Abstraction & Elision in Trophy
Before I get going, check this:
The author wrote this article out of her interest in this hobby, and also to synthesize this with her other interests in literary, mathematical, or political theory. Any criticism in this article was written in pursuit of that interest, and it is not intended as ammunition in factional disputes nor as a personal denouncement of the individuals whose work are criticized. The author also has no interest in petty arguments on any topics discussed in this article.
Are we good to go? Okay? Okay. Everything I write about is because it interests me, so all I ask is for some empathy and open-mindedness. Thank you!
I wanted to dialogue with a blog post by Jared Sinclair, "'Rules Elide' and its Consequences", because it's popped up a little in conversations with friends. I've also seen it cited by Noora Rose to criticize Trophy
on account of it being too abstract, even as far as to gloss over
the fun of a dungeon crawl by (apparently) eliding potential diegetic
interactions in the world. This is sort of a critique, but
more like an extension. I want to look at tabletop game rules as
abstractions by pulling from computer science, Marx's critique of value, and semiotics via Lacanian psychoanalysis. The goal is to reconcile
two basic understandings of rules, repressive and generative, to understand more fully how they impact patterns of behavior in play. Hate to be the "It's nuanced!" bitch, but I think it'll be interesting to explore.
I've never been in grad school, like some of us, but I hope what follows makes sense and is productive :)
Nothing to promote but my cookie recipe.
Playing Trophy after the OSR
I've been thinking a lot about abstraction in tabletop games lately. This is especially after having played Trophy for a few months ( * / * / * ). It's not unfair to call Trophy an abstract game, with its wishy-washy way of allowing players to both explore a world (through their characters) and transform it (through, for lack of a better phrase, fiction tokens). I like it, but maybe it's misleading to say so. Nova runs her Trophy games in almost an FKR style. The formal rules only kick in occasionally, when one of us "does an exploration" (millennials gripping their chairs), and otherwise we barely see them. Ultimately, what I like about Trophy is that it's barely anything. It's almost perfectly mid by virtue of being not annoying. Except that it has three different but similar task resolution procedures, which is annoying. You get it?
This puts me in a funny situation. I've been saying for over two, almost three, years that I don't particularly like the OSR play-style. I don't particularly dislike it either, but tabletop games are mostly a social occasion for me. On one hand I'm not picky, but on the other hand there's aspects of the OSR that I really dislike: especially that the (formal) game is structured like an optimization problem, one which elides (put a pin in it) other approaches or interests. It also seems like it encodes a distinctly male or masculine pattern of desire, one which is unrelatable and simply boring to me, but I've already talked about that. Let's have Gary summarize for us if you're too lazy to read, as much as I disagree with his pseudo-biology:
Here i thought that most everybody knew that the first two play-testers for the D&D game were my son Ernie and my daughter Elise. They played the first dungeon adventurte, were joined the next day by Don Kaye and Rob Kuntz.
Elise played for a few months, then lost interest. Her younger sisters, Heidi and Cindy, got into D&D later on. those two used to make Luke DM for them when he was very young, tell him what treasure that they found. When he complained to me about that I set him straight, and shortly after that his sisters quit playing, the greedy power gamers :D
As I have often said, I am a biological determinist, and there is no question that male and female brains are different. It is apparent to me that by and large females do not derrive the same inner satisfaction from playing games as a hobby that males do. It isn't that females can't play games well, it is just that it isn't a compelling activity to them as is the case for males.
Thanks, Gary! :D Lmao. What were we talking about? Oh yeah. (It's my blog, not yours.)
I said in my aforementioned Bones review with Ram and Alex that I felt like Trophy did the OSR better, for me, than the OSR (by which I mean TSR D&D and its direct derivatives or spiritual successors). Many olds were aghast at this. There was some expression of betrayal, which is why I wanted to reiterate and emphasize my distaste for the OSR, and also of disbelief that I found Trophy more engaging than B/X or whatever. Doesn't Trophy abstract away the fun parts of D&D?
