Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Purpose of Change

I'm writing this in reference to something Matt said last Thursday on this post. I agree, unequivocably. AD&D sucks.

I've said so before, but so long before that I can't find the post - it was back in '09 or something like that. My point then was that D&D is broken. It's a freaking mess. And it doesn't hurt to revisit that view from time to time. So let's have it out. When I say that 4e is cracked in the head, and that it's poisoning the process of role-play, I want to make it perfectly clear that AD&D, or any edition, is not a solution. These original games, as written, are absolute crap.

I didn't know that when I was 15, of course. Back then, I loved the DMG, I thought the monsters were the kewlest thing ever, I thought the character classes were inspired. I and my mates embraced all of it. We played alignment, we played psionics, we played all the rules about initiative and back-and-forth combat and we used the experience tables religiously.

For about three months.

It wasn't long before we began to recognize there were serious problems with the game's design. I remember fondly the day we gathered together in the dungeon basement of my friend Jim and drafted the first of many, many letters to TSR, expressing our inability to play the system and begging them, deeply, to please send us back repairs to the rules, so that we could better play their brilliant game. We wrote how we would religiously play the game with the rules they had given us, because we respected them so well, until we received their answer. And so we did. We played with the exact rules of the books until, thankfully, 2nd Edition came out. Thank god! I remember how happy we all were, we partied in the streets, and Jim grabbed a nurse and gave her a kiss we'll never forget ...

I am, of course, shitting you. We did not write TSR. We did not give a rat's fuck in an Imperial Stormtrooper's helmet what the fuck TSR thought about what we should do with their fucked up game rules. We ditched alignment, we ditched psionics, we retooled the freaking monsters and we made up whatever goddamned rule made sense to us. We did it without permission, without pity, without the internet screaming at us to tell us what we could or should do, and we MADE the game better.

Oh, we knew people who didn't do those things. We met them at conventions and choked on our popcorn when they chattered on about how alignment was the most important part of the game, etcetera. We shook our heads quietly as we watched them walk away, and muttered, "What a fucking idiot," because it was plain to us at the time that such people were clearly deranged. We did not realize that the deranged people would someday take over the dialogue. I suppose we were too busy in our basements, you know, actually playing.

The total number of philosophical arguments I had about D&D or roleplaying between 1986 and 2006 would be, I think, around half a dozen. I'd stopped going to conventions, I didn't think very much of the D&D Club on campus, and at any rate I'd learned there wasn't any sense in arguing with the stupid people. I played a lot. I went through a period of about 8 years where I didn't play, but I worked on my world a lot and settled most of the ground rules upon which my game is run now. The old combat system is gone, I no longer use the monsters as written, I've reassigned meanings to a lot of the spells, I have a differently designed Bard class that works very well, and for the most part I've tweaked everything else. I don't run AD&D. I don't run any 'version' of D&D except mine. I often call it 1st edition because that's where I started, and because I still use the original 11 classes, which tends to be the most anyone really knows about 1e now. People who come and start in my world adapt pretty quick, I've found, if they're willing to listen. Most of the design I use is flexible for player agency and seems to work on an intuitive level. Rarely does anyone complain that it isn't AD&D or that it doesn't conform to some other system. Yes, that does happen. Players will always storm out of campaigns for reasons of their own. Not everyone can be pleased.

I didn't start this blog so I could argue with people about other systems. I felt it was an opportunity to express my experience, my view of the game, the work I'd done to modify the game, and to have a record for my daughter and other players about what mattered to me. Still, there's no question I let myself be pulled into debates. I feel passionate about what I'm doing or what I believe, enough that I get annoyed or unfriendly towards people who are confrontational about the whyfore behind those things.

The blog campaign I've been on these last many months has been 'fun' versus 'serious' gaming, which was started by a long-winded battle on a bulletin board ages ago. I get abuse for my position. People seem threatened by my position. It is a place I've been since attending Cons back in the '80s. I remember well the reasons why I stopped 'playing' and accepted that I was never going to do anything but act as the DM. I was in too many games where one or two players, with the support of the DM, acted like absolute fucking assholes in their quest for 'fun' ... which involved, mostly, pissing all over the game concept and pushing around other players who were less extroverted or sure of themselves.

This, I think, is the core of what's wrong with the community, and which the later editions were trying to solve with their concentration on balance. Some people are grossly extroverted and, at the same time, both enormously rude and abusive. Now, I seem to be both on this blog, where I'm writing my opinion - but in person I'm polite, considerate and greatly concerned that the players in my world be treated with respect and decency. This is why I jump on player-vs.-player notions with both feet. Because, whatever 'gaming' concept PvP provides, it is really just a justification for certain people to be assholes to other people.

Virtually ALL of these awful, rotten people would say, after a game, that they had enormous FUN. They certainly seem to be having fun, shouting down others, threatening, participating in the typical pissing contests between alpha males and so on. I doubt very much that these conceited assholes are even dimly aware how much their fun was obtained at the expense of others. I'm sure they think everyone at the table is having exactly as much fun as they are. I'm sure they use that belief as an argument to justify themselves.

