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There is a hypothesis that entertaining activities (like role-playing games) should be "fun." Quotes like "It doesn't matter, as long as you're having fun" and "The rules aren't important as long as everybody is having fun" are used to substantiate arguments over rules debates and play-style debates.

There is an alternate argument that a good role-playing session will generate satisfaction, even if it isn't fun.

What are some rewards players get from playing role-playing games? How essential is fun to these rewards?

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Based on the meta discussion, I've performed a major edit to this question as a test of our current subjectivity rules. (And I'm kind of interested in the answer. We may want to revert and repaste my question as a new question though.) –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Apr 12 '11 at 8:08
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Question reopened. Please use real world examples in your answers, this won't be useful if the responses are just a long forum thread like list of everyone's random opinions on this topic. –  mxyzplk Apr 12 '11 at 13:51

14 Answers 14

up vote 38 down vote accepted

Summary

I don't think 'fun' is essential, but I think that 'worthwhile' is.

Detail

I don't want to waste two to eight hours of my life doing something which is worthless - like watching a movie that was at the mid-point between "ok, I guess" and "so bad it's good", I never want to think "well, that's two hours of my life I'll never get back".

Sure, most of the time a worthwhile game is also a fun game. Whether it be a beer and pretzels, laugh a minute fantasy, or angst ridden post-apocalyptic horror - you can still laugh about it with friends after the session. Occasionally though, you come across a game that is not fun, leaves a really bitter taste in your mouth, but which ultimately you feel was worth time.

Example from personal experience

For me, that was a game based on the Salem Witch trials. It was a freeform ('theatre style' LARP IIUIC) for around 40 players, intended to be as close to historically accurate as possible. Part of the game contract was that, even more than usual, people try to stay in character and put aside modern mores and values, in a serious attempt to think and react as genuinely as possible to the situation at hand.

The results were scary, very scary.

As in real life, it started off with just a few silly girls making trouble, but it quickly snowballed into suspicion, recrimination, accusation and counter-accusation which spread through almost everyone in the 'village'.

As one of the elders, and one of the three judges at the trial, I felt under intense pressure to conform, even though I was written to be the most rational thinker of the three. I presided over a mockery of a trial, where we let the 'spectral evidence' stand despite churchmen from outside the village trying to persuade us otherwise, I allowed 'witnesses' to be tortured in my presence by one of my fellow judges, and I worried that one word out of place could have me hauled before the bench myself.

Ultimately we rendered a very similar judgement to that which historically occurred. We didn't contrive this result, it wasn't consciously engineered to fulfil character goals, we didn't even have goals listed on our character sheets that might make the historical outcome more likely, the decision just evolved out of a situation which was expertly set up.

No-one could call this a 'fun' game. It was truly harrowing, it made me question what it is to be "the only sane person in the asylum" and wonder how far I would go to fit in if my life depended on it.

I can't say that I took any profound psychological insights from the game, but it did make me think. Nor is it the sort of game I'd want to play every week, or even every year, but an occasional game that really has such an intense negative emotional impact can be good to remind us that we mostly live pretty happy, uncomplicated lives.

For those who are interested, the game was called Delusions of Satan and I played it at a Gencon UK, in the mid noughties. It was written and run by Mystery In Mind, who provide their own summary of the game on the past events page of their website.

Sadly Mystery In Mind is no more, but their wabsite was archived at the Wayback Machine. Links have been updated.

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Superb subjective description of that freeform. Where was it, and has it been written up? –  Alticamelus Apr 18 '11 at 19:38
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"Worthwhile" should be exactly what every single activity or even just action of yours should be. If anything is not worthwhile (in total), I will try not to do it. That's really very close to being a definition of worthwhile, I guess. So, for me, that is not really an answer to the question. Which is not really a question any more. –  PiHalbe Sep 9 '11 at 11:38
    
@PiHalbe I agree with trying not to do things that aren't worthwhile, but the problem is that its hard to know ahead of time. –  TimothyAWiseman Apr 20 '12 at 16:32

Innocents (Inocentes) is a spanish roleplaying game about child nightmares. It says that while in most RPGs fun is the most important objective, in that game it is fear.

