I’ve long been fascinated by the role of dogma in RPGs.
As a child in the 80’s, role-playing was going through the Satanic panic, but was also quite a trend. Somehow my brother and I got a copy of the basic D&D box set and tried to have our babysitter play it with us – none of the 3 of us had any idea what we were doing or a willingness to read the rules.
My brother gave a copy of the “Marvel Super-Heroes RPG” to a friend for his birthday, and a group of young boys opened the box and tried to play. Apparently the birthday boy set the scene with three Galactuses walking down the streets of New York for them to deal with. For any non-Marvel fans, Galactus is a virtual god who consumes planets – the idea of three of him walking down the street is highly absurd.
We had similar experiences with the Indiana Jones and Top Secret RPGs, we tried to play them without reading them – deciphering the systems was beyond us.
I finally started playing something closer to a RPG “as written” when I played one-on-one games of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons with a friend whose family played games of it run by candle-light by his mother. Best mother ever! He conveyed many of the core mechanics of hit points, armor class, rolling to hit and experience points.
As I started reading through the books I came across a phrase in the Player’s Handbook that was an interesting commentary on hit points. It pointed out, correctly, how a level 10 fighter could have more hit points than 4 warhorses and that this was absurd. It offered multiple justifications for this. It mentioned “magical forces” and “magical factors” and I had the interpretation that my friend’s character’s hit points came, in part, from his magical items and suggested tying some of them to his gauntlets of ogre power.
He *STRONGLY* objected to this and I let it go. This was probably my first experience of taking written rules that had some ambiguity and having a dispute over them. It was a very mild dispute, I proposed something, he said “no way” and I let it go. He might have been afraid of losing those hit points if he lost his item. It would need some work, but the idea of tying character abilities / stats to items seems interesting to me.
Later on, I got into the World of Darkness and bought a number of the books and actually read through them. I was in a game that a friend-of-a-friend was running. This storyteller owned every book White Wolf put out and was a expert on them. His games were well run and pretty fun, but he loved taking things away from players in an attempt to provide narrative thrust in his games and I always found it heavy handed. I recently came across an article “The 4 Unwritten Rules No Dungeon Master Should Break“, and this is #4.
Later on I ran a game of “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” for him. His character concept was a werewolf police detective. I suggested that his character needed to take the merit “Gentle Gift”, that would overcome the standard discomfort humans felt around werewolves, if he was working closing with them at a police station. He strongly objected to this and started citing White Wolf novelizations and supplementary materials that his character wouldn’t need such a thing. The game stopped being fun shortly after that and fell apart.
A friend recently stopped participating in a Pathfinder game he’d been in. One of the players knew the rules better than anyone else, and would constantly do unbelievable, game-breaking things. When the GM tried to restrain him, he’d argue until he was allowed to do it. In the end, this power gamer’s character dominated the game and it wasn’t fun for anyone else.
When I was younger, I felt that these were open questions that had a “correct” answer, if we could just find it / reason it out / ask the right person. Now, I feel like they’re inherent ambiguities that are part of role-playing. I previously referred to recollections from Gary Gygax where, after a player would ask him for a rule interpretation, Mr. Gygax would ask them how they handled the situation and respond, regardless of what they said, with “that sounds about right to me”. What I think he was saying is that with these unspecific areas, you can play however you want.
Beyond his judgement, I suspect an additional caveat would be to not argue very long about it and to let the person running the game make the ultimate decision. I would have been fine if my friend’s Werewolf games didn’t require the gentle gift and mine did.
A step beyond this, that I’ve recently discovered, is online gamers who want to dictate how EVERYONE plays a game. This is an amazing head scratcher to me, but these people will answer questions about the game, starting by rooting their answer in the official game material, then quietly shift into their own opinions – without any indication this is what they’re doing. They then angrily denounce anyone who is playing differently.
One commenter in such a debate said something along the lines of “their way of having fun isn’t wrong”. I often get the feeling that game designers understand how arbitrary game rules are: they’re chosen to maximize enjoyment and the experience of playing, not divinely inspired laws. Game designers understand, and support, that different groups may want to play in different ways. A game design that constantly offered many alternatives would be very difficult to convey to players, so I suspect designers make their recommendations, leave some things ambiguous intentionally, and are happy when players make the most of what they’ve produced.
I wish that gamers would answer rule questions by saying <this is what the rules say and where they say it> <this is how *I* interpret it and why I think this is a good approach> <these are some of the alternative interpretations, and you can judge them for yourself>. I’ve rarely seen this sort of response.
Players who start a crusade for enforcing one style of play seem to be deeply misguided. They’re far more likely to drive people away from the hobby or style of play they like than to convert them.