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Skill Gap
[01/03/2014] [Randall]

Among the challenges that can confront an aging park, skill gap can be the most difficult to address. It's dangerous if you leave it unchecked, and can ruin even the strongest chapter. That's why it's important to recognize the signs of skill gap and learn how to address it.

Ever notice that newbie parks are often big, rollicking affairs full of crazy flurbs? In these parks, it well and truly does take all kinds, and you get participation by people of every athletic type, from lots to none. The games can be really goofy, and—with tons of people around—there's lots of time for theeing and thouing. These are the parks where fifty kids run around backstabbing each other, where dozens of out-of-shape nerds fling spellballs and sling flails at their enemies, and where people with really long persona names charge screaming into the enemy lines and actually succeeding in killing people. And it's all genuine: it's all fun in a sincere, earnest, and awesome way.

Then things change. Garb gets better. People learn to fight. Folks get respectable. For a while, the park hangs at this point where attendance is huge and people seem to know what they're doing… but only for a moment. Before long, something is different. Nobody can figure out what it is, but the numbers start dwindling and the history of the park seems to play in reverse. Before long, the garb fades too, and you're left with a small group of stick jocks and not much else. A person who dares spend time theeing or thouing at a park like this is going to get murdered—not out of malice or animosity per se, but because to thee and thou in such an environment is a tactical disadvantage. A person who roleplays is taking time away from fighting back, and an enemy who gives someone time to roleplay is sacrificing his own enjoyment and advantage to do so. Roleplaying with someone becomes a transaction: please don't engage with me while I am roleplaying, and please don't worry about any tactical advantage my team is deriving while you are thus neutralized. In a newbie park, the sacrifice is small, and worth the enjoyment. With a big skill gap, the sacrifice becomes large enough to change the course of the game. The incentives to do this are few.

That's a problem, but it's not the main problem I'm discussing today. It's more a symptom of it, a property that emerges when skill gap goes unchecked. And it's skill gap that causes the previous scenario to emerge. See, skill gap is the difference in ability between people with little fighting ability—newbies, or those who don't have an interest in fighting—and those who have been around for a while. In a newbie park, where Lord Master Druidsalot plays, the difference between a newbie fighter and an experienced fighter might be only a few years. The skill gap is small, and a person at the bottom end is still dangerous to the average participant of the park. That means a first-time player can put on a tunic, grab a sword, and be a hero. It also means a "good” fighter loses less by participating in a lesser opponent's shenanigans. But what about a park where the skill gap is much broader, and even Squire JustFightsSaturday has been playing for five to ten years? A first-timer there may be limited to being cannon fodder. And that's not fun.

Fundamentally, people enjoy the medieval/fantasy aspects of Amtgard, and people do not enjoy losing all day, every day. With a wide skill gap, these two problems emerge. A newbie might never win a single fight, and then may never return. He might come to Amtgard for the fun of pretending to be a pirate or whatever, and then find he gets stabbed every time he avasts. That's why, over time, parks with a high average level of fighting ability can turn into small stick-jock parks: everybody else stops having fun and leaves.

This isn't out of malice. It's part of a pretty natural progression. During the time a skill gap is expanding, everybody is doing what they love the most as hard as they can: the roleplayers are roleplaying a lot, the fighters are fighting a lot, the artisans are arting a lot, and so forth. However, since fighting is so integral to the very core of Amtgard, fighters doing what they love best eventually begins to tell, because them getting better makes it harder for other people to even participate in a way that is remotely meaningful.

This is difficult for the fighters, because the first solution that comes up is an unpleasant one. Hey, the problem is I am winning too much? What, should I start throwing fights? Nobody enjoys that, nor should they be asked to do that; nobody would think of asking an artisan to tank in a Dragonmaster to buck up the newbie garbers, so we shouldn't ask fighters to do that either. The countersolution, for the good fighters to put themselves at a disadvantage, almost makes things worse: if you're so good that you have to fight left-handed to have a challenge, eventually you'll be murdering people while fighting lefty and armed only with a dagger. That'll really make them want to come back.

