Monday, July 22, 2013

Addendum to “On Role-Playing”

In the air, somewhere over the country of Mexico…

There are several problems with writing a 30+ page essay and posting it as a series of installments on a blog. As I wait for my second drinkie (damn, I hate this Beefeater gin), allow me to enumerate them:

1) If you’re not a trained writer (for example, myself) you run the risk of completely derailing yourself. I don’t do outlines, I’m not terribly disciplined, I forget what the hell I was talking about…and by the time you reach the end of the damn thing you may have wandered into territory you never wanted to explore in the first place. THAT is just part of the pitfalls of being a hack…though I’m pretty sure most of my regular readers are familiar with this part of my “writing style” and allow for it to a certain degree.

2) Any subject you can write 30 pages about is probably a subject that you could write 300 pages about. The fact of the matter is, if I was doing real doctoral research on the history and evolution of gaming (and wanted to be a real credit to the subject) I’d need to do a shit-ton more research: polling people, reading articles and past interviews, doing careful in-depth analysis of entire scopes of work, including secondary sources like adventure modules and supplementary books. I wasn’t setting out to do a thesis paper on the subject, and my “research methods” are nefarious, if not downright suspect: I limited myself only to the main text of the rulebooks (with the question of “what would a new player, just picking up the books, find?”), which provides an extremely limited context for a subject worthy of deeper exploration.

3) I’m a blogger, not a writer. There may be some blogs that are done by real journalists or technical experts, or that have a battery of “staff” writers, but this isn’t one of those types of blogs. It’s just one dude, venting his spleen more often than not. I definitely fall closer to the “pseudo-intellectual” than the “anti-intellectual” but it’s hard to call what I do true “academic discourse.”

4) Blog readers have short attention spans. You can’t post a 30 page essay. I mean, you can, but the internet is not the greatest medium for reading anything, let alone huge-ass, meandering diatribes. You’ve got to break it up into digestible pieces, even when the whole thing was written (and meant to be read) as a whole…otherwise, folks tend to move on to the next blog (and much as I say I’m writing this thing for myself, I’m not so dishonest to say I don’t appreciate an audience for my rambling ego). However, this leads to the next problem:

5) I can’t just fisticuff with every single commentator, because (usually) they are only responding to a portion of the entire picture.

Now, that doesn’t mean the “entire picture” as a whole is sound…see points #1 through #3 above. However, it just leads to a number of separate sidebar conversations in which I end up saying things that seem to (or actually do) contradict the things that show up in the blog as the installments post in their scheduled order. Which is confusing to some people and frustrating to myself.

So I took some time off from the blog. That is to say, once I got to Mexico I continued to follow what people were saying (about me and the essay) but I just stopped responding to the comments. I was pretty busy anyway (family, fun, vacation, etc.) and my internet connection was spotty most of the time as it was, but honestly I wasn’t ready (mentally or emotionally) to get involved in arguments over something that I’d finished writing (and kind of put out of my mind) about a week before.

But right now I’m in the air and a trick of Fate has put me in a 1st class seat while my wife and child are napping behind me and, okay, let’s get down to it.

Folks, you don’t have to agree with me. That’s the only hard and fast rule.

Yes, it’s true that I have a lot of negative things to say about the latter editions of D&D (about 1983 onward). I am a seething cauldron of emotions when it comes to these editions and it bubbles over at times. It causes me to say all sorts of ugly, mean, spiteful things. To be downright disrespectful. Damn it, I’m entitled to my opinion, people…just like you!

One thing about me, I have strong opinions. And I have an opinion about what role-playing – the ACT of role-playing – is. It’s about putting yourself in the shoes of your character…imagining you are that character for the span of a game session.

That means having an emotional investment, not detachment (viewing your character as a pawn or playing piece). YES, you can view your character with detachment…as a chess piece to move about a board, or as an actor to be directed in this imaginary film/story you’re putting together. But that’s not what I call role-playing.

Maybe YOU call it role-playing. Hell, maybe you don’t care if it’s role-playing or not (or if you’re doing it or not) because you just like to play the game and it’s totally fun and intellectually stimulating and a hoot to have a couple beers and tea-bag the party thief when he’s unconscious because he was being an ass anyway.