So, given one counterexample, no, not all RPGs must be fun.

Said that, I think fun is the main reason most players play. So most of the cases if people is not having fun, there is something the group is doing bad.

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This is a subjective question, so you need to back up your answer with experience. Have you played, seen played, or heard someone else's account of playing one of these not-fun games, but the game was still worth playing somehow? The mere existence of a published ruleset doesn't prove that games don't have to be fun. (Also, people go watch horror movies for enjoyment. Does this mean horror movies aren't fun?) –  Paul Marshall Jun 3 at 0:28
    
@PaulMarshall Why is experience needed? In this case, the mere existence of a game which aims to fear and not to fun tells us that "fun" is not mandatory. I am not saying the game is good or bad, or accomplish well its objectives, I just say objective information about this game. –  Flamma Jun 4 at 0:30

No they don't have to be fun. A game can be good if it is valued or appreciated in any number of ways. Players might find a game satisfying, worthwhile, productive, interesting, challenging, educational, or other things. I have seen players get other things such as new real-life friendships, too.

I have often played games more for the purpose of learning what a game is like, or to see other people's play styles or group dynamics.

As for the arguments that the rules (or realism, or historicity, or whatever) don't matter "as long as everyone is having fun"... that might be true if everyone agrees, but it seems to me those arguments are usually used by people who are frustrated by the quality they are using that argument to dismiss, and that they are also dismissing the views of players who do values those things. I myself happen to enjoy good detailed, realistic, and/or historically accurate games, and find those things to be interesting (and often but not always fun), and so I find such arguments in favor of so-called fun to be rather biased.

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There are a lot of things to take out of a game, fun as in "yay, I'm having fun!" is just one of them:

  • enjoying the moment
  • learning something (about history, society, psychology, emotions, …)
  • anticipation of what is going to happen (this may point towards more fun or other entries on this list)
  • getting to know your fellow players better
  • doing someone a favor (by playtesting or sharing a game with them)
  • rack your brains around something, solving problems (which is more self-test than fun)
  • get a shift in perspective
  • socialize with people

I recognize, a lot of them are connected to fun in some way, but the fun is just a secondary effect in them.


To unconfuse what my original question was: Of course, your game has to be worthwhile. This is the very definition of being worthwhile – you will voluntarily engage in that action because you hope to gain something out of it. Everything you do should be worthwhile.

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Going with the movie analogy, because as a recreational/free time activity, I think it fits.

Do I think American History X was a good movie? Yes.

Do I think it was worth watching? Yes.

Was it fun? Certainly not.

I think this carries over to other leisure-time activities as well. It's possible to be glad you had the experience, despite it not being "fun." I doubt most people would want to experience this on a regular basis because of how challenging it can be, so maybe a weekly game of this sort wouldn't go over well. Once in a while though, it can be quite rewarding without being "fun."

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For reference, this movie is a pretty brutal (in violence and honesty) fiction about a young man who was part of neo-nazi culture, and the effect it had on him and his family. –  PeterL May 10 '11 at 22:07
    
Yes, I felt pretty much the same way about The Lives of Others (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lives_of_Others) which I'm glad I saw once, but would not want to sit and watch again. Much as I was glad I played Delusions of Satan, but I don't think I'd want to play that again. –  Mark Booth May 15 '11 at 21:57

I've spent a lot of time playing character-driven games in which a lot of dialogue occurs and not a hell of a lot of combat. A lot of situations that occur aren't easily classified as fun, but the group enjoys the sessions very much. I'm not sure whether your question is a linguistic or a philosophical query, but - to answer as directly as I can - no, I don't believe that a roleplaying game "has" to be fun.

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I think depends on what the questioner means by "fun."

