Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cosmology of RPGs

I kinda like JB, Mr. B/X Blackrazor himself. Sure, he’s excessively long-winded and opinionated, but I actually identify with that aspect of him. And while yeah, I disagree (strongly, even) with many of the details on how to approach the fantasy role-playing game hobby, at a high level, I find myself oddly in sync with him quite a bit. I’ve referenced some of his posts before, and probably will again. (i.e., http://darkheritage.blogspot.com/2013/01/a-few-generic-rpg-and-d-related-thoughts.htm)

Here’s what I think is curious, though. Reading those posts a few things are clear to me: 1) JB is the kind of guy who highly values consistency and common sense when it comes to his gaming. He demands it from his settings, and he wants to have his rules reflect that. The very premise of D&D, as mentioned above, is something that he doesn’t like. 2) He highly values the D&D system, or a subtle variant on it, in spite of the fact that many things about D&D are arbitrary, nonsensical, done for game (rather than IN game reasons) and many other ways in which the system actively fights against point #1.

Where I’m with him is on point #1. Where I’m scratching my head is on point #2. Why not just use a different system, then? One that better delivers what goals you want because of your taste issue identified in point #1? I understand that system choice is sometimes not exactly logical—and sometimes people want systems for reasons that are not necessarily related to how well it matches their other goals from gaming. But, it seems to me quite clear that JB is fighting against his system for one main reason—because although he doesn’t admit it, he doesn’t really want to be playing D&D. He wants to be playing some other fantasy game that resembles D&D… sort of… but which does so in a way that facilitates the very non-D&D type game that he actually wants to be in. Not to suggest that he’s on a similar course as me but further behind (because he likely is not on the same course as me at all) but I went through that journey already and finally decided that no, continuing to modify D&D to the point where it was a useful tool in the kinds of games I want to run was too much trouble when I could already find a related and similar system that did the job for me without much in the way of house-rules at all.

Today, I’d actually like to point out a related, although not identical issue—one again, where I disagree with JB even as I find myself applauding his basic idea. I think his approach is wrong, however, and rooted in an inability or unwillingness to abandon D&Disms that he seems to not actually want—but can’t bring himself to get rid of. Now, I don’t mean to do this as a rebuttal or slam on his post; I really only mention this because reading one of his recent posts is what brought the notion to my attention in the first place, and why I’m posting about it myself.

JB says (in this post for the curious) that he can’t be satisfied with a campaign setting (even one only implied by the system, as opposed to one deliberately fashioned as a setting per se) that doesn’t answer the following four questions in game satisfactorily:

1) Where do monsters come from?

2) Where does magic come from?

3) Where does the world come from (i.e. the nature of God or the gods)?

4) What part of the world’s history provides the adventuring environment, i.e. the dungeon?

In light of his earlier posts about the silliness of the premise of D&D, I’m going to assume that he’s only including the fourth as a theoretical question rather than one that’s relevant to his game—and in fact, in the post linked above he seems to be alluding to that fact a bit.

I’ve actually decided, and I’ve done some just in the last few years, that that is incorrect. You don’t need to know the answers to those questions. In fact, it’s better if you don’t. That doesn’t mean, as JB also alludes to, that “because the rules say so” or “because that’s just the way it is” is an acceptable answer, because it’s not. But there doesn’t need to be an in-game answer to give to your players. There doesn’t even need to be one that you, as the GM, know. It could be something that simply isn’t known.

In this regard, the fantasy setting can resemble the real world somewhat. There are many questions to which there are competing theories as to what the actual anwer is. Despite generations of inquiry, by and large these questions remain unanswered and unanswerable to the satisfaction of many people.

How does one go about this? Let’s take the first question as an example. If a player (or his character) wants to know where monsters come from (or where a specific monster comes from) how can you answer him? My response to him would be something like the following: “That’s a good question. Where do you believe that they come from? Here’s a few sample answers from folks in the setting that you may be familiar with: 1) they are leftovers from creation; things that the gods didn’t know where to place, couldn’t get rid of from before creation, or things that they couldn’t agree to place in the first place. 2) Monsters come from “outside” creation. They are extra-dimensional creatures that leak through in weak spots or tears in the fabric of reality. Or, perhaps they are natural creatures who are corrupted by some kind of extra-dimensional energy that leaks through. Either way, their provenance is “outside.” 3) Placed here by the gods to punish the infidels. 4) The accidental creation of dark sorcerers meddling with powers that man was not meant to have or wield, and cannot understand. Echoes of the themes of Frankenstein here. Anyway, pick any of those to believe, or make up your own justification.”

What does this do for a player who demands consistency and coherency from his campaign setting? Well, you haven’t given him an answer that’s patently nonsensical. But you haven’t given him an answer at all of any kind, either. What you’ve done is present him with a situation not unlike that in the real world where there are a number of “cosmological” questions that don’t have a definitive answer, and individuals need to choose what to believe, for their own reasons. This actually gives more of a sense of verisimilitude than having an answer in your back pocket. In fact, unless it’s an ongoing theme of the campaign itself, there really isn’t a need to ever answer those questions. The fact that there are competing theories out there, or competing belief systems, can even be a strong driver for conflict and/or role playing. If, on the other hand, that is a theme of the campaign, what you’ve done is set out a mystery for the players to potentially solve or delve into—again a major driver for conflict and/or role playing.

If, on the other hand, you’ve got a player that demands that no, you must answer the question to him, you’ve got a player with control issues and should probably look at recruiting someone else to play your game.

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