Thursday, February 18, 2016

What's a "Real" Rolepaying Game?



It’s not as common as it used to be, but from time to time you still see a particular phenomenon pop up as a point of contention within the hobby of roleplaying. The phenomenon in question is a tendency by one group or another of roleplayers to decide that some other style of the hobby is inferior or else not even roleplaying at all. I have seen fans of the older style games hurl invective filled tirades at newer games, dismissing the players as sycophants, fad-followers and other such terms. I have also seen fans of newer style games dismiss even classics of the hobby such as Dungeons and Dragons as being wargames or even simply a board game. I have heard stories related to the Forge in which some individuals who had had some clout in the industry tried to paint certain styles of gameplay as being inferior, or even damaging, as compared to others.


This all strikes me as rather ridiculous. This is sort of the same as if you were to get soccer fans and football fans together and each of them would be claiming that the other was not a sport. It is a ludicrous premise on the face of it.

More than anything else, it seems as if the complaint is fueled on both sides by people who take some sort of personal offense on behalf of their preferred games. For example, I have seen people take offense at the use of the terms “traditional” and “modern” to describe different games. It hasn’t even been consistent in which side takes offense. In one case, someone takes offense at games like Dungeons and Dragons or Call of Cthulhu being referred to as “traditional” because they assume that it comes with the implication that they are not as advanced or well developed. On the other hand, I’ve seen people take offense at Fate or Powered by the Apocalypse being referred to as “modern” because clearly the term “modern” means that they are without structure or substance. The same goes for the terms “old school” and “new school” some people prefer their playstyle to be called one or the other, and others take the terms to be insults.  It seems like whenever someone categorizes something that somebody is going to make the assumption that one category is clearly inferior to another.

This can clearly be seen in the categorization method of marking games as “narrative”, “simulationist” or “gamist”. These are three arbitrarily chosen poles around which to categorize games. I rather like the terms on the face of it since I feel like a category system that includes only two terms lacks depth and a category system with too many terms would be so diffuse as to be worthless. However, the problem with these terms is that they were initially used by a man who crafted the system in order to “prove” that some games were better than others. Among other things, it is implied that trying to mix elements of the three styles of gameplay is a sure path to failure as a game. There was also apparently a fair amount of implication that one of the three styles was superior to the others and quite frankly, I can’t be bothered to look up which of the three it was because, again, it is a ridiculous premise.

There was an article recently about how the Air Force determined that building a cockpit to fit the average person was a recipe for failure because the average person doesn’t exist and that is the same situation as we find in roleplayer game style. Playstyle preference being a model of human behavior, you’re never going to get someone who fits precisely the ideal model of a particular playstyle. Every person is going to be slight mixes of the various playstyles. This is why I refer to the Gamist/Simulationist/Narrative set of terms as “poles” rather than categories. You’ll have games and players that lean more one way than another, but they’re all going to most likely be scattered about in the area between the extreme ideal definitions of the terms rather than standing on the term itself.

There also seems to be a trend of the attitude where a bit of praise leveled at one game is exactly the same as an insult leveled at another. For example, I have seen blogs where people are provoked to profanity over Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse Engine being referred to as innovative and having made a mark on the history of the hobby. By the attitude displayed, if Apocalypse World was innovative then clearly that meant that older-style games like Dungeons and Dragons or Tunnels and Trolls was clearly inferior.

Another point of contention I see is the concept of “metagaming” and there is a continual accusation that certain playstyles are metagaming. The problem here is that there is no one single definition of what exactly metagaming is. Of course, every time I point that out someone will give their definition of what metagaming is as if their definition is the one true definition.

To be fair, the most common description of metagaming I’ve seen is “anything that takes you out of your role as your character”, but that is, at best, vague. Not only will the things which fit into “anything” be different from person to person but different people will define their role in different ways. In some readings of that phrase I am metagaming whenever I pick up dice, ask the GM questions to clarify descriptions, look at my character sheet, eat a piece of pizza or do any of a number of other things. You’d think it would be impossible to play a game without metagaming. The closest you could get to a game with no metagaming is a freeform roleplay. Quite clearly the people that give that description of metagaming do not intend for it to be read in such an extreme way.

The Wikipedia definition is “any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends the prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game or goes beyond the supposed limits or environments set by the game.” This doesn’t help matters anymore since what is and is not considered metagaming would change from system to system because the “prescribed ruleset” or “supposed limits” change from system to system. For example, some might consider some uses of Fate Points in the Fate game system to be “metagaming” but by the Wikipedia definition they are not since they exist within the defined limits of the prescribed rule-set. On the other hand, a number of people feel that the mechanical impact of the Alignment system in D&D is likewise too much metagame.

To me, accusations of metagaming just strike me as a way to say “I don’t like the way this gameplay works” in a manner that gives at least an appearance of legitimacy. In literary circles, the term “Mary Sue” has likewise become so widely applied that it has lost any reasonable definition and yet people still equate it with being a legitimate condemnation. I tend to believe that this stems from the idea that we don’t believe that saying “I don’t like the way this gameplay works” or “I don’t like this character” are already legitimate statements. After all, it’s a statement of what a particular person does or does not like which means people can safely dismiss it.

