The Trouble with Taxonomy

I’ve just finished Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering, and it has me thinking about one of the major quagmires of RPG theory — namely, player taxonomies.

It is very common for RPG theorists to begin with a player taxonomy — some way of dividing gamers into a set of archetypes. The earliest example I’m aware of is the Adventurer/Problem-Solver/Roleplayer scheme in Douglas Niles’ Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (1986), though I’m not sure how old the Real Men/Real Roleplayers/Loonies/Munchkins scheme is. Arguably, however, the taxonomic approach achieved its golden age with the emergence of the RGFA Threefold in the late ’90s, soon to be followed by the GNS scheme which is popular at The Forge, and a slew of other less-popular ways of dividing things up (including, for example, my own spectator/sportsman dyad from a few months ago).

I think, however, that the taxonomic impulse is fundamentally flawed. Dividing the world into X number of types is a good way to form a prescriptive scheme for characterizing fictional characters in the building (and an even better way to round out a game line with splatbooks); as a way to describe the infinite multiplicity of real people, it invariably fails to cover someone. And no matter how much the author hems and haws, saying that the types are general, and encompass only the majority of players, excluded people will always be pissed. If there’s an ongoing discussion, it devolves into definitional arguments; if there’s a fixed piece, anything which builds upon the taxonomy will not ring true to anyone who disputes the taxonomy.

This is, to return to where I came in, why I think Robin’s Laws is a good book, but not a great one. A player taxonomy is the foundation of the book, and if you find the taxonomy not entirely satisfying, it makes everything which follows a bit tenuous. It’s still packed with tidbits and ideas which are excellent stuff, but it’s very hard to build a satisfying core on a player taxonomy.

In a nutshell (though I recognize this is subjective), I can’t find myself in Laws’ taxonomy, nor most of the people I usually play with, and it makes the whole thing a bit suspect. And I suspect that many people will have trouble finding themselves adequately described in any system which divides the whole of gaming experience into three to six chunks.

Now, I think it’s important to analyze play styles for the very real insights they give, but lately I find myself more drawn to identifying aesthetics without trying to place them in an exhaustive schema. For example, the simulationist aesthetic is real and important to any understanding of RPG play style, but I’ve never seen any attempt to resolve the question of what the opposite of simulationist is that ended well. Nor do I feel that an examination of simulationism needs to be flanked by an exhaustive study of other possible aesthetics, or that the simulationist aesthetic must coincide with or exclude any other aesthetic.

To put it another way, analyzing playstyles in terms of X and not-X enables anyone who doesn’t see themselves in X to put themselves in not-X, and thus to receive the analysis without feeling excluded by it. Not-X is big and all-inclusive; it’s the House Ex Miscellanea of critical theory.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Nitpicking and the fannish tithe

I’ve been thinking lately about various issues of geek culture. Partly as a result of my attempt to essayize my off-the-cuff remarks on geek social fallacies, but also as a result of watching the always polite, respectful, and intelligent discourse that characterizes online fan forums.

One fannish behavior that I can’t quite figure out is that fan consumers often seem to have no investment in enjoying the products they buy.

In most of life, spending hard-won cash on a product or service gives you a certain investment in the enjoyment of that experience. You paid for it; you have an incentive to enjoy it. But many a fan seems to regard their fan-interest purchases as something forced upon them, as if they took an oath to tithe a certain percentage of their income to their hobby, regardless of whether there’s anything that they actually want.  So they consume, and critique, hobby products the way you might engage with junk mail or TV commercials — something imposed upon you, which has the burden of proof to demonstrate that it is worth your time.

I wonder if the phenomenon is connected to the completist ethic.  Even if a fan didn’t like a work, at least they know it.  If they didn’t have it, its absence would eat at them.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Dwarven Plate

Ever since the dwarves entered the family of nations, their warriors have been feared for their mighty weapons and armor, and their still mightier strength which shatters the strongest dwarven plate.

Pity it’s a crock.

You see, shortly after the dwarves started trading with other races, it became clear that their customers’ hunger for high-quality armaments was inexhaustible. This worried the Forgemasters, who felt, in a typically dwarven and clannish way, that it was perhaps not the best idea to equip a world full of dangerous non-dwarves with the best dwarvenkind had, no matter how well they paid.

Thus, all dwarven armor and weaponry made for external sale has a minor but fatal flaw concealed somewhere in the manufacture. Dwarven warriors are trained in the locations of these weak spots, which allows them to shear off blades and smash plate mail to shards when they hit the sweet spot juuuust right.

For a while, human knockoffs were a concern to them, but it appears that human smiths have taken to slavishly imitation of dwarven craftsmanship, including the flaws. Clearly, brains are in the beard.

Originally published on LiveJournal


Not the succulent red meat kind (though the burger earlier was very tasty), but the bitching and moaning kind.

I’ve been entertaining myself lately by making use of the Dragon Magazine CD archive that’s been idling on my shelf for the last few years, and reading some seriously old-school gaming stuff. It’s been thought-provoking, and likely some other thoughts will burble to the surface over the next few days (such as “what would RPGs be like today if TSR hadn’t been so full of gentlemen with prickly tempers?” and “Was feminism a mortal wound to swords and sorcery?”).

The issue at hand, however, is this. It becomes clear, adding the historical record to my personal experience, that since the dawn of time, any gaming magazine, when faced with the question “Why don’t you run articles about X?”, will reply “Well, we can’t run what no one submits. Duh. You should write something instead of bitching to us.”

To quote Juicy Bananas’ “Bad Man“, I call bullshit on that.

By and large, low-grade RPG freelancers are a pretty pliant bunch. If I got an email from the editor of pretty much any gaming periodical I’ve heard of, saying “Hey Michael, we’re trying to round up an article on X. Can you put something together?”, I’d be thrilled (assuming I know anything about X). It would be vastly easier for me than working on spec on articles that will have to brew in the slush and may not even be what any editor in the industry is looking for.

Now, there is a perfectly valid case to be made that commissioning (or even just soliciting) articles is more work for the editor, and gaming magazine editors often lack the time and controlled workload that their mainstream-magazine counterparts enjoy. That’s fine. I can accept that. But it’s not the ordained order of the heavens that gaming magazines must be at the mercy of fickle freelancers and their sometimes-spotty submissions, and I chafe at the responsibility for the editorial content of a magazine being pushed onto its subscribers and freelancers.

Chafing, and I’m all outta talcum powder.

Originally published on LiveJournal