Game Design

Punga Miniatures Running Savage Orcs Team Kickstarter

Tabletop Gaming News - 17 January 2018 - 7:00am
I know I’ve been following this one since the initial greens started showing up. A lot of you have, too. If you’re a fan of Polynesian culture and wish to infuse some of that into your fantasy sports games, you’ll want to check out Punga Miniatures and their Savage Orcs Kickstarter. Not just one, but […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Player Relationship types in Hades’ Star - by Andreas Papathanasis Blogs - 17 January 2018 - 6:37am
Very often in a social game, the same feature can result in significantly different player experiences, depending on the relationship between the participating players. In this post we present some examples from our own game.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Corvus Belli Previews New Aristeia: Soldiers of Fortune Preview

Tabletop Gaming News - 17 January 2018 - 6:30am
Corvus Belli has hit the ground running with Aristeia, their sci-fi sports miniatures game. But, as much as people might be loving the base game, gamers are almost always wanting more. Corvus has listened. The first expansion for the game is almost upon us (release date of March 23rd). It’s called Soldiers of Fortune, and […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

CMON Launches HATE Kickstarter

Tabletop Gaming News - 17 January 2018 - 6:00am
Well, the world’s come to an end again. Damnit, Todd! I told you not to poke at that big, red button! Now humanity’s had to form back into small Tribes in our own, isolated Villages. There’s not much left out there, and what there is has to be grabbed before anyone else gets it. And, […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

The cost of games - by Raph Koster Blogs - 17 January 2018 - 3:19am
Take a dataset of over 250 games, their development costs, their year of release, what they sold for and big they were. What can we learn about the trends and what it means for the industry?
Categories: Game Theory & Design

RPGS, Veblen, and Isms

Gnome Stew - 17 January 2018 - 3:00am

Back when I was working on my masters, I had to take some PhD classes in econometrics. To do that I had to go to the economics department, fill out paperwork and ask them to let me into the classes (Since I wasn’t a PhD student, the department was rightly worried I might find the classes highly challenging. I did eek out a passing grade though.) While waiting to be seen, one of the professors walking by struck up a conversation with me. After about 5 minutes, he said to me (I paraphrase): “I like you. You should read Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. You’re just the right type of weird to enjoy it.” Turns out he was the professor I was going to have daily 6 hour long classes with that summer. He was pretty weird himself, but in a good way.

Wanting to be more into economics than I really was, and wanting to impress the professor, I picked up a copy of the book. (by the way, it’s public domain and you can find it for free online if you care to read it. PDF EPUB and other formats). Published in 1899, it’s a bit of a slog full of unfamiliar words and archaic structure, but that professor was right, I was just the type of weird to enjoy it. Oddly enough, for an economic treatise written seventy years before the creation of role playing games, it provides an interesting lens to view them through and insights into the nature of them.

(Veblen can also be used to explain a lot of human behavior both on the personal and macro scale. As this is not a political site, I leave you to draw your own conclusions on that front. I’m 100% certain that you can find multiple sites on the topic elsewhere on the internet if you want to read up on it.)

Veblen’s main thesis is that despite the complaints of the economists of his day, and non-economists still today, human behavior is more or less rational despite appearances to the contrary. Of course, keep in mind that humans are notoriously bad at evaluating small short term vs larger long term gains, and are often self benefit driven, both a legacy from when life was nasty, brutish, and short.  To explain seeming lapses in rationality, Veblen explains the concept of agency and status and posits that all so called irrational behavior are attempts to gather one or the other:

  • Agency: Veblen’s concept of agency is related to but distinct from the commonly discussed gaming concept of player agency. It consists of two parts- the ability to take powerful actions which hold the appearance of consciousness (appearance of consciousness means things like powerful storms have agency even though we now know they’re not conscious) and the ability to impose your will on others with agency. Thus the farmer does not have agency, or has very little, because he imposes his will on plants, which do not have agency; but the hunter, shaman, and warrior do because they impose their will on beasts, storms, and other warriors. Note that how one imposes this will is irrelevant. The warrior who imposes his will through brute violence and the rogue who imposes his will through clever action both have equal agency.
    In your typical game, there is a ladder of agency. PCs, foes and important NPCs have agency, players and GM influence them with their agency, and above all of that, playing the part of the capricious whimsical gods are the dice which, much like the storms of our ancestors, seem to have a will all their own.
  • Status: Status is the acknowledgement, deference, and special treatment we give to those with greater agency. In early or brutal civilizations it’s not mouthing off to the warriors because if you do they might just run you through. In more abstract examples, it’s not mouthing off to the king because even though you’re pretty sure you could take him in a fight, his soldiers will run you through and his bureaucrats will see to it that your taxes are doubled.

Veblen explains that the primary way of gathering agency is the heroic exploit, and that the primary currency used is courage and cunning. Enter the typical archetype of the warrior, hunter, and trickster. But over time he argues it becomes more difficult to show off just how heroic you are. Trophies and treasure gained in exploit can only take you so far. Enter two more ways to show how much agency you have: conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure. Eventually heroes have so much accumulated riches from exploit that they can afford to blow those resources on ever more extravagant goods and services and on long periods doing nothing of value. Remember back to the carousing rules from the early Conan RPG and the early DnD rules for building your own keep, crafting magic items and doing spell research. All these things signal to the rest of the world just how formidable you are. Different RPG archetypes focus on different mixes of these four building blocks of agency and status.

  • Courage: imposing agency via force of arms and brute strength
  • Cunning: imposing agency via cleverness or guile
  • Conspicuous Consumption: showing status via display of resources gathered in heroic exploit
  • Conspicuous Leisure: showing status via not performing otherwise productive work when not involved in exploit

Veblen says that the expression of these qualities has social value in that you get special treatment for having or displaying them. They are largely expressed in the form of what Veblen terms invidious comparison. I am stronger than that person, I am smarter than this other person, more moral than this person, etc. More abstractly, they can be expressed through trophies of exploits, what resources you have, what groups you associate with, who you work for etc. In the extreme, one who successfully gathers large amounts of resources via exploit can’t spend it all themselves, and may even hire retainers whose only job is to spend their lord’s money.  Interestingly, some of these expressions are cultural and change over time. Recent studies have shown that modern Americans are less inclined to give others status for having lots of leisure time and lots of expensive possessions, which were major status symbols in Veblen’s time and are still (apparently) status symbols in other places. (article 1 and article 2).

What in particular struck me while reading through the book was that a large part of RPGs was an attempt to emulate characters with far more agency, and thus status, than players generally have. That’s of course an oversimplification. Different people play RPGs for lots of different reasons, and you can probably find some that don’t hinge on playing with agency, but I can’t think of any . Feel free to correct me if you like. What this means is that in theory RPG experiences featuring the right balance of character agency (enough agency to impose their will on others but not so much that opponents don’t appear to have agency of their own) should be a more satisfying play experience, and giving the characters markers of agency and status should also lead to satisfying play. In fact, one could write an entire book digging through Theory Of The Leisure Class and pulling out elements to enhance games*.

As a side note, plenty of playstyles and even problem playstyles can be chalked up to Veblen’s agency. On the innocuous side is pushing for more PC vs NPC agency. On the destructive side is outright player vs player or player vs GM agency. If you’ve ever wondered what the player who enjoys making everyone else’s experience miserable is getting out of it, this is it: imposing their agency over that of the other players and GM, and if they can’t be convinced to pick a more suitable target, they should be shown the door before it gets worse.

