and decide whether you will burn at the stake or renounce your faith at the end of the game, period.

    However, some open-ended RPGs are games too, or at least become games once you follow the instructions. Burning Wheel with blank character sheets isn't yet a game, but once you fill out your Beliefs, now you have goals and objectives and points to be earned and a rationale for GMing, and it's a game. I have heard accounts that point to D&D 4 being very much a game.
    Also, you seem to be varying on what you're saying - first you say that Call of Cthulhu is a box of toys, then you say it's 3+ games in one book.
    I think that if you have the right person parsing the book, it can provide 3+ games. Before that parsing happens, though, the book itself is a box of toys.
    Personally, I can't say I've ever really had that much trouble with the game myself, having run a number of con games (which tend more towards Portrayal with some Struggle) and home campaigns (which tend to be mostly Struggle).
    I've only had good struggle + portrayal CoC play when the GM utterly ditched the idea that forward progress is at the whim of where the PCs go and what they look at and how they roll. My record with ToC is better on that score, though not perfect.

    It's always possible to slap portrayal on top of whatever else is going, so it's not an either-or for me, it's just a question of precedence. Are we there to act out madness, and struggle is the way to get there? Or are we there to see if we can win, and the acting is there to add spice? Disconnect over what's at stake is the problem I've run into, usually in the form of players expecting to influence outcomes more than they can (i.e. a real challenge to the players rather than just a fictional challenge to the characters). My "Portrayal" mode isn't an attempt to say "thee's no acting in other modes" -- it's more to say that, in "Portrayal" mode there's no consequential player problem-solving, so the portrayal really is the whole deal (or, y'know, a big chunk of it).
  • For me, game-ness is easiest to spot in something tightly structured and limited in scope. There's really only one possible way to play Montsegur 1244 -- you have 5 acts to address the questions on your character card and decide whether you will burn at the stake or renounce your faith at the end of the game, period.
    Oooh, good example.

    However, some open-ended RPGs are games too, or at least become games once you follow the instructions. Burning Wheel with blank character sheets isn't yet a game, but once you fill out your Beliefs, now you have goals and objectives and points to be earned and a rationale for GMing, and it's a game. I have heard accounts that point to D&D 4 being very much a game.
    Let's not confuse something being GAMIST with it being a game by this definition please, the terms have little if anything in common.

    I think that if you have the right person parsing the book, it can provide 3+ games. Before that parsing happens, though, the book itself is a box of toys.
    Precisely. In much the same way that a bunch of dice are toys, but Pig is a game.
  • He's not confusing the terms. His point is that both BW and 4E are very procedural once you get going.
  • He's not confusing the terms. His point is that both BW and 4E are very procedural once you get going.
    I don't really get that vibe from 4E, honestly, so more explanation would be nice on that tack.

  • I'm pretty sure that if I toss out a quick assessment of D&D's game-like and non-game-like qualities, that topic will eat this thread. For now, I'll just say that I haven't played 4E myself, so if you have, and you aren't seeing its gameyness, I ain't gonna argue. Let's wait a bit and see if more opinions on Call of Cthulhu roll in.

    I think the connection between games and gamism is far more than superficial, but I will agree that neither one necessarily implies the other.
  • I’m going to try making what may seem an unhelpful point. This isn’t because I understand the OP better than anyone else & may, indeed, mean the opposite. Please forgive any ignorance or unfamiliarity I may show.

    If the rhizomes of ‘game’ & ‘play’ can’t easily be separated without giving rise to a host of new questions, it’s because roleplay in itself is an interesting idea.

    What I understand to be a roleplaying game contains multiplicities of both game and play and, perhaps more importantly, conjoins both to reveal points of view about the world, however those points of view are coded.

    In Monsterhearts, characters are coded to reveal deeper truths. In Call of Cthulhu, the universe itself is coded. The game, as such, is its index of sanity, but it’s something ‘beyond’ too. Any feeling of emptiness on reaching the end of the trail of clues is appropriate.
  • Wait, are you saying that, given Lovecraftian themes, Lovecraftian play should be some complex hybrid of game and not-game?
  • That kinda makes my brain hurt. :P

    Anyway, as my earlier comment indicated, I see "Gamist" stuff in 4E, but no particularly higher levels of being a "game" according to this thread than any other D&D.
  • Wait, are you saying that, given Lovecraftian themes, Lovecraftian play should be some complex hybrid of game and not-game?
    Kind of. The game is depicting, or at least alluding to, the inexplicable – ie why is there something rather than nothing and why does it keep not making sense?

