Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cut and Thrust

There is an attitude in discussing DMing. It is an attitude that says there are many ways of DMing, and they are all valid.

If you've been on roleplaying forums, you've seen this. It says, "You do it your way, and I'll do it it my way, and we'll both run great games."

Well, no.

This isn't politics. This isn't consensus-brokering. We don't all have to get along. I'm not in your game and you're not in mine and it's just fine to claim that one is better.

This is where roleplaying suffers. If DMs were companies, selling a product, some would have more customers than others. Some would have a lot more customers than others.

We need competition; we need debate that won't settle for less than victory. We need to take the position that some games are better, and find those games, and learn from them. We need to remember that although bad DMing is a forgivable sin, it's still bad DMing, and improving involves more than just finding players who are on your wavelength.

Let there be debate. Let there be pride. Lay on, and let there be no quarter.

After all, don't we want a better game?

Cut and Thrust, Part 2: This Time It's Impersonal
A late addition to the original post, 15 June 2009

Wow! Well, this post stirred up some disagreement. Which is great. Possibly I've not phrased my argument terribly well though; that's what comes of posting late at night, perhaps. The argument is this:

(a) Some games are better than others. If there can be a "bad" game, which there plainly are (the entirety of this blog being dedicated to that proposition), it follows that there are other games which are better.

(b) Games which are better are better for reasons which are identifiable and recreatable.

(c) All DMs can benefit from having the tools used by "better" games in their toolbox.

(d) We may disagree about which games are better.

(e) If we all agree to disagree we never identify those better games or raise them to the highest level of analysis.

(f) We should therefore not be afraid to defend our beliefs and advocate our ideas to the fullest extent possible.

I'm not sure if it's still so controversial now that I've put it in those terms. Let me know.


Maelora said...

Um... not sure quite what you're aiming at here, Greg! I've seen you play Devil's Advocate on the WotC boards, but even so...

While I'd agree there's good and bad GMing, I feel much of it comes down to preference. Most 4E fans wouldn't enjoy a D&D game I might run, and I wouldn't enjoy theirs. We'd want different things from it.

A while back you posted an article about a guy who runs his game with 'PCs as rockstars'... Literally, alas, down to the guy's entire article being written in the manner of a brain-dead 'Spinal Tap' extra. I thought it was completely retarded, a 'Monty Hall' style circle-jerk. I don't believe D&D should be mutual masturbation. I'd sooner burn my DiTerlizzi-signed Planescape books than play in something like that. But hey, if it works for them, then they're welcome to it.

After all, what did the 'Edition Wars' solve? Except some people, like me, decided 4E wasn't aimed at them or didn't include the things they enjoyed, so they stuck with previous editions?

There really IS no accounting for taste, and as GMing is an art rather than a science, I can't see how you could prove what's 'good'.

J. said...

The act of continuing a forum arguement to some blowhard's satisfaction will not make us better DMs, Greg. This attitude exists because people recognize that there is a point in an arguement where it stops contributing insight to the group and starts to waste everybodys time; time better spent preparing a game for those actually qualified to evaluate a DM's success.

Using business as an example does nothing to shore up your credibility here. Debates over the best business practices have been going on for thousands of years; does it look like anyone is close to solving anything? How can turning the gaming community into a bunch of screaming TV pundits possibly benefit the art?

Jimi said...

There's no objective way to determine the quality of one DM over another, just like there's none that can say that one tabletop game system is better than another. It all comes down to the enjoyment each individual DM brings to the table, and how their style of management and sense of storytelling resonates with their players. There's no way to measure that.

Greg Tannahill said...

Sure there's an objective way to determine subjective quality; it's called the open market. Advertising and distribution being equal, the superior product sells more units.

No one, I think, is arguing that all DMs are equally good. They're plainly not. The difficulty is in assessing the better ones, because a DM can only sell a certain number of units of his service (that being a very low number) and has no way to market or distribute his product outside his circle of friends.

