Feedback Loops with Dice: Hurt Me Like You Do

Trish is a human caught up in the supernatural world. Her brother has become a demon, slaughtering their parents and their friends. She was a monster hunter, kind of. With her friends. Before it went south that and that brother of hers went truly evil. She was 19 when it all started, dropped out of school to take care of her teen brother. He's a demon now. She's 22. She's in love with an angel named Ariel. He loves her back, but he loves her like one loves a favoured precious possession. She's too fragile for this world.

Ariel is hunting the brother. Trish finds a way to pull the demon out of her brother, knowing it would pull the demon into herself. She does so, to save the brother. Ariel kills her, because he loves her and suddenly understands that Trish knew he would do that for her. The mortal is dead. The supernatural people around her bury her and say kind things about the person she was.

A silence hits the table. It's my character. Trish is mine. I killed her off deliberately for reasons but I hadn't expected people to feel her death this much. After the last person says something that silence lingers. We're sad. I'm sad. I'm touched that each of them have treated her death as meaningful. My heart hurts.

Later I give each of them a letter Trish wrote to say good bye. It's a touching moment of voice over in a television series while we watch the montage of "after Trish" and prepare for the end of the episode.

Trish's story is over. 

I love sadness. There's this great phrase in latin, Est Quaedam Flere Voluptas. It means "There is a certain pleasure in weeping." When I was 15 and read that, it resonated with me in ways I didn't know things could. I mean, I was 15, and so I'm sure I thought of things were revolutionary, but I'm 31 now and it still sits inside of my head.

My nickname in my gaming group is Sad Girl. Why? It's my trope. I generally create characters who are ready to be fucked with and hurt. They have sad stories that are actionable. They have a situation rife with possibilities, none of them good possibilities. Tragedy sweeps through their lives and they're still standing. I find that compelling. I can't remember the last time I made a character who wasn't already damaged when I started playing them.

For many of us, we play games for different reasons. Some people play for the numbers. They like killing the things to get the weapons to kill the bigger things. It's a reward system for them that is straight forward and they really really dig it. It makes my head hurt to think about but that's okay. That's their thing. Murder Hobo is the term I've heard coined for those folks who care about nothing but going around getting xp by killing all the things. If that's what makes the game fun, then have at it! Slay the goblin! Or the dragon! Or whatever...

Some of us play for the fulfilment of a good mystery. We gumshoe it up and wander around investigating until we stumble across the truth after spending our investigation skill points. It's a great moment, that revelation. When we finally figure it out and then go and we often fight the bad guy. Or we run away from it if it's Cthulhu, but who's counting?

There are even less of us that play to feel afraid. Games that are designed to increase tension while presenting you with scary outcomes are plentiful, but I rarely see them run in the public sector. These people get satisfaction from being scared, feeling tense, and then often dying. Or perhaps they enjoy beating the bad guy at the end but being changed forevermore. Most often in horror games, you're expected to die.

I'm sure there are a bunch of people who play because it's fun and all they really get out of it is hang out time with their friends and enjoy telling a good story or even just beating ass without caring about the numbers. Some of us call them the 'non-serious' gamers, the ones who are just there for the laughs. Like somehow wanting amusement is somehow a less valid reason for gaming than the rest of us who see ourselves as getting "more" out of it because we're what we love to dub as "real gamers" or "Serious gamers." The capital S is necessary.

All of these people are cool. 

In biology, when something happens and we respond by encouraging it or trying to discourage it, like maintaining our basic body functions, we call it a feedback loop. Positive or negative, either way, it's our body communicating with something, sending a signal to the brain, so we can shoot out whatever biological functions we need to in order to stop or continue the process that has changed our balance in the system. Gaming functions this way too. So does communication. Or the world. Basically, life is a bunch of feedback loops.

In gaming, we go to a game. We toss our characters out there, shit happens to them, and then we respond as them to try to get what we want out of the game. Maybe our response to adversary is to gear up. Maybe it's to puzzle it out. Maybe it's to try to hide. Maybe you just follow the rest of the party along because whatever goes goes. Or maybe, just maybe, you reach out to the adversary to form emotional attachment.

I'm the last group of people. Throw a situation at me and I tend to try to find a way to pull something meaningful and emotional out of it. I'll befriend the bad guys. I'll try to see their point of view. I'll try to emotionally connect with them. I'll try to leave myself open for hurt and betrayal and emotional pull. Why? It excites my brain. It's the feedback loop I respond to the best. My other feedback loops are investigation and being frightened. I like those things. Fighting things gives me as much satisfaction as the classic nerd at a sports game trope.