    I like the taxonomies in the OP – I think I’ve encountered every one of them. But I’ve encountered something else too – even if only fleetingly, inside passing moments: the absence of an explanation.

    I’ve the impression that we’re concerned by this absence in the same way iconoclasts were concerned by depictions of their religious leaders – they remind us: ‘This isn’t real.’

    For me, the only way to the ‘real’ game is through the not-game – ie the players. Call of Cthulhu is a very subjective experience and making that experience collective is tricky – as the OP indicates.

    There are several game agencies for rendering the portrayal of an individual’s existential breakdown – the Sanity count alone is genius – but it’s hard to make this game-wide and dramatize it without everyone sniggering and going gonzo. It’s beyond language: portrayal is the only answer. Only things outside the game hold any clues – poetry, post-structuralism, dead languages, whatever.

    I quite like the ‘war party’ style of portrayal in D&D too – it’s just hard to map that effectively onto a game of Call of Cthulhu.

    These are opinions, not facts, by the way, in case that isn’t already obvious. Even the scientist says: “The night conceals the world but reveals the universe.”


  • edited January 2015
    For me, the only way to the ‘real’ game is through the not-game – ie the players. Call of Cthulhu is a very subjective experience and making that experience collective is tricky – as the OP indicates.

    There are several game agencies for rendering the portrayal of an individual’s existential breakdown – the Sanity count alone is genius – but it’s hard to make this game-wide and dramatize it without everyone sniggering and going gonzo . . . [emphasis mine -DB]
    Is it that hard? Well, it's certainly hard if not everyone at the table wants to do it, or if they privately want to but haven't confirmed it, or if they've confirmed it but not at the outset when deciding how to play, or if they've confirmed it at the outset but aren't using rules that support it.

    I dunno, I think this sort of challenge benefits from more game-ifying, at least to the extent of:
    - Introducing the clear goal to pursue a certain type of experience
    - Using procedures which create the best odds for such experiences to arise

    It's true that the subjective experience itself isn't available for challenge, feedback, and reward, contrary to the performances demanded in most games. However, I think portrayal provides a necessary* window into that experience, and portrayal is open to game interactions.

    I think I addressed your point, but I'm not positive, so if I missed it, please clue me in!

    *As long as we're doing Lovecraft multi-player, which is what Call of Cthulhu is.
  • edited January 2015

    So, what's the fundamental reason to play? Various groups have come up with very different answers:
    1. Audience. Witness the unfolding horrors. No player participation required beyond deciding which door to open next.
    2. Portrayal. Witness the horror and also add some dramatic reactions.
    3. Struggle. Use your wits, acting ability, knowledge of physics, in-fiction strategy, rules mastery, and assets on the character sheet, in order to pursue a goal.
      3a) Attempt to discover the full truth of a secret.
      3b) Attempt to completely escape a death trap.
      3c) Attempt to vanquish a threat.
    4. Some GMs, sensing that one player wants to be audience, another player want to get their thespian on, and a third player wants to problem-solve, have tried to accommodate all three in the same game, taking turns between info-dumps, horror stimuli, and cleverness challenges.
    I'm not sure this comment is exactly relevant to the thread, but I'd like to thank you for clearly articulating why I've always had issues with Call of Cthulhu - and hopefully helped me play it better in future.

    I've never ran it as a GM, which probably accounts for my confusion, but I always assumed it was like a lot of other rpgs - in which the idea was to be a protagonist hero overcoming terrible challenges. As a response, after my characters kept dying I would end up playing ever increasing weapons specialists in the hope of finally beating the damn thing.

    Meanwhile, my fellow players were enjoying slowly turning mad and dying horribly.

    I do wish sometimes, even if an RPG is to be a box of toys, that there would be a clear the air discussion before they begin about mood and tone, and expected play styles. Or even a one-page handout about how the players are expected to approach the material. But since I've frequently been the odd one out, maybe that's not needed for most groups.

