Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Rules Lite vs. Structure


This is very much the "school of thought" to which I belong.  If anything, that's an even more "radical" approach than mine, and by radical, what I really mean of course is "common sense."  I briefly flirted with the notion of a game where the players deliberately weren't told any of the rules, or even given a character sheet.  I also briefly flirted with the conceit of The Window.  If you take away the pretentiousness and smug arrogance of The Window, it's kind of the same thing; your character sheet isn't a spreadsheet with any numbers on it at all; it's a prose paragraph or bulleted list describing your character in terms that would be more useful to a novelist than to a more traditional gamer.  Or at least that's what it claims to be (in reality, it features quantitative descriptions too that end up being merely transposed numerical stats.) I gave up on both flirtations as "too radical" to work in real life.  But at some level, I didn't really believe it.  I just wasn't ready for it.  Plus, I do like some structure.  I don't need to have a Platonic version of my taste in role-playing; I can get close enough to it with m20 (for instance, or something like Old School Hack—a system I played around with for a fair while before hitting on m20).

So, this isn't a manifesto that's going to result in me changing anything about the way I do things.  But it's an interesting read, because it hits on a slightly even more dedicated approach to my same philosophy.

I've decided, I think, that the great dividing line between gamers is structure.  On one pole, we have folks who are fundamentally skeptical of GMs and their authority.  They don't trust it, either because they don't trust the GM to treat them fairly, or because they just think he'll make a mistake, so they require, by taste, a lot of structure and circumspection of the GM's ability to engage in inadvertent wrongfun, or whatever.  Another blog poster quoted a portion of that post linked above, and also quoted at least part of a Google+ post by Alexander Macris (the designer of ACKS) where he made a  category error: that the progression of OD&D to AD&D to 3.5 arose out of the fact that more structure accrues organically as calls and rulings are made.  Now, his contention is that there's much more context to that in other writings, so it's not the category error that it clearly is without that context and the way that it's quoted there.  But of course, it's absurd to claim that more rules bloat in print arises out of the gaming at the table.  They have nothing to do with each other, except perhaps to the extent that the rules in print arise out of what happens at the developer's table, maybe.  The whole notion that the game organically accrues "jurisprudential rules" if not actual rules as the game progresses, and that long-term campaigns require more structure or they become increasingly incoherent and therefore unsatisfying to the players was the focus of this—a just-so story.  It's not true.

I mean, it probably is for him.  Because he's one of those kinds of guys who clusters around the "more structure" pole of gaming.  Not because it's an objective reality, but because it's to his taste.

Anyway, I pointed out the category error and the just-so story, and got a bunch of weird replies, many of which seem like clear non sequiturs.  I was called out for not having even read ACKS (which is true—but also completely irrelevant.  I seriously have no idea where that even came from.)  Macris himself showed up, changed his analogy and disavowed the OD&D —> AD&D —> 3.5 progression as part of his argument.  When I said that if he doesn't make that category error, then clearly he's not making a category error, he thanked me for acknowledging that there never was a category error to begin with. (??) Then he doubled down on his just-so story while claiming that it isn't a just-so story.

Quick aside on just-so stories: I readily admit that I post here and elsewhere just-so stories about gaming all of the time.  They have to be just-so stories, because there is no data.  Apparently, Wizards of the Coast gathered some data on playing habits of gamers, and have alluded to it from time to time.  But we've never seen it.  And as far as I know, nobody else has gathered any other statistically meaningful data about how people game.  So all of our hypotheses are just-so stories by default; we have neither the ready means nor the will to test our hypotheses and see if they're real or not.  Sometimes the label just-so story is meant to be merely a disparaging term to dismiss a hypothesis, but look; if you're never going to actually try and prove or disprove your hypothesis scientifically, it becomes a just-so story.  This is even more true if your hypothesis is nothing more than your own tastes and experiences and personal anecdotes writ large and transferred to the entire gaming community with the assumption that they are universal.

So when I say that such and such an idea in gaming is a just-so story, that's not meant to be an insult.  It's just an accurate characterization of what it is.

At this same time, I came across another blog post, that argues for the primacy of AD&D (or at least it's uniqueness)—although AD&D that curiously is only meant to be the three core books, because he readily admits that it went off the rails fairly quickly.  It makes the statement that there are two paradigms in gaming (or at least D&D gaming) the D&D paradigm and the AD&D paradigm.  His contention is that the D&D paradigm "won" that battle and that AD&D was the only game that ever really catered to a specific paradigm.  His rationale?  The idea that in OD&D, the lack of rules meant you could do any crazy thing, like roll up a balrog PC (I have a friend who, when broached with the idea of role-playing in Middle-earth, suggested the only way he'd be interested was if he could play an ent.)  Because 3.5 allowed much more flexibility than earlier games (you could be a dwarf cleric!  ZOMG, that's crazy! I seriously saw people geeking out over this concept like it was some radical notion back in 2000-2001) he sees it as a descendant of OD&D rather than of AD&D.