Not super. There's no keeping track of in-world movement, time, or resources. The random encounter check is wrapped into the "hunt roll", a move triggered when a player's character investigates an area or mystery ( * ) and makes themselves vulnerable to potential horror (because it's secretly a Cthulhu game). The tokens you get from hunt rolls are, in my opinion, pure fun: I like to spend tokens to imagine what treasures my character finds, like Gary's daughters, and when spending tokens to "fast-forward" through a scenario it never feels unearned (especially because we tend to justify it post hoc, like "Oh yeah, we saw the secret entrance on the map that so-and-so was trying to hide from us."). The ad hoc nature of Trophy's rules made them feel less imposing, like they were only really there when we needed them (and also because we did end up loving the monkey reward juice embodied by the hunt token subsystem).
This is in strict contrast to old-school D&D and its derivatives, whose formal rules sometimes feel imposing, unnatural, and unnecessary. It's not that a good referee can't referee, but goddamn if someone tries to explain what a 10-minute turn is by appealing to realism and shit. You know what a 10-minute turn is? It's an abstraction! It's an abstraction of every step your character takes, every minute they spend checking their surroundings, et cetera et cetera, that we assume on average adds up to 10 minutes for our own convenience because otherwise you will go insane. It's also because, without a basic but significant increment of game time, the procedural-logistic game falls apart ( * ).
The abstractions underlying Trophy and D&D structure gameplay in different ways. Trophy removes scaffolding except for the basic game loop (of exploration, risk, and reward) which it translates from a periodic procedure into one triggered by the active player. Every other formal rule is subordinate to the hunt roll, whether data or subroutine. This results in the formal ruleset having almost a closed set of interactions but, on the other hand, everything that falls outside the rules' domain is basically open season. D&D's rules attempt to simulate the passage of time, expenditure of resources, and risk of getting caught; its set of interactions is open, but that's because the rules are restrictions on what interactions are possible. All is free outside Trophy, and all is free inside D&D—though terms and conditions may apply.
None of the above is particularly insightful, but I hope it shines light on why I want to poke at the whole "rules elide" thing a little bit. Each abstraction obscures a lower level of reality in the game-world, in the same way that our sense of vision abstracts waves of energy, or in the same way that language imposes semiotic categories, i.e. signifiers, onto real-life things. The problem is that the relationship between signifier and signified is not just arbitrary and unstable—that much is obvious, when we can play the same adventure in Trophy or D&D—but the signified thing itself is unstable and generated by its relationship to the signifier.
This is why Lacan criticized semiotics! The field assumes a stable reality of signified things that language merely maps to signifiers. Rather, language (as a web of symbolic associations) generates the very thing it models and imposes it onto whatever reality even exists. Lacan refers not to "signified" things, then, but to "signification" in reference to "signified" things being constantly, dynamically, and procedurally generated in relation to the operative signifiers. He also criticizes (vulgar) Freudianism on similar grounds, especially the notion that the function of the super ego is entirely repressive of instinctual desire (id). Rather, Lacan says, desire's appearance as instinctual and the super ego as repressive is only an appearance. The super ego does not repress desire (except post hoc)! It defines it by imposing the symbolic context in which an individual perceives themselves to lack, and then desires to overcome their lack.
Note: Until I have a specialized and isolated post about semiotics and Lacan, refer to this one!
It's not surprising that Lacan took influence from Marx, whose analysis of capitalist relations is all about the generation, expansion, and self-propulsion of abstract economic categories like value and class.1 I've summarized Marx's critique of value for those unfamiliar, but the conclusion helps summarize:
If labor is the source of value—and such a statement must be levied with caveats given the different ways in which value appears to society—it is only insofar as labor itself is already valued by society, and is thus already subject to all kinds of abstraction and social pretenses. Marx therefore does not really suppose a labor theory of value, but he critiques the very notion as something which contains social presuppositions about what constitutes value and thus ‘valuable’ labor (and vice versa, given the circular nature of value). Value is ultimately a social relation which governs capitalist production, circulation, and society. It is not an intrinsic product or substance of labor itself, but something imposed onto it by capitalist economy.