    (edit: make the quote block finish correctly).

  • I don't know about "most groups", but your story of not being on the same page in a Call of Cthulhu game is certainly far from unique! I'm totally with you about the intro chat being a good idea. Some players hesitate to suggest it for fear of aimless discussion delaying play, but I've found that as long as you have concrete questions or suggestions, it goes quickly and most people at the table get something out of it.
  • I don't really agree with the whole concept - does a designer and/or player of chess variants turn a chessboard and pieces into a "toy" because they're fucking with methods and goals of play? If so, what does that add to our understanding of chess? Maybe not that much.

    "Toy" and "game" are both big messy colloquial and contextual nouns, and that is okay. But it means that you're not going to be able to reason your way into firm categorization, you can only do it through observation and only for singular purposes.
  • You don't think we can say anything useful about the Call of Cthulhu book itself on this score? You don't think people might have better or worse luck with it depending on whether they approach it as a game or a toy?
  • I think it's fine not to get on with Call of Cthulhu, or any of the variants thereof. I don't think recategorising it will help. Apart from putting it in the list of games you don't like playing. Plenty of people play it, enjoy it, and don't really mind what you call it.

    What confuses is me is that you're still trying to find a way of saying "I don't like this". There are a myriad of other games, play one of them.
  • You don't think we can say anything useful about the Call of Cthulhu book itself on this score? You don't think people might have better or worse luck with it depending on whether they approach it as a game or a toy?
    No, because both of those are contextual, colloquial, fuzzy-around-the-edges, grey-zone words. You should instead describe an approach to Call of Cthulhu and people will go "yeah, that sounds good" or "no, that blows".
  • You don't think we can say anything useful about the Call of Cthulhu book itself on this score? You don't think people might have better or worse luck with it depending on whether they approach it as a game or a toy?
    No, because both of those are contextual, colloquial, fuzzy-around-the-edges, grey-zone words. You should instead describe an approach to Call of Cthulhu and people will go "yeah, that sounds good" or "no, that blows".
    I think the point is that there are multiple approaches, and that can be a pro or a con.
  • Categorization: A Story-Games Dot Com Pièce de Théatre

    Gamer A: I have noticed a Phenomenon.
    Gamer B: Ah, excellent.
    A: So, I shall put a name to this Phenomenon, in order to be able to reference it more easily in future, rather than fully explicate it each time.
    B: Sounds like a good idea, chum!
    A: Its name shall be George.
    B: Capital!
    Gamer C: You're only calling it that because you hate it; your choice of the name George belies your intent, since you are a well-known anti-monarchist, and George is also the name of our King.
    A: But... but...
    C: No no! What you call a Phenomenon is merely a Happenstance, too fleeting and vague to be recognized with its own taxonomy.
    B: What about...
    C: Tut tut! None of that now! You know perfectly well that categories are inherently suspect and subject to subconscious bias. And we can't have *that*!
    A and B: Sigh.

    Fin
  • edited January 2015

    I think the point is that there are multiple approaches, and that can be a pro or a con.
    But that doesn't make a game or a toy. There's nothing about a game that says "there is only one way to play this". Compare 8-minute speed chess on the street to 90 minute tournament chess under USCF rules.
  • edited January 2015
    You don't think we can say anything useful about the Call of Cthulhu book itself on this score? You don't think people might have better or worse luck with it depending on whether they approach it as a game or a toy?
    No, because both of those are contextual, colloquial, fuzzy-around-the-edges, grey-zone words. You should instead describe an approach to Call of Cthulhu and people will go "yeah, that sounds good" or "no, that blows".
    Describing actual approaches does seem to be the most productive portion of this thread!

    At the same time, I'd say that critical analysis in every artistic field is more of a broad contribution than a single-purpose one. Literary criticism isn't just so we can get out of a novel what the critic got out of that novel -- it's more of a shot at growing our understanding, and then we do with that understanding what we will. I mean, I'm sure I won't come up with all the approaches to Call of Cthulhu that other people might like, but perhaps a useful analysis of the game could help other people come up with their own approaches that I might never think of.

