Posts Tagged ‘theory



18
Apr
12

More Concentrated and Powerful than the Original

An OSR blogger in the making, presuming that these '60s types are about to roleplay with Perky Pat

This week’s New Yorker has a piece about the phenomenon by which the forty-somethings who act as the gatekeepers for popular culture like to examine events “forty years past… the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.”

Some thoughts inspired by this:

  1. My own current fascinations are indeed more often not things I actually experienced, but those that I was too young to appreciate; the OD&D and Judges’ Guild stuff I didn’t own has more of a hold on me than the AD&D and TSR stuff I did.
  2. The writer, Adam Gopnik, talks about a 20 year cycle riding within the 40 year one, “by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years”. This could be used to point at any number of things in the OSR, and the fondness I felt for the movie Detention, which involves time travel to 1992. (Nick Mizer liked it too and is not a forty-something. The actual teens in the audience were not impressed, despite the reviewers who thought you’d need to tweet a thousand times a day to enjoy the film.) She Kills Monsters also combined ’90s and D&D nostalgia.
  3. Gopnik uses Mad Men as his example, which is a good a reason as any to point out that the ’60s science-fictional predictions of roleplaying invariably involve hallucinogens –  Thomas Disch’s “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire” and Philip K. Dick’s “The Days of Perky Pat“. SF about RPGs after 1974, like Dream Park or “The Saturn Game“, clearly seem to be talking about D&D instead of altered states of consciousness.
  4. From the article: “It is the forty-years-on reproduction of a thing that most often proves more concentrated and powerful than the original. Dixieland gets played more often than archival jazz.” Likewise I find it hard to believe that the way we approach games that were played back in the day does not achieve the old-school ideals more often than people were able to at the time, given how many more years worth of experience we bring to the task. (This is not to say that experience with wargames, which I lack, is not as important to good RPG play as anything else; it’s more that I have the advantage of having grown up in a culture in which games and fantasy of whatever kind were more prevalent .)
  5. Also from Gopnik: “If we can hang on, it will be in the twenty-fifties that the manners and meanings of the Obama era will be truly revealed; only then will we know our own existence.” I’ve already seen this happen with decades I lived through, and remember waiting for the ’90s to end so someone would explain what they were about.
  6. I think that Gopnik’s argument about the Beatles doing ’20s pastiches because it pleased/teased George Martin holds true the more you’re in a domain with a gatekeeper. With TV and contemporary art exhibitions, I am fully convinced.
  7. With fantasy specifically, I still think that there is something about the looking back to an idealized past that is endemic to the endeavor – we may be nostalgic for the D&D of our youth, but even in our youth it spoke to a nostalgia for the never-was which is perhaps something else altogether. However, thinking about the popularity of Mad Men helps pin down how much of our thing is this appeal of fantasy vs. the general pop-culture retrocycle.
16
Apr
12

Everything I Need To Know About Business I Learned from D&D

I am a firm believer that the heist caper is a basic model for old-school RPG play, and ACKS encourages playing out other more legitimate kinds of enterprise (running a mercantile trading outfit, building a fortified village) as well as the established criminality of managing a thieves’ guild.

None of my real-life business dealings would make for interesting roleplaying even by the standards of Papers and Paychecks*, but they have given me the experience of trying to work with both gamers and non-gamers to set up a collaboration and get something done.

Role-playing gamers tend to have two fundamental skills. I take it for granted that we apply these skills to all areas of our life, so it is bizarre and alienating when I am in a meeting with non-gamers who don’t follow suit:

  • We are all part of the same party, working for a common goal. D&D teaches us not to let personal agendas or enmities get in the way of looting the treasure and splitting it up fairly.
  • When the dice have been rolled, you have to accept what they say. RPGs teach us to accept facts that are not what we would have wished**, and look for ways around them instead of hoping the facts will change if we complain or barging along despite all evidence to the contrary.

Folks who’ve been exposed to my conversation for any length of time are likely to have heard me say this before (unless they took sensible precautions like listening to their iPods throughout), but Tim Hutchings seemed to think this was deep and essential at breakfast during the ACA/PCA conference so I’ve posted it here. Note that it may be interesting to think about gamers who share these virtues (like you, dear reader) but not to speculate on the folks who don’t that I’m referencing here: trust me, that’s deadly dry Papers & Paychecks territory of the kind you’d venture into only in order to get paid.