Fun is an interesting concept. There are some meanings of "fun" that are particularly American (IMHO) in nature. We (Americans) have a concept of fun that apparently doesn't exist in many cultures. For example, I have read that there is no word for "fun" in a Scandinavian language...My memory is foggy, but I'm going to say, Finnish. The closest analog in the language is a word that means leisure time spent with family. But American fun is twisty roads on fast motorcycles. Frags in Halo. Comedy clubs. Roller coasters and pie eating contests. Animated movies about steers with udders. High energy, excitement, boisterous, and shallow.

If the above is what the question means by "fun," then no. RPGs do not have to be fun.

But there are other ways to enjoy yourself. Watching a production of a Shakespeare comedy is going to be more challenging than watching an episode of Family Guy, but it's still enjoyable. Challenging things can be fun, for some values of fun.

There are RPGs out there that are meant to be that more challenging variety of fun:

  • Grey Ranks - Players take the roles of doomed child soldiers during the Warsaw Uprising
  • Steal Away Jordan - Players take the roles of American slaves
  • My Life With Master - Players take the roles of minions of a late 19th century Master

The first two of those games have been rejected by my group as being, "no fun." And my group plays challenging games, filled with tough decisions and no-win situations. But I think the factual, historical, indelible misery of the first two makes them too depressing to play.

We have played some games that are meant to end badly for the PCs, including:

and enjoyed them both. I think there's room for a kind of introspective, considered, and challenging entertainment in RPGs, just as there is room for that in film, for example. But as with film, I think you'll see a lot more in the mold of The Hangover than The King's Speech.

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+1. The film analogy is what I was thinking too. There are films that people (such as my film-nerd wife) thoroughly enjoy that I think about and wonder that anyone would willingly subject themselves to that experience. Same for games: not everyone will want "unfun" games, but that doesn't mean every RPG must be "fun"—there are people out there who get a lot out of those art-house sorts of pursuits, and there is room in "roleplaying with game-like mechanics" for such challenging fare. –  SevenSidedDie Apr 12 '11 at 17:44
    
@Mark Booth - 1) I said there is a particularly American kind of fun, and that I like it. 2) One of America's biggest exports anymore is culture, so I'm not surprised that American-style fun is now found world-wide. 3) I was trying to find a way to express concretely what I thought the question-asker meant by "fun", and tried to encapsulate that as "American fun". –  gomad Apr 18 '11 at 18:33
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@Mark Booth - You know, I agree enough to have edited the answer in an attempt to make it less aggressive on the "American fun" topic. –  gomad Apr 18 '11 at 20:21
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Once again - if you're gonna downvote, why not drop a comment saying what was wrong with the answer? The hover text on the down arrow reads, "This answer is not useful," not, "I disagree with this answer." So be a sport and tell us how to make this answer useful instead of just anonymously sprinkling downvotes around. –  gomad Apr 21 '11 at 15:53
    
Hauska is pretty close to fun, as far as Finnish goes. –  Thanuir Apr 20 '12 at 13:51

I think it depends on what you expect from the RPG session, in general case they have to be fun or as it was said, everybody involved has to enjoy it.

But I can think on several cases where the fun is not the main aim of the session, for example if you use it to teach something, in that case the main aim would be the players learning whatever they were expected to learn with the help of the game and fun would be "an extra" for that session, of course in that example, if they are enjoying they will probably learn better the lesson :)

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I think this depends on the player type. If you're a gamer type, which is to say you'll keep doing something until you succeed, because you have that kind of persistent drive, then yes you could get satisfaction from surviving Tomb of Horrors. I guess you could argue that's fun, but it's a rather unique kind, rather like the boxer or MMA fighter who says he's only starting to have fun once he's been hit in the face a couple times.

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I think its like any other group activity. If its not enjoyable overall and doesn't serve any other real purpose ( like training, monetary reward, civic duty, etc. ), you won't keep working at it. You'll quit or leave or just let it atrophy ambiguously.

That said, there are many ways that it can be not fun at a small scope and immensely enjoyable in at the large overall scale. Solving problems can be immensely frustrating, but the enjoyment and satisfaction for solving it can be proportional to the effort applied. Sometimes its worth it to put up with an annoying person running the cleric because you get to see that light bulb go off when they finally realize: "I am responsible for the whole party, they're counting on me!"

