Last week, I touched on why it’s so hard to carry on a substantative discussion about RPGs. Thanks to a marvelous synchronicity, Zak S. was ruminating on that at almost exactly the same time as I was. (There must be something in the air!)
So really… why is it so danged hard to actually talk about RPGs? I’ve said for years that the early rpg rulebooks were so poorly written, very few people could learn how to play from them without being initiated into an existing group. Consequently, we ended up with a whole generation of game masters that ran games with “rules” that were little more than props. (How many people ran AD&D with the actual rules for starting spells and spell acquisition, for example? What percentage of the rules did people running Gamma World 3e even bother with?) The campaigns that survived were run by people that had worked out their own personal solutions to the problem of game mastering… and so now when these people communicated with each other, it was like the end of the tower of Babel story all over again. And when people should have been sorting out exactly what was working at the tabletop and why, an arms race was going on in what was left of the rpg “industry” of the nineties that produced such egregiously useless and unplayable supplements as Fire, Fusion, & Steel and GURPS Vehicles. When the generation of gamers that bankrolled that sort of thing moved on, got jobs, settled down, and had kids… a sort of post-rpg era emerged where the vast majority of rpg material ended up being created to be read rather than played. So really, the reason why we can’t really talk about what rpgs actually are and what makes them work and what actually works at the tabletop is… nobody freakin’ cares!
Now, if you’d read Zak’s piece you’d know that the above take is pure snark. And you’d also know that there is so much more to this story than what I’ve alluded to here. There’s honest to goodness real life academic RPG theorists. There’s the OSR’s mortal enemy, The Forge. There’s even the positively unctuous smarm that eats through any discussion about RPGs like acid. The thread winner here, however, is over at Monsters and Manuals. “Noisms” there presents a great metaphor that explains just what is going on with so much of the commentary on RPGs– courtesy of Francis Bacon no less:
In The Novum Organon Bacon comes up with an extended metaphor about scientists, and divides them into three categories – the ants, spiders, and bees. Ants are those who only work at the ground level – “they only collect and use” – meaning they do not think about general principles or how to apply the knowledge they glean in a general way. They are all about the practicalities and nothing else. Spiders are the opposite – they only “make cobwebs out of their own substance” – meaning they spend all their time coming up with rules and principles but are divorced from actual real world practice. But then you have the real scientists, the bees, who gather pollen from flowers but then convert it into something useful: honey. People interested in producing useful knowledge have to be like bees, gathering information from the real world and converting it into principles which can be applied generally.
Now, in his application of this to the RPG scene, noisms clearly favors the “Do It Yourself” types for being wellspring of gaming greatness. I don’t necessarily agree with that, though. Even though I really like the earliest RPGs that leave so much to the game master to develop on his own, I also appreciate the kind of focused development that produced (among other things) Tom Moldvay’s Basic D&D rules and Gary Gygax’s Keep on the Borderlands. I like stuff that works— stuff that implies a whole world of gaming possibilities, but which can relied on to consistently produce good experiences in actual play without arbitrarily foisting too much of the game design process on the game master. It’s the Current Year, after all. Has anyone managed to address the game design issues inherent in RPGs in any kind of significant way…? Show me the games and I’ll let you know…!
This of course ties back to Zak S.’s invocation of “Anonymous Reviewing Schmucks Doing Thankless Work”. As the “Do it Yourself” confederation’s most ardent champion, he’s just not going to be too impressed with the guys slogging through a pile of rpg reviews. But I really like those guys– especially when what they write is informed by real experiences from the tabletop. RPGs are far from being a science, after all. And if the state of RPG theory really is as lousy as they say, it’s not the bees that are the key to moving forward right now. What we really need is more ants!