    I'm not sure that "toy vs game" is useful analysis... but I do think your point about colloquial fuzz isn't the whole story. Most critical terms carry some inappropriate baggage, and I'd say that their usability depends on whether they can be contextualized succinctly. I think that's been more or less achieved here, right? I mean, you may disagree, but I get the impression that you know what I'm trying to say by "game" and "toy".

  • I think the point is that there are multiple approaches, and that can be a pro or a con.
    But that doesn't make a game or a toy. There's nothing about a game that says "there is only one way to play this". Compare 8-minute speed chess on the street to 90 minute tournament chess under USCF rules.
    Actually, I would say those are two different games played with the same set of toys. :)
  • edited January 2015
    Categorization: A Story-Games Dot Com Pièce de Théatre

    Gamer A: I have noticed a Phenomenon.
    Gamer B: Ah, excellent.
    A: So, I shall put a name to this Phenomenon, in order to be able to reference it more easily in future, rather than fully explicate it each time.
    B: Sounds like a good idea, chum!
    A: Its name shall be George.
    B: Capital!
    Gamer C: You're only calling it that because you hate it; your choice of the name George belies your intent, since you are a well-known anti-monarchist, and George is also the name of our King.
    A: But... but...
    C: No no! What you call a Phenomenon is merely a Happenstance, too fleeting and vague to be recognized with its own taxonomy.
    B: What about...
    C: Tut tut! None of that now! You know perfectly well that categories are inherently suspect and subject to subconscious bias. And we can't have *that*!
    A and B: Sigh.

    Fin
    Since this was probably directed at my other posts, I will just point out there are neutral terms and then there are loaded terms. My issue was here was two-fold. Toy is not a neutral term. If it had simply been something more neutral like "Engines" versus "Systems" (which I think was a comparison someone mentioned as well at some point), I wouldn't have objected. George would be a stretch to find any issue with. Toy and Game, when you are talking within the context go a hobby where story gamer/indie game players and traditional players have had many bitter flamewars over things like whether a game ceases to be an RPG when it uses narrative mechanics or whether Trad. RPGs are are actual games at all (or at least if they are well designed), I think it isn't a stretch to question the use of the Game Versus Toy analogy. My other issue was on the value of thinking in terms of like analogies like this. Analogies can be useful if they help you explain something you already understand to other people who don't. But they are not good vehicles for arguments because you tend to get hung up debating the analogy itself.
  • Are we sure this IS an "analogy"? That wasn't the impression I was taking away.
  • I agree with Brendan; these are not neutral terms.

    I just think that RPGs are plain more toys than games, as regularly used.

    Really, they're pretty much substitutes for toy plastic tiaras and action figures.

    And I think that is not only okay, it is positively good.

    I also believe that looking at them in that fashion suggests other ways they can be designed and presented to would-be participants.

    I'll try to collect some of my thoughts and start a different thread on that later today.
  • Are we sure this IS an "analogy"? That wasn't the impression I was taking away.
    I'm not seeing how this isn't an analogy since we are directly comparing Trad RPGs to Toys and Indie RPGs to Games. I realize that the analogies are being used to produce new terminology, but the starting point is the comparison in how each thing is used.
  • edited January 2015
    I don't think the "theater piece" was about you, Brendan.