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I think that is a good point. You might not enjoy it while you're doing it, but get something appealing out of it in the long run. Which might be self-reflection, dealing with the past or society or similar things. –  PiHalbe Aug 31 '10 at 18:15

Well, personal response. If the game isn't fun to play, regardless of dark themes, etc. What's the point in playing it?

Now, that being said. There's been a great many games that aren't 'fun' so much as they are experiments in experiencing certain things. Hikikomori comes to mind. It's a singleplayer roleplaying game where you experience the 'life' of a japanese shut-in, so to speak. It's not particularly fun, and when I tried it, was struggling with my own anxiety issues, it was frankly terrifying to imagine my life crumbling to that extent. Was it meant to do that? Probably not, but, at the same time, i don't suspect the game was made to be 'fun' either.

There's other games that are made to touch on subjects, or make a point, and their design goal wasn't neccessarily to make something that people laugh and cheer about, but, more to make people think and discuss.

So, in the end it depends on your point of view, as with everything. By definition do role-playing games need to be fun? No.

For me, does it have to be fun for me to want to search it out and play it? Yes.

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"Fun" is one of those squishy words that is hard to define. I've enjoyed a D&D game set on an unknown continent. I played the Royal Cartographer. Another character, was a very city-centric character and did not pick up on the fact that there are no cities on this continent. I had a blast. The other character was miserable. Was the group having fun or not?

Another game we play on the back burner is an old World of Darkness Vampire chronicle. It was full of political intrigue and back-stabbing. There wasn't much action or heroics. I like heroic characters (and was playing a Brujah). I was miserable, but the rest of the group was enjoying it. Was the group having fun or not?

"Fun" should be when most of the group is smiling and participating. We played a very dark game a while ago, and while I was not enjoying the plot, we would also stop about every hour or so for about 5-10 minutes to just BS and joke around and make tons of out of character comments to lighten the mood. I had fun even though I did not like the adventure.

So, must it always be fun? No. Should it be more fun that suck? Absolutely.

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+1 for "Should it be more fun that suck?" Very well stated. –  LeguRi Aug 31 '10 at 17:41

Fun is very subjective. Replace "fun" with "enjoyable" and I think you have your answer. If you aren't enjoying yourself, it's not a sustainable activity. In the long run, if you feel like you haven't wasted your 4-5 hours, I think that's a good thing.

Certain RP games (Dogs in the Vineyard, Call of Cthulhu, World of Darkness) might have less enjoyable and darker, more thought provoking subject matter as their basis, but again it comes down to what you are trying to get out of the game. For example, a session of Call of Cthulhu may end with the Old Ones destroying the world; Dogs in the Vineyard deals with many intense subjects which can include suicide or loss of faith. So yeh I think a game can be interesting and enjoyable without being what traditionally is thought of as "fun".

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+1 for better understanding the question than I ;) –  LeguRi Aug 31 '10 at 17:40
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Think so, too. Of course you should feel like you profit in one way or another from your activity, otherwise you stop. But that does not mean that you need to have a nice sentiment while doing it. –  PiHalbe Aug 31 '10 at 18:19

Yes, it has to be fun.

What about getting to know your fellows better? What about exploring social restrictions and phenomena? What about dealing with your past? With your future possibilities?

Most of these things are exactly what makes it fun for for so many people who do it.

If any of those things aren't fun for you and anyone you play with, don't do them.

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* awkward! * In retrospect I feel like this answer comes out of a sex-ed class. –  LeguRi Aug 31 '10 at 17:26
    
Ok, it certainly depends on how you define fun. If defined as "in retrospect, it is something I in some way like to have done" then yes, it should be. But for example, playing "a flower for Mara" or some Jeepform games might not be considered to be a fun activity in that you would get immediate joy out of it. –  PiHalbe Aug 31 '10 at 17:30
    
I'm defining 'fun' as 'enjoyable', not necessarily laugh-and-giggling fun. I'm not familiar with "A flower for Mara". Can you tell me about it? –  LeguRi Aug 31 '10 at 17:38

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