Wednesday, January 23, 2013

A few generic RPG and D&D related thoughts

Today, I'm going to punt and just "react" to some posts on some other blogs.  These posts are old, so this is probably a completely meaningless exercise, but that's what I feel up to today.  I've got a very busy afternoon--after a relatively busy morning, so I'm just going to spend a few minutes of my "lunch" creating a post that's relatively low effort, but which documents my approach to a few "important" facets of gaming and life in general.  This also, as it turns out, is very specific to my attitudes towards D&D.  I'm not particularly interested in D&D Next, or whatever they call it these days (clearly, I haven't been following the news with baited breath.)  I'm not particularly interested in the OSR.  Both, however, are post tags I have that are as close to discussing D&D specifically as I can think of.

BAM!  I disagree with some of his details: for one thing, I think the D&D system--regardless of edition--has only ever been mediocre at best at replicating anything familiar from the fantasy genre.  And I think he vastly overstates the complexity of skill systems, which don't just cater to a niche of hyper-minutia-enthused hardcore gamers.  In fact, quite the opposite; the skill system is a fairly quick and dirty approach to make gaming significantly easier.  But I'm not here to talk about where I disagree; I'm here to talk about where I completely agree with the premise of this rant.  Which is that the premise of D&D is stupid.  It's really quite dumb.  Going into holes in the ground--repeatedly--for treasure and XP.  Boring.  Tedious.  And just plain silly.  I also think it's actually been significantly counter-productive to the growth of the hobby, since it doesn't really highlight the potential of the game.  In fact, that's exactly the kind of thing that is better replicated by computer games.  It's the more open type of environment; intrigue, character development and relationships, action scenes that are a bit less predictable, organically developing plots, etc. that are the real potential of the RPG medium to "beat" their competitors in the computer gaming, or fiction-reading media--it offers an experience that is recognizably similar, but also recognizably different and expansive relative to those.  A novel where you direct the actions of the main characters in a semi-authorial stance--but without all of the hard work and tedium that actual writing gives you.  A computer game where you aren't constantly frustrated by the constraints that the system gives you; by default, a computer game has to give you only predefined options; you can't just "do anything" you want to. 

This, then, is the promise and potential of the RPG hobby.  And the D&D premise not only does not cater to that promise and potential, but it purposefully undercuts it.  Silly.

BAM again!  I agree with the basic premise.  However... I don't think that's D&D's fault.  At least, not completely.  They have to have mechanics to represent the in-game properties of magic.  If that makes the magical seem mundane, that's by and large the player and GM's collective fault.  The game can add all kinds of "fluff text" around a +1 sword, but at the end of the day, if the player and GM treat a +1 sword like a +1 sword, that's all it will be. 

Since my tastes run a little more to the dark fantasy rather than the high fantasy--secondary fantasy worlds heavily influenced by horror and sword & sorcery--I've actually blogged before about making monsters monstrous.  You can easily swap out monsters with anything magical, and swap out scary/monstrous with the adjective "magical" and that blog post will apply nearly 100%.  In other words, both the culprit and the solution to the problem of making D&D magical lie at the table, not with the developers and not in the books.

Although that's not to say that the books couldn't do a much  better job of supporting and exemplifying those traits.

This one I agree with a whole lot less.  I mean, I kinda sorta do... but the "side show" commentary that Edwards adds doesn't help.  See; a lot of that is what I've called before the "pulp aesthetic"--it's often lurid and sensational in a gratuitous sense.  Edwards seems to exult in the gratuity--while simultaneously bend over backwards to deny that it is in fact gratuitous, making the case that he thinks its integral to the artistic vision of 70s fantasy that was "hallucinatory", "phantasmagorical" and other adjectives that imply a hippyish, drug-addled, counter-culture mentality.  He then makes the completely straw man argument that his "collective flinch" was somehow dishonest, juvenile, and morally reprehensible, and that it was the victory of a small niche that somehow infected and took over mainstream society.

He then includes another blatant logical fallacy by implying that there is no middle ground (the excluded middle, or false dilemma fallacy)--he seems to ignore or be ignorant of the probable (in my experience) vast majority of gamers who don't necessarily desire vulgarity, nor attempt to use it gratuitously or "because they can" but who still desire more than the pendulum swing towards self-censorship that happened in the mid-80s and which often threw out the baby with the bathwater.

So, in that sense, I do agree with him.  That "collective flinch" he references did, in fact, throw out the baby with the bathwater.  But as a mature gamer (or at least one who's in early middle age; if the Wikipedia definition of middle-aged is to be accepted) I find the hullabaloo about the issue to be extremely over-wrought.  Again; the solution is to be had at your table.  You don't need lurid art of naked breasts or whatever to have a "mature" game--in fact, I'd argue that that's hardly a very mature thing to include, regardless of whether or not you're in denial about it and trying to pass it off as "naturalistic" (save it, Ron.  I've seen most of the same art you're specifically referring to--and I'm not that much younger than you anyway.  I lived through the age that directly followed that, before the "collective flinch's" impact was felt.  Plus, the books and whatnot that he refers to were commonplace in used bookstores during my real age of fantasy, which postdates his by a few years.  It was soft-core semi-porn cheesecake in most cases.  Not in the least mature.  Especially Boris Vallejo's work.  It was no accident that he did the covers for most of the mass market paperback versions of the Gor novels that were big in print at the time.  See below for a pretty tame example--there were a lot that were worse.)

If questions related to sex come up--and I don't mean "heaving bosoms" described at the table; I mean more things like bastard children to lords pressing their claims, and stuff like that--the more ancillary rather than direct references to sexuality--how is that really something that the content of the game books can really do much to encourage or discourage either one?  That's totally a local, game-group specific type of question.  The same is true of the monstrous, the horrific, or whatever other elements he claims were "neutered" during the 80s.

And regardless; if they were neutered during the 80s, they've certainly swung the other way since in  mainstream society; to the point of complete denial of everything he's railing against.  If Ron Edwards is still hacked off by Tipper Gore's warning labels on gangsta rap CDs or the Meese Commission's data-driven report that pornography is harmful to society (or the inadvertent side effects of that report in which not-exactly pornography like boobies in D&D books was--again, sometimes thrown out with the bathwater on occasion) then he really has nothing to complain about, given the complete mainstreamization today of pornographic content, profanity, and violence.  If anything the complaint should and could be made that we've gone way too far in the other direction.

Edwards' rant comes across as a frustrated bohemian who--having won the culture war, at least across the specific points on which he's ranting in this essay--doesn't know what to do but keep fighting anyway vainly.  That tone greatly reduces the utility of his essay.  But in my attempt to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, I'll certainly acknowledge that D&D--and other RPGs too, for that matter--benefit from being associated with mature topics.  This doesn't really mean mature in the sense that Ron Edwards seems to be using that word, which comes across to me as more "puerile" or "lurid" or "sordid" or "gratuitous"--but rather honest to goodness maturity.  A commodity that is in short supply in today's society (and my observation of that most definitely marks me as middle-aged mentally--if not actively old.)  But counter-culture fantasy fans in the late 70s (and shortly beyond, when the same works were still commonplace) wasn't exactly mature; and Ron Edwards' implication that it was means that you have to glean the point of his essay in spite of the specific arguments he makes, rather than because of them.

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