Of course, the dividing line I see between the OD&D and the AD&D play-styles was the fact that AD&D choked players on rules and Gary wrote all kinds of articles talking about making sure that people weren't "playing it wrong."  And it was the OD&D play-style that was starved for many years; while it's probable that Moldvay and Co. wrote B/X deliberately to preserve a more OD&D paradigm to stand in opposition to AD&D, when Mentzer got a hold of it a little later, he changed it into just being a condescending "kids version" of the game (even as it was the presentation more than the rules that were changed) and D&D, on into the RC, drank deeply from the same well as AD&D and became quite bloated and rules-heavy.  Third Edition did away with the official split, but followed the AD&D paradigm quite closely.  Pathfinder outdid 3.5.  4e turned into a completely different kind of game altogether, and 5e basically brought back 3e, except with (at least initially) less bloat and an eye towards fixing things that never worked well in 3e (I have no idea if it was successful or not, but clearly that was their intention.)  The OD&D play-style was starved out completely until OSRIC broke through the OGL "translation" of old edition games, and the OSR quite rapidly seemed to settle on Sword & Wizardry (OD&D clone) as the default model.

Anyway, what am I to take away from all of this discussion?  Going back to what I said earlier; I think the great dividing line among gamers is inherent structure via more rules vs. a high trust table situation where GM rulings have priority over the rules.  Macris's claim that long-term games require structure is false.  I'm sure any game that he would play in would need it, but not because it's a universal truth, but rather because he's a structuralist and enjoys games that feature more rather than less structure.

I think that the chasm that divides these two poles around which gamers cluster is so vast and so deep that we literally don't understand each other.  I read the responses and whatnot, as described above especially with regards to Macris and his paradigm, and I don't know what in the world they're even talking about.  I'm sure it makes sense to them, but to me it reads like a gigantic non sequitur. To me; they're not even responding to what I said when we're "arguing" about the merits of one approach vs. the other.  We're talking completely past each other with no mutual comprehension at all. The words look like English words, but they make no sense.  For all of their comprehensibility, they might as well be written in Medieval Old Tibetan.

Luckily for me, I've never been one of those kinds of groupers and joiners who feels sad if we're not all united under one big tent.  I'm the guy who's more than happy to get away from the crowd and set up my little tent in a quiet meadow where I can neither hear nor see the big tent unless I deliberately wander over for a while just to see what's going on.  My concern is finding people to game with who I enjoy gaming with, not trying to press-gang the entire community into doing things my way.

Which is probably good.  Because not only is there this huge, gaping divide between gamers, but there are numerous smaller, yet still very difficult canyons, gorges, gullies and whatnot that further divide us into smaller and smaller subsets, and you have diminished returns and diminished fun gaming with a group that is focused on something other than what you want from the hobby (I see this more with Chris Jones' post, also linked above.)  I wonder, sometimes, if the attempt to cram D&D into one paradigm at the expense of the other is a part of what contributed to the death of the hobby as one that was on the verge of going mainstream?  Probably not that significant, but I think it had a part to play.  As I've said before and will no doubt say many times again, coming at D&D from the paradigm of someone who was already reading fantasy fiction and immediately saw the exercise as a kind of collaborative improv story-telling experience which should resemble the fantasy fiction source material more than it resembles some weird dungeon-crawling, pixel-bitching combination of a war game and a board game, there was much about D&D that was immediately attractive, but also much that was strange and unlovely.  This was even more true with AD&D than with simpler D&D.  I appreciated the elegance of B/X over OD&D, so of all of the older versions of the game out there, that's the one I'm most likely to be willing to revisit.  But even then, it wasn't really what I wanted when I could see the potential in the hobby.  I spent many a year on a probably somewhat quixotic quest for the Holy Grail game that did exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted it—only to find it in middle age and to discover that nobody else will appreciate it as much as I do, and at best, my fellow gamers see it as merely one more option that caters to me especially and is just another game to them.  Yet another Fantasy Heartbreaker, if you will.  Oh, well.  I wonder if its the nature of Grail quests that the journey is always more important than the destination, which always ends up being somewhat anticlimactic and underwhelming.

1 comment:

Chris Jones said...

Excellent post! I especially loved several lines from your conclusion,

"I appreciated the elegance of B/X over OD&D, so of all of the older versions of the game out there, that's the one I'm most likely to be willing to revisit. But even then, it wasn't really what I wanted when I could see the potential in the hobby. I spent many a year on a probably somewhat quixotic quest for the Holy Grail game that did exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted it—only to find it in middle age and to discover that nobody else will appreciate it as much as I do, and at best, my fellow gamers see it as merely one more option that caters to me especially and is just another game to them. Yet another Fantasy Heartbreaker, if you will."

How true this is. I couldn't have said it better myself. And the more I look, write and quest after it the more I see that magic key that Gary and Dave initially penned back in '74 is the heart of what D&D offered to people. Hence the reason most do settle on some kind of streamlined model of the basic engine.

Anywho, glad to find your blog, and I'll stop by more often.