As a result, we don't have that open market competition, and there's not the immediate competitive pressure for poor DMs to learn from good ones. There's also the issue that the games of good DMs are not publicly available for scrutiny, so there's no way to see en masse what others are doing and learn, and no way to draw quality to the attention of others, other than anecdotally.

What that means is that roleplaying has no reliable way to identify and promote excellence within its community. It can't reliably be done by demonstration or by the equivalent of sales figures.

That leaves us only with debate. Superior arguments, competently put, will win through over time via the force of reason.

The aim in internet debate is not to convince those who respond; in a battle of partisans rarely is there either give or take. Rather it is to influence the vast silent majority who read but not post; to put into their head strongly held competing viewpoints and allow them to form a view as to which is superior.

And that silent majority are poorly served by anything but the most vehement rhetoric. If they are presented with anything less than the strongest case for both sides then they are making a judgement on poor information. To reach consensus forces upon them the worst of both worlds rather than allowing them to choose which of the competing viewpoints they favour.

It's the mathemtatics of taste. Five people might all like different things, but five thousand people will like one thing better than another; and through that we can discern and identify an edge.

JML said...

One thing I have noticed from playing two different games, one with brand new players and one with avid players, is that the new players (at least of these groups) enjoy the "rockstar" feeling a lot, and the avid players go so far to detest it.

It could very well that the avid players are used to being randomly told "I am sorry, but you can't participate in this encounter because you rolled a 1 on your saving throw," and so, through the natural tendency of humans to be drawn to the repetitive, completely ignore that a majority find it *fun* to be a great hero who can do no wrong (unless messes up in an obvious way) instead of mighty warrior who falls on his own sword once every twenty swings.

Preference comes from your background, and if that background has always been with one DM who makes you remake your character you poured your blood and soul into because you rolled badly one time, then of course many will resist the scourge of the "Good DM."

Maelora said...

As J and Jimi already pointed out, I just can't see how this can apply to RPGs, which along with GM styles, are almost wholly a matter of taste.

>Sure there's an objective way to determine subjective quality; it's called the open market.


There's a ton of music, movies, games, whatever, that garnered high praise and relatively low sales. Some things of high quality are simply not mass-market products. Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers and High School Musical may shift record numbers, but that doesn't make them 'superior quality' to say, Leonard Cohen, Captain Beefheart, or other artists who never had massive mainstream success.

And I'll take something like 'Braid' over something like 'Gears of War' regardless of sales figures. Nor do I base my decision to see a movie based on the money it grossed.

Greg Tannahill said...

Maelora - the comparison to other media in this case is unhelpful because of the factors of marketing and distribution; there's no question that Gears of War received vastly larger marketing than Braid.

And I stand by the assertion that there are games that are better than others. It must be the case; it's plainly the case. No one makes an argument for Custer's Revenge being history's finest videogame. No one defends the Atari version of E.T.

So what we're left with is games that appeal more than others. And we can peel past the marketing and distribution and say, "Regardless of why I liked or disliked this game, why was it successful? What about it appealed to people?" And we can learn from that.

We can look at games that appeal better to certain demographics. We can look at reactions that players have had to certain game styles and compare it against what they've played. People's initial reaction to a genre is strongly dependent on their first experience with it; what makes grognards grognards - is it really taste, or is it past experience?

Among hardcore players some games meet with greater approval; why? What are the successful elements?

To wave your hands in the air and say, "It's all art," is to surrender to mediocrity. To rise no higher than "personal taste" is to consent to the victory of the average. Some things are better than others, both generally and within particular subsets of the audience, and they are better for a reason, and we shouldn't confuse a difficulty in identifying the reason for the fact of its non-existence.

On a complete sidenote - debate builds community. I am absolutely stoked to find a post that prompts so many readers to disagree with me.

Massawyrm said...

The problem Greg is that you're arguing in sales terms, but ascribing it to what would be defined as a niche market. Every group of gamers is as different as every group of friends is different - thus you're talking about comparative game styles as if it is a commodity and then ignoring that you're talking about satisfying five guys - not five million.