That’s cool folks…who am I to say you’re not “doing it right?” It’s a game. You play it. You enjoy playing. Bully for you…keep up the support of the hobby.

But let’s not be short-sighted. Let’s, just for the moment, consider whether or not there is a value to keeping this hobby, this thing (whatever it is), alive and well. I know, I know…that’s a whole ‘nother 20 post series on “what is the value of role-playing games” that I really don’t have time to write. But let’s just BRIEFLY ask ourselves…is it worth keeping alive? Because it seems to me that the hobby is on life-support. You can have a ton of new people buy books and play a couple games because they’re interested in thisDungeons & Dragons thang” they’ve heard so much about, but if they get bored and don’t stick around, you’re not growing the hobby…hell, you’re not even sustaining the hobby.

Now, some hard-minded folks really, truly don’t give a fuck. I understand that. Some of them are folks who realize, “hey, we’re not curing cancer here” and place little value on the hobby as anything besides passing (if intellectually stimulating) entertainment. On the other hand, some of these hard0minded folks DO give value to the hobby, but only for themselves…the “let those with ears hear and those with eyes see” folks content to let the chips fall where they may. So long as THEY can play who cares what happens after their lifetime?

Me, I don’t fall into either of those camps. For me, I do find value in the game and not just “value for myself” but value for others…I think it’s valuable that it exists at all. Just another opinion, people, you don’t have to agree. And being of value I look to see what is special about the game…what does it have that will promote itself and keep it alive that will allow it to compete with other forms of interactive entertainment vying for the attention of people in this world and generations to come.

Grok me? For me, the first and foremost answer I come up with is “the facility of the act of role-playing” (see above).  I’ve said this before in other posts. That’s the deal. And so I get a little worked up when I see the designers of “the world’s favorite fantasy role-playing game” leave out instructions on what role-playing is, or how one does it.

Because…okay, look. I know and understand that there are people who really, really enjoy a tabletop RPG with more “crunch.” There are plenty of people who prefer 3rd (or later) editions specifically because they have extra rules, extra character customization, extra tactical stimulation. Just like in the “old days” when I was a kid, you’d master the “basic rules” and then look to expand on them: and we incorporated all those old supplements and Dragon magazine articles into our games at one time or another, as much for the novelty as for “rounding out” the system and fantasy world. Why not simply start with a game that has those “extras” already built-in?

I understand that there are some players (identified at times – by themselves and others – as “hardcore”) for whom the older games, especially B/X, are too simple for their tastes. There are lots of players who started with “beginner versions” of D&D (keep in mind that this whole conversation is solely regarding D&D being the most well-known gateway drug to RPGs)…who started with “beginner versions” but moved onto more complex systems precisely because they wanted complexity. People who found flavor and inspiration and FUN in things like kits and non-weapon proficiencies, in skills and feats, in “daily use powers” and “healing surges.” And who, because of their grounding in the basics of the game (or because of the mentoring of more experienced gamers) have no problems incorporating the act of role-playing into their play. Likewise, there are some people who DON’T understand or care to involve themselves in the kind of “investment” or “role-playing” that I’m talking about, and yet they still enjoy themselves and are committed to keeping the hobby alive through their support.

I understand that. I get that. And if you’re having fun, that’s all Cool and the Gang. But what about enticing new players? What about KEEPING players whose only exposure has been to 4th edition and who find that it’s just easier to start an on-line MMORPG account with a couple buddies then bother to read and master hundreds of pages of rules? What about expanding the hobby outside ourselves (the older, dying breed), and our immediate children (who probably want to distance themselves somewhat from their parents), and the handful of weird, brainy throwback types who can pick up a copy of Pathfinder, with no other background or training in gaming, and digest the whole thing and develop a passion for the game?