This is what Marx calls commodity fetishism, that "whenever, by an exchange, we equate as values our different products, by that very act, we also equate, as human labor, the different kinds of labor expended upon them". At the same time, capitalist relations appear as "direct social relations between individuals" despite really being social relations between commodities (especially between money and labor time), which are themselves abstractions of material relations between individuals. The dimension of commodity exchange and its underlying dimension of value certainly elides physical acts of production and distribution, but these abstractions of economy impose themselves on those acts and shape them in their own image.
Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler extend Marx’s critique of value to a critique of patriarchy; although they do so in different ways, both illuminate the ways in which a system of relations can generate its own “reality” or experience. Irigaray takes the route of a historical hypothesis, that the exchange of women between men (fathers and husbands) must have coincided with (or even originated) the exchange of commodities. She extrapolates that in as much as politics and economy are the domains of men, not only are they tied to patriarchy and vice versa, but patriarchy permeates their very internal workings—arguing that capitalism, and economy in general (feudalism, slave economies, and even gift economies are all perhaps more obvious examples lmao), is an extension of patriarchy.
Butler instead attempts an “imminent critique” of sex, arguing that there is no notion of sex (permutations of biological phenotypes) prior to social categorization of gender (traits associated with and often ascribed to one’s sex), the latter being an unconscious self-image generated in childhood by sexual repression, usually via identification with one’s same-sex parent. Butler is actually quite the orthodox Freudian except that they suppose Freud’s infamous “incest taboo” must be preceded by a “homosexuality taboo”, through which the child internalizes the parent they should identify with! If gender determines sex and not the other way around, meaning that gender is the basis of sex and sex is an expression of gender, this has profound implications for how we talk about sex: not as static categories given by biology, but as dynamic sets of biological traits whose cohesion we take for granted because of the social categories we associate with them.2
Why not throw some Fanon into this motherfucker because it’s past my bedtime and my eyes are hurting and my brain keeps telling me things that might as well be relevant? Maybe I would feel remiss for talking about capital and gender-sex but not race, or something. Franz Fanon, drawing from Marx and Freud in a similar manner as Irigaray and Butler do, argues that race is a social category generated by colonial economic and political relations. This category appropriates skin color and other phenotypes as its fabric, but the relationship between that social category and "its" phenotypes is entirely arbitrary and contingent on the former's historical context. As per Sakai, race (or nation) becomes a layer of abstraction on top of settler colonialist and capitalist relations, which on one hand elides its own economic basis, but then imposes a racialized reality onto that basis. Thereafter, individuals internalize their race, such that racial signifiers structure their unconscious fantasies and their perception of reality (Rachel Dolezal gripping her chair). This is to say race is yet another instance of abstraction trickling down into the reality it apparently represents, but in actuality encodes.
What do economic value, class, gender (with caveats), and race have in common? Value abstracts concrete labor time: in doing so it elides the specificity of individual instances of production, but in tandem it subjects those concrete instances to the demands of abstract market dynamics. Gender is considered an abstraction by reactionaries and progressives alike, namely one that represents (and potentially elides) an individual's sexual phenotypes, but less are willing to recognize the extent to which those sexual phenotypes are also taken for granted and gendered. Race is an abstraction of class that obscures the underlying relations of a (racialized) capitalist society, but it seeps into intra-class conflict and the desires of individuals, and becomes its own social automaton. Abstractions elide, abstractions repress, abstractions regulate. But abstractions also generate the significance (or relational context) of the thing elided, repressed, and regulated.