And that's before you fall into the trap of claiming that "all things being equal" people will choose the better product. Maelora covered that ground just fine.

Are there bad DMs? YES. Are there bad play styles? OH HELL YES. But are there people who enjoy bad game stayles...just as there are those that enjoy bad food, film, music and television? Absolutely.

KRULL is not a good movie. I can almost prove it with a pencil and a piece of scratch paper and show all my work. But I'll be damned if I'm going to let you take away my Special Edition DVD copy. You'll have to pry it from my cold dead hands. It is important to note that I do not own Citizen Kane on DVD. Because guess which one I'm going to watch at 2 in the morning on Friday night.

You cannot absolutely prove a subjective. You can only make a case. These people are correct. Their game, their rules. All you can do is continue to be a rational voice of critique and hope that something sinks in.

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, yes, but you like Krull for a reason. It's a reason that's not unique to Krull; it's a lesson that can be extracted from that movie and applied to other films to generate a similar result. There are good bad films, and there are bad bad films. To say, "I liked something odd," isn't helpful; the argument is, "Why did you like it?" and "Could you have like it more, if it were done differently?"

There's not dice rolling in our heads; it's not all just a crap shoot. We have tastes for reasons; there's a synthesis of our past experience, our preconceptions, and what we're presented with that results in approval or otherwise. And isolating and understanding each of those elements may be a difficult goal but it's one worth aspiring to.

A game can be better. A game can more explicitly and successfully deliver exactly what its target audience will respond best to.

All things being equal people WILL choose the better product; that's the definition of better. It can only be determined by reference to the majority. The difficulty is that things never are equal; marketing, distribution and pricing typically play a much larger role in sales than quality.

If we have three games, and none of them appeal to your tastes personally, but one appeals to more people overall than the other, it is still better, whether or not you liked it. The personal can and should certainly inform your choices, and you should certainly advocate in favour of things you've liked or appreciated, but you've been outvoted by society.

The things you like could have been better. They could more effectively have delivered their message to a wider audience. They could have embraced a larger array of participants. They could have stretched their memorable aspects down the entire length of the game.

If one thing can't be better than another, what's the point in effort? Why not vomit up the first thing that comes to mind and declare it good? Surely effort yields return, and it does it for reasons that are understandable and, given talent, repeatable?

J. said...

Lurkers couldn't care less who wins an arguement on the internet - only the posters care.

Tell me, how often do you actually follow a thread all the way to the end? Most of us don't need to know how it turns out (though we can generally guess that it will be in a whimper or a violent huff.)

What the lurkers are there for (and it kills me to type this, because you already know it) is the contributions posters make in the middle of the arguement - those tips, stories, and warnings we see routinely on various boards and, by the way, ON YOUR BLOG. Hell, we don't need arguements to share this information - all we need is a spirit of community and the desire to better ourselves. How would constant competition ever match that?

And honestly, DMs already compete in a far tougher marketplace than the half-baked one you've been espousing, because we compete for our players' time, and brother, it don't get any tougher than that. If you can't produce as a DM, you can expect the frequency of your sessions to drop, your players to vanish, and your rep at the game shop to suffer, till you are reduced to posting pathetic want-ads on the local board. You want a reason for a greater effort? There you go.

Greg Tannahill said...

I pretty regularly (about once a day) get a private message on the Wizards forums saying, "Hey, I'm not a poster, I didn't want to get involved in the argument, but I really get what you were saying in X thread and I really like the way you put your position." As long as I get them, I'm encouraged to keep doing what I do.

Occasionally I do cross the line; reasoned debate is one thing, being a jerk is another. He who stares into the words of trolls is in danger of becoming one. Readers both here and on the forums are more than willing to pull me up when I'm genuinely not being helfpul, and I'm usually willing to back off and apologise if someone calls me to that effect.