*P.S. This is a worthy Papers & Paychecks scenario:

**RPGs which violate the “no backsies” design principle  advocated by Invincible Overlord are thus demonstrably morally pernicious.

27
Feb
12

The God of Abortion

Last night I arrived late to the evening session of the Jean Wells memorial and everyone was worn out from having run games for kids all day. So instead of playing Silver Princess as planned, I ran the draft of the first level of Dwimmermount I was carrying around to measure its map dimensions against the Brooklyn Strategist’s Sultan table as part of planning the backer rewards for the mega-dungeon’s Kickstarter.

I’d visited Dwimmermount before as a player in James’ PbP but was otherwise approaching the text pretty much cold, leaving the world beyond the basic elements I knew (a dungeon entrance, a nearby fortress town) to be filled in through play in the way I first learned how to do by reading Grognardia and using it as a guide to engage with OD&D.

The players, who I’ll call Adam and Ben, rolled up their guys using 3d6 in order, with much groaning at the resultant suckitude. They chose to start at third level, I said they could then roll up two first level henchmen. Adam and Ben hit on the happy inspiration of making the henchmen all the same class as their higher-level PC, so that their roleplaying of this trio was united by each character being a different perspective on the same archetype. This was important because they chose two very provocative classes – cleric raising the issue “what is the nature of religion?”, and elf posing the question “no one has ever seen a member of your species, what can we learn from these examples?”

Because we were short for time, and because playing with ACKS mechanics like the breakdown of living expenses and expected income by level has taught me a good sense for purchasing power, I treated the roll of 3d6 for starting gold as a wealth score. And based on half-understood stuff I heard Chip Delany say about how sword and sorcery is based on the moment when currency overthrows feudalism, I decided that this starting wealth came in 10 gp, 1 lb coins that awed all who saw them.

I told the players “you’re in the Fortress of Muntsburg, there really isn’t a market but you can try to use this gold to get the soldiers here to part with any equipment you want.” We did a one move per PC stocking procedure at a level of granularity where a strong success on hiring thieves meant that we later assumed they had equipped every member of the expedition with all kinds of mountaineering equipment so of course you had ropes and grapples and spikes and hammers.

Adam asked “can I get a staff for my cleric?” I was like well, you’re a third level character, you can get any kind of mundane equipment. They do have two special kinds of staff, one that has a torch holder-mace fixture where you can hit people and still carry a light, the other being a slot where you can put in vials of holy water or oil to shatter on contact.

Adam’s priest wanted both of these, but his roll against Wealth (3d6, how much did you make it under?) was in the Apocalypse World hard-bargain range so I said “They have some of those but the guy who owned them last died in a way that was unhallowed, they won’t bury him in the graveyard and his staffs might be haunted.” Adam didn’t want them that bad.

Next Adam’s acolyte wanted holy water, so I had that roll against Wisdom because the local church cared more about piety. He failed badly, so I said “You can make one vial using your own supplies” – he still had the gold his Wealth score represented, I wasn’t going to say no altogether – “but you can’t use the temple’s fount due to a doctrinal disagreement. What issue caused the falling out between you and the church in Muntberg?”

“We’re pro-abortion,” Adam said tentatively. Building steam: “We believe in the God of Abortion.”

Wow, what am I going to do with that? I figure the church in the fortress is Lawful but we moved fast through char-gen so I haven’t asked about the PC’s alignment and where does this issue fall anyway? Dropping into gruff roleplaying voice to do a local church elder: “We believe that rape is the lawful right of conquest. It is proper for us to sire children on those we defeat, so that the seed of the righteous will spread and our forces will grow. It is a sin for subjugated women to take the lives of our progeny.”

We all reflect on this for a second and then I move on to the rest of the equipping; we’re all eager to get to the dungeon, no one seems to want to get distracted by tangling with these rape apologist priests in town. Later we hear some other epithets for the deity the PC clerics worship – he’s also the God of Peace, and of Healing the Hacked-Up Upon – but when the hireling thieves want to convert after seeing Adam’s clerics perform miracles of healing, it’s the God of Abortion they are invited to serve. And when Ben’s elves are wanting their wounds to be noticed and healed, they mention that their pantheon also includes a God of Reproductive Rights.

