I'll sum up the last four posts and we can move forward. I began with a disclaimer about setting, that it is something the designer has to sort from a personal perspective. Finding a good setting is something that cannot be taught. Nor can it be pulled out of a hat. Create a setting that you know, that you can carry forward with full understanding of that setting and be sure that the setting is yours and no one else's. Don't create a vision that can be compromised by another person's perception.
Then I took steps to establish some measurements that would define the campaign: starting with what sort of campaign would be potentially run, from casual forms to the sort of measured game I play. I made a point about the particular "game" the DM plays in running an RPG, how decisions create a smoothly running system, from which it is unwise to deviate. I talked about the rigidity of that system, and moved to establish a template in which we could compare the rigidity of one system from another, those systems having extraordinary, high, medium and low rigidity. I pointed out that it is easier for a DM to run a high rigidity system, but harder for a player to survive; whereas a low rigidity system increases player survival but multiplies the number of variables a DM has to control.
Next I talked about player confidence, from the standpoint that players are excessively confident that the worst case scenario will occur in a campaign, creating distrust and doubt, including a tendency of players to create answers to their concerns that support and validate their feelings of distrust. These self-created answers then influence the overall tenor of the campaign, causing players to drift together into greater and greater distrust, even in games of low rigidity where their probable survival is high.
Finally, I provided tactics to counteract this worst-case-scenario thinking, with a goal to improve player experiences and encourage a greater sense of control on the players part. I spoke of eliminating rules that aren't used or respected, increasing the use of rules that interest the players, ensuring that players understand what they're getting out of the campaign, not taking player feedback personally and making a decision to help the players with more info rather than letting them believe "facts" they make up themselves to feed their sense of distrust.
Good, let's move on. I'll stipulate that the reader has decided on a setting, on a form of campaign, on a degree of rigidity in that campaign and is prepared to coddle the players a little bit until they adjust to the amount of rigidity the DM wants to run. These things are all part of the basic structure of the campaign, along with giving the players a better lookout on what that structure is. What do we want to think about next?
Let's come back to a quote from Ian Bogost that I did not include in my original deconstruction of his discussion of fun (though I told the reader to finish the video):
"Play is an activity of freedom and openness and possibility ~ but it's one that arises from limiting our freedoms rather than expanding them. And it's why golf isn't just a nice walk ruined. Rather, as [Bernhard] Sweets put it, it's like asking us to accomplish something using only the means that are permitted by the rules of the game, where those rules prohibit us from doing so in a sensible way. They prohibit us from doing something efficiently, in favor of less efficient means ~ and in fact, where those rules of inefficiency are accepted, just because they make the activity possible. Otherwise, you just walk up and drop the ball in the hole."
Here is the function of our game. We can easily create a group of characters with perfect scores, with an unlimited number of hit points, with powers and abilities that make them invulnerable, then offer to them a series of goals that they can snap their fingers and accomplish, because as a DM we can make the full enactment of heroism and success an absolute certainty. Or we can seek to impose inefficiencies on the characters that will make success less and less certain . . . so long as we retain the absolute rule that remains possible for them to achieve the goals they choose or have chosen for them, depending on the sort of campaign we want to run.
From there, the only discussions that is relevant to the function of our game are, a) what sort of goals are imposed; and b) what level of possibility of success do we wish the players to have? All other discussions are either a question of structure (what exists) or irrelevancy. Unless we tie the discussion of game play to the matter of "How does this make the character's experience more or less difficult in obtaining the sort of goal the campaign has," the discussion is meaningless.
Naturally, there will be no agreement on how difficult the player's success needs to be. Consider: I used to play baseball. I hit several home runs on ball parks when playing in high school, because I have big meaty shoulders and I could get my whole body into the swing. I was able to compete at that game at the level of play that I was at, but certainly I turned no heads regarding moving up in level of play. I was a better player than some, was certainly a much worse player than others. The difficulty of the game, then, depended upon the level of participant with which I was allowed to play. The increase of difficulty was measurable because the rules contained ALL the participants within the closed system of the game.
In role-playing, good players will press a DM who runs a poor game and will end up running the table. We would hope that the DM could then increase the difficulty of their ideas and "game" in order to give good players a run for their money, but there is no mandate to do so and often we see players with great skills and poor attitudes given carte blanche at tables they run from the bleachers, and will continue to run for years so long as the DM in that campaign does not balk. Therefore, we cannot rely on the skill of the DM to set the standard for the difficulty of the campaign. All discussions regarding the skill of the DM, or the ability of the DM, or the habits of the DM, are therefore meaningless when considering the overall function of the game. DMs cannot be trusted, they cannot be measured, they cannot be adjusted or modified when not in working order, and therefore DMs, like any other participant, must be managed by a set of rules that offer no flexibility with regards to free play within the rigidity of the system.
If we are to propose a difficulty in the creation of our functional game, the DM's ability cannot be seen as a component of that functionality. The DMs role must be established as clearly and as certainly as the players', or else we accomplish nothing.
I will let the reader think on that. Then we can move on.