On 2009-04-17, Valamir wrote:
Jim, in part I think this is the danger of an effort to be clear looking more extreme than intended, but I'll offer the following 3 observations...see if this answers your query.
1) Forget all notions of dysfunctional social interaction and envision a situation where you and I are in fully reasonable disagreement with neither able to demonstrate sufficient knowledge to convince the other. Most of the time this can be resolved quite simply. Say the issue is clearly more important to you than it is to me, I will most likely concede the point out of shear "that's what friends should do" feelings. Say the issue is of equal but only moderate importance for each of us. You might well concede the point simply because I conceded the last one and its your "turn" to make the sacrifice.
But now say the issue is one that we both feel quite passionate about. One that has the potential to completely upset our ability to suspend our disbelief and engage in the fiction. Regardless of how things get resolved, one of us is going to wind up disappointed, and potentially disengaged from play. Its at that point where "and you're wrong" becomes a toxic layer capable of sabotaging even the best of friendships and most reasonable of people.
Simply relying on people to be mature, socially functional, adults, is IME entirely inadequate to deal with the issue at this point, because I've yet to meet a group of mature, socially functional, adults who are immune to this toxic effect. In addition to helping with the moment to moment smooth functioning of play, backstop rules have the added benefit of diverting such toxic thoughts from the other person to a "rule", which IME is a very effective tool at defusing undesireable escalation of emotion and helps keep things from "getting personal".
2) I feel very strongly that humans are inherently hierarchal animals. I view with great skepticism any claims by groups of people who suggest that they are immune to our innate status seeking tendencies. Even among great friends with no malicious or manipulative undercurrent there is a high degree of subconcious score keeping going on. You can see it in who's preference for which restaurant to eat at gets picked, for instance. In any group there's a lead dog no matter how much the group pretends otherwise. And there's a huge degree of ingrained tit-for-tat in human relationships. "You picked the restaurant last time, so its my turn to pick it this time". There's also a huge degree of paying-it-forward so to speak. "I'll let you pick the restaurant this time, because I'm saving up my brownie points to use when we pick what movie to rent". Most of the time this is completely invisible even to the people doing it. Sometimes its very visible.
Its no less a part of roleplaying than it is a part of all social interaction. However, due to the immediate creative and often emotional spontaneity of roleplaying it can create more problems around the table than it does in ordinary life. Backstop rules also help defuse this, though there are a number of different ways depending on the nature of the rule. Some backstops defuse it by creating an artifical hierarchy that circumvents the social hierarchy (I get to have my way because I have the totem). Some backstops defuse it by diverting the social gamesmanship into the mechanics (like the strategizing around Challenges in Uni). Blood Red Sands actually seeks to take this tendency and turn it into a feature making its challenge rules into a blatant status oriented "mini-game"
3) I think there is also a tremendous survivorship bias in roleplaying culture that leads us to believe that the majority of roleplaying groups are more socially adept then they actually are...because the ones that aren't, imploded long ago, often driving people clear out of the hobby. So I think its a mistake to look at...us...people who've been gaming successfully for years and presume that our level of social functionality is the "norm".
Therefor, I think good game designs should not assume "fully functional social groups" but rather "groups at the margin". And by groups at the margin I mean those that are mostly socially functional but have a degree of "at risk" status. That at risk status leaves them vulnerable to not effectively recovering from an issue like #1 above. I've seen groups dissolve after some stupid thing got blown out of all proportion.
Its my believe that "just work it out" rules leave those groups vulnerable. Alternatively "just work it out and if you can't here's a backstop to help" rules serves as a safety net for such groups...perhaps even a coaching tool.
So given all of the tremendously useful things that backstop rules accomplish, I find leaving such rules out of a game to be a poor design decision.