Thursday, December 21, 2017

Your Reclamation

Early this morning, Archon wrote in a comment,
"On the other [hand], people are allowed to enjoy pastimes that are not the one you like, and I don't really understand why you take issue with that. In particular, I don't understand why you dislike the idea of freeform RP / games with rules other than OD&D derived rules."

On another post, also this morning, Archon also wrote,
"I'm sorry if you see this as another person trying to tell you what the "real" state of gaming is, but I don't think many of the things any of you are saying are true for some of my local gamers ... we mostly play urban fantasy politics games with WOD. I think the vast majority of players agree that they can't make compelling and original characters on the spot - the default character making strategy is to take an existing fiction character from a similar situation, and try to replicate the things that make them good without replicating too many of the details (or things that you can't control as a player)."

Good.  I'm trying to encourage this sort of push-back, so let me treat the general sentiment with dignity and respect.  I don't doubt that many players who don't read this blog dislike the content herein for precisely this reason: because I am disparaging the game that these people like to play.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address this, Archon.

My contention all year has been that "D&D Now" is an activity in which persons invent expositional descriptions of fictional characters for the purpose of enabling interplay with expositional descriptions of other fictional characters.  This activity, while potentially absorbing, while including a participant who self-identifies as a Dungeon Master, and participants who self-identify as players, is not a game.

I have been arguing this since June.  I wrote more than dozen posts for a six-week period through June and July, defining games, using professors and experts on game study as my sources, describing at length how games work and why they have to work that way in order to produce the best possible experience.  I have since added many posts in which I have argued that while many participants of the WOTC's recent non-game organized activity, promoted on their website as an "adventure," have self-chosen to describe themselves as, "playing a game," it is markedly evident that this is not what they are doing.

People self-identifying as D&D players are taking part in a weekly non-theatrical performance acting symposium, in which dice are rolled to give the semblance of a "game," while those same dice have their numbers changed, arbitrarily adjusted or otherwise disregarded, an action which is consistently defended as right and proper on a widespread basis, providing further evidence that whatever the WOTC and its associated participants are doing, it definitely is not "game-play."

This is my contention.  Where you, Archon, refer to "freeform RP/games with rules," I don't think that you are using the word "game" in the context for which it was invented.  Games are not "freeform."  They are defined as rigid systems in which there is an amount of play that gives the experience meaning.  If you increase the "freeform" aspect of the activity until the rigidity ceases to have meaning, then you're no longer playing a game, you're just doing stuff.  You're acting.  You're playing make believe and pretend.

The so-called "real state of gaming" that you invoke is a lie.  There is no gaming taking place there.  Where you refer to your local gamers, I believe that you have gotten used to using that term, because it is habit, but in fact you are playing make-believe characters talking to other make-believe characters, in a simulation where everyone expects a guaranteed eventual success for participating, with a guaranteed gained level every time you show up to the event.  We're not talking about "gamers."  We are talking about make believers.

When you say that you play urban fantasy politics games, I challenge you, Archon, to prove that these games have rules to which every participant must adhere, regardless of cleverness, experience, presence at the table, self-identity or moniker.

Character making isn't a "strategy."  A "strategy" is a choice of managing play between rigid guidelines.  Where are the rigid guidelines in character making?  What are the rules that manage and control the characters that people make, and how do those rules make it an equal and measurable playing field for ALL the participants?

I have yet to see a shred of evidence that argues the opposite.  I do hear many people say, "This is a game that I enjoy," when clearly they don't mean "game," they mean, "activity."

All of this reminds me of Dickens' Christmas Carol,
"Nephew!" returned the uncle sternly, "keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine."
"Keep it!" repeated Scrooge's nephew.  "But you don't keep it."

Over the last 40 years, steadily, the various editions of D&D have done everything they possibly can to wash the actual "game" out of the activity.  They have advocated the DM's cheating, they have reworked the rules to please those players who don't want to die from a bad saving throw or who don't want to face the possibility that a giant rat can kill their precious 5th level character.  They have shifted and adjusted every rule that dictates you must play a particular anything, because no one wanted to be forced to play a game where the rules didn't allow them to play make-believe, when they should have been playing a game.  And now, after all this time, all the words that have been around since the beginning have been co-opted to describe a shambling, undead faux-fakery ego-contest, in which it is argued that we who want to play the actual game should be silent, lest our words irk those people who just want to play their game in their way.

I won't be silent.  I will be the Ghost of D&D Past, arguing that you're not playing a game, that you're deluding yourselves ... and that, most importantly, the delusion is keeping hundreds of thousands of participants from finding out how much more fun this actual game is when played as a game and not a bunch of make-believers patting themselves on the back because they remembered to "strategically" decide that their first level character is actually the son of a king or that their mother has an army at her beck and call.

Archon, I tell you in all sincerity, I do believe that your "gamer" friends are having a great time pretending to play a game ... but I feel strongly, with great resolution, and the unerring passion it requires to fight and fight for this point, that your friends would spit on the activity they are participating in today if they could really experience the game they could be playing.

