Thursday, February 7, 2013

There are games, and then there are roleplaying games

This is another one of those topics that's been bouncing around inside my skull for a while, but which seemed so...something...(Pedantic? Navel-gazing?  Pointless?  Already discussed to the point of futility on some gaming forum long before I took up interest in gaming again?)  Anyway, as I was saying, so...something...as to be completely unworthy of wasting my time to post, or yours to read.  Well, screw it.  I'm posting it.  Whether you want to read it through is your call.

It seems to me that for the most part, people don't expect non-roleplaying games to "make sense," except in the most superficial and abstract of ways.  The rules are the rules, and that's that.  Nobody questions why a hand of 21 in blackjack wins but 22 is an automatic loser.  Nobody objects that Monopoly bears no resemblance to capitalism or real estate markets other than some loose terminology.  Why does the knight in chess move in an L-shaped pattern?  It just does, and nobody bats an eye.  Nobody ever asked why you would walk right past a ladder without climbing it, and then slide down the chute two spaces farther on, just because a throw of the dice said so.

If official rules are omitted, it's not because it's not realistic or because it's unbalanced, but because the rule is too tedious to remember or apply, or bogs down the game, or just generally doesn't contribute to the fun at all.  I don't ever remember using the official challenge rule in Scrabble; if somebody thought something wasn't a word, we'd look it up in the dictionary.  If it was there, it stood, and if it wasn't, the player took back his tiles and played something else.  I know there were obscure rules in Monopoly that we never applied.  As for chess, I never had much interest in learning the rules in the first place.  I just stuck with the much simpler game of checkers.

That was the attitude with which I began to read my first copy of Moldvay Basic too, because that was how I thought of games in general.  For the most part that was the attitude with which I actually ran the game during those first formative months.  It didn't matter to me WHY magic-users couldn't wear armor, or WHY clerics didn't get a spell at first level, or WHY movement rates were what they were.  Those were just the rules of the game.  The only thing in the rulebook that really struck me strange was the bit about fudging dice rolls at the DM's whim - for example, if a character with 3 hp is struck by a monster wielding a 1d8 sword, you just announce 2 points of damage and the game proceeds.  (Side note: I think that bit of advice was a poor one, and to the extent that my games of old eventually descended into PC-coddling, railroading, and Monty Haul-ism, this was at the root of it.)

Just like in Scrabble or Monopoly, we didn't embrace every rule in the book.  I mostly handwaved stuff that just bogged down the proceedings, at least in my view at the time.  Encumbrance was a load (heh) so we ignored it - everybody had a movement rate of 120' (40') and whatever treasure they found they could cram into their packs and carry away.  The Caller rule seemed to be a needless procedural thing rather than a rule that really affected play (sort of like the Banker in Monopoly) so we ignored that too. What we didn't do was to argue whether a rule best represented how something would really happen.  We didn't quibble over realism.  In other words, we played it a lot like a board game, if the game pieces had had personalities and goals.

The crazy thing is, it worked on both levels.  We played by the rules, because they were the rules, but we also played out heroic quests and adventures.  We imagined characters and monsters, not game pieces, and caverns and ruins, not game boards.  Characters developed and prospered, and characters died, and some of each were quite beloved by players and DM alike.  Some of each were forgotten, too, either retired and discarded or killed in action to be replaced by a more compelling persona, but when was the last time anybody EVER felt a thrill for the Top Hat token when it just missed landing on Boardwalk with a hotel, or lamented the loss of a particular pawn on the chess board? 

I guess the thrust of my whole line of inquiry here is, how granular and how "realistic" does a system need to be in order to foster that kind of imagination-centric experience, rather than just a contextless contest of tactics and probabilities like chess or blackjack or Scrabble? 

A secondary question (or is it the primary one?): Why do RPG enthusiasts obsess over these things in a way that even the most ardent chess or poker player does not?  Why, for example, the endless debates over what "hit points" are and what they mean in the game, and whether they ought to be replaced with some sort of realistic wound system?  Nobody puzzles over how many "men" a checkers game piece represents, or whether defeating it on the game board represents slaughter or capture.  To be honest, I have no idea what the hell, if anything, poker hands could possibly represent.

The major difference between a roleplaying game and a plain old game, as I see them, is that the former expressly encourages imagination on the part of players (including the DM/GM) as an integral and essential part of the game experience, while the latter does not.  You can play chess or checkers without giving a flying rat's ass on the lower east side of hell what these armies are fighting about, the personalities of the commanders, the terrain of the battlefield, or what's at stake for the potential winner and loser.  Nowhere in the rules of those games or in the culture of players who play them is there any very strong suggestion that such games are anything more than gridded boards, some tokens, some bits of stiff paper with numbers and symbols printed on them, etc.  Drawing a royal flush in poker means nothing more than that you hold all the cards of a particular suit from 10 to Ace, and it beats any other hand.  A hard 8 in craps is just that, a number.  In an RPG, though, getting hit for 8 points of damage means something more.  As such, it's completely natural for the player to want to know what that means beyond mere numbers.  Does taking 8 points of damage and surviving mean your character just got run straight through with a sword (max damage, after all) and sucked it up like a badass, or did he get just get grazed, or did it just rattle his confidence? 

Another facet of most RPGs is that they expressly state that the rules in the book do not cover all possible actions of the characters/"game pieces," but rather that they cover the most often encountered situations.  That's in direct contrast to most games, in which all possible moves are prescribed by the rules.  The pieces on a chess board each may be moved in a certain way, and no other.  In blackjack, you stand or hit.  In D&D, the actions your character may attempt are limited only by your imagination and the context of the setting.  That naturally leads to a mentality that every nuance you might be able to describe in stating your actions should have a mechanical effect in the game.  For example, shouldn't leaping from a shoulder-high wall and driving your sword point at your enemy be different somehow from just swinging at him in toe-to-toe combat?  There's a certain impetus toward extreme granularity of rules, to uniquely accommodate every action a player can imagine. To what degree should that impetus be resisted, and to what degree should it be indulged or even encouraged? 

I'm as guilty as anybody, and perhaps more than most, of compulsively putting rules under the microscope to see if they conform to my ideas of how combat and other elements of a fantasy world should behave, and of proposing new or modified systems or sub-systems to enhance the game experience.  Perhaps it's the nostalgia of seeing B/X officially revived, but I'm starting to rethink all of my design tinkering, or at least my motives for engaging in it.  I do think that there can be value in deconstructing and analyzing a system, figuring out exactly what the rules do and whether it's what they purport to do, and what to do about it when effect and purpose don't match.  I think there's value in codifying house rules to deal with recurring situations that come up in one's own game that perhaps the game designers didn't anticipate, or that are just more important to one's own game than the original designers contemplated.

What I can't deny, though, is that, warts and all, I never had more fun playing D&D than when it was just good old B/X D&D, and at this point in my gaming and blogging "career" I think I may soon be shifting my focus away from so much rules tinkering, and toward my philosophy of DMing, of building atmosphere in a campaign setting, and similar topics.