But impassioned, reasoned, polite debate never leaves the world a poorer place than it began. Ideas cannot improve in silence.

I'm not, by the way, in case anyone's misunderstood the argument, claiming to be the better game. I'm looking for the better game. I want to learn from it. And the idea that someone is hiding that game in some backwater because they're of the view that "to each, their own", when they could be trumpeting it from the mountaintops, absolutely infuriates me.

Excellence should shine its light, not veil it behind humility.

Greg Tannahill said...

Those following the comment thread: the original post has been updated to clarify my position. Judging by the bile I've raised I think my initial phrasing may have been misunderstood.

Scott W said...

I still disagree violently with your whole post, but I guess I can sort of see what you're aiming at with your last comment here.

Running games is like creating art. If you did something clever, and you're really pleased with the result, TELL PEOPLE YOUR TECHNIQUE. The ones who like your style will steal bits of it, and get more skilled at creating exactly what they really want to create.

But for god's sake, don't claim your art is THE BEST, or that a different style of art is worse than yours. That's just silly. Cubism isn't any "worse" than photorealism, and I'd even hesitate before bashing those performance art exhibits where it's just an artistically-arranged pile of rags. And it's just as silly to ridicule differences in personal style; you'd sound kind of weird claiming that Braque was OBJECTIVELY WORSE than Picasso. They both created what they wanted to create.

Now, if a DM is failing to do what he or she wants to do, that's a different story. But it's not a story you often encounter in any of the pointless circular onetruewayism arguments it kind of sounds like you're advocating.

John said...

Yeah, your initial post felt like it had an undercurrent of "c'mon you pansies, rhetoric like you mean it..."

The update, from where I'm sitting anyway, seems to impart that you believe in a lively discourse of people passionately speaking about their ideas for the betterment of us all, rather than a tame "agree to disagree" environment where no one is ever forced to seriously defend (and thus seriously evaluate) the core assumptions of their values.

Greg Tannahill said...

Well, I was going for the "lively discourse" thing, but now I can't resist the temptation to call people pansies.

But, no, seriously, you do need to go at it balls-to-the-wall. You do need to start from the assumption that your ideas are good, or why are you bothering to speak? You do need to believe that your ideas can withstand and grow from rebuttal and emerge triumphant. It's the only way to speak loud enough to be heard over the din.

To Scott W - We can imagine perfection. We can conceive it. We can picture a game that is all things to all people, a single adaptive configuration that reveals new aspects to new players, that yields under pressure but pushes back to the exact satisfaction of those who it interacts with, which interfaces directly with the subconscious and delivers rewards and obstructions at the optimum pacing to infinitely engage every participant. We can imagine it.

And what we can imagine forms an asymptote - something we cannot reach, but we can progress towards. And as such, there are things that are more progressed than others. We might find it hard to identify those things, in part because we do not yet know the full shape of the destination, but our inability to discern them does not detract from the objective fact of their existence.

There is better. And we should be looking for it.

Maelora said...

Okay, I think I see where you're coming from now... Let me think about it...

Maelora said...

And it isn't just a question of marketing, Greg. A first-person-shooter has a MUCH wider fanbase and potential audience than an off-beat puzzle game.

But that doesn't make FPS a superior genre to offbeat puzzle games, simply because it's a matter of popular taste.

Summer blockbuster films will always do better than arthouse movies, regardless of marketing. Many people just prefer car chases and explosions to subtlety and characterisation.

Alex said...

Huge post incoming.

Greg, although the thrust of your argument has merit (sharing techniques and discussing why they are effective, or why they are not is helpful for GMs), I disagree with premise (b); "Games which are better are are better for reasons which are identifiable and recreatable."

Running a game is more art than science. A group of children will almost certainly enjoy The Little Mermaid over a viewing of Schindler's List. Even though I believe Schindler's List is an objectively better movie in almost every category than The Little Mermaid, I can't claim that any given group of children is objectively wrong to subjectively prefer the Disney movie. It is merely my opinion.