Yes, there are other more pressing issues in the world. I had the chance to watch Burt Wonderstone (the most recent Steve Carrell/Jim Carey flick) on the plane, and there’s a part in it where a magician character has chosen to “help the poor” in developing countries by giving the starving children magic kits. “I’m bringing them magic,” he says, completely obtuse. “Don’t you think they’d prefer food and clean water?” asks a reporter. “But I’m a magician!” is the reply. Sometimes when I’m blogging about role-playing (or ranting/raving), I bear more than a passing resemblance to this particular character. Who the hell cares if I’m bringing the “good news of role-playing” to the masses (if I’m even doing that), when there are more important problems I could be putting my mind to solving?

Again, it comes back to whether or not you think this kind of gaming has any value aside from entertainment. I do. I think it has more value than, say, your average first person shooter video game. But again, that’s just my opinion…I’m not trying to write a logical proof or argument here. And some might call me biased or accuse me of promoting the game simply because I’ve engaged myself (in a small fashion) in the business of publishing RPG books. To which I’d reply: if I thought other games were more valuable (to people), I’d be engaging in those instead. Or bothering to learn more about them. Or at least playing them. That doesn’t mean the value of an RPG is more important than, say, bringing medicine or food or peace to people in need…but then I already have a day job that has a strong “human interest” element so I don’t feel too guilty about what I do with this blog and my writing and my entertainment dollar.

And for me, that “act of role-playing” thang is a valuable thing to preach about…and something of which to be critical when examining these games. And something to be thoughtful about (as in “to think about”) when considering the different ways people approach the hobby.

Now, this doesn’t address the concerns of Alexis who rightly points out that some people use the excuse of “playing in character” to be inexcusable assholes. That’s because that wasn’t one of the points or concerns of the essay. To me, I suppose I can say there is an “acceptable level of assholism” that can be incorporated in the game (I’ve discussed this before in other posts), but the threshold of what is acceptable varies from table to table and is part of the social contract that needs to be worked out in every gaming group. Where there are problems, it is because the group was not explicit enough in delineating the “lines that shall not be crossed” (or when one player stubbornly refuses to respect those lines and then deservedly needs to be kicked to the curb). But as with the act of role-playing itself, I feel that this is another form of instruction that would do well to be IN THE MANUAL ITSELF. Because it is not, people are left to work this shit out for themselves, often leading to abuse and hurt feelings in the “trial-and-error” process. You can put the responsibility on the players to be mature enough to deal with this…but if we’re talking kids (ages 10 and up, remember?) or hormonal teenagers, that can be a tall order.

And the alternative (which I think Alexis supports) of divorcing the act of role-playing from game play (or, at least, the act of imagining yourself someone other than yourself, or playing a different personality, or having the opportunity to do so) is, I think, a poor substitute. But then, he and I seem to disagree on the subject in general…at least the part where I think the act of role-playing should be a priority of instruction and design. Not because role-playing has some measurable quality (Lord knows, there is terrible and banal role-playing, even after leaving the assholes out of it), but because the potential of the act IS the value of the game itself. The true value to which all other values are secondary.

Of course there ARE other values to a game like D&D; I’m not disputing that. It stretches the mind and the imagination (two different things in my opinion). It encourages camaraderie and teamwork (depending on the challenges presented). It’s fun to play and an amusing diversion.

I just don’t think those are the main values of the game; I think those are things you can get elsewhere. The “fantasy role-playing” thing? That’s different. It’s neither constrained by the limits of reality (such as in LARPing) or the limits of the context (such as in the bedroom).

Anyway, I think that’s about all I want to say on the subject at this time. As I stated in the beginning of this whole long-winded deal-i-o: you’re welcome to disagree.

[posted after a safe landing in SeaTac and a good night’s rest…thanks for reading, folks!]


  1. it was a good effort.

    i agree with your definiton of roleplaying and enjoyed your speculations about the beginnings of the hobby. i tend to believe you might be on to somthing when you say roleplaying-games as we know them started "by accident".

    when you started ranting about the later editions i think you simply got carried away. shit happens, no harm done really. it was fun to read, if not very enlightening. i have yet to find a system that stops me from roleplaying.

    no need to apologise for being emotional, as a fellow scorpio i know very well what it's like. anyone who reads the blog should know your style by now. noone forces them to read your stuff.

    i am not sure if i can follow you when it comes to teaching new players how to roleplay. do the books really have to tell you how to do it? i believe learning from other, more experienced players is a nice tradition. i play with the kids i work with (we used your 1 page-supers a couple of times) and i doubt more than a few of them would ever pick up a book and "learn" to play by themselves, but they enjoy learning by doing it with someone to help them along.

    maybe an oral tradition works better in todays world where kids have so many (crap) activities to chose from.

    and if you have noone to teach you? no problem, you will find your own way, like so many did before.

