Saturday, November 17, 2018


During my university years, I wrote about 40 essay exams, most of them like the exam I offered.  I don't remember enjoying most of them.  A few, yes ~ but not most.  I remember feeling unprepared for quite a few ~ and that drop that came as I looked at the questions and thought, "Oh shit, I am so fucked."

But I would stare at the questions, and think, and some how I'd get the nerve to try one ... and after writing out a paragraph, memories would rise and suddenly I'd find myself with one essay done and halfway through the two-hour exam.  I'd look over the remaining questions and one would pop out at me.  I'd realize that everything was going to be all right.

I'm not surprised that there were so few responses.  They were unpleasantly hard ~ not like the usual fare:

  • What is your favorite RPG?
  • What is your favorite OSR resource?
  • What game are you running right now?
  • What is your favorite house rule?
... and so on.  Straight out of Readers' Digest.

Had a conversation this afternoon with a friend who used to play D&D long time back, who stopped when he got out of the military and began to pursue music with a vengeance. He works on his composition and performance skills like I work on my D&D world ~ and as we respect each other's passions, we get along very well.

His question for me was rhetorical: why has role-playing persisted as a hobby?  Without effort, I gave an answer that took about twenty minutes, hammering out point after point based on fundamental principles of human behaviour and response, in keeping with content I've already written about.  As he listened, he made connections between my points and his own experiences with musicians, the army, training to be an electrician and social groups he knows well.  Everything I said rang true, which surprised me even as I set out my argument.

Four months ago all I would have had was guesses.

That's what most of the "advice" is that you'll hear.  Clever sounding phrases or vague postulations, such as that the old saw that RPGs are about telling a story ~ as if that clarifies anything.  Few admit that they're guessing.  Perhaps they comfort themselves with the belief that "no one knows," and that therefore it is okay to talk around and around the questions with blurred, sketchy, speculative conjectures, as if we were speaking about the existence of god and not something that happens daily in actual fact.  It is as though people believe that if we keep repeating the softball questions or that story and narrative is central to the game, somehow a great game will spontaneously manifest like a genie.

This reminds me of the cargo cults that seized various primitive island cultures of the Pacific beginning with the late 19th century.  As advanced outsiders made their presence known to places like Fiji, New Guinea and Melanesia known, they demonstrated technology and practices that mystified and temporarily enriched the inhabitants.  When the outsiders went away again ~ such as the Americans departing hundreds of islands throughout the Pacific after World War II ~ the natives committed themselves to the construction of airstrips, planes, offices, dining rooms and all sorts of Western goods, like radios, out of materials like coconuts and straw.  All this was done in the hopes that rebuilding the environment would somehow make the planes return again.  For myself, I don't see anything "stupid" in this behaviour ... it was merely the best information these people had for the way that things functioned.  The Americans built airports and planes landed.  If we build an airport, planes will land again.

It is a demonstrable weakness of subjective reasoning, based on appearances, feelings, assumptions or wish fulfillment.  It creates a representation of particular situations or processes that provide for an overarching set of aims or values. It creates a dialogue.  It enables.

But the answers provided fit the standards of GIGO: garbage in, garbage out.  Which explains why in 40 years of describing, developing, redeveloping, writing and designing, the standard quality of a typical game module written in the last three months is fundamentally unchanged from the standard quality of a game module written in 1978.  Some would argue that it is a little worse.  I would argue that any difference is found in the number of words actually used to describe the module.

I think it may be that many designers believe that if the same old material is stuffed into the same old format, somehow something different will emerge of its own accord.  Somehow this module will make the planes land again.

This thinking will not change until we find real answers.

1 comment:

Lance Duncan said...

I just graduated from a university last year, and you're right in that these types of essay questions weren't enjoyable even for subjects I was passionate about and could go on and on about. Given that I did prefer essay questions because they were a better test of my knowledge than just about any other test.

The main reason I didn't respond is because I'm not in university anymore and I don't have to do that sort of thing, and also I don't feel I know the material well enough to give satisfying answers. I've only been casually reading these posts and not studying them.