The Subjectivity of Quality

I’m going to start with something incendiary and explain it later: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a bad movie, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is a good one.

Our recent guest post accidentally raises an important question: what makes something good? That is, how do we determine which players, characters, DMs, campaigns, encounters, and monsters were worth our time and which disappoint? We like to say that something is good or bad, but those words don’t mean anything in a vacuum. Something must be good or bad as compared to something else. Whether that’s a set of objective qualities (a good monster has numbers within this acceptable band, because the goal is mechanical balance), a similar work (this character is like my last one, but more involved in the plot), or personal opinion (I thought this campaign was fun) depends on who’s judging it how and when, and often what they’re judging in the first place.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think I measure things the same way other people do:

I’m one of those people who judges something not by how good it is, but by how good it is compared to how good it could have been. If something exceeds my expectations I’m over the moon about it, even if my expectations are very low. If something fails to meet those expectations I don’t like it, even if it’s very popular or objectively good…when you promise me something, I set an expectation for that thing. If you break that promise, you’ve failed to meet that expectation.

The most important step here is that I set my own expectations. They may or may not be what the creator intended and they may or may not be fair, but they cover both what I want from media and what I think it will give me. This is how I determine whether something is good or bad regardless of its actual quality and sometimes regardless of my opinion of similar works. Say I play in a campaign with a loose story, constrained travel and class choices, little character growth, and occasionally blistering difficulty. These are all things I’m normally against. But if you tell me the game is based on 80s video game RPGs like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, then I know what I’m getting into and I made my decision based on the things I wanted to get out of that game. Its most detrimental aspects become either ignorable or part of its charm, and its best aspects (highly variable environments and monsters, elaborate dungeons, strong power growth, and the satisfaction of killing dangerous creatures to end their arcs) are more important.

This is why I’m going against popular opinion on the movies I saw this week. Going into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, I expected Guardians of the Galaxy, a funny team-based superhero movie about a group of highly capable people who trust and love each other despite their circumstances and who defeat incredibly powerful villains with the strength of their bond and elaborate CGI. Instead, I got an overt comedy movie that sacrifices pacing, characters, and mood to spam the audience with bad jokes hoping some of them will hit their target; about a group made of one character we’re not supposed to like, the hero who doesn’t learn anything though he pretends he does, and three characters who don’t grow in any way and mean nothing to the plot; who argue and snipe at each other until they split up ten minutes into the movie and don’t gather in the same room again until the credits; who defeat an incredibly powerful villain with the strength of pure luck and one person being equally powerful for poorly-explained reasons; with CGI so heavy it distracted from everything else. Almost everything I expected and wanted out of the movie wasn’t there, and if I had known what it was going to be I would have skipped it.

For King Arthur, however, I expected a fun-but-not-great movie about an English guy and a bunch of people around him who don’t matter so much, with a lot of sword fighting and not a lot of color, a tacked-on love story that doesn’t impact anything else, that sacrificed historical accuracy for plot where it could be justified and mood where it couldn’t, all in the style of Guy Ritchie. What I got was exactly that but with more color, no meaningless romantic arc, and a couple of meaningful side characters (and an overbearing, distracting soundtrack—nothing’s perfect). That’s better than what I expected, and I walked out of the movie thinking it deserved my money and attention.

Certainly more people are enjoying the former movie than the latter, and it’s going to make more money, and those are the measures by which we consider a movie a success. But success in and of itself doesn’t make something good and failure doesn’t make it bad. One could argue that the success is actually irrelevant, as you can make good decisions with a bad results and vice versa. One could also apply intention; if you tried to film a drama and people laughed at it, did you make a bad drama or a good comedy? How much does the critical consensus matter? What if it’s lauded by consumers you hate for a subtext you didn’t see or plan? How do we know whether something is good or bad?

We kind of don’t, because those terms have no meaning. In our circles we often use the terms “objective good” and “objective bad” for consensus that might as well be fact, but only in the context of disagreeing with them. This is the language I used in the quote earlier this post. They’re tongue-in-cheek terms that acknowledge popular opinion but also state that there’s no such thing as a truly, completely good or bad movie, or TV show, or campaign, or character, or DM. There’s just people who experience things and form opinions.

I know this seems hypocritical coming off a two-post series about how the zodar is bad and how to make it good. That’s the point. In the context of this blog, based on what I put into tabletop gaming and what I want out of it, the zodar is everything wrong with monster design. Outside of this context, who knows? Maybe somebody is flipping through D&D rulebooks from 2003 right now, coming across the zodar, and deciding it’s perfect for their campaign. They’re allowed, because what’s perfect for them isn’t necessarily perfect for me or my players. Every DM has to judge themselves and their material based not on a tangible set of universally-accepted qualities, but on what they and their players want to run and play and do and feel.

Everybody decides what they want out of something even if they do it silently and subconsciously. My opinion is based on how good something can be, so I want something that lives up to its potential. Some movies do, some don’t, and some even exceed it, because I’m fallible and my perception of their potential can be lower than it really is. My campaigns are the same way; the sandbox campaign based around difficult player decisions and moral ambiguity was bad because I made everything too vague and difficult for the players to explore or make choices, and the second The Legend of Zelda campaign was good because it gave me and the players exactly the feel and payoff we wanted from the games. Whether my players enjoy a campaign is a big factor, but it’s not the only measure that goes into it, and I know they can think a campaign is good when I think it’s bad. They have different criteria than I do, and neither of us is wrong. Those campaigns were both good and bad depending on whom you ask (sometimes when, or why). All campaigns are.

It’s why I don’t feel bad saying that a given monster is bad, or a given class, or a given movie or TV show. If I think something is as good as it should be, I’m happy. If isn’t, I’m not. As long as somebody’s opinion is reasonably informed, I don’t begrudge them dissent. The point of gaming isn’t to find the best story, stock it with the best characters and encounters, and run it into the ground. The point is to have fun, and that’s incredibly subjective.

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