That is why you're not allowed to enjoy a past time that I don't like.  Because, like the ghosts who sought to reclaim Scrooge's soul, I want to reclaim yours.  Your life, though you think it rich enough, could be so much richer, if you would only open your eyes and see the chains you are laboring upon, the writing on the stone, and the patient endurance of all the Cratchits in your company who are waiting to be given a real Christmas.


Archon said...

So, First and Foremost, I want to clarify a poorly-written part of my earlier comment - when I said "freeform RP / games with rules other than OD&D derived rules" I was refering to two different things, both of which I felt my comments were valid for - there are plenty of games for rules.

So you want to me to prove that the game I play is in fact a game, with concrete rules which restrict play? That's easy - the game has well defined rules. The precise system we use is the New World of Darkness system, which has it's flaws, but it indubitably a game. For example, a specific rule is that, if one is playing a vampire character, if you are exposed to the sun or fire, you must roll a certain value (using the WOD dicepool system, which is quite different from D&D's roll-high on a D20 system), or flee in terror. There is no getting around this, except in choosing to play a character who is not a vampire, in which case you loose access to such powers as the vampires natural strength and mesmerising gaze. That is small snippet of the rules which we play by; I hope you understand that I cannot recite the entire rulebook here.

The Charecter creation in this system has a large number of rigid guidelines - you get so many points of different types, which must be allocated in this manner among your attributes or skills or powers. A wide variety of mostly equal characters with many different skillsets are produced.

In particular, your character has, at character creation, seven points of "merits". These represent exactly the backstory things you were complaining - a good home, money, allies who can be trusted, and special training your character has receives. Through such a mechanism, a character can start as part of the world, but not arbitrarily choose what things their backstory gives them.

If that isn't a game, then I really don't know what is.

Alexis Smolensk said...


Granted, I understand you cannot recite the entire rulebook.

However, how is it that the specific rule you do choose to recite is one that directly contravenes everything that has been established about Vampires in art and literature over the last two centuries: that sunlight kills them.

This is the point I made in the post above. The need to "soften" rules so that, for example, the sun does not kill a vampire, or that dragon breath does not kill a player, or that bullets do not kill a secret agent, etcetera. "Rules" that simply ignore enduring legend or blatant facts (the vampire thing being the former) for the sake of, as you say, Urban Fantasy, don't get much respect from me. I like HARD boundaries, one where we play, if the sun touches your vampire, you die, period, no saving throw ~ now play inside that literate fantasy.

The rule you describe is what we might call a "penalty box rule." Bad player, mustn't touch the light ~ we won't really punish you, but you must go sit in the penalty box for two minutes before coming out and trying to bash a player's skull open.

Suffice to say, I don't think we're going to come to a meeting of minds over this. At this point, I'm answering your comment in order to make a point to my regular readers, who are contending with issues like this in their own game and don't understand why the rules aren't producing results that really frighten or stress the players, creating game tension. Your example, Archon, is a good one for that; it is a tension-killing rule. It says, if you have to go into the sunlight for a moment, don't worry, nothing really bad will happen, you'll just weaken a bit, and then you'll be fine again.

I really suggest you don't get an urge to respond to this comment. Unlike my goal to inform others, you're going to want to go after me on some level, and that's not going to get your comment approved. Just let this one go and maybe, after another year or two of reading my blog, you'll start to see the light.

JB said...

I think your objectivity makes you a fab Ghost of D&D Past.
; )

With regard to non-D&D RPGs, I feel you're taking a very narrow point of view (many of these games have rules which constrain play, even if only self-imposed rules regarding theme). However, I can't quibble with your statements as they apply to Dungeons & Dragons and it's thematic descendants (Palladium, Pathfinder, etc.). And I fully agree that a richer game play experience is a possibility for those who approach the game as a game, rather than a pastime.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Yes, all right, agreed. I am being narrow.

It is only that getting the message across is like trying to julienne onions with a mallet.

Drain said...

Archon, as an oWOD Storyteller who ran a mean game on probably fewer rules than yours, here are the principles, quite system-agnostic, that lead me to reading Alexis' blog:

Roleplaying-GAMES are ultimately about two things:

1) Can they fail?

And, if so,

2) Can they fail fairly?

Contemporary storygaming has too much of a "no child left behind" mentality. It's all cuddling, participation awards, guaranteed success and "failing forward". A real study in the state-of-the-art of silverlining.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

Freeform improvisational activities can certainly be a lot of fun, but they tend not to have lasting value beyond the initial activity. And as you correctly point out, something that helps maintain interest is the tension that comes from a risk of failing - and not just failing as in having to take a time-out, but failing to the extent that the character is dead. No reloading your last checkpoint, no begging for a re-roll when the die rolled smoothly on the table without interference, and no hoping the Referee pretends it was an 11 when it was really a 13.

This kind of high-risk gameplay is a heck of a lot of fun - not for everyone, certainly, but for me and (I'd wager) a lot of the readers of this blog. Though one of my DMs has been guilty of using the "penalty box" style in the past, they're starting to come around after seeing how deeply we players get invested when the consequences of failure are both very clear, and very real.

(And here's an even more interesting idea for vampires taken from older folklore: in the night, they're completely indestructible, wooden stakes be damned. But in the day, they're just ordinary, inanimate corpses like any other. Less suitable for the World of Darkness, but it could present a conundrum for a party of D&D players.)