Covering the Bases

I’m pretty sure that the three of you that read Sin Aesthetics understand me when I use words like sockets, goals or payoff, but just in case my Great Aunt Gertrude decides to check in on me and is having trouble understanding what the heck I’m talking about, this post is a quick run down. For the sake of my lazy ass, I’m going to quasi cut and paste some from a couple of public conversations I had with Thomas Robertson, who asks too many damn questions for his own good, but as such is useful in getting me to explain my damn self.


The socket is the place in the RPG which serves as the participant’s locus of enjoyment. It’s the place where people plug themselves into game and give and take their focus and energy to and from. Obviously character can be a primary socket, because immersion wouldn’t be such a problematic word without the character being an extremely invested locus.

It’s also easy to identify what some other kinds of sockets are. Setting is obviously a socket for a lot of people. System is an obvious one too. We can be pretty damn sure in our community that there are Story socket players. There are other kinds, too: Social socket people, Choice socket people, probably a lot of others too.

I think that many/most people have more than one socket, that is, more than one place that they can plug into the experience of the game, but I suspect that there is always a primary socket, one that is preferred above others. I would say of myself that character is my primary socket, but that I also have a distant story socket as well. Farther still, I could have a social socket and a setting socket, even a choice socket… but the farther down the road a game pushes me to go to find a socket, the less like an RPG it will feel like to me, the less it will fulfill the body of what I come to games to for, and if always pushed to a different socket, the less likely I will be to continue playing the game.


This one’s simple, though figuring it out often is like pulling teeth. We all have one reason that we play RPG’s. Regardless of the kind of player we are, or the kind of play we do, our reason is one in the same: We come to the game to get out of game what we want out of game. People talk about the concepts of “art” or “game” or “play” as lofty ideals but in reality, gaming has a payoff for everyone who engages in it, which is why we play RPG’s rather than golfing, stamp collecting, worm breeding, singing in a choir or whatever else might have had an appealing payoff if RPG’s didn’t exist, or more importantly, didn’t give us what we want.

That payoff will differ vastly from person to person. For some, the payoff is simply “completely forgetting I am me for a couple of hours”, for others “engaging in an actively creative co-operative endeavor with people I like” might be the payoff. “Feeling fully, really challenged in a social engagement while making something that feels lasting to me” or “proving that I have the biggest dick at the table” might be the thing you want. “Being validated by other people recognizing my talents as a really good GM”, or “participation in creating an epic that was worth telling” might also be what keeps you coming back.

If some of those sound more important than others, if some of them sound right and some wrong, then you’re missing the point of why I am talking about payoff. There’s no right/wrong/better/worse/worthy/not worthy/valuable/not valuable when it comes to you and what keeps you coming back to the game. You want what you want. It’s whether or not you are being honest about what you want, both to yourself and to other people where things can get to being wrong. If my payoff is: “working hard, winning big, and lauding my victory” and your payoff is “non-conflict co-operation towards an emotionally engaging experience” we’re not going to play well together unless we really, consciously work at it. That doesn’t mean that either of our payoffs are better or worse, it just means we like different things out of the hobby.

You’ll notice too, that many of those payoffs in the list up top sound like they would align really well with the kinds of sockets I was talking about earlier. Is that surprising? It really shouldn’t be… we do most what works to get us the payoffs we desire, after all. In my case, with a primary character socket, a secondary story socket and a penchant for highly emotional cathartic play it shouldn’t be at all surprising that my payoff is something like: “to experientially feel a sense of emotional euphoria as a result of a powerfully engaging story”.


Back in this post, I talked about some possible goals of play, though they were certainly not meant as an exhaustive list.

Goals in this context define what the end experience of the game is that you work towards, and may imply or suggest a method you use to move towards achieving it. Ideally, your goal should closely align with your payoff. I’ve seen lots of situations in reality where that wasn’t the case, but each and every one described a very unhappy player.

I had a friend who came from a heavy competition war gaming background who stumbled upon and came to really like the social dynamic of the LARP scene. Playing in it drastically changed the kind of payoff he expected from RPGs. He went from a payoff of “validation of my intelligence and cunning through hard won challenge” to something like “escapist enjoyment of being someone else in a highly theatrical mode”. The problem was that when he came back to table top, he employed his old high challenge, high competition skills and techniques towards his old goal, but could never, unsurprisingly, achieve his new payoff. He doesn’t play anymore, and most of the people he used to play with (post LARP) aren’t really sad about that.

So there you are. That there’s the basics: sockets, goals and payoffs. There will probably be more as I ramble on, but that’s where I’m starting from.

9 thoughts on “Covering the Bases”

  1. Mo,

    Good to know I’m good at something, at least. And I guess if I’m going to hold up my end of the bargain, I should ask some questions, huh?

    You may be planning on addressing this at a later date, but how intentional is (or can be) socket engagement? So, assume I have two major sockets: Story and Setting, and Story slightly beats out Setting. Can I come to a game and they say ‘This is all about setting’, can I go ‘Awesome, I’ll set my Story socket aside for a bit…’?

    Also! From reading this post I get the feeling that sockets are not really goal-oriented. They’re sort of like techniques: they are how we achieve our goals. So maybe I can engage my Challenge socket to tell great stories (assuming the mechanics of the game, or whatever, are set up to support that). Does that sound right at all?


  2. Thomas,

    There will, sort of, be longer answers to your questions later on. In the interim I’ll give you short answers: A socket isn’t so much a technique as it is about a preference or an inclination. The more you know about what you do, the more you can intentionally shift it if your heart desires, but just because you can learn to appreciate eating pickles doesn’t mean you will likely want to eat them when you’re sitting down to dessert. Unless you’re pregnant.

    Thomas… are you *pregnant*!?!?

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