Let's return to Elfland. Trophy abstracts different 'things' than D&D. One could even say that with respect to the process of exploring an adventure site, Trophy abstracts 'more' things than D&D (whether by not regulating movement, time, or resources; or by basically allowing players to make shit up alongside the game master), although it does so by modeling less things than D&D. To say then that Trophy is a more restrictive game than D&D, or that it automates too much of the exploratory process, does not align with my experience that Trophy is a more free-wheeling and casual game that makes less assumptions about its players and does not regulate them nearly as much as D&D does. Does Trophy elide too much, or does it elide different things? More importantly, what is the difference in play experience between these two "models" (or abstractions!) of exploration?
D&D is, formally speaking, a logistical game centered on an optimization problem: extract the most value from a dungeon without running out of resources that deplete in various ways (such as light sources due to time, or hit points to harm). The game models the passage of time using 10-minute turns, movement on a map scaled to a 12-inch ruler, and a random risk of being found out by hostile inhabitants. Characters can expect to spend 1 light-unit per 6 turns, and also expect to encounter 1 inhabitant which has a ~28% chance of being hostile. All of these things are abstractions for the participants' convenience which elide, perhaps, the hypothetical reality of the game world (e.g., "This monster didn't just pop up out of nowhere, it was actually wandering in your direction!"). However, beyond obscuring a base reality, the rules generate that very reality and constitute its functional logic. Players are motivated within these constraints to optimize their actions in the game, and would act differently if different constraints were imposed. D&D is not a neutral ruleset.
Trophy does not care about movement, time, or a variety of resources. As per Sinclair's post, Trophy bypasses the process of exploration by encapsulating the act into a "hunt roll" whereby, as characters explore the world, they either gain insight into that world (abstracted by hunt tokens, which players can convert to treasure or 'knowledge', but are not the exclusive source of either) or are confronted by something terrible; Trophy also reduces resource management to a bare function, not representing any particular resource but the character’s own descent into ruin. As discussed above and in our Bones review, Trophy's hunt structure has a similar effect as the entire exploration framework in D&D. However, unlike D&D whose framework proceduralizes play activity by imposing a sequential algorithm on top that models the effects of time, Trophy's hunt roll is executed on-demand (and may even be considered opt-in). Trophy might be considered in its totality as an abstraction of D&D's regulatory functions, reducing their dynamics to their formal (non-diegetic) functionality and isolating them as a subroutine rather than elevating them as the play conversation's organizing principles.
Now that we've outlined the formal structures of D&D and Trophy, we can explore and compare their negative spaces to see how the game's abstractions imprint themselves and even structure diegetic conversation. One difference, which is part of why I am trying to slightly poke at "rules elide", is that D&D sees players track concrete resources like torches or rations which Trophy handwaves. By formally modeling more aspects of game-reality, by increasing the quantity of rules, D&D complicates that reality within the scope of play and adds more considerations for players. This is not a bad thing, being entirely a matter of preference, but that's the impact.
On the other hand, by eliding movement and time, Trophy hones in on the environment's (diegetic) interactive features, what (diegetic) treasures are hidden inside them, and what (diegetic) traps may threaten the adventurers. The extent to which Trophy's incursions are written almost entirely diegetically, with little consideration for procedural or other rules, has delighted the referees in my play circles! This is in stark contrast with D&D which, by virtue of its complex models of time and other factors, imposes those abstractions onto adventure design in order to regulate how players navigate them.
This is why I'm suspect of the reading that Trophy, by being more 'abstract' (as in, hand-wavey and non-simulationist), elides the diegetic aspects of exploration. For D&D to formally model the passage of time and depletion of resources, for it to avoid hand-waving the logistical aspects of exploration, means for it to introduce a host of regulatory formal rules to model those aspects. Trophy does not do this because it has a strictly different focus than D&D. It does not model concrete aspects of the game world because those aspects are outside its scope as a formal ruleset. By extension, Trophy invites the participants of the game to consider these concrete things in concrete terms if they matter in the scope of play, or else not. Trophy relegates abstractions to an isolated subroutine, while D&D is organized entirely around abstractions (i.e. models).