Thoughts here:

  1. As spontaneous material created in play, this was totally awesome. Adam said later “You put me on the spot, I didn’t know anything about my god! So I just decided that they believed in something I really do believe in.” It worked amazingly well that he’d chosen an issue orthagonal to law/neutrality/chaos, but equally capable of dividing people into camps of pro-choice/neutral/pro-life, and I can’t wait to play to find out more about this.
  2. I believe this material could only work in inverse proportion to the degree it appears in the text. If Dwimmermount had anything more than the lightest dusting of stuff we might use as improvisational seeds for exploring the God of Abortion – the whole pulp D&D heritage of half-orcs and maidens bound to altars and references to Macbeth – I will stub my toe against the question “what does James Maliszewski think about abortion?” and that moment is going to be a trainwreck for however long it lasts.

Writing stuff into the adventure is the wrong tool to use to explore controversial issues in roleplaying games, because it creates an intrusion of authorial presence when the author isn’t there to talk to.

I’ve been friends with Adam and Ben for years, we’re all New Yorkers, the shared cultural currents mean that we can hook a live wriggling fish like abortion and be pretty sure we won’t be pulled off course. Exploring this issue by watching it come up in play teaches me things about the players and the world we’re creating together. The process of play is creating strands that lead from the negotiated understanding among the players, which has lots of background to draw on, to the story we’re discovering through our characters. Controversies that pull on these threads just create useful tension for this process, which is interpersonal first and intertextual second.

Even if I’d been running this session for strangers, as long as we were at the table together I would have asked “what’s the doctrinal disagreement?” and I would have been comfortable negotiating “abortion” as the answer. I’m a reasonable adult, decades of roleplaying and years of therapy have taught me plenty about how to make sure the good time I’m looking to have in a game isn’t derailed. I’m confident that whatever comes up in play can be dealt with on a social level so that we can keep creating the lens that lets us experience the other world of the game together.

But I have absolutely no confidence that I could talk about abortion with someone who isn’t physically present. I avoid any kind of forum where controversial issues get talked about, and I curate my Facebook and G+ streams to focus on interests where I know I have common ground. I don’t know what James believes about abortion, and if he was using Grognardia to talk about that I’d filter my reading of his posts to try to keep it that way.

I believe the bandwith of Internet communication is just too narrow to make a conversation about abortion worthwhile. The exchanges that get past my filter look to me like hostility or choir-preaching at worst, talking-past at best. Given that the communication between author and audience is even more limited than the Internet, I don’t expect that putting material about abortion into the written text of an adventure would yield any better results.

Within the intellectual and aesthetic domains where Grognardia proves good Internet communication can take place, I am interested in learning James’ opinion whether or not it agrees with my own. I do think he and I agree that analyzing an author’s personal views is not a fruitful approach to finding the gold in a written text. Putting any kind of material into the text of an adventure that makes me think about the author’s stance on an issue thus seems to me to make it less artistically successful, not more.

originally posted at story-games, where it echoes a related conversation about orc babies in Keep on the Borderlands 

09
Jan
12

Why Monetizing RPG Design Sucks

In the discussion following a fascinating roundup of the state of the RPG business at the nerdNYC forums, deliverator asked:

Isn’t it bad for the hobby if the business side can’t support full-time, professional game designers?

I think full-time professional game designers are bad for the hobby, from my limited experience of playing with some of them and having done some professional design work myself.

The problem is that, at least given the current financial difficulties of the product-based RPG business, if you are supporting yourself solely by writing RPG material there is a real financial disincentive to play. During the development of a new core system you might have a R&D budget that supports just sitting around trying things out and figuring out what’s fun, but the limited profitability of each supplemental release means that you really ought to be spending all your time cranking out more words.

Sure, maybe you play RPGs in your leisure time, but probably with people who have the same narrow focus on the particular thing you’re all working on, and who could blame you if when you finish a long day of RPG writing what you want to do is passively kill orcs playing WoW instead of going back to the same well of creativity you use during your day job? The strong temptation when you play is to make it a playtest of whatever your current assignment is, and those assignments usually have a distant relationship to the things you’re getting into with any independently existing actual play.

Doing the stuff that would refill the creative well – going and playing different games with different groups and experiencing the full diversity of styles and approaches – is something I generally don’t see full-time professionals doing. Mostly this is just due to lack of time. Sometimes it’s because the personality types that want to delve deeply into rules design are kind of autistic, and/or eager for the authority and in-group status you can claim from being a RPG pro as ways to compensate for being poorly paid and not respected by anyone outside the subculture – neither of which is a recipe for happy experiences with lots of different groups and their variant playstyles!

My interest in finding ways to professionalize playing RPGs instead of writing them is in part to counteract this trend. I think it’d be good for the hobby if the people who were most deeply involved in it could financially justify spending time on the performance art side of things as well as generating products to support others’ performance.

Note that I have heard that some of the more famous mainstream designers of the last decade do run games for fans who have approached them with offers to pay e.g. $100 an hour for their GMing. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are people whose writing I really respect. They’re not eager to talk about this publicly because there is a stigma against “pay to play”, but I think the desire to live up to their self-imposed professional standards when running a game – to engage with play with the same commitment they bring to design – makes them better writers as well as better GMs.

Thanks to Matt for setting me up with this strawman – you’ve heard me do this rant before; to Chris for suggesting it’d be a useful addition to the conversation over here; and to John for the confirmation and pointer to alternate publishing strategies

06
Jan
12

The OSR Has Won, Now What Does It Stand For?

Hot elf chicks deserve serious discussion as the OSR considers how we want to reform the gaming industry. Click the picture to buy these pasties on Etsy, another condender for what the future of the RPG business will look like.

If the OSR is an old-school revolution, the revolution is all over but the shouting. The bulldozers are on their way, and it’s not too soon to celebrate the overthrow of the gaming industry. Sure, our share of the XP is just one among many, but how many hit dice does an 800 lb gorilla have? Enough that we will all level up for sure – even those of us who were name level already.

We wanted the leaders in the RPG industry to release introductory boxed sets, and they did. We wanted people like ourselves to be at the creative forefront of those industry leaders, and we got Mike Mearls and Eric Mona who have demonstrated their love of classic RPGs and Appendix N inspiration again and again. We’re going to be getting a lot more of the things we have been asking for. So what do we ask for now?

If the OSR is an old-school reformation, the work of clearing away the old is basically done. It’s time to start building a new RPG industry in our own image. Let’s start exploring what that looks like, beginning with the recognition that the best of us are already dead. If we the survivors want there to still be people to play with in our old age, there needs to be something that fills the role the game publishing business does now, because almost none of us would be in the hobby today if it weren’t for a commercial product.

If the OSR is an old-school renaissance, that implies its own business model. I am a big proponent of patronage projects and Kickstarter backing, which beat the pants off of both Medici princes and traditional “print first, see if it sells later” publishing. However, all the evidence I’ve seen suggests that patronage is only better at getting committed fans to tell you what they’d actually find useful in play. When it comes to attracting new fans, this Renaissance-era version of a product-driven industry seems even less capable than traditional publishing.

One of the awesome things Zak S. does on his blog sometimes is teach his readers how to talk about things without devolving into the usual noise. It must be working, because Cygnus’s comment to my last post demonstrates a peerless mastery of how to build a conversation:

The thing I love about the multiplicity of gaming blogs is that it lets me encounter viewpoints that are far outside my own “head space.” Like in this post, when I saw the initial question…

“So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?”

…My initial response was something like “Well, maybe the people involved should reconsider whether they really want to BE an RPG business at all.” Rather than thinking up more ways to “monetize” the hobby, why not step back and re-engage with the amateur/D.I.Y. aesthetic that (presumably) was the thing that got us all interested in the first place?

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with asking one’s players to kick in a few bucks to cover the cost of the snacks and drinks. But I’ve got to say that this “pay-to-play” model (or the related model of “pay nothing now, but here’s some hard-sell for a timeshare”) strikes me as the wrong direction for the hobby to go. I hope I’m not whacking at a strawman of my own making, but this whole deal of increased monetization just smells, smells, smells…

Let’s talk about “alternate” instead of “increased” monetization. At this point I don’t think we have to worry about increasing the overall commercialization of RPGs – the existing attempts to commodify play by selling products have become more pervasive because they were failing. Now that the old empire is collapsing, how will we fund the work of building something new?

The OSR is many things. One of them is people like me and James Maliszewski and Rob Conley and Melan doing  just as Cygnus suggests: reconsidering whether we really wanted to be part of the RPG business at all. Working for WotC and Necromancer and Goodman Games was supposed to be the highest level of achievement Gygax described in MASTER OF THE GAME, but it gave us a lot of chances to experience first-hand how the RPG business as usual has a negative impact on the culture of play. We take it for granted that game designers should be paid for their work, but many aspects of that whole deal just stink, stink, stink.

Another thing the OSR is people like me and Mearls and Calithena and Kesher and most of the New York and Vancouver Red Boxes who were around when the Forge was really digging into alternate business models for RPG publishing. Long before I heard the OSR’s rallying cry to “do it yourself”, I was attracted to the Forge’s practical advice on how to “sell it yourself”. In many ways, the OSR’s business model to date is just what you get when better print-on-demand technology and the Open Game License meet the Forge approach of small print runs sold direct to the customer.

If the OSR is an exercise in using exploring paths not taken, hindsight tells us a lot about the drawbacks of the decision to build an industry around gaming by selling products. What other ways could it have gone? Set one clock to whenever Napoleonics turned into Braunstein and Blackmoor and roleplaying, and another to whenever the OSR got started. Roll both forward three years, and we’re now reaching the same point when TSR answered “why should we do any more of your imagining for you?” with “because you will pay us to do so”.

“Pay to play” seems fishy to us because we are used to a world in which game designers are professionals and game masters are amateurs. But if we imagine that Gary was the great communicator and Dave the great storyteller, is there any intrinsic reason why only one of them should have able to get paid for the exercise of their talents?

Looking back to 1976, it seems to me like part of why Dave Arneson and Rob Kuntz left TSR is that they got wind of the bad smell coming from the now-traditional business model for RPGs: supplement treadmills and tournament adventures standardized for organized play and new rules editions designed to support organized play by reducing the role of individual adjucation. Could a different way of monetizing the role-playing experience prevented the loss of Dave and Rob, if it took advantage of their expertise running games and let them teach others how by showing, rather than telling?  Note that during Dave’s later career he did professionalize his GM skills at venues from a convention charity auction to a gaming cruise ship, and since Spinachcat’s account of one of these games is among the best documents of Dave’s style out there, I think our hobby is better because he wasn’t afraid of the “pay to play” stigma.

As the product-driven trends entrenched at AD&D’s roots marched toward their logical extension in 4E, one of the most valuable things the OSR has done has been to say “this stinks, let’s go back to basics.” We did that and now we’ve spent enough time reconstructing to reach the same point TSR was at. If we want to achieve the full potential of this thing we’re part of, we have to figure out a way to pay the bills.

Part of that will be making commercial RPG products that resist the market pressure to suck. Can we also take our hard-won knowledge of all the ways monetizing RPG play through products can go wrong, and use it to think about how to make making commercial RPG experiences not suck?

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. A few victory laps are in order before we roll up our sleeves. The OSR is dead, long live the OSR!

05
Jan
12

On Monetizing RPG Play: Background and Publicity

Opening night gaming party for Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward. Photo by Timothy Hutchings; pictured are Luke (Burning Wheel), Ray (Compleat Strategist), Stefan (Dwarven Forge), and Peter (Gen Con).

It is not interesting that a great time was had at Adventuring Parties’ event for the opening of Dungeons and Dragons: On & Ever Onward show at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art. No reader of the Mule requires further proof that it is fun to get together with friends and make new ones by rolling dice and imagining adventures while eating chips and drinking beer. Should it surprise us that it is even more fun when you are also looking at fifteen monitors each displaying a different loop of gaming-related art and supplementing the usual gamer-snacks with wine and cheese?