One of the key things I've learned in GMing is that my feedback loop really pushes how I GM and that isn't always a good thing. Like stated above, some people like the feel of a great big fight and the payoff from that. Who am I to deny them that when they're sitting at my table? And how can I rewrite my own feedback loop in order to be a good GM across the board?

The short answer is, you can't. The long answer is, yes, maybe, if you stop saying you need to have fun and you're just here to facilitate fun for other people. Many of us aren't willing to do that, and a few people can, and even fewer still get feedback from all the things. I am the kind of person who will push aside what I think my character will do for the sake of story. Story is what I live for. So when it comes to GMing, I tend to try to figure out what feedback loops my players are into and give it to them.

I was running a steampunk game, Airship Pirates, at Fan Expo a few years ago. I wanted it to be a mystery game, figuring out what happened to an abandoned airship. My players wanted to be cool airship pirates who fought things and got the loot. It took my brain about half an hour to recalibrate. I didn't know exactly why they were pulling back from what I was throwing at them. Until I threw a giant beetle at them and they got excited for something to fight.

Aha! My brain clicked and I realized I was playing with loot/xp/combat focused gamers. I immediately changed how I ran the game. They loved it. I didn't have a good time because my feedback loops weren't being fed, but I felt proud as a GM that I could switch gears and provide a con game that they dug.

Should you only worry about your own feedback loops? No. Should you only worry about other peoples? No. I do think as a GM we are there to facilitate a meeting of those loops and to try to find a way to get what everyone wants out of the game, but I do think you, as the GM, need to have fun too. This idea that GMs only have fun if the players are having fun is a little too giving, even though it's how I tend to roll.

Should we maybe stop saying one form of feedback is more legitimate than another? Abso-fucking-lutely. One hobby isn't better than another. Within that hobby, one interest isn't better than another. Just because I like story heavy games doesn't make me intrinsically better or more interesting than a person who wants to squish the giant bugs. It makes us different. It doesn't make us completely compatible as players, but there's nothing wrong with that.

There's a habit in the gaming community to isolate each other based on what we like in a game. We often downplay what other people find enjoyable as less genuine than what we find enjoyable. Do I think someone who likes FPS is less of a video gamer than I am because I prefer RPG? No. But have I thought less of someone who likes crunchy games because I like freeform or rules light play? Absolutely. Looking back on it, it's complete bullshit. Claiming to be more genuine than another person is pretty privileged and pretty disgusting.

That's right. Privileged. You think you're better than someone. Isn't that gross? Doesn't that make you wanna pull back and go "shit, I'm a douche canoe." It makes me want to. I campaign heavily against people thinking they're intrinsically better than other people by way of fighting racism and sexism and other big problems in the gaming world. How could I have so easily ignored my own prejudices against other types of gamers?

Easily. Because my culture encouraged it. My culture, the one I participate in and the one I engage with, says story gaming is better than non-story gaming. It tells me that the theory that goes into story gaming and the way we want to tell real, hard, emotional stories makes us better than people who want to kill the dragon and loot the cave. It's elitism at best. It's wankery at its worse and I can't believe I so willingly participated in this bullshit.

Can you? 

At the end of the day, we like what we like. We can try to facilitate great experiences for everyone at the table, and the first part of doing that is accepting that we're all different. We can try to feed in to each other as much as possible, and we can respectfully acknowledge that sometimes our feedback loops, or rather, our playstyles, are different from each other. When that becomes judgement and a sense of being better than others, we've hit a problem. But when it becomes "you're cool but I'd rather just hang out than play a game" we're good.

I don't like crunch and I will no longer facilitate that for people. Because I get nothing out of it. I will run some more emotional focused hack'n'slash, to get something out of it myself, as I did with Grim World. It was a great game. I've played exciting GURPS. A mix of all the feedback loops is out there. I just hope that I, and you, have enough of an open mind to explore those places and see what awesome things come out of them.

Until then, I'll keep ripping my heart out and making my players sad. You keep doing you. I'll do me. And we'll laugh over bad gaming stories, shitty dice rolls, and the inevitable gross player who makes us all cringe. We're gamers. Let's fucking game.