The Implicit Empire

There are a lot of essays I want to write within the field of How D&D Is And Why, but before I even begin, framing it that way has some problems.  The concepts and patterns of thought I want to talk about aren’t limited to D&D; they appear throughout tabletop RPG, and even out into books, digital games, movies, and beyond.  At the same time, you can play D&D without most of these elements, and many people do.  It’s tricky to clearly articulate the idea space.

The reason for this, I think, is because while D&D is theoretically setting-agnostic, from its earliest editions it has incorporated a lot of very particular, and often sort of weird, assumptions about how the game setting works.  These assumptions range from the mechanical — e.g., memorized spells forgotten upon use — to the cosmological — e.g., the Inner and Outer Planes.  All of those assumptions are technically optional, but they’re incorporated by reference throughout the rest of the game.  Abandoning them requires a certain amount of work to follow out all the chains of influence.  [This makes those elements a fairly powerful default; people will change elements that are important to the game they want to play, but leave alone elements they just feel neutral about.]

This makes D&D in many ways an inelegant design, but I think that baroqueness was actually an important element of D&D’s success.  More cleanly generic RPGs have sometimes struggled to gain traction, because it’s hard to provide a hook for players’ imaginations to grab on to.  D&D’s idiosyncrasies are a sort of canonical adventure of setting, a baseline understanding of what RPG worlds look like to fall back on.  (In 4th grade, I was accosted by a new classmate who was affronted that the cover of the book I was reading featured a spellcaster wielding a sword.  We became best friends.)

For this reason, I think it’s meaningful to talk about a default D&D setting, even though you can’t go buy a boxed set for it.  There is an ur-setting that lies behind and ties together all the tens of thousands of campaigns that implement D&D’s setting assumptions, and the scope of its influence makes it useful to talk about.  I call it the Implicit Empire.

Its broad familiarity — and frankly, its internal contradictions — makes it wildly generative.  Every weird quirk of how D&D does things is a site for exploration, elaboration, or subversion that will be legible to anyone who knows the game. At the same time, the fact that it emerged haphazardly from a gumbo of what a not especially diverse pool of contributors in the late 70s thought was cool means that a lot of those tropes and premises are often real problematic in real deep ways. There’s a lot going on in that tension that I want to explore.

Aesthetics of Play: Sports and Spectacles

I recently re-read Roland Barthes’ essay “The World of Wrestling,” in which he draws a distinction between a sport, which is an event based on the “demonstration of excellence,” and a spectacle, which is a ritualized narrative embodying a struggle of moral values.  He identifies professional wrestling, in which the show is compelling despite its outcome never being in doubt, as a spectacle.  Its counterpart, boxing, is a contest of strength and skill, and thus its outcome cannot be predetermined without obviating the whole point of the match.

I think this distinction illuminates a dyad of aesthetics of play: an RPG can be either sport or spectacle (or neither), and which it is to be has profound effects at every level from rules design to actual play.

The sportsman aesthetic perceives the realm of play as a field for achievement.  Players pit their characters against challenges, test their skills, and win victories (or suffer defeats).  This may be an adversarial competition between the players and the GM, or even between players, but it need not be: RPG as sport can equally easily be a contest of each player against themself.  In every case, however, the point is to play well: to build an optimally designed character, to plan the best heist, to select the best tactics.

Now consider, by comparison, games in which the player characters are never really in jeopardy, and their ultimate victory is never in doubt.  These games confuse and disgust the sportsman; one might wonder why they even bother to roll dice if it doesn’t actually matter.

To the lover of spectacle, however, the point is the experience.  The players come together not to test their skill, but to participate in a ritual narrative.  You don’t worry about whether Robin Hood is actually going to get captured by the Sheriff of Nottingham; Wile E. Coyote is not going to catch the Road Runner by optimizing his ACME purchases.  In this mode, randomizers aren’t a factor to struggle against, but an infusion of the unexpected which permits the players to be simultaneously actor and audience.  They know, more or less, what will happen, but they don’t know how.  The essence of spectacle is the satisfaction of seeing events unfold as you knew they would, leavened with the joy of surprise at exactly how they did.

Adapted from an essay originally published on LiveJournal

Uplift in heroic fantasy RPGs

I reread Startide Rising and The Uplift War recently, and it occurred to me that that interspecies dynamic would be an interesting way of handling the profusion of intelligent races in an “everything in the books”-style D&D campaign.  Sure, maybe bugbears and ogres are basically the same thing, but that’s just because the illithids thought the aboleth had too good a thing going with ogres to let the idea go unswiped.  If you have a problem with that, I’m sure the beholders will be happy to field your complaints about their client race.  Or their patrons, if you can find the right Outer Plane.

Originally published on Google Plus

Ghulhunds, and other dungeoneering breeds

Today, as I was unsuccessfully trying to get my dog Finn’s attention to get him out from underfoot, my wife tried to observe that Finn “was interested only in leash”, but it came out “was interested only in lich.” It made me wonder what sort of specialized monster-hunting dog breeds exist in heroic fantasy worlds.

