Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Game

Any serious discussion about rules must start here:

Ah, rules.  I could write a hundred posts about their value, their construction, the decimation of same by market forces and the misunderstanding of same, all the while accomplishing nothing.  
People hate rules . . . or to be more precise, children hate rules and are poisoned for the rest of their lives.

Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes is unquestionably brilliant ~ particularly in the manner that it deconstructs moments of childhood like the example above.  It grasps that both making and breaking rules is FUN, even when both occur simultaneously, evidenced by this being one of Watterson's most successful themes.  Calvinball returned again and again in the comics, highlighting childhood cruelty, shame, glory, triumph, deception and inventiveness.  Add to that the physical enthusiasm which children possess when throwing themselves into activities and the comic fairly sings on the page.

Make no mistake, however.  To anyone but a child playing solitary games with a stuffed animal, Calvinball would be awful.  Remembering, as I do, the number of fistfights that broke out between my 7-year-old friends over games of baseball, capture the flag, guns, hide-and-seek, tag or any of the other physical games we played, a game without rules would have ended in a bloodbath. Where there are no rules, there is too much to fight over.

But I do regularly hear and read people say the game, D&D, has too many rules, even when referring to games utterly unlike mine, where considerable patterns of human behavior are glossed over with simplistic die concepts like "perception rolls" or "advantage."  On some level, I can understand the "too many" argument ~ but I'm baffled where it comes to a game where a player can do anything, literally anything, with the expectation that the DM should then step up and run it.

And that, there, is the issue.  It isn't that there are too many rules, it is that the sand box in which we play is too damned big, for both DMs and Players.  Players argue constantly that they don't know what to do when given the opportunity and DMs argue there's no possible way to prepare a game properly if the players can shout out anything without limits.  The scope of the game is phenomenally beyond all who play it.  Therefore, the history of D&D's rules has been a struggle to contain the genie in the bottle.

Thankfully, for most, this is easy.  The expectations of most players is so absurdly low (there's a room and a monster?  Cool!), it's entirely practical to argue that so long as the players can pretend-speak in voices that appeal to them, while either killing or talking their way past a threatening creature or two, to be rewarded with treasure or character upgrades, regardless of the amount of mental cognition actually used, then the game is "fun!"  Players buy this because, well, how the fuck would they know?

And that is the thing.  How would they know?  Who is telling them that there is a better game to be had?  Certainly not me.  I'm telling them to make a setting that is impossible to make, to spend time that is impossible to find, to obtain a legitimate education and then a self-generated education on top of that, only to finally argue that sorry, yes, if you want a good world you will have to work, all the time, there's no way out of that.  I'm preaching the impossible, to people who like impossible.  I'm not speaking to the grass roots player who's made deliriously happy if they can find a +2 sword to replace their +1 sword.  Or whatever the hell counts for phat loot in 5th Edition.

For that player, more rules than Calvinball allows do seem like extra obstacles to their quest.  Any rule that limits their perceived choice in how to use their given power or how much power they're allowed, from swings to movement to gathering data, just seems like a great big hassle in something that is intended to be a fantasy game.

For that player, this is all about the fantasy.  Rules screw with the fantasy the way a morning after can screw with great sex, when one lover has fallen asleep and failed to escape before the sun rises, so that they meet a three-year-old kid staggering into the kitchen, asking for Captain Crunch.  For that player, fantasy is supposed to work with all the thrills and fast-paced fun of Calvinball, cognitively dissonant from any notion that others will find it "annoying" or "dissatisfying" if "my character" stabs at them haphazardly in a moment of whim, starts screaming at the local monarch to poop his pants immediately or leaps wildly into the sky with the expectation that the DM will ensure the ground does not then become an obstacle.  Calvinball does not only argue no rules, it also argues no consequences, because we're just kids playing with a stuffed toy and no one is going to die.

When stepping forward as a DM to play games with Players who complain about both rules and consequences, there is little one can do except to give away the levels and magic items by the armload, to create scenarios where gods are humiliated with massive catapults of large porridge-bowl-slinging and to encourage backstories that run for fifty pages or more.  Hell, three players can enable four or five whole runnings to pass unimpeded by just talking about their backstories to one another, in detail, while the DM pretends to have them chat to a potion-dealer, then a magic armor dealer, then a ring of purposeless spells dealer, so long as its funny and everyone gets to argue a bit with the guard posted by the front door.

Something I failed to realize when I began blogging, returning to the community as it were, was that when DMs would step forward to say they ran their campaigns "on the fly," this is the sort of campaigning they meant.  Not a substantial world being presented or that the players would be forced to pry themselves out of some conundrum, but that "on the fly" they would make up a goblin king who would perform a dance before commanding his own men to attempt fornication with the players (cue laugh) ~ players who would then, naturally, butcher all the goblins after a few symbolic die rolls.

Once I had realized it, however, and realized the nature of "fantasy games" for the vast majority, and the manner in which these games are presented as a mastery of role-playing genius, I began to take a step back with my attitude and my blog.  Up until then, I had been banging my head against others with a theory that even if these players did not think like me, they might, if they were shown how.  I know now how foolish that thinking is.

The players out there, who think they are playing Calvinball, who despise rules or feel that counting numbers on paper is disgustingly dull and anathema to the real purpose of the game (which is to create backstory and then live it, over and over), don't get that Watterson's creation is not about two living beings, but about one distortedly-minded child and a stuffed animal that doesn't actually talk.  A hilarious, wicked child, but very different from the norm.  Calvin is not Charlie Brown. Calvin is me, when I was a child.  But I'm not a child anymore; so while I was once like Calvin, I'm not like Calvin any more.  I no longer find fantasy alone to be enough ~ not even really brilliant fantasy, like the sort Watterson creates.  I need more than fantasy.

That's perhaps why the gentle reader won't find me describing D&D very often as a fantasy role-playing game.  More and more, of late, I am not even keen on describing it as "role-playing," largely because the co-opting of that term has come to mean something other than what it does.  As I put Calvin and his tiger farther and farther behind me, D&D is only a game . . . or to be honest, it is the game, the only one I want to play.

In all its complexity.  In all its scope.  With all its endless list of rules, which must grow and grow until the rules accomplish what they were intended to do ~ not to put the genie into an itty-bitty bottle, but to make a bottle big enough to completely envelop the genie.

But that is enough metaphors for today.


  1. Oh no, you're not allowed to have +1 or +2 swords in D&D 5th edition. They break the game balance, don't you know.

    (5th edition is so watered down and simplified. It kinda hurts sometimes, but it is easy to teach to people for whom the idea of rolling dice and adding a number is a insurmountable mental task, of whom there seems to be a frighteningly large number among my peer (and that means people doing engineering degrees, by the way))

  2. Sigh. It was predictable that I would become anachronistic. I've just been playing for too long.

  3. Eh,

    I didn't start RPGs with D&D (in one form or another). It was GURPS - and this game really do want to make a big bottle. Granted, the end result may be a tad complicated, but the idea, the motivation (or at least the way of thinking that it inspired me) had a big impact in the way I see the Game. It may take effort, but effort bring reward, and you grow with it and by it.

    I'm fully with you on the conclusion. Complexity. Scope. Don't squeeze such a grand genie in a sad little bottle, make a grand bottle to let him soar.


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