Classic Fantasy Adventure Games are Infinite

There are at least two kinds of games. One could be called finite, the other infinite.

A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game is for the purpose of continuing the play.

If the rules of a finite game are unique to that game, it is evident that rules may not change in the course of play-else a different game is being played.

It is on this point we find the most critical distinction between finite and infinite play. The rule of an infinite game must change in the course of play. The rules are changed when the players of an infinite game agree that the play is imperiled by a finite outcome- that is, by the victory of some players and the defeat of others.

The rules of an infinite game are changed to prevent anyone from winning the game and to bring as many persons as possible into the play.

Finite And Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility by James P. Carse

James Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games is an interesting philosophical/theological text. It has some shortcomings and there points where he completely lost me. It is a slim book and structured to be read in short chunks. It is worth trying out if you have an interest in theology and philosophy.

I first became aware of this work through the business author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek. Simon uses the concept to encourage business leaders to create more thoughtful companies with an “infinite mindset.”

Dr. Carse (and Simon) use the word “game” in a broad way. He uses it to mean relationships of all types. Philosophers, theologians, systems designers, and psychologists often use the word “game” to describe the relationships between people. Business relationships, friendships, jobs, communities all have game-like characteristics.

We use phrases, “Oh, you want to play that game with me,” or “Don’t play games with me,” or “I can play that game too.” When what we mean, is that the other person is trying to manipulate us by employing some tactic or strategy for their own benefit. They are, in Carse’s terminology, playing a finite game.

Let’s think about what he is arguing from the perspective of tabletop fantasy adventure games that we play for enjoyment. I have used some of Carse’s concepts in previous blog posts but haven’t specifically referenced it before.

Finite Games

Finite games, according to Carse, are games played with the object of winning.

The rules are fixed and may not be changed in the middle of play.

If you are playing Scythe or Advanced Squad Leader, you play to win. The board, the components, the rules and procedures are fixed. We may have an argument over how a particular rule gets interpreted in the game but the rule does not change in the midst of play.

There are fixed win conditions and when someone reaches the win condition, the game is over.

In the tabletop gaming hobby, these games are ubiquitous. Most tabletop games are finite games.

Infinite Games

The biggest distinction that make infinite games different from finite games is the purpose of the game.

The purpose of the infinite game is to keep playing.

Players in infinite games seek to include as many people in the game as possible. Players come, players go but since the purpose of the game is to play, it doesn’t matter who is playing in the given moment, just that the play has continued.

Since the purpose of the game is to play, the rules must be changeable. This is a critical element to an infinite game. If the rules are fixed and a rule creates a situation where the game must end when a rule is invoked, then it means the game ends.

In an infinite game, when the players recognize a rule goes against the purpose of continuing the play, they discard it or change it.

Classic Fantasy Adventure Games are infinite games.

Based on Carse’s book, we could say that fantasy adventure games are infinite games.

Our criteria, according to Carse, are:

  1. The purpose of an infinite game is to continue play.
  2. The game has rules that must change in order to continue the play and keep players in the game.
  3. The rules are changed to bring as many people as possible into the game.
image from the Secrets of Blackmoor Documentary

The purpose of fantasy adventure games is to keep playing.

A novel characteristic of fantasy adventure games game is persistence of the game, even when players are temporarily knocked out of the game by character death or inability to play due to real life circumstances. You could leave the game and come back and it was still the same game.

The milieu where the game occurs (the campaign setting) is the focal point of the game. It is what unites everything together. Characters die, NPCs die, castles fall, cities burn… but the milieu persists. This was something somewhat unusual in games in 1974.

Wargaming did have some of that in the form of long campaigns and play by mail games that spanned months and years. This concept carried over into Blackmoor.

One rule in Dungeons & Dragons is when a character dies, the player can create a new character and rejoin the game. The player is never permanently eliminated from the game the way they can be in finite games.

Blackmoor started in 1970 and the play hasn’t stopped yet. 52 years and the game is still going. Some of its original players are still playing, Dave Megarry, Greg Svenson, Dave Wesley and others still get together to play sometimes. The game can go on as long as there are people to play it.

Dave’s game kept going without Dave.

As long as players bring in more players when old players die or leave, the game can keep going.

Fantasy adventure games bring as many players as possible into the game.

How many people played Blackmoor with Dave, and Greyhawk with Gary?

Hundreds? Thousands?

Gary and Dave had many players come and go in their games over the decades. Both ran games in their settings at conventions. That is a continuation of their original games that started in Dave’s basement and Gary’s kitchen.

Friends and family members of Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax sometimes play in the founder’s milieus, introducing more players into the game.

Fantasy Adventure Games are games that can change during play.

We have attempted to furnish an ample framework, and building should be both easy and fun. In this light, we urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are
absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide
how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way!

Afterword to Original Dungeons and Dragons

Every edition of Dungeons & Dragons has a statement telling you to change things that you don’t like to better suit your tastes.

This is the foundational principle of the hobby.

Dave started off calling Blackmoor a medieval Braunstein game. He changed the original Braunstein. He created a variation.

Blackmoor was a game that changed constantly. Someone would come up with an idea and pitch it to Dave. Can I play a wizard? Can I play a dwarf? How do I build a castle?

He’d think of a way to incorporate the idea into the game and it was then found in Blackmoor. The dungeon beneath Castle Blackmoor changed. New areas were discovered, created, excavated by players and monsters.

You can’t do that in a finite game. In chess, the rook moves horizontally and vertically, never diagonally. You can’t add pieces to the board in the middle of play.

Luke Gygax wanted a spell that could continue to do damage after its initial casting, it needed to do that without blowing up the dungeon, destroying the treasure the enemy was carrying. His character, Melf, researched and created Melf’s Acid Arrow. If you play a campaign using the OD&D versions of spells for a while, you start to understand how the AD&D versions of the spells were created. It was because one of Gary’s crafty players thought of a creative way to abuse it.

They were trying to “win” the game. The game had to change in order to keep the play going.

Are we all part of the same infinite game?

This proposition that there are finite games and infinite can get very abstract.

If we accept the most inclusive version of Carse’s broad definition of an infinite game, there are some interesting implications.

When we play, design, write about, talk about this hobby, we have joined the infinite game of fantasy adventure gaming. The hobby as a whole as an infinite game.

We can also say that new editions or homebrew variations are an example of players changing the rules so that more people can play.

That would suggest that the entire role-playing hobby is one big infinite game with people changing rules to expand the scope and number of players to keep the game going.

Even though many of us would deny it, in a sense; anyone playing a fantasy role-playing game is part of the same infinite game.

Coming back to earth.

Theoretically, a campaign could be played forever. As long as someone hands over the maps, the info and someone keeps it alive, it could go on as long as there are people to play.

In a practical sense, for most of us, our campaigns will end eventually.

In the broader conception of Carse’s formulation, being players in the infinite game means we share our hobby in a positive, creative, and constructive ways, we change the rules, so that more people join and play continues.

I think that is a worthwhile purpose for continuing to be a part of the game.

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