However, even though Veblen explains RPG motivations very well it turns out that taken to extremes, pursuing agency and status also explains a variety of the more unsavory elements of humanity: Slavery, discrimination, sexism, racism etc. are all big markers for agency and status. Some of them, like slavery, are a direct application of agency. One person has the agency to literally own another. Isms are a little more abstract but boil down to an imbalance of status between two groups. If you belong to the group an imbalance favors, you benefit from that status boost. You can see the evidence of this in plenty of the fiction that inspired the RPG hobby. Conan, for example has a scene in at least every other story where he forces himself on a woman and halfway through the act, she stops struggling to get him off her and starts struggling to get her panties off, because he’s just so manly and good at kissing it changes her mind, and Robert E Howard doesn’t even hold a candle to John Norman in that regard. A lot of early space opera sci-fi was heroic American vs evil communist Asians . . . innnn spaaaaace! There are still plenty of vestiges of this era sticking around too. All dwarves are racist against elves, elves are racist against . . . mostly dwarves, but also everyone. Lots of sentient species are kill on sight morally repugnant, and every half-orc gets the one good half orc treatment.

So, TLDR: RPGs are big power fantasies about imposing your will on others and everyone fawning all over you for doing it, and taken too far the natural extension of this is some of the worst parts of the human experience. Lovely.

Let me put on my devil’s advocate hat for a moment and just take things too far. If the above is true, wouldn’t featuring all of those uncomfortable bits of bad human behavior and allowing PCs to wallow in them make your game a more powerful expression of what RPGs are all about, and wouldn’t your game be better for it? Shouldn’t I be saying: “All this stuff adds to the fantasy that is explicitly the entire point of the game, so put it in your game, lots of it!”

That would be an awfully weird position to take, wouldn’t it? Turns out it’s a tempting position, but not necessarily a good one. First, there’s more than enough opportunity for heroic exploit, agency and status in your average game. Dipping into the more problematic aspects of agency just isn’t necessary. Even if you wanted to, most are very sensitive subjects and should be handled with care and only with complete group buy-in. And of course if you don’t take sensitive issues seriously, like other problem play styles, you run the very real risk of trading in game status for out of game status (i.e.: you get labeled a jerk and no one wants to play with you because you don’t respect others’ boundaries.)

But, can dealing with these difficult extremes of agency and status in your game be done without issues? Yes, but it’s nothing groundbreaking. On the extreme end, with player buy-in you can absolutely play an evil game with PCs that push the envelope. In a more traditional game, you can include these issues but reserve them for villainous NPCs that heroic PCs put a stop to. You can include lesser versions of them (the faux racism of all dwarves and elves). You can reserve involuntary traits indicating a lesser status for non sentient or irredeemably evil beings (golems and demons are OK to pick on because even though their status is linked to race one is a mindless automaton, the other is literally made of evil. If your golems and demons don’t follow that mold, things get hazier. This is where the “all orcs are evil” problems come from. Are orcs inherently evil like in Lord of the Rings, or do they fall in a spectrum like most fantasy races?) In fact, these could lead to some interesting introspective role playing moments. Nothing groundbreaking. All common enough that this is not the first time you’ve heard of them.

So that’s it. That’s the short version of viewing role playing games through the lens of Veblen’s Theory Of The Leisure Class, and the problems that come with it. Hopefully it’s an interesting perspective.



* Writing said book has been on my “someday projects” list for quite some time. Also feel free to let me know if that sounds lame and I should let it languish or if it sounds awesome and I should move it up the list

Categories: Game Theory & Design

New Napoleonic French Imperial Guard Head of Column Available From Warlord Games

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 3:00pm
I love a parade. I mean, I was in Marching Band for many years, and so I’ve participated in quite a few. The pomp. The pageantry. The colorful uniforms. Granted, it’s not just a parade when it’s during a campaign. Those long lines of troops aren’t just showing off. They’re headed to the battlefield. At […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Path of the Black Flag Pathfinder Supplement Up On Kickstarter

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 2:00pm
One of the series I watch on YouTube is Renegade Cut. Recently, they had a video about Anarchy as it pertains to the movie V for Vendetta. Anarchy isn’t quite what most of us think about, at least not in its traditional sense. And while I can’t say that I’m an Anarchist, it’s interesting to […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

