17 April 2008

Why I think "The Party" is one of gaming's worst anachronisms

Yup, that's right: I said The Party (capitalisation deliberate), I said anachronism. And I said worst.

Pretty extreme, and a touch exaggerated to make a point, but bear with me and I'll expand. Not everyone will agree (not by a long shot) and I suspect that it is actually quite an intolerable view for a lot of gamers; quite literally stabbing at the heart of the hobby, perhaps? I call bullshit on that last part, certainly. "The Party" is nowhere near the heart of the hobby as I see it, and in fact I would say the preponderance of it being held as such is one of the reasons the term is - in my mind - such a damaging influence.

To first define what I mean by the term: I am specifically referring to the meta-game concept of "The Party" as it refers to "all the PCs in this game"; and, by extension, the baggage that comes with it - longstanding traditions like "don't split the party!" or "no intra-party conflict!" These terms and ideas are just fine, and even desirable, in some games, but they are fundamentally limiting factors that constrain what is possible.

I am categorically not using "The Party" as a blanket reference to any game (whether that be a system, or an individual campaign/one off/what have you) in which PCs grouping together is a default, nor am I against "the party" being used as an in character description applicable to the group formed by the PCs.

I am also categorically not against PCs working together, but equally I do not think they should have to do so all the time.

As background, here are some viewpoints that hold quite strongly:

1) That PCs are individuals. Those sitting around the table playing are the group.
2) That PCs can be likened to protagonists in film, TV or literature, and I like the metaphor of RPGs as TV shows.
3) That conflict between involved participants drives games onwards and upwards better than anything else.
4) That the GM should not (and need not) be solely responsible for generating such conflict.
5) That it is possible and desirable to enjoy time when you are not in the spotlight, but everyone should get spotlight time.
6) What matters is that PCs have a reason to interact, sharing the spotlight, not that they have a reason to stick together.
Oh, and a really obvious one:
7) Conflict covers an awful lot more than combat.

Now, there are certainly drawbacks to all of these if handled badly, but handled well they form the core of what I enjoy about this hobby (well, most of the time; we all love a bloody hack-fest on occasion, eh?). They inform the below.

The crux of my argument against The Party is this - the baggage that comes with the meta-game use of the term can fundamentally limit players' mentalities, expectations and approaches, thus having a knock-on effect on the nature of the games that can play out. I think this is a bad thing. Why? Because I enjoy games in a lot of different styles, tones and covering a range of different content and conflicts (this does not apply to genre - by and large I have come to think genre is an irrelevance, the short-term flavouring which adds a backdrop to the goings on but is not central to the nature of events). There is mileage in a multitude of ways of playing games and I think anything that helps shut minds to some of them without people trying it and deciding its not for them is bad.

I think The Party does this because it is such an ingrained idea, held almost as dogma in some quarters, and its prevalence helped generate the idea that the best (or in the extreme, only) way to play is with a group of characters who go around together, fall in line with each other and don't conflict in any meaningful - let along engaging or involving - manner. This suits some styles of games (and gamers) to the ground and that's great; but it doesn't suit everyone, nor is it open to the variation that comes with changing the model.

That is it; simple. The Party mantra influences players and limits the scope of games. Once established it can be broken down, but the more ingrained it is the more the resistance to anything other than The Party model grows. This isn't a problem when it is an informed personal preference, (after all if someone has tried and not liked something, why do so again to their detriment?), but the insidiousness of The Party is that its prevalence as method instinctively closes minds to other models - whether just because it is by far the most common and many players never experience anything else, or because the idiot who constantly acts up and out like a mischievous kid gave conflict between PCs a bad name. And even if any ideological resistance is breached, The Party model affects the approach to a game too - working at crossed purposes, outright antagonism or sticking to ones guns rather than letting it slide can be hard to extract from players, even those most willing to engage in non-Party games, if all their gaming history is a variation on "don't rock the boat."

In summary: I feel that whilst the idea of The Party makes perfect sense in the context of the roots of the hobby, and in games which maintain a similar focus (e.g. groups of player characters beating the crap out of challenge after challenge - especially so in any case where those involved see characters as little more than playing pieces), gaming as a whole is a hobby with the potential for so much more than that. The very continued existence of The Party as the common meta-game term for the PCs created by any one gaming group belies the fact that RPGs can handle adversaries well, that characters do not have to stand together or always live in each others' pockets. In my view, the spectre of The Party applies preemptive brakes on attempts to play in other styles as a result of the subconscious baggage it carries.


Anonymous said...

Nicely written. Worth thinking about from time to time.

Graham said...

Thank you.

Stick said...

I think you're off your- no, you're right.

Mind you, it's one of those conventions that make sense - like training wheels - when people are new to the gaming thing.

It'd be sad if the training wheels never came off. But it's hard to find a group all ready for freeform BMX stunts.

(Hm. How would you "build in" proper group play education in a game? I've seen no good examples, but my experience is possibly a bit narrow.)