"Imagine that there's a big open space, and the open space is everything in the universe. So if you have absolute freedom, you can just go anywhere and do anything. the rules of the game are these walls that keep you in. As long as you stay inside the walls, you're not cheating, and if you go outside the walls, you are cheating. So you play a video game like Mario, for example, and you don't know where the walls are. You've never played Mario before. But you start exploring this space. You press A and you jump, and you go, 'Ha! - I know that if I press A, I jump.' So you've seen the wall. And he jumps this high. You start seeing where the walls are.
"Like when you play Metroid and you explore the map, you see what the map looks like. You're exploring this rules space by trial and error. You're moving around in space finding all the walls, and eventually when you move around enough and try enough different things, 'Oh, a Fire Flower does this, I jump on guy and I kill him, but if I fall in a hole I die.' You learn the rules and eventually the whole shape of the walls of the game expose themselves to you and now you know how to play."
"In a video game, those walls are in the form of software. Software doesn't have to do any work. Your computer, it's just electricity, it doesn't have any feelings, it doesn't have to work hard. It just is walls. It shows you what the rules are. But if you want to play a board game, and learn it by bumping into all the walls, some human being has to be like, 'No. No you can't do that, you can only do this ... imagine sitting down to play Settlers, you know nothing about the game, and someone has to sit here and watch you and tell you when you've done something right and wrong the whole time, that's a huge pain in the butt for them. If someone's willing to do that for you so that you can learn Settlers in the most fun, easy way without reading the rules or anything, they deserve a lot of accolades because they're putting up with a lot of crap."
Yep, that's me, the DM. Putting up with a lot of crap. And, I think, more crap than most, because I am adding a lot of rules as I design, leading to a lot of walls and a lot of having to say, "No, you can't do that."
In reality, however, this is an initial problem that steadily evaporates as the game progresses. The new players I launched back in Nov-Dec of 2016 bounced a lot against those rules and at times it was aggravating. But with just six months of online campaigning, the game details are moving a lot smoother. In real life, when questions can be answered immediately and both my tone and my intent can be read more easily through observation, the amount of correcting swiftly falls away and the players rapidly move between the walls without any difficulty.
This is a careful point that needs to be made. The presence of walls limit a game space but they do not eliminate it. A lot can happen inside the game space of a hockey rink or a soccer field; the restrictive degree to which pieces can move in chess or the limit in the variety of pieces in go does not challenge the fascination and delight we find in those games. We can say that good games need boundaries; but we can also say that well made boundaries produce a fabulous extravagance in controlled possibilities.
I made a point last week when writing about haphazard settings that, in conditions of risk, when options are lost, the players are pressed to dig deeper into themselves in order to produce solutions. The reader may need to view this another way: that, when pushed against the wall of the rules, the player fights harder to live. Or, to put it another way still, the player is more alive when fighting against the odds; life is sweeter.
Remove the walls, reduce the threat, free the player to experience absolute freedom, and we produce a paralyzing surfeit of choice, followed by a sense of ennui in that nothing really matters.
The super-fantasy of removed walls, where players willy-nilly create character backgrounds based on a complete lack of mechanics, on pure whim, is inevitably countered by the extremely narrow wall-set that we usually describe as a railroaded campaign. It is helpful to this argument that DeCoster and Rubin use Mario as their example ~ a game which, in role-playing terms, certainly has one eventual outcome, even in later incarnations where many different paths led to the same goal. Obviously, a railroad works for a video game; initially, in VG design, there was no choice but to create a railroaded experience: it is still a virtual necessity for most video games, with notable and successful exceptions.
Role-playing, however, only leans upon the rat-maze concept (pulling the metaphor back to walls rather than trains) because for most DMs it is very hard to imagine a game world where the maze has no beginning and no end and a virtually unlimited number of paths that are all, nonetheless, contained inside walls. And because those paths can be added and enhanced as necessary, as fast as the players move between the walls they happen to find, there's never any danger of the setting reaching its end.
Even if the players were to move through every single hex of my world, that would not be the end of the adventures they could find in those hexes. The non-maze is in my head, not on the paper. So long as I'm ready to play, the game goes on.
Yet the walls themselves are not made of cardboard and cannot be easily broken through, because I am there to say, "No." The combat rules are fixed, the player's hit points are fixed, the effect of the dice are fixed, the access to knowledge and power is fixed, etcetera. The walls may move back, the benefits and upgrades to the players may increase, but the manner in which they increase is also fixed. If the players choose not to pick one of the upteenth number of paths in front of them, and instead try to bash through a wall, they'll find themselves made impotent and ~ eventually ~ tossed from the game.
Just because D&D is complicated doesn't mean that it's not Settlers of Catan. It may offer millions of arrangements that can be sorted out and advanced at a moment's notice, but the "winning" strategy is still the one that accumulates the most points (of whatever form) and ensures continued survival as the game goes on. Settlers ends because the board is finite; D&D does not end because the board is, for general purposes, infinite. But the principles that guide play for each, the building of strategies that produce effects that are then resolved (by dice in the way of D&D), producing a payoff and opportunities for further strategy, work alike.
Unless, of course, one chooses to ignore that a given RPG works according to rules, for reasons, in order to produce an "experience" that can't be measured meaningfully, which in turn must then be interpreted as a "feeling" receiving for having participated.
Honestly . . . are we playing a game or are we just playing?