I am also absolutely certain that in a 'serious' game, where everyone is expected to behave seriously, their particular brand of 'fun' will be difficult to obtain. I think this is the elephant in the room where the 'fun' argument is concerned. The question of who out there has to pay for the fun these people are having.

It's not that AD&D, or any system, contributes directly to this shit ... but I do think that the reliance upon a game system to solve all the problems that exist denies a real, front-line error in thinking. There is difficulty in handling people who play together. The constant wars about one system's virtues over another completely overlooks this difficulty. Those arguments miss the point that the issue isn't what the system is, or how good it works, it has to do with how much respect to players have towards one another. A system can't provide that.

We didn't like alignment because it was a set of dictates telling people how to behave. We didn't like psionics because it offered some players far too much power over other players. We didn't like the combat system because it did not allow players to act rationally or creatively on the battlefield. We did not like many of the monsters because they were either too deadly or too easy to kill. EVERY change we made to the original game was so that the people playing the game would have a deeper, more meaningful, richer experience. We never changed a rule so that things would be more 'real' or so that some dogma about the way elves or dwarves behaved would be respected. We never bought into any of that shit.

Most of all, we never, ever let people in the game use the rules as a means to push around other players. Or as a means to force everyone to be the same, or equal. The game was about different people working together. The game was never meant to be about different people all acting exactly the same.

It seems that our purpose for making changes was not that of the companies responsible for the game. It seems NOW that the changes the companies made were made in order to please a small, VOCAL minority of players who wanted the rules changed in order to satisfy their need to push others around. I think the companies missed that completely, and acted like complete dupes in their drive to make money.

I get mad, here, because I think people are confused about this process, from gamers making changes in basements to making the game better, to assholes screaming at companies to make profits by making a shit game that supplied the needs of assholes. And I'm going to keep getting mad about it.

I know that people are listening.


Silberman said...

I've really been getting a lot out of these recent posts about the future of the game. One question that keeps coming up for me, especially after this post, is do increased seriousness and quality of play point to increased standardization of rules across different groups or just the opposite? With a game of this complexity, are standardized rules essential to reach the seriousness of chess or bridge, or is the unifying factor somewhere else?

Alexis Smolensk said...

It's a good question, Silberman. I think the fear of 'standardization' is that it will be forced on people ... but perhaps the standardizations in chess that ultimately came about were those that made the most sense?

I do think it must come from somewhere else. Respect at the table, for one. What is called "gamesmanship" in every other game. No crowing about the downfall of others. Less of the sort of shit like, "IN YOUR FACE, DM!"

Silberman said...

One unexpected contributor to seriousness in a game I started running a few months ago has been the lack of time the group has to meet in person. There are as many as seven players at a session, but schedules have only allowed face-to-face play for maybe five hours every few weeks. I've helped this along by, as much as possible, handling character bookkeeping, planning, and investigating on a facebook group between live sessions. Ideally, whichever players make it to the next live game come with an organized plan, ready for action.

After a few live sessions where not much was accomplished because precious time was spent selling gems, or deciding where to go next, I've noticed a definite attitude of "What the fuck, you couldn't have taken care of this before?" emerging. Similarly, patience for table talk and joking around has palpably diminished.

Adam Thornton said...

It certainly seems that one of the features of recent RPGs has been to try to handle, with a set of rules, the sorts of social interactions that back when I were a wee lad would be handled after the session with "don't come back," or, in extreme cases, at the table with, "you're done: take your books and get the hell out." Although I've never actually seen the latter.

There's something, too, about playing with strangers at cons; when most of the players are young, testosterone-addled males, you get the sort of dickhead behavior you're talking about. On the other hand, I've been to four GaryCons so far, and I still stand by what I wrote after I got back from my first one, which was GaryCon II: I played something like twenty-eight hours of games, with something like a hundred different people, and not one was a douchenozzle at the table.

I think this was in large part because many--by no means all--of the players at each table were, ahem, more seasoned. So a lot of it, is, I think, just preventing a critical mass of teen-boy-dickishness from building up at the table. Unfortunately, at most cons, that's difficult, given the demographics.

Alexis Smolensk said...

You're a regular here, Adam, and I respect you. But with respect, I'm just going to say that until I talk to some of those hundred people about your behavior, I'm not going to take what you say as evidence.

Eric said...

* I've got to echo what Adam has said about playing with strangers: it depends on the group. The G+ hangout games I play tend to have an older group of players and a much lower douchenozzle factor, compared to the in-store or met-through-work games I've tried lately. (I'm invited back on a regular basis by a number of different DMs, so if I'm the problem they're amazingly tolerant.) The time factor Silberman mentions comes up here to, as sessions are generally 2-3 hours long.
* Chess and contract bridge both have unambiguous numerical win conditions. D&D is about as far from that as possible while still being called a game, so I think you'd be better off finding different examples for "rules for courtesy evolve from play."

Alexis Smolensk said...

Nonsense, Eric. The difference in counting systems is a tiny, tiny hair that you are splitting, while ignoring that all games, and indeed all activities, are played by human beings ... who can be expected to ALWAYS treat one another with respect.

Standing on the difference of games to suggest that some other rule should apply to people being well-mannered to one another is EXACTLY the problem this post was written to address.

I appreciate that demonstration.