    Re: "toy", I did state up front that I like "toy box" or "tool kit" better. I think "engine" is somewhere in between -- less prone to misreading than "toy", but less accurately descriptive than "tool kit". One could easily claim that the Call of Cthulhu book contains multiple engines.
    the broad strokes are important (e.g. "Do our tactical decisions matter?" "Is the Big Evil Monster defeatable?" "Do we accept that the story should typically end with the protagonists going insane, or are we playing to try to avoid that?"), and all the players must be oriented towards them in some coherent fashion
    I am not so sure. I think that only happens if the group is walking around with these categories as conscious concepts in the first place.
    Agreed! One of the possible benefits of looking at an RPG book as a box of tools is to broach the issue of "so what should we do with it?" in the first place, as opposed to assuming there's one right answer, board game-style. Whether you parse the options the way I did depends on a number of things like personal experience, but I imagine "ways to combine these tools for particular ends" guidance from the book could be useful.
    we are directly comparing Trad RPGs to Toys and Indie RPGs to Games.
    No we aren't! Not in this thread, anyway. My impression of Call of Cthulhu or Microscope says nothing about my impression of Pathfinder or Conspiracy of Shadows.
  • we are directly comparing Trad RPGs to Toys and Indie RPGs to Games.
    No we aren't! Not in this thread, anyway. My impression of Call of Cthulhu or Microscope says nothing about my impression of Pathfinder or Conspiracy of Shadows.
    Fair enough. I was mixing up the threads. But the point stands that this is still an analogy. Call of Cthulu is being compared to a Toy because of how the two things are used.
  • I don't think the "theater piece" was about you, Brendan.
    I wasn't seeing it as a personal dig, I just felt compelled to respond because it seemed like it might be a reaction to some of the objections I've made on this point in the last few threads.
  • edited January 2015
    It is certainly true that a bound book is not literally a box full of separate objects known as toys.

    Is it literally not a tool kit, though? I dunno, personally, I think many books are tool kits. Just because the tools are procedures rather than objects doesn't render them not tools. I'd make the same argument for toys, though perhaps that's less intuitive.

    Perhaps I should have stuck to my own personal terminology, "tool kit", from the get-go though. Next time!
  • [D]oes a designer and/or player of chess variants turn a chessboard and pieces into a "toy" because they're fucking with methods and goals of play? If so, what does that add to our understanding of chess? Maybe not that much.
    Yes, the chessboard and pieces are definitely toys. The benefit of this taxonomy is how it informs presentation.

    Check out Spot It! as a great example of a product with a self-aware toy-ness that actively informs it's presentation. In the Spot It! package is a set of cards with various relationships to each other, and then, separately, a set of instructions for different games that can be played with those cards.
  • edited January 2015
    It is certainly true that a bound book is not literally a box full of separate objects known as toys.

    Is it literally not a tool kit, though? I dunno, personally, I think many books are tool kits. Just because the tools are procedures rather than objects doesn't render them not tools. I'd make the same argument for toys, though perhaps that's less intuitive.

    Perhaps I should have stuck to my own personal terminology, "tool kit", from the get-go though. Next time!
    I don't want to be pedantic here, but I do think it is still important, even in this case, to understand we are not literally talking about a took kit. It isn't literally a tool kit, it is literally a bound book with text describing rules and procedures. A tool kit is literally a took kit. I do find find the tool box analogy useful for talking about certain kinds of RPGs (for example games that give you a bunch of parts and let you cobble them together in various ways) but I wouldn't mistake that analogy for the reality of what I am dealing with, which is a book of rules and text. I understand the value of the comparison. It is just that it remains a comparison.

    I think when you take a line of reasoning like "procedures=tools" there is a certain amount of equivocation going on with the word. Especially with the compound tool kit. Then you are referring to something quite physically real.
  • edited January 2015
    I just think that RPGs are plain more toys than games, as regularly used.
    I suppose it is true that even the most game-like RPG is still more toy-like than almost all board games.
  • I am also not saying tool kit isn't a serviceable comparison here. It makes a lot more sense to me than Toy. I just was quibbling over the idea that this is literally a tool kit.
  • edited January 2015
    A tool kit is literally a tool kit . . . I wouldn't mistake that analogy for the reality of what I am dealing with, which is a book of rules and text.
    Hmm. Can you think of any more succinct and literal way to say "book of rules and other writings which can be of use in various ways" than "tool kit"? I mean, half the labels in modern English were metaphorical comparisons at one point, and became literal because they were the best description available. I don't really see the point in your distinction.
  • edited January 2015

    I don't want to be pedantic here, but I do think it is still important, even in this case, to understand we are not literally talking about a took kit. It isn't literally a tool kit, it is literally a bound book with text describing rules and procedures. A tool kit is literally a took kit. I do find find the tool box analogy useful for talking about certain kinds of RPGs (for example games that give you a bunch of parts and let you cobble them together in various ways) but I wouldn't mistake that analogy for the reality of what I am dealing with, which is a book of rules and text. I understand the value of the comparison. It is just that it remains a comparison.