What’s worth sharing is the knowledge I gained about party gaming. Around the time that the picture above was taken, I was talking about the basic problem faced by anyone who wants to sell roleplaying games as a product: no gamer actually needs a rulebook.  Poland’s first samizdat RPG proved the only thing you need is the idea that it’s possible to use dice and imagination to tell a collaborative story. If I’m correctly understanding the story I heard from some gamers in Krakow, no game-system texts made it across the Iron Curtain in the ’70s and ’80s. Just the distant rumors of this thing called Dungeons & Dragons was enough for Polish gamers to whip up Kryształy Czasu and start playing. (The fact that it is known for having insanely complicated charts may be because engineering students had the best access to what their counterparts in the Western world of nerds were up to, or because trends in gaming exist independently of borders or causality).

It was very gratifying when Luke arrived in the middle of this conversation and, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall, I could collar him to make a point. His unhesitating reply to “what do gamers actually need?” was “More people to play with.”

So the interesting question is, how can RPG businesses meet their customer’s actual needs instead of manufacturing desire for inessentials?

We know from the general success of the RPG hobby industry to date that there is a role here for selling game systems: rulebooks and accessories and all kinds of support products. If we want to have more people to play baseball with, it helps if everyone shows up with their own mitt. And even though we don’t really need Big League Chew to play, it’s nice to have. So there is some correlation between how many businesses are trying to sell baseball equipment to people in our community and how easy it is to get a game together on any given sunny day.

The problem is that even a cursory look at the RPG industry shows that a product-driven business model can do as much to drive gamers apart as it does to bring them together at the gaming table.  The Open Gaming License was a great leap forward because it got manufacturers to collectively produce baseball equipment, instead of trying to market the Bases & Balls System to the customers they could splinter from the userbase for Advanced Balls & Bats. But new editions and meta-plot-driven supplement treadmills and requiring a deck of Dungeons & Dragons Fortune Cards to contain a multiple of 10 cards when they’re sold in decks of 8 are typically cases where the publishers’ need to make things outshines the customer’s’ need to buy them.

Last night’s Tower of Gygax event was many things in addition to fun. In part, it was another of my ongoing experiments in ways a business could meet its need to generate money by directly creating the play experience that’s the essence of what gamers need.

I started this post meaning to talk about the results of this experiement. Unfortunately I have to run out to get the stuff for Adventuring Parties’ afterschool class. One new, not unexpected data point is that doing stuff for kids remains the best source of revenue for a RPG service business that I know about. Here all my experimental data just confirms the example of the Roleplay Workshop, the Brooklyn Strategist, and their many counterparts in Israel: parents are accustomed to paying for their kids to have educational/wholesome/creative experiences. I was happy with some of the things I tried last night to get adult gamers to feel like having these experiences themselves was worth money, but the fact remains that we already know how to DIY our own balls and bats; the amount we’re willing to donate to a fun event like the Tower of Gygax seems like the same amount we might spend on Big League Chew.

Tonight’s event is an example of another reason product-based businesses are motivated to create opportunities for gamers to sit down and play: promotion. Here you’re not asking them to pay up front or during the event, because you have something you want them to buy later. In this case Adventuring Parties is promoting the distribution deal for Adventurer Conqueror King that Autarch just signed with Game Salute to get the hardback and PDF combo into stores where this buying and selling can happen. Hooray to Bits & Mortar for helping tie these two halves together! Here is the press release which has some details about tonight’s party.

When talking about money or politics, and their near cousins products and publicity, a hard-boiled tone tends to creep into one’s voice. Also when talking about two companies I’m part of as if they were separate things, I run the risk of A Scanner Darkly dissociation. Before I run off, here are some points I don’t want to be obscured:

  • Buying a shiny new (or enticingly old) product is an important source of a gamer’s recommended allowance of joy, and even if I think DIY playing together at the table should be at the base of this food pyramid, I don’t scorn those for whom buying things is their primary source of RPG fun.
  • The primary goal of just about everyone involved in producing new RPG materials, myself included, is that they want to make it easier to find players for their own favorite kind of baseball. We can’t talk about how business motives distort play without also talking about how individual motives to be like Gygax and have your name on the cover of a beloved gaming book distort business strategies.
  • The #1 way that adults spend money on their gaming hobby is by treating it as a business. Even though I know it will never be anywhere near as profitable as my day job, I passionately seek to get involved in just about every RPG business I can, whether it’s selling products or services or vapors, because I find this to be really, really fun. It’s almost as much fun as playing RPGs, it uses many of the same skills, and you can spend more time doing it.
  • Finally, a bit of hucksterism for the Roleplaying Retirement Home, coming soon, in which being off the hook business-wise means we will be able to spend as much time playing as we want. The return on our willingness to pay for our kids to have educational roleplaying experiences (aka babysitting) will be that they will pay for us to have dignified end-of-life experiences (aka babysitting). Suckers! I know there will be a potion of longevity in one of the many treasure hoards I will loot in my elder years. It will be a long time until you can pry the dice from my cold, dead hand.
12
Oct
11

Dave Wesely on D&D Was a Wargame

Last year prior to Gen Con I wrote to Major David Wesely about a re-creation of his Braunstein I game he organized via commenting at Ben Robbins’ ars ludi blog:

I had the pleasure of being introduced to you by Col. Zocchi in 2008 and sat in on your seminar on Braunstein, but sadly had a scheduling conflict that kept me from playing. I’m hoping that I might get another chance this year – and even if my busy schedule rules that out, perhaps I can buy you a drink or a meal and pick your brain about the early history of adventure gaming, which I find endlessly fascinating.

I have yet to write about the insights I took away from that lunch, but for now I’ll share some things I learned from the correspondence that followed Maj. Wesely’s kind response to this initial sally. In a subsequent email, I took the opportunity to point him to “some pieces I’ve done inspired in part by hearing you talk in 2008″, Random Events Make You Say Yes and D&D Was a Wargame: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means. Rather than direct you to go re-read these – especially since the former is available in full only in Fight On! – I will repost the bits that he responded to, with his replies in bold. From the Random Events essay:

Were Arneson, Gygax, Bledsaw, and Hargrave aware of improv techniques when they stuffed their early work chock-full with just the kind of random tables that make dice-driven invention shine? Could be. In talking about about his early-70s Braunstein games and the evolution of D&D, Dave Wesely points out that “role-playing” already described several other kinds of games. One is an improv exercise in which two actors each assume a character and try to force the other into a pre-agreed defeat. In Monty Python’s cheese shop sketch, John Cleese wins when Palin says “yes, sir” twice in a row. We don’t have to posit that Wesely’s awareness of improv techniques was widespread or in the forefront of anyone’s consciousness when D&D was taking shape. What we do know people were thinking about, from Wesely’s revisions of the Braunstein scoring system to rein in the chaos to Arneson’s development of the dungeon, was the problem of how to allow players free action without overwhelming the referee’s preparation.

So in my email to Maj. Wesely I asked: “I’m wondering if the awareness of “role-playing game” being an improv comedy technique meant that an awareness of improv comedy techniques, like the “always say yes” principle that I find so useful in running RPGs, was part of the intellectual environment of the Braunstein-Blackmoor period.”

He replied:

I did not see the Monty Python cheese shop skit until long after Braunstein (the show it is in probably first aired in the UK well after Braunstein, and even later in the US). An actor friend pointed out that meaning of “Role Playing Game” to me back when it was first being suggested as the generic replacement for saying “D&D-type-games” which usage T(c)S(c)R(c) was trying to stamp out. When I saw the cheese shop later, I recognized it.

By the way, so is the “Pet Shop” (“It is, in short, a Dead Parrot!”) skit – the pythons were just as willing to reuse a good idea as Edgar Rice Burroughs.

About D&D Was a Wargame I asked:  “I’m curious to know where I take it wrong, where I didn’t take it far enough, and where I’ve confused things you said with ones Dave Arneson did.”
He replied that he very much agreed with the central argument of the post, that “The genre of wargames encompasses enormous diversity in theme, content, and playstyle. Wargames have a considerably longer history than RPGs, and have undergone at least as much change over time“:
“Wargame” is a very big tent.  Redefined to exclude or include anything the speaker does not like, depending on whether he thinks wargames are good or bad. When D&D arrived, there was an ongoing feud over miniatures  AKA “real Wargaming” and board games “just pushing cardboard around.”  The first time anyone saw lead figures being used in D&D it was instantly denounced/recruited as being Miniatures Gaming (and hence not entitled to get a Charles S. Roberts Award: they invented the H.G.Wells Awards so it could get something as a Miniatures game).  It was like classifying float airplanes as a new kind of sailing ship because they don’t have steam engines.
In the D&D Was a Wargame post I wrote, based on my memories of Arneson’s 2008 seminar, that
Arneson said that the first wargaming group he joined played with a kriegspiel developed as an officer training exercise by the Prussian military. Like many gamers past and future, they were drawn to using the most comprehensive, complex, and incomprehensible set of rules they could find. The fact that what they had was a bad and incomplete translation from the original German meant that anything a player tried to do could touch off an endless string of arguments about which rules applied and how they should be interpreted.
Arneson and Wesely eventually decided that what this group really wanted to do was argue and rules-lawyer. They wanted to play, so they formed a group of their own. Did they react to the everything-is-subject-to-interpretation environment fostered by the kriegspiel by choosing a system with more clear-cut rules? Many such options were available, polished and throughly play-tested efforts by Avalon Hill’s professional game designers. Instead, what they choose to do instead was keep the parts of the rules they liked, but create the role of a referee to interpret them.
Maj. Wesely replied:

“Avalon Hill’s professional game designers” makes me laugh. In 1965 they were down to (I think) three people who had admittedly designed a number of games and were doing it for a living (one step up from sleeping on the floor in the office and eating beans at every meal). AH had gone bankrupt and been taken over by Monarch Avalon industries, whose president , Eric Dott, saw a great future for Wargames and was willing to keep the company going as a captive account to his printing business. They really did not take off until 1969 when they bought Squad Leader, an outside design. I loved the early AH games, but the skill level of the people who were writing hobby games rules at the time was very low.

Charles S. Roberts (in his address on the 25th Anniversary of the founding of Avalon Hill) said to Tom Shaw, his original partner, “Tom, tell the audience how much play-testing we did on our games back then.”

Tom: “Playtesting? What’s that?”

They had Africa Corps already printed up and were assembling the copies for their first shipment when Charles Roberts had a flash of insight that allowed them to reprint the rules and save the game, which was previously impossible for the Germans to win.

As for miniature wargames rules, they were being churned out by eager gamers with great romantic historical national enthusiasm, and poor understanding of history or technology…

The real professionals were working at the Navy War College or the Rand corporation and were not putting their work on the market.

Strategos, our original guide, was a free-kriegspiel that assumed a strong referee… the first pass at creating rules from it ran aground on our experience with using all the other wargames rules on the market, which were all rigid kriegspiels with no ref, just a rule book full of loopholes. It’s the Code Napoleonique vs. common law.

In one of the comments to the wargame post, I said:

I think that it’s important for us to understand the nature of the wargames that Arneson’s group were used to because it yields insights into what they thought D&D was about, and what they designed it to do well. But of the millions of players across the history of the game, an infinitesimally small fraction knew or cared about the way the original campaign approached it! So I think it’s equally important for us to remember that from the moment that the first wood-grain boxes were sold, people began trying to take D&D in different directions.

Maj. Wesely said:

Very good observation.  With thousands of copies scattering out by word of mouth, and inconsistent (or should I say imaginative) referees teaching the game to their friends the way they thought it should run, and the vagueness of the OD&D rules on so many points, it is not a surprise that the OD&D experience was wildly different for all the people who had it.  TSR saw huge economic reasons to standardize and dictate that everyone had to keep buying the flood of official rules changes… Knights of the Dinner Table did a good strip on that… Arneson had favored a wide-open system that put a lot of burden on the ingenuity and style of the ref.  Most gamers, I think, lacked that ability and wanted rules that would tell them what to do (were most of those gamers under 15? Maybe so).

I’ll close by thanking the Major for his enlightening responses, and apologizing to you the reader for taking so long to share ’em!



Past Adventures of the Mule

July 2015
M T W T F S S
« Jan    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728293031  

RPG Bloggers Network

RPG Bloggers Network

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog & get email notification of updates.

Join 1,041 other followers


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,041 other followers