New Character Sheets Available For Star Trek: Adventures RPG From Modiphius

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 1:00pm
The Star Trek series’ main elements are the original series and The Next Generation. Sure, there’s been dozens of spin-offs and expansions from those, but those two ship crews are the ones we mostly think about when we think about the franchise. If you’re interested in bringing those to your games of Star Trek: Adventures, […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Steamforged Announces Godtear Early Access Playtest

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 12:00pm
Pretty much every gamer out there wants to have the newest and the coolest. They want the information and they want it before anyone else. In this case, you may be able to get in on the early playtesting for Godtear, Steamforged Games’ upcoming miniatures game. If you’re interested in helping shape how the game […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Podcast Roundup

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 11:00am
It’s back to the daily grind. An extra day off was rather nice. And it’s never a bad time to reflect on where the US was and how far we’ve come, but we still have so far to go. But, in the meantime, gaming. (hey, I don’t like the site being political, so there). Seeing […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Gen Con Badges Now On Sale

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 10:00am
Gen Con is know as The Best Four Days in Gaming. Each year I’ve gone, I try and catch them for false-advertising. And yet, each year, they prove themselves right. Last year’s show sold out. So, just to make sure you get your pass for this year, you might want to go ahead and get […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

New Releases Available For Gangs of Rome

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 9:00am
The floodgates have opened. With the release of Gangs of Rome from Warlord Games, players are able to take to the streets of the ancient city with their own set of characters, looking to claw out a bit of power for themselves. You’ve possibly already picked up the starter set, but what about adding to […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Games software/hardware $165B+ in 2018, $230B+ in 5 years, record $2B+ investment last year - by Tim Merel Blogs - 16 January 2018 - 8:16am
Games software/hardware combined could deliver $165B to $170B in 2018, and $230B to $235B by 2022. Games software alone could take 3/4 of market revenue in 5 years, with hardware taking the rest (as detailed in Digi-Capital's new Games Report Q1 2018).
Categories: Game Theory & Design

The Alchemist Code - Developer Diary #1: A Prelude to The Alchemist Code - by gumi Team Blogs - 16 January 2018 - 8:13am
In this series, the team behind The Alchemist Code will share behind-the-scenes details on the making of The Alchemist Code!
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Z-Man Games Previews New Characters In Agents of Venice Expansion

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 8:00am
It’s a long way from Italy to China. And both places are pretty big. Marco Polo certainly wasn’t alone that whole time. He met with all sorts of people along the way, each one having their own impact on the trip. In the upcoming Agents of Venice expansion for The Voyages of Marco Polo, there […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Behavioral Profiling: How to Build Useful Player Models - by anders drachen Blogs - 16 January 2018 - 7:48am
Behavioral profiling is among the most useful of the tools in the arsenal of a game analyst. Profiling allows a way to manage complex user data and discover patterns in behavior. This post covers the basics and presents notes on popular types of profiles.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

VR Headphones Update: Video Game Music Composers - by Winifred Phillips Blogs - 16 January 2018 - 7:46am
How does headphone tech impact virtual reality? Video game music composer Winifred Phillips provides updates on VR headphone prototypes and consumer products. The issue of consumer confusion regarding headphone surround sound in VR is also discussed.
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Wyrd Previews Bayou Bash Pig Rider

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 7:00am
While some of us had yesterday off, the folks over at Wyrd were still working along as usual. This means they had their regular Monday preview. So, while it’s a little later, better late than never. You know, they say you can’t put lipstick on a pig. Well, the Pig Rider for Bayou Bash, a […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design

Fantasy Flight Previews AT-ST, T-47 For Star Wars: Legion

Tabletop Gaming News - 16 January 2018 - 6:00am
Along with the lightsabers and the star ships, the various vehicles of the Star Wars universe are just as iconic. The Battle of Hoth wouldn’t be anywhere near as interesting if it weren’t for the T-47s and their harpoons tripping the walkers. And the battle of Endor wouldn’t be nearly as thrilling if there weren’t […]
Categories: Game Theory & Design


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