That being said, there are certain storytelling techniques that can be demonstrably better in achieving a given objective than comparable techniques.

I strongly disagree with the statement "PC death makes a game more interesting," or the converse statement, that to kill a PC necessarily detracts from enjoyment of a game. I even disagree with an absolute statement straddling the middle, a game is better if PCs fear death for their characters (even if they don't die). -My opinion is that it all depends on your players.

HOWEVER, a storytelling technique that keeps all of the players involved and interested is objectively superior to one that does not. The goal in debates of this matter should be to identify what depends on individual variance, but to share techniques used to achieve a dramatic objective.

To summarize, it is useful to compare notes such as, how as a GM do you raise tension and suspense in your game? It is not useful to argue is a game system that is more "realistic" is also objectively "more fun" than one that is not "realistic." The first provides useful tips and techniques, the second comes down individual preference.

Greg Tannahill said...

Maelora - I think the issue with film is that most people aren't looking for a "great" film. It's got a low price point and a high disposability factor so a vast number of people are happy to settle for the assurance of adequacy rather than the risk of excellence.

That being said, you can't write off that aspect of human nature as contrariness or an aberration. Those summer blockbusters are successful whether we approve of them or not, and sticking our heads in the sand and enjoying our cult movies and art movies doesn't, in the end, teach us more about making a successful movie.

We need to look at these terrible Michael Bay abominations and say, well, why did people go to see that? Why did they come back for a sequel? And then learn from that and use it. The answer, incidentally, tends to be in high production values, a solidly structured plot, a satisfying finale and closure of the significant plot threads. And it's all perfunctory and formulaic but it sells, and so that's something we can take away and work with as we use it when we're making things that aim higher.

If people want the assurance of adequacy then we need to learn that when we're making high art we need to assure adequacy before we aim for excellence. There's never shame in reaching for the stars from a solid foundation. And there are plenty of really clever, intelligent films that have done well at the box office, so we know this can be done.

Alex - it helps hugely to know which specific point of my argument you disagree with, thanks.

Okay, look, I'm going to move away from Schindler's List because it's too long since I've seen it, and maybe look at cult favourite Labyrinth. It works. We can dissect that. Would it work if the same movie had Megan Fox in the Jennifer Connolly role? (Actually, I think it might.) What about Vanessa Hudgens? Probably not. Does it work if we take out the music? Does it work if we change the puppets to animation? When we find things that don't work when we change them, we know we've found something that worked. So why does it work? The puppets add physicality; that's how they differ from animation - so physicality must be part of what makes the movie work.

We can take things apart; we can dissect - it's the process of criticism and it's something every other medium has been subject to for years. Because of the private nature of roleplaying games and the small audiences and the sheer numbers being run they haven't been party to that and they've suffered as a result.

We need to bring that criticism to bear. We need to take it apart. We need to excise what works from what is merely adequate, and reproduce it, and make it our slave.

"The Last Supper" is a great painting. Why? Sheer art? Maybe. But we also know the way that it cleverly uses its vanishing point, it uses the golden proportion, it uses a whole heap of other tricks to tap directly into the human brain and render the adequate into the extraordinary. It doesn't just display itself; it interfaces with us, and makes the audience an accomplice in its effectiveness.

Art is just a more complex and intuitive kind of science. That we don't yet know all of its contradictory-seeming laws does not render them unknowable.

Scott W said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott W said...

So, by extension, we should be striving for a single, perfect, unifying work of art? That we should seek to merge Cubism and Photorealism, somehow? That instead of acknowledging that different people have different tastes and you can't please all of them, we should seek to find the One True Way?

Sir, you are being silly.

One real-world game session cannot simultaneously please everyone, no matter how well constructed it may be. I can imagine one doing so, yes, but I can also imagine the Large Hadron Collider tearing a hole in the fabric of time and creating a portal to Hell. Dreams do not equal possibilities. Any game system which could accommodate every conceivable desire would be so large that it would be better to split it into several different game systems. Like... having one system like OD&D for the Gygaxian dungeon-crawls, one system like All Flesh Must Be Eaten for the zombie-horror enthusiasts, one game like FATAL for the deeply disturbed racist random-chart-obsessed pathologically juvenile assholes, et cetera.

