System flexibility and the first generation of RPGs

This morning I’m thinking about the eternal debate about whether the earliest RPGs were crude and primitive messes which only enabled mindless hack and slash or whether they were clean and simple open-ended toolkits which permitted far more creativity than the hand-holding megatomes gamers expect today.

As is the obnoxious and predictable wont of screeds like this, I’m going to suggest that the truth lies somewhere in between. It’s true that people have done some amazing things with those early, thin books; I think there’s a great truth to the maxim that any supposedly ground-breaking innovation in roleplaying was being done by somebody back in 1979 with either D&D or Traveller. (For some reason, Tunnels & Trolls doesn’t seem to have drawn the avant-garde crowd). It is indeed possible to do all sorts of wacky stuff that isn’t remotely suggested by the core rules of those early games.

The point where the cognitive split happens, I think, is the great preteen D&D boom of the early and mid-80s. From that point, a vast influence on the gaming hobby and industry is groups of preteens with poorly disciplined imaginations and a slavish devotion to the Revealed Wisdom of the Book. This is where we get those horrible and legendary rape-fests; this is where we get people who learned most of their advanced vocabulary from the Dungeon Masters Guide. (This is where a generation of children got very confused about the distinction between aestheticism and asceticism). For many of these kids, thinking inside the box was sort of the point — that’s why you bought the box (there’s a different musing there about developmental needs, but I need to do some reading and thinking for that).

And it’s that stream of the hobby that many later games attempt to deal with. When the mainstream of the hobby is, in fact, playing the games as a killemall, and constraining their play to the letter of the rules, publishing games which more strongly encourage a different sort of gaming makes sense. And that impulse is what has motivated a great deal of development ever since — the desire to encourage play styles not encouraged by existing rulesets. They can’t be as open as the earliest games, because they explicitly seek to channel players into play styles which, in theory, they might not be able to find on their own.

There’s another musing in there about the terms “enable”, “encourage”, and “permit”, I think, but that had better percolate a bit.

Originally published on LiveJournal