Monday, August 01, 2005

Games, Instructions, and the Lack Thereof (Rant)

There is much talk elsewhere about roleplaying games, the instructions for them, and what it means when the instructions do not lay out in excruciating detail every facet of play you will ever experience in playing the game. While I agree with the basic idea -- that a game's rules should support the kind of play the game is supposed to deliver -- I find the current argument to be straying into hyperbole.

I played with Legos as a kid. A whole lot. And then when I started gaming, I latched onto GURPS very quickly. The parallels are easy to see -- here are the pieces and the tools, go do what you want with them. The point of playing Legos was not what you did with the airplane that you built; the point of playing Legos was building the airplane and then flying it around. That was fun. So too was it fun to design an airplane with GURPS Vehicles and then "fly it around" in a campaign. Much like Legos, you didn't even really need to fly the airplane around in order to enjoy the experience of building it. That was still fun.

Legos come with instructions. I threw them out. Very occasionally I'd make whatever the instructions laid out, but almost immediately thereafter I would see a "better" way of doing it and rearrange the pieces to my liking. I'd add pieces from other sets; I'd remove pieces that I didn't like. That was fun. When we played GURPS, we very rarely used their published settings. We still bought those books, but we mostly bought them to break them apart and play with the pieces. So while we played in "Tredroy" it looked a whole lot like Cyberpunk. That was fun -- and I don't mean just the Actual Play of knocking about manapunk Tredroy. Making the alternate setting was fun. Sometimes more fun than the Actual Play. And it really didn't matter. It was still fun.

Presently there is a lot of focus on Actual Play, and this is a good thing, because it's been mostly ignored historically, at least in terms of published materials. The rules that govern Actual Play have been a mish-mosh of traditions, habits, and techniques passed from GM to GM to Player to GM through word of mouth. These rules have been idiosyncratic to specific playgroups, and half of the reason why Game A and Game B felt almost identical when played with the same group. The rules of Actual Play never changed even if the setting and game mechanics did. So it's nice that we're looking at Actual Play, now, because it loosens some of that up and allows us to do other things with our roleplaying. But here's the thing:

Actual Play is not Roleplaying.

Actual Play is a part of the entire roleplaying experience. It could even be argued that it usually accounts for the majority of that experience -- but it's not the whole experience. Off the top of my head, here are a few other elements: character generation, campaign set-up, bluebooking, spending XP, fantasizing about your characters while at work, and so on. These are not Actual Play, and yet they are still part of roleplaying. I have a friend who can't really be "in character" until he draws a satisfactory picture of his character. To him, that's part of roleplaying, too. And here's the important part -- those parts are fun.

And then there's folks like me -- and there's a lot of us -- who also enjoy making up and optimizing the rules. We like to experiment with alternative ways to set up power relationships between players around the table. We like to see what happens when we hand off GMing duties back and forth. If you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you're one of us, because one of the things we like to do is design games. And that, to a rather large extent, is part of roleplaying, too. And that is fun, too.

Now, there certainly are some games -- even a lot of games -- that do not include rules and guidelines for parts of the game that they really should have included. Gee, oversights in publishing in the roleplaying "industry"? Who would have thought? But that lack is not always unintentional, and that lack is not always a flaw. There are some games -- games such as GURPS, Risus, and HeroQuest -- that don't lay out the whole shebang and tell you how to do everything. In such games, figuring things out and making up rules and procedures are part -- even a large part -- of the fun of roleplaying. In Forge-speak, this may fall under "Exploration of System" -- the social structure of rules and procedures that govern the roleplay can be just as complex, fascinating, and labile as the game mechanics. You can play with them, and you can have fun doing so.

A roleplaying game does not need to be some sort of dictator that lays down rules and regulations for everything. All a published product needs to do is offer a playgroup some material to work with. Maybe the material comes with instructions that can be used to make a specific roleplaying experience. That's great. But the lack of those instructions does not make the product "broken", does not mean it's no longer a roleplaying game, does not categorically invalidate the roleplaying game's design goals. There is a very big difference between offering rules that don't create the desired game experience and not offering rules that create the desired game experience. Let me say that again, set off so it's front and center:

There is a very big difference between offering rules that don't create the desired game experience and not offering rules that create the desired game experience.

A game is broken if the rules that it provides are detrimental to the game experience they are supposed to provide; a game is not necessarily broken if it does not offer rules to create the game experience you want to achieve. Roleplaying has always been a DiY hobby -- the fun is your responsibility to create. Sometimes that fun comes from the setup as much as the "Actual Play".

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