Saturday, July 21, 2018

Thorn in My Side

Teasers can be maddening.

Recently, JB dropped such a teaser on his blog and I've been ruminating on it for days now:
"I've written in the past (more than once, I'm sure) that "there's more than one way to play D&D." But folks inferring some sort of non-judgmental, egalitarian declaration should note that I'm NOT saying there exists more than one RIGHT way to play D&D. Truth is, I secretly believe that many of the multiple ways in which folks run the game of D&D are wrong, some of them dead wrong."

JB promises to explain this, but he doesn't have the time he expected to have so there it is, just waiting.  There's only one thing I can do about it.  When hearing the tap dripping, eventually we have to get out of our chair and fix it our self.  So ...

No one is surprised that I think there is a right way to play D&D.  However, even after writing about that for ten years, I doubt there's a reader who can put my "right way" into a succinct, accurate sentence.  D&D, and by extrapolation any long-standing RPG, is a highly complex, versatile, multi-layered game of inexact boundaries and irregular design. Knowing how to play D&D the right way is something like making love the right way or training a horse the right way.  It takes years of consideration, practice, interpersonal awareness, empathy and a skill at trusting your gut when you shouldn't be trusting your head, and equally the reverse.  In other words, don't expect a ten-point guide on "the right way to play" ... which would be sheer idiocy and evidence the writer doesn't have a fucking clue.  We can't will ourselves, or dupe ourselves, or stumble into the right way. We get there by doing and learning from our mistakes.

Of course, that means admitting that we've made mistakes.  I've met hundreds of people in real life ready to admit that; but hardly anyone online.  We often people online write, "There is no right way; everyone does it the way that works best for them!"  This is the gross error: it surmises that we ARE doing it the way that works best for ourselves ... and that is unmitigated horseshit.  We're doing it the best we can ... but not the way that works best.  No one, anywhere, is doing it the way that works best ... unless they've decided to stop learning, that they're done with making mistakes.

What a horrible DM or player that must be to have.

If we're learning, if we're trying, if we're recovering from mistakes, the way that works best will always be in our future; and that is what we need to accept.  That we're not as good at this game as we could be; and that those who think they are have quit that process long, long before they should have.  They think they have all the answers because they've rushed for easy answers.

Beware easy answers.  Beware people who will tell you that it is easy to start a campaign, or that making a game setting can be accomplished in a few steps, or that "simplifying the rules" will make running a game "better."  Better for who?  Better how?  Just "better"?  What does that mean, exactly?  Are there a great number of wonderful things in this world that we wish were "simpler?"

I'm writing this on a computer.  I was introduced to computers 40 years ago, when I had it explained in my grade 8 science class that I could make computers do things for me by programming in basic, something that was done by punching holes in cards, which were then stacked in order to be read by a computer that would view the cards one at a time.  It was all terribly simple.  We had a very simple machine that we placed the cards into, that had keys that we pressed to make punches in the cards; and then the whole program, which was quite simple and only needed twenty or thirty cards, could be held in our hands until it was our turn to feed the cards into the computer.

Who wants to go back to that?

I choose this example because this is the same timeline between our game play today and the "simpler" time of the Old School Revival.  As an old man, I should be the one advocating for the old ways, and hating the hateful complications of this world that is so little like the world of my youth ... but I am utterly baffled at any group that thinks 40 years of reflection, design, imagination and spectacular tools, not to mention the latter half of that time that lets me talk to the world about D&D, should be thrown into the shit-bin for the sake of the white box set, or the red book, or the chance to make elves or dwarves a class rather than a race.

But let me set that befuddlement on a shelf and propose this ... if the community will argue that the game has gone the wrong way since the beginning, and the answer is to go back to the beginning, then I think it begs a question: what about that decision precludes the game's improvement in a different way than what was tried in the 80s, 90s and 00s?  I'll argue emphatically that the creation of new editions WAS a mistake, in the extreme, and that we should not tread that path again!  But does that mean there are no other paths?  No other ways in which we can evaluate the game as it stands, as it is perceived, so as to choose a better way to improve it than slashing rules to make the existing game all over again?

Don't say, as I think some of you might, that you can't see a way to improve it ... if we had relied on those who could not think of a way to improve computers past punch cards, we would not be debating the issue now.  Rest assured, there is a way; and it won't be more simplification, because that's already being tried and it isn't catching on.  No, I'm sorry; the only path ahead of us is the opposite of simplification ... because when we design and augment anything, it naturally gets more complicated.  Not because complication itself is better ~ but because we want all those features we've chosen to add.  We want functionality.  And we always want more.

The right way to play D&D is to find the right way to design D&D.  To take it apart, deconstruct it, figure out how it works ... and then set about the business of making it work better; making it do more; making it make our games more interesting, more engaging, more unexpectedly fluid and playable.

People who want to do things as they've always been done cause me pain, for I look around everyday and see that we do nothing like "we've always done."  And I don't understand why other people can't see that.  It's right in front of their eyes.


Lance Duncan said...

This is Gold.

My comments got a bit overlong, so I made a blog post out of it.

JB said...

Oh, boy.

I was actually just going to talk about styles of setting. The second post is halfway complete but (as usual) distractions come up.

However...well, thanks for not letting my procrastination stop YOU. : )

More later...I hope!

Charles A said...

You're quite right, of course. Especially about treating D&D as a *design* problem. A great many things become clear when treated as design problems, and I think D&D is one of them.

I think what you're advocating is precisely what I see the OSR as doing and representing. Going back to the beginning and *trying other ways*.

The core of what makes play Old-School, as I see it, is constant improvement. Tinkering. Building new tools, new ways of doing things. Not treating 1974 as the be-all end-all of everything.

Because, after all, that's what Gygax and Arneson did. They evolved the wargaming tools they had into something almost unrecognizable.

There are definitely people who are going back and doing things as they were, or trying at least to do that. Grognardia was largely an experiment in that vein. Far from being futile, I saw James as working on a separate part of the problem. More an archaeological approach. Not because the original way was best, just because there were things to learn or things once learned and now forgotten about the way things were once done.

Sometimes, to move forward, you have to better understand the past.

Anyway, I see the OSR as about recapturing that independent spirit of adventure and improvement. That's what I'm trying to do, anyway.