  2. @ Shlomo:

    And here I completely forgot to mention my Scorpio nature!
    ; )

    Re: learning from books

    Maybe it's silly of me, but I can't help but think that at least part of the "figuring out how to play" comes from reading the instructions...even for folks who are introduced to the game by veteran players. Clear, concise instructions are valuable...I think designers/writers too often gloss over the part of the medium that is crucial to exciting game play.

    But, like I said, maybe I am just being silly.

  3. You have a point with your essay, that was your point in putting it up. Some of it I agree with, others I don't.

    That is the way of things. I happen to be a big fan of some post 1983 D&D things, and I plan on trying to help keep this game alive.

    I think that is partly what we are all doing here, in our little corner of the blogsphere, helping keep the game alive.

    And, I know sometimes role-playing gets sacrificed on the altar of "game mechanics" yet it still out there and it can be discovered and re-discovered by people.

  4. Why do you hate Beefeater Gin. Here in Aspen the lower shelves are filled with Gordon's. A good, cheap substitute like Beefeater would be welcome. What really needs to happen is to bring cheap gin in line with the price of bottom shelf vodka; a liquor which should be despised by even the lowest gutter snipe? That is the type of mechanics I could get behind.

  5. Well I applaud your efforts, and very much appreciate you taking the time to write. I like your blog, and will continue reading regardless whether I agree or disagree with your findings. Everyone is entitled to their opinions.... Hell that's what blogs are for, telling the world how you feel. I for one understood where you were coming from, even if I didn't share the exact same feelings on the subject. A good read sir! Here's to many more!

  6. @ Jay:

    There are definitely things worse than Beefeater. In Mexico no one drinks gin ("ginebra") least not regularly...and the only bottle I can find is something called Oso Negro ("Black Bear") which is, frankly, terrible.

    I am reminded of my old boozing mechanics for AD&D; maybe I need to dig 'em out and post them.
    ; )

    @ Everyone else:

    Thanks for the kind words. I hope to return to regular gaming content posts in the near future, but right now I'm fighting a bit of a summer sniffle.

  7. Thanks for writing this series on an important and underexplored aspect of the gaming experience. I think immersive roleplaying is the element that makes RPGs such a liberating and satisfying form of escapism.

    The unnecessary hostility of some of the comments actually confirms the centrality of roleplaying to our hobby. If they really thought about it, your detractors would concede that your brave 11-part trial balloon initiated a Hegelian dialectic and thereby sharpened their thinking on the matter, even if a few of them remain forever mired in vitriolic antithesis.

    I do wish everyone involved would stop with the personal attacks. Incivility doesn't signify honesty, just low character. (And please quit casually writing "retarded" because it's unkind to the mentally disabled, and because English offers us an arsenal of more precise alternatives, like illogical, inane, poorly conceived, wrongheaded, foolish, fatuous, etc., and probably dozens more if you consult a thesaurus.)

    Moreover, I wish people could be more tolerant of different styles of roleplaying. There are a lot of different right ways to play RPGs. I enjoy having different styles at the same table, grim powergamers and thespian hams, high fantasy archetypes, doomed Lovecraftian protagonists and goofball jesters. It's the players, their complementary styles and the social experience that elevate D&D to a level of fun that videogames can't yet reach. Our hobby is already too small--it's hard enough to find players as it is--we don't need to compound the difficulty by alienating and excommunicating people because their concept of roleplaying differs trivially from ours.

  8. @ Brian:

    I apologize for my use of the word "retarded:" I've been called out for that before and I really need to be more conscientious with my choice of words. Sorry!

  9. Thanks. Given your prodigious output, I think you generally write with impressive precision and insight in an engaging voice.