    I think when you take a line of reasoning like "procedures=tools" there is a certain amount of equivocation going on with the word. Especially with the compound tool kit. Then you are referring to something quite physically real.
    Actually, I'm afraid this is not correct.

    Consulting Merriam Webster on this one, a tool can be "something (as an instrument or apparatus) used in performing an operation or necessary in the practice of a vocation or profession"; It doesn't need to be a physical object ala a hammer.

    Similarly, kit: "a collection of articles usually for personal use"; It doesn't HAVE to be a box.

    A rulebook can absolutely be a tool kit. Literally. Similarly, an RPG can absolutely be a toy. That's what this whole discussion is about, from my perspective. Stopping thinking about these things as games - i.e. things with defined goals and procedures - and more like toys - i.e. things to play with and use to produce whatever fun result you want.

    It's NOT an analogy.
  • A tool kit is literally a tool kit . . . I wouldn't mistake that analogy for the reality of what I am dealing with, which is a book of rules and text.
    Hmm. Can you think of any more succinct and literal way to say "book of rules and text which can be of use in various ways" than "tool kit"? I mean, half the labels in modern English were metaphorical comparisons at one point, and became literal because they were the best description available. I don't really see the point in your distinction.
    I don't think there is a problem with using the term here. But I do think it is important not to confuse tool kit RPG with a physical to kit, and that is where the distinction is important. I only mention this because I have seen so many RPG discussions where people start arguing about or discussing the features of the analogical object itself without realizing it. So even if the tool kit as an abstraction becomes its own term, it no longer is literally the same as a physical toolkit in that useage.
  • While I agree with the observations of the Opening Post(er), I want to make it clear that the Call of Cthulhu (CoC) book doesn't stand alone, actually far from it, in influencing CoC-roleplayers. CoC 5th ed. was the first RPG Book I read, and my fist game was as a keeper for two experienced players. The "try and accomplish or solve stuff"-influence is giving roleplayers, but it doesn't neccesarily come from the CoC-book. I think few (less than half) who play CoC have ever looked in the book*, even less at conventions.

    I've just started reading Trail of Cthulhu now, after a CoC-game at a convention rekindled my mythos fire and and gave me hopes that it can be played "purist style" (albeit in "multi-player Lovecraft"-mode). As I've mainly played CoC diceless with a combined forcus on horror theme/acting, while following a narrative** , and watched it fall together as one roll to "speak french" or "hit stuff with shotgun", whenever an inexperienced (CoC-)GM let slip the reins of the narrative, and by it the theme and mood.

    I'll reiterate my main point: Players approaching Call (/Trail) of Cthulhu with another agenda than "portray a role, while making it slowly loose a grip (on reality as hir knows it) and enjoy the narrative" have probably their influence made from other RPGs (possibly including computer one's).




    * except to look up the stats for Cthulhu
    ** CoC is really the only game I care to follow a narrative
  • I don't want to be pedantic here...
    Toooooooooooooooooooo late.

    Actually, my little drama *wasn't* about your comments in *this* thread, but you have certainly contributed to the social process I'm complaining about, with your thin-skinned hyper-reflexive defensiveness to anything that even sounds like it could possibly vaguely have something to do with the usual flamebait. The logical extension of the kinds of objections that you raise, and those raised by Usual Suspect Corley (but at least he's good-natured about it!), is to simply not develop any lexicon at all for discussing RPGs, because someone somewhere might infer that the chosen terminology had a hidden undercurrent of disparagement.

    The substantive observation at hand is: some products-that-are-marketed-as-roleplaying-games tell the users exactly how to use them, what creative decisions to make at each step, and in general, what play using that product should look and feel like. Whereas other such products, including CoC, require one or more of the users to take the product, and then make higher-level decisions about what sorts of creative inputs will be required, how scenes will be framed, and other matters of aesthetic import, during the group's use of that product.

    Whatever words we use to describe the differences between those two things, someone, somewhere, will find them offensive or pejorative. Is "toy" versus "game" the best of all possible taxonomies? Probably not, but it's utterly worthless to look for better ones, because the same exact objections will be raised again and again by the same derailers.
Sign In or Register to comment.