Does the city watch descend into the sewers with a pack of ghulhunds, bred to root out undead in close spaces? Are there wyvern-tolling retrievers? Are dungeoneers perilously close to a TPK ever unexpectedly rescued by a St. Bernard/blink dog hybrid with a cask of healing potion around its neck? Do some parties bring along specialized trap-sniffing dogs?  (If for no other reason than to be able to say “What do you mean we didn’t say we check for traps?  The f&$(%ing dog always checks for &#)(%ing traps, it’s literally the meaning of its existence!”)

Inquiring minds want to know.

Originally published on Google Plus

Aesthetics of Play: Masquerade

The masquerade aesthetic is an aesthetic of character design, like the cathartic aesthetic. The masquerade playstyle approaches roleplaying as an opportunity for the player to try on new personalities, to be someone that they aren’t. Masquerade play draws its fun from novelty.

Masquerade characters are therefore little like their players, except sometimes in superficial ways. The core of the character — the element around which the character forms — is selected for its very alienness. I, for example, often design impulsive masquerade characters; they make an interesting contrast to the reflective types that are closer to my everyday self.

There can be an escapist dimension to masquerade play; sometimes people design characters as a refuge from parts of themselves of which they’re not so fond.

Aesthetics of Play: Catharsis

Many players bring an aesthetic that I think of as cathartic play to their relationships with their characters . The cathartic playstyle approaches roleplaying as a venue for players to take risks or indulge impulses in ways that might have unpleasant consequences in real life. The satisfaction of cathartic play is the chance to blow off steam.

Consequently, cathartic characters are often similar to their players, but with certain traits amplified and certain inhibitions muted. In a more extreme form of the aesthetic, these characters may be wholly designed around the traits to be amplified. I’ve known people who used short-tempered characters to work through their anger issues; I like to play impulsive people from time to time as a break from my usual overthinkery.

More commonly, however, a cathartic character is simply a version of the player who kicks more ass and isn’t afraid to be a jerk. This milder form of the aesthetic is extremely popular — at its root, traditional “hack and slash” gaming boils down to “It’s us, but we’re killin’ orcs and takin’ no guff from nobody.”

Stuff involving Me and Books

I’m going to have to start containing myself on the freebies. Between stripped books and advance copies, working at a bookstore has the potential for accumulating truly stupid amounts of printed material, and so far I’m not doing too well at resisting temptation.

I’ve been working at chewing through my reading backlog, though; I’m making an effort to read for at least half an hour every day, which is a nice way to break up the massive stretches of writing.

Yesterday I finished En Garde, which is an ancient swashbuckling RPG from GDW — indeed, so ancient that I hesitate to call it an RPG. It’s more of a dueling wargame onto which has been built a swashbuckling simulation. It is, however, truly a wonderful game — chock full of that robustness that modern game designers are always trying to get back to when they try to get retro. It hurls together swashbuckling cliches from a dozen different sources; how can you not love a game where you can choose between serving in the Royal North Highland Border Regiment and the Gascon Regiment? It handles fencing, gentleman’s clubs, mistresses, regimental politics, mass combat, and court intrigue in a little handbook smaller than any modern game product of which I am aware. (It really makes me want to run a swashbuckling LARP, but that is not an idea to entertain just now.)

Last night at Kepler’s we had in some of the folks from to talk about their new book, 50 Ways to Love Your Country. It was an interesting crowd. Mostly older folks, which I suppose is to be expected from the graying leftism of the Peninsula. We tend to get a relatively older crowd anyway; Candace Bushnell was the only author I’ve seen get significant numbers of younger folks, though I think David Sedaris had a relatively youthful crowd. More interestingly, the crowd was probably about 80 percent women. I’m not sure what to make of that. I hypothesize that my own experience with leftist activism suggests that a lot of leftist groups tend to greet newcomers with an armload of uninspiring grunt work, which I’ve seen turn off a bunch of guys who really just wanted to be the guy on the barricades with the big-ass flag*, but not so many of the women. I can’t really back that up, though.

Entertainingly, no sooner had the event wrapped up than the attendees got up and starting helping fold chairs. That’s never happened at any other event.

Finally, I got a raise! Successful completion of the training period earns you an extra pittance — I think it’s something like 3 percent. It ain’t gonna make me rich, but it’s better than a kick in the head.

*Yeah, including me. In my case, I was really turned off by the Amway model of political action; I wanted to do something, not recruit more recruiters.

Originally published at LiveJournal

Experience Points and Plot

I have a thesis about one of the reasons that earned experience points are so persistent in roleplaying games.

Experience points provide an irreducible floor of plot.

As is traditional in RPG theory, I’m using an idiosyncratic and non-intuitive definition of “plot”. What I mean by “plot”, in this connection, is the occurrence of events which cause a lasting change of state in the characters or setting. Put more simply, plot is when something happens that matters.

Ideally, in every session of an RPG, there would be plot. PCs would advance toward short-term or long-term goals, gather information or assets necessary to advancing toward goals, move along a character arc, etc. However, we’ve all had sessions where nothing happened. Maybe there was some beating on orcs, but nothing really happened. Nothing changed, in the characters or the world they live in.

Experience systems, however, guarantee that the PCs will be changed by every session, regardless of that session’s content. Whatever else happens (or doesn’t), you get XP, and now maybe you can get that new ability you’ve been saving up for. They turn otherwise narratively vacant sessions into training montages.

Originally published on LiveJournal

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


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