Monday, March 23, 2009

AD&D and the Spirit of Role Playing Games

So, what's all this rhetoric Chris keeps spouting about the "Spirit" of role playing games? Alright here it is.

First, as Gary Gygax put it, the Spirit of the game is what everybody knows and yet cannot quite capture in words. So any attempt to do so is fraught with dangers and potential errors. Some might say that which cannot be defined must not exist; and therefore all this talk about Spirit is a nebulous swamp out of which there is no return. But such a position, that the idea can just barely be defined, did not stop the greats like Gygax from trying to do just that. Now, I will be quoting Gary Gygax a lot in this essay, and I do that because he is one the founding fathers of RPG's. Founding Fathers are in a unique position to give us a perspective on the work they began or intended, and not the way in which we may have interpreted it. Also keep in mind that Gary Gygax apparently contradicted himself at times. I personally have no problem with this because I also tend to believe that Gary did not mean to imply that RPG's were a dead, frozen endeavor, but a living and growing thing. It's just the way in which it grows that causes us to question if we are faithful to the original spirit. So, with that out of the way let us jump into the fray

Let's begin with Gygax on Spirit:
"...the understanding extends not only to the written rules but to what lies between the lines as well. This is the spirit of the game. Spirit is evident in every RPG. To identify the spirit of the RPG, you must know what the game rules say, be able to absorb this information, and then interpret what the rules imply or state about the spirit that underlies them." (Gygax, RPM pg 26)

Now, this clears up a few things. The spirit of a game is never spelled out--it is implicit. And evidently the best route to understand the spirit is to _know_ the rules. As in know and understand the rules. Which in my opinion would require that you play the game for awhile in order to really come to know how those rules work in play.

To continue:
"The spirit of the game cannot be expressly defined in a sentence or a paragraph, and any game designer who attempts to do so is defeating his own purpose. The spirit of an RPG pervades all the statistics, mechanics, and descriptions that make up the actual rules; it is everywhere and nowhere in particular at the same time. A game master or player who simply absorbs all the rules and uses them to play out a game adventure may be able to achieve expertise in the play of the game, but in the final analysis, he is doing no more than going through the motions--unless he also perceives, understands, and appreciates the spirit that underlies all those rules." (ibid emphasis mine)

Lots here to mention. Much of it reinforces the idea that the spirit lies within an understanding of the rules that transcends the rules themselves and approaches what the rules are trying to achieve. This quote also makes clear that someone can play for years or more in a game and never really understand that spirit. I believe that is what leads people to make changes that they think are cool, or fine, or creative, when in reality they violate the spirit of the game. The real mystery here is why attempting to spell out the spirit of a game defeats the game designers purpose. I would reason that because it is in the nature of the spirit of a game to elude simple definition that a game designer who attