I was recently watching a video “Why did TSR Hobbies publish Advanced Dungeons and Dragons?” by Nicholas Bielik and one of the things he claimed coalesced a bunch of different ideas about role-playing games that I’ve had over the decades that I’ve played them.
Role-playing games are not, were not, and never will be complete games that can be picked up and played. Instead, they are a collection of game design ideas, tips, and best practices used by a group to create a game that they then play, and playing that game creates an evolving tiny culture composed of those players.
Essays quickly become unreadable when they’re made up of defenses against future objections, so the only one I’ll address here is the idea that your mother said “you like chocolate ice cream, he likes strawberry. That’s ok! Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and preferences.” This is not what I’m claiming here and, in fact, I mostly disagree with this. Most situations have more correct and less correct interpretations. Even preferences clearly have an ordering. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” is a better television show than “Wynonna Earp”. It would be very difficult to make a convincing argument for the reverse.
The earliest versions of Dungeons and Dragons required the players to use Chainmail or another miniature wargaming system to resolve combat and were built expecting a large amount of knowledge about wargaming. This is the core concept that has been painted over and hidden during the years that role playing games have developed but, in fact, remains: RPGs were provided for players to DEVELOP the game they’re going to play, not as a complete set of ready-to-play rules that a game like Settlers of Catan has.
The idea from Mr. Bielik is the claim that Gary Gygax would field calls from players asking how to handle particular situations that weren’t covered in the rule. Gary would ask “How did you handle it?” and after hearing how they handled it he’d say “That sounds about right to me”. One argument is that he never considered these situations and was meekly deferring to the judgment of every player he had a discussion with. Another is that he wasn’t providing an opinion of that particular situation or how it was handled but was instead trying to convey “It’s up to YOU and your group to decide what sort of game you want to make and play. WHATEVER you decide is correct for your group.”
The video goes on to discuss that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was created primarily for tournament play because you couldn’t reconcile all the different versions of Dungeons & Dragons that everyone was BY DESIGN playing up to that point. Whether or not this was the motivation for AD&D, I don’t think it was the reason for its enduring popularity. Rather, many players are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the game needs to be designed before it could be played and wanted to play the game someone else had already designed. What AD&D was doing was building on the foundation of what has become known as Basic Dungeons & Dragons and sharing the design decisions that Gary Gygax made with the group he played with.
You see this discomfort continually being expressed by disagreements role-players get into about their preferred games. Meta issues, such as the old “role-playing vs. roll-playing”, setting issues, such as outrage over the transgendered ranger Mizhena in the Forgotten Realms, and rules issues, such as the limits of what can be accomplished rolling a natural 20. These disagreements consume many internet forums and have broken apart RPG groups.
The resolution I’m suggesting is that all these people should feel perfectly fine to design whatever game they want to play and then play it. Literally, there isn’t a correct interpretation of any of these issues, simply because the rules provided for the game didn’t intend it to. Arguing for a “correct” way to role play is like arguing that all games should use dice rather than cards for randomness and that anyone designing or playing a game with cards is making a fundamental “game” mistake. It’s like Poker and Bridge players debating which is the CORRECT way to use a deck of playing cards.
I’m a member of internet groups devoted to OSR and more modern role-playing. They have contempt for one another. It might help if they realized they’re playing different games and, in fact, each of their groups is playing a UNIQUE game that is derived from different games.
Many games provide an ultimate rule that the Dungeon Master is the final arbiter and may even override the rules. This is a tie-breaker idea when game design ideas conflict and avoids the decidedly unenjoyable experience of having a game session descend into bickering over rules. Even THIS rule can be modified, in systems like Microscope that do away with the person running the game or Ars Magica where the role shifts. Players have an implicit veto prerogative that they can stop playing with DMs who are capricious or arbitrary.
Internet debates about the “rules as written” or “real version of <XYZ>” are pointless – none of this is relevant or capable of being discussed outside of the play session it occurred in. A better debate is what the alternative interpretations are and what context a particular DM might apply it in. This easily devolves into a pointless argument when someone opinions “I can’t see any situation where I’d do THAT in my game!”. Even arguments involving claims of “this is how we do it in my group” often have an unspoken “and is the right way to do it!” tacked on.
General guidelines of how things should be interpreted are also influenced by the players’ group and background. Whenever I watch or read discussions of how other DMs handle situations, without fail I find things I agree with and things I disagree with.
From this perspective, all RPGs and systems are just a particular player or group of players sharing with others what they developed in their game as an example for other designers. All published material, rather than being a stone tablet with instructions, can be viewed as a post-mortem of “things that worked well for us”.
This is clearly what Gary Gygax is writing about in the Preface of the first edition Dungeon Master’s Guide and it’s clearly what Kevin Crawford is writing about when he often provides opinions on the rules for his games in the form of “GM’s call, but…”.
Well-developed product lines challenge this view. Getting up to speed on the history, geography, and theology of “The Forgotten Realms” would approach the level of a college degree if the person read everything that had been published and played every computer game set there. Even Ed Greenwood, the creator, would have a subtly different version of the setting than everyone else playing in and writing or designing for it.
Modules, computer games, and novels for a particular system and setting are both challenging and helpful. They’re helpful in that they get more people onto the same page about how to play, but are challenging because they incorrectly present that one page as the “right” way.
Many will be reading this thinking it’s all terribly obvious, but given the vicious debates and frequent questions, it’s clearly not obvious to many people spending extensive time roleplaying.
If we accept this and move forward on that basis, there are some interesting implications. One is that this allows a much larger range of human activities to be considered an RPG and we can do away with the idea that Arneson & Gygax created a new form of gaming. Sexual role-playing, therapeutic role-playing, Society for Creative Anachronism or civil war style historical reenactment and children’s let’s pretend games can all be pulled into the same style of play, with just more or less extreme rule modifications. This makes me sad, as I liked the idea that role-playing games are a new type of game.
ALL role-playing games are homebrew games.
This also explains why replacing players is such a pain. When our cleric moves away and we want to get someone new to join our campaign, that we’ve been running for 3 years, we aren’t just saying “hey, want to join our 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons game?”. We’re saying “hey, want to join this game that we’ve been developing over the last 3 years, we all know intimately, nothing is written down and we’re going to expect you to conform to the rules of this game that you have no hope of understanding or learning as well as us?” It’s a bigger ask than we realize.
Play-by-post RPGs have a reputation for having difficulty retaining players and I think this gives insight into that difficulty as well. The game has evolved through play and you’re asking someone to spend massive amounts of time and effort wading through the game’s background to determine what the implicit rules are and whether or not they want to play. Tough sell!
This even goes beyond knowledge of the game and gets into culture. I recently tried to join a play by e-mail game that has been running through various iterations for decades. The game has a worldwide player base of 87 people. While they welcomed me and one of them claimed it’s the best game in the world, the amount of effort needed to learn how to submit a turn was more than I was willing to invest and I left.
This all smacks to me of a small, remote Italian village that’s trying to sell run-down properties to people for 1 Euro in an attempt to bolster their declining population. They expect immigrants to conform to the community they have, then can’t understand when people aren’t so desperate to live near them that they’re willing to jump through all the hoops.
A player group has inherently made themselves an island. Realistically if they want to recruit new players they either have to make extraordinary efforts to convince the new player that the game is worth the effort of joining or start a new game, building on a foundation that includes the newcomer. This also has the implication that every roleplaying group is a society in decline. Each player lost is a large step toward oblivion and the end – of that particular game.
Finally, this also gives a new perspective on game systems for sale or on Kickstarter. These are simply other designers (just like you) offering a summary of what they designed for their group. If you’re excited about “their” system, start designing and playing whatever you find exciting about it. You’re going to have to design it eventually yourself regardless – the only thing they’re selling is some ideas you can mine for your own design, that will later play out in your game.
Dogmatically arguing about rules or games is even more obviously a waste of everyone’s time. The rule of “feel free to change any rules for your group” trumps any argument that can be made.