Although abstractions can be said to elide an underlying reality, perhaps it is more accurate to say they regulate it (by way of defining it) instead. In the context of a role-playing game, for an aspect of reality to not be modeled by a ruleset does not mean that it is absent from consideration (in potential or in practice). I think the opposite is what Sinclair intended by his original articulation of "rules elide", but Rose's reading of Trophy takes for granted that a ruleset following D&D's model is supposed to organize and regulate the play conversation in toto. In Nova's latest 3-hour game, we only made 4 hunt rolls and 10 risk rolls (analogous to ability checks or saving throws). Does that sound like a game where exploration is entirely mediated and elided by abstract, formal rules? Especially when there are no formal rules outside those specific operations, whether time tracking or record keeping or resource depletion? Do I need to answer that question?
All this does not necessarily contradict Sinclair's original post, which is why I'm hesitant to call it a critique of "rules elide" per se. This is more a critique of Rose's application of "rules elide", in that she takes for granted the particular relationship to rules that D&D (or its derivatives) generates, and then superimposes that understanding onto Trophy. Trophy is not a game where you roll to explore and then roll to explore and then roll to explore. Trophy is a game where the procedural framework of D&D is encapsulated into a player-triggered move, freeing the player from formal rules until they desire to employ them. Except in those moments, the player interacts with the game-world in a more direct manner than in D&D, since their character's actions are not situated in formal procedures or other rules.
I need to note that this is not me coming out as an FKR supremacist. I try to appreciate different approaches to things for what they do differently, and not assume that something analogous to something else is an attempt to achieve the same effects. I also think rulesets are annoying in various ways, so maybe I'm just inclined to avoid them when they feel overbearing. Trophy is good at being out of the way (combat notwithstanding), which is why it feels somewhat more natural and less annoying to me than D&D for its complex models which are too regulative and procedural. For me.
What brought on me thinking about abstraction was less Trophy, actually, but me having been trying to simplify D&D currency for a couple months. It's never really satisfying because justifying an abstraction is difficult and stupid. I told my friend Dwiz, "The worst thing is that as much as abstraction seems to simplify things, you look at all the weird formal structures with caveats and realize that a price list would have been easier." Sometimes a complex, concrete model just makes more sense. I think people tolerate complexity or wishiwashiness to different extents. Trophy, by consisting of a self-contained operation abstracted from the overall play conversation, does not offer the same formal handrails as D&D. This is better or worse for different people, but it does not make it a worse game—especially if one cannot picture the negative space left behind by the rules.
Lacan considered himself an orthodox Freudian, but his work was an attempt to generalize Freudian psychoanalysis and talk about desire in terms of semiotics and abstraction rather than about specific signifiers like "mothers" and "fathers" whose signified content is arbitrary.
I also want to reiterate something my friend John B. informed me, that Lacan was not reading the semioticians very generously, if he read them at all, to put himself in the position of criticizing them for something they should have recognized as obvious. I'm pretending the myth is true. ↩︎
I need to clarify that although Butler was very impactful for me as a young(er) adult, more lately I feel like dysphoria is a physiological condition expressed by one’s psyche through social signifiers. This is not an unusual relationship, since it prompted Freud’s investigation into dreams and we know of other contexts in which the mind translates bodily conditions into mental phenomena (e.g., the sense of dread experienced by someone having a heart attack).
I’m not a scientist and there is, obviously, a dialectical relationship between sex and gender formation. However, I feel like the former is understated by Butler who suggests that one’s relationship to their sex is entirely determined and mediated by their psychosexual development. This is neither here nor there, but I just wanted to express that I don’t think dysphoria reduces to a social malfunction even if it is expressed that way.
If gender’s social dimension has a basis in patriarchal relations, then transsexuality problematizes (not reifies) social gender by illustrating that sex itself is dynamic and malleable, not just a base, neutral “reality” with which a gender may or may not align. This is not necessarily contrary to Butler's arguments about the social determination of sex as a gendered categorization of phenotypes, but I've seen Butler's hypothesis used to argue that dysphoria is social. This is what I take issue with, and why I wanted to clarify my view on it.↩︎