On the other hand, good fighters do take dives when the context allows. We've seen this when a fighter is teaching someone, or when people are messing around with kids—they let them win, because they recognize the value in doing so within that particular context. That's the first key to fixing the problems with skill gap: knowing it's possible. You can't ask your good fighters to throw fights in a vacuum. Instead, you must find a context in which it works for them to fight down a bit. I find this works in a variety of scenarios, with the best being having your best fighters use a script. Put together a few games with a light quest element and have your best fighters be the encounters. Their script then is simple: put up a fight equal to the enemy. Since the point of the monster isn't to win but rather to play a role, the good fighter isn't taking a dive when they lose. They're doing a job. Their job as a monster is different than their job as a fighter, and that context makes it feel better to fight down to newbies. Running games like this is not only fun, but is also a step towards restoring some of the Amtgardy aspects of a park.

Another script might be a last-stand battlegame, where the goal of the defenders is to see how long they can hold out against an endless enemy horde. V8's Castle Defense game works well for this. A third script might be to let the newer fighters use armor, and have the rest of the park play a zombie horde that dies in one shot. The trick is to dream up scenarios in which the good fighters are either following a script, or the game itself is scripted to make one side eventually be the hero.

Games are key. In a straight-up ditch, the situation is too binary and the incentives too strict (but even there, you have opportunity if you change the focus from individual heroism to line fighting – try that with your newbies. They love being taught to band together and bring down big bads.) Games, however, give you a chance to put together a different structure, one in which being a good fighter is not the only path (or even the best path) to victory. Simple examples would be fox-across-the-river or Ring the Bell, where those without fighting skill but who are good at running around can have a great time and even win the game. More complex examples would be battlegames like you see in Alaska: there, the games are built with not one but two or three scoring mechanisms. There might be a way to get points by killing bad guys, another way by grabbing the flag, another way by defending a base. This lets people not only pick and choose how they want to be a team player, but also limits the scope of what good players can do. In a game with one goal, the good players on each side can effectively shut down any chance for newer members to find success. But in games with many goals, the good players can't be everywhere, and that gives people their chance to be a hero. It also, and this is important, does that without robbing the good players of their chances to be heroes too.

The cool thing about designing good and fun battlegames is you'll engage your stick jocks as well. When people say, ”I don't like battlegames,” what they're really saying is either, "I don't like bad battlegames" or "I don't like standing around doing nothing when I could be fighting."

This is where I think V8 is important. In V7, beating someone else often came by taking away their ability to play Amtgard: you'd kill them, or immobilize them for five minutes at a time, or shatter them, or any number of other things. That meant newer participants would spend most of the games not getting to use their cool class abilities. In a game with any imbalance between the sides, this could be brutal. For me, V8 undoes that because it's a game of counters. Even in games when my team is weaker than the other team, I get to use my class abilities and do cool things. They hold me? I swift release myself and fight on. They kill me? True grit, let's see if I can stay on the field. Bard got murdered? Sure, but I was singing a song when it happened. I'm getting beat up, but I'm getting to actually be a healer, warrior, scout, or bard in the process. I'm going down fighting, and that's cool too. Getting to do a lot of fun things with my class is fun even if I lose. In V7, that seldom seemed to happen, but it happens for me all the time in V8. Plus, in V8, a newbie who is getting his ass handed to him at level one can look and see that level two is just a couple of weeks away—so there's hope.

In a park where skill gap has become evident, where it's hard to recruit and retain newbies, you have to work to break out of the cycle. Give your fighters a context that makes it okay to fight down to newbies. Make games where everybody of every skill level has a scoring mechanism, and where your good fighters can't be everywhere. And use good rules to write good games. These are things you can do to manage skill gap and give newbies and inexperienced fighters—and folks who have been around for years—a fun place at your park.

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