Come to think of it, that might be the source of this all. People seem to want to equate their subjective opinions with being objective facts. That might explain why people will say “this mechanic is too much metagaming” instead of saying “I don’t like this mechanic.” I suppose the idea is that if you’ve grammatically removed yourself from the statement that this somehow magically changes an opinion into fact and thus everybody that disagrees with you is simply misguided. To be fair, I’m being more than a little bit caustic in my description there. The implications of this behavior include the ideas that subjective opinions are not legitimate and that the difference between subjective opinion and objective fact is a matter of semantics and neither of those statements is correct.

For example, I do not like class/level based systems very much in terms of tabletop roleplaying games. I never understood how, in games like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, being a wizard meant you couldn’t learn how to use a sword and while the idea of religious weapon restrictions made some degree of sense, it seemed ridiculous that there were no religious orders which considered the sword their proper weapon. When you got to Third Edition, there was the equally bizarre situation where skills that are basic to all fighting arts: feinting and reading opponents; were handled by skills that were not considered class skills for fighters. For that matter, the entire concept of “class skills” seemed ridiculous. People learn skills based on how much effort and time they put into them, not based on their occupation. Then you get to multiclassing and it gets even worse. Now you have a situation where you are actively using two sets of skills approximately at identical levels but one set you improve at a time in this very artificial manner. If you were to look at advancement on a chart you’d see a very clear set of plateaus and cliffs marking points of improvement. To be fair, you get the same plateaus and cliffs with a point-buy XP system or even an improve by use system as well, but you have to “zoom in” further to see them than you do on a level system. Still, to me the entire concept of classes and levels has generally made it more difficult for me to think of the game as anything but a game. It is very much a strain on my suspension of disbelief.

The entire previous paragraph is a subjective complaint with regard to the class/level style gameplay used by Palladium, D&D and numerous other games. It is a statement of why that style is not my favorite style of gameplay. As long as I limit its scope to my personal dislike it remains a legitimate reason for why I dislike that method of character building and advancement. What it is not, however, is an objective statement for why Dungeons and Dragons is a horrible game that shouldn’t be considered a real roleplaying game and that people who enjoy it are stupid idiots afraid of advancing into more modern and superior games. I am saying none of that, because I don’t believe any of that. I have enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons in most of its incarnations (from Basic Red Box to Pathfinder and 5e) and I can play it as my character rather than as a character sheet. The basic gameplay mechanics are well thought out (though flat curve systems are another personal dislike) and I can usually refluff classes and races to match my concepts.

Whenever I see this problem pop up, regardless of which side is doing it at the moment, I can’t help but think about the situation we have in the education system where various groups are trying to push Common Core education and especially Common Core math. There is a particular image out there where a monstrosity of a building is depicted as “the first building designed with Common Core math.” The obvious implication is that Common Core math is inferior to traditional methods of teaching math but that is just flat out wrong. The Common Core methods of mathematical problem solving are just as based in logic as the traditional methods and will result in correct answers just as well as long as the proper procedures are followed. The issue with the push for Common Core isn’t in the procedures for the math, it is in the people grading papers who take points off for not using the Common Core methods. The problem there is the same as the problem that results in accusations that X game is an RPG and Y game isn’t: the assumption that there can only be one correct way to do things.

Innovation in the hobby is not a matter of making a better game than those that already exist, it is a matter of making a game that appeals to a different set of people than previous games appealed to. There will be some overlap. There will be people like me who enjoy a number of systems that overlap numerous playstyles and there will be people that only enjoy a narrow set of playstyles. The larger variety of playstyles for which there are games, the more that the hobby grows. Each new system comes about because someone, somewhere decided that they liked the idea of a roleplaying game but that something about the mechanics of the existing games got in the way of their enjoyment of it. So they came up with a new system to address what they didn’t like about the previous systems. Some people would dismiss that as “well obviously they had bad GMs” and suggest that if they had better play groups or better experience that they would obviously see how X system is the best system. That may be half-true, in that a better play group might have resulted in a better appreciation for a system, for some cases but there are likely just as many cases where that player and that system are a bad match.

There’s plenty of room for D&D, Fate, PbtA, BRP, Savage Worlds, HERO System, M&M, GUMSHOE, Cortex, True d20, d6, FFG:Star Wars, Shadowrun, Storyteller, GURPS, Cypher, TORG, Toon, Runemaster, One Ring, MERP, Palladium, White Star, Tunnels and Trolls, Dungeon Crawl Classics, QAGS and whatever other system you can think of.

They are all Roleplaying Games.

1 comment:

  1. An Ode To Ridiculous Premises. :)

    P.S. I find it odd that someone thinks Dungeon World is "innovative", but it's not something I'd choose to argue about. I'd be hard pressed to call any roleplaying game "innovative". Amber, possibly? Everway, maybe? Gumshoe, perhaps? But even those are all variations on previous games.

    I perceive the history of RPG design as less one of "innovations" than one of a burbling, mutating mass, slowly spreading out from a central point, which itself has continued to burble and mutate as time has passed.

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