Trying to achieve perfection in every respect is a stupid goal. It's an obvious pit trap for new DMs and artists who don't know any better. You should focus on trying to do what you want to do. Specialize. Broadness is good, you'll learn a lot of generally-applicable lessons, but there are tips you will learn in honing your skill at DMing FATAL that would only serve to ruin a different game. Huge, complex wound systems have their place. Entirely plot-driven injury systems have their place too. They serve different needs, and you can't say that any one point along that continuum is better than any other.

Bryant said...

I'm not sure Greg is talking about a single unified best game, here. If he is, he's full of crap, and I'm going to ignore him for the sake of pursuing a slightly different thesis...

There is such a thing as quality in games. Even if it's subjective -- which it is -- there are games that are good at achieving their goals and games that are bad at it. Same goes for DMs.

No one game is right for everyone. But the argument isn't about Schindler's List vs. The Little Mermaid; both those movies succeeded. The argument is about Schindler's List vs. Neverending Story III. The argument is about 4e vs., sure, FATAL.

Maelora said...

Oh noes! Why did he have to bring FATAL into this??

Although this quote from the infamous review...

" express train full of things designed to hurt your mind; just when you think that it's finished running you over, another car hits you, grinding yet another valuable part of your soul beneath its wheels..."

... does sum up my feelings on having read the 4E PHB for the first time...

On a serious note though Greg - ever thought of making this post on EN World or something?

nowiwantmydmg said...

Well Greg I agree with your premise, that there are good and bad games/styles and DMs. But whatever style you play sharing how we make our games good is important to improving our skills as DMs.

In the vein of your post how about a new blog post about how you go about making a good game and some general tips and tricks? It would seem to fit the thrust of this post's topic.

Alex said...

Scott W. and Bryant both make excellent points.

I would say, I agree, and most other posters seem to agree that some games are better than others. Just like any creative work, there is good and not-so-good. That does NOT mean that everything can be deconstructed down into bad parts of a game, good parts, and best parts. There is a subjective element to art.

Greg - to run with your example. Let me concede a point to your Labyrinth example and say the puppets do add physicality to it, which is a good thing (it has been a long time since I've seen that movie). That does not necessarily mean that we have discovered a universal rule of storytelling; puppets are always better than animation. Although this "rule" applies to some works (Labyrinth obviously, and probably also Star Wars) it absolutely does not apply to all works. I would argue that if you replaced the animation in Who Framed Roger Rabbit with puppets you would have a train wreck of a movie. Physicality is exactly what you don't want in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Using puppets instead of computer effects can certainly improve a movie (Star Wars, again), but it's not always the case. Compare the special effects of Terminator 1 to Terminator 2 - in my opinion the special effects in Terminator 2 are vastly superior to the stop motion in Terminator 1. Likewise, although the original Star Wars trilogy is helped by using puppets over CG, there are some scenes that could have been vastly improved by using CG (were it available at the time). Mostly I am thinking of the Rancor scene in Return of the Jedi, which appears incredibly campy by modern standards.

My point is, discussing what works and why is useful but only if you're in agreement about what works. Arguing "Puppets are always better and this is why" is silly because it comes down to individual taste. If someone disagrees with me about my above examples of Star Wars or Terminator, it doesn't mean I think that person is wrong, it means we have different tastes. It would be pointless to get into an argument about whether or not "puppets are better." It absolutely is NOT a cop-out to say "we disagree, but to each their own." This applies to games just as clearly as movies. Some people think RPGs are more fun when rolling dice, some think the opposite. There is no "right" answer. Why argue about it?

Nikis-Knight said...

Hi; I like your blog, this is my first comment. I'm going to jump in and hope I'm not stating the obvious.

I think it comes down to this: Does the game communicate its goals, to connect with the right audience? And does it meet those goals in the most efficient/clear/pleasing way?

Tastes vary and always will, but a games rules, prose, tone, art, and supplemental materials can meet any given tastes well or poorly or not at all, and be good, mediocre or terrible for someone looking for that, while being entirely different for someone else looking for something else. Thus a work can suceed or fail apart from its popularity, if it attracts people who want what it is trying to do and it does it well. It's even concievable that a game will fail in its goals but accidently be good at meeting some other tastes and be picked up for that (TVTropes would call this misaimed fandom, I think) but I imagine that would be harder than to know what you want and work towards it.

Most RPGs, and probably RPG groups, have several goals, of varying importance to the designers and players (who might not agree with which goal is preferable), and some of those goals might be incompatible or at least complicate each other. That's what makes it hard, of course, and a game may suceed at some moreso than others.

I don't follow the G-N-S debate at all, but at a superficial level, it's useful to point out that some RPGs will focus on giving a fun game, others on creating a story, and others on making a consistent world; many will try to accomadate each and do some parts better or not.

That's mostly about game design, and you touched on game running more, but I think it's relatable.

I agree with you that it is worth arguing what makes for a good game and why, but only as long as everyone in the discussion wants the same thing in a game.

lessthanpleased said...

Just one quick point on a thread that may or may not be dead.

My M.A. is in philosophy; my area of research is aesthetics and philosophy of art. So I do think there's a fair amount of confusion about art being thrown around in this thread mostly by people who don't agree with Greg.

First - Roleplaying games do not satisfy the sufficient conditions to be art, at least of any definition of which I am aware. They are certainly art-like, true. But there are enough differences between RPGs and art-proper; and doubling down on the art-like qualities of RPGs as if these qualities somehow making them proof against analysis is unhelpful.

Second - Art can be analyzed. Everyone does it all the time - how we know whether something is or is not art, and accompanies every statement of why we think something is a good movie/song/etc.

Third - Art is not subjective. People's responses to art are subjective. This difference is poorly understood, obviously - but it is a fact that reveals claims about why we can't judge or analyze artworks are universally specious.

Fourth - Assessments of an artwork's quality can be subjective but usually aren't: these usually amount to arguments that can be assessed as empirically justified or not.

Fifth - The only thing truly subjective about a work of art is whether you like it. Liking something is subjective and distinct from an artwork's quality; the latter cannot be defended by argument, the former is always an argument (even if it's an unstated argument).

The upshot of this is that some games ARE better than others - they achieve their implicit or explicit design goals, which usually result in privileging a certain playstyle. From this fact, people may like or dislike a certain game because of how well a certain playstyle is mechanically supported.

DMing can also be analyzed in the same way - Robin's Laws covers this pretty well, actually.

Colmarr said...

Hmm. Hopefully not post necromancy here:

I agree with Greg, TO A CERTAIN EXTENT.

There is a floor, below which a game becomes a BAD game. There is also a point at which a game becomes a GOOD game.

And I disagree with Greg beyond that:

Once you reach that point where a game is GOOD, I believe it becomes impossible to objectively quantify which game is "better" or "best" except by a comparison of which group is having more fun.

Any attempt at answering the question by way of empirical analyis of who does more funny accents (or who plans the more devious traps or who runs the most devilish combats) is doomed to failure, because it assumes that all gaming groups place the same priority and comparative value on each component of a game.

And if you can't perform that analysis, then it's impossible to make the sure of categorical statement that Greg is suggesting can be made.

Keith said...

I think that both "sides" are true: there are some identifiable ways that can makes games more fun on average, and it would be useful to learn about those, but also that there is variation in groups so things that work well in one group might be less of an improvement for another. It doesn't have to be a black-and-white classification.
That said, I would also agree that learning good DM strategies could go a long ways for many games, and I hope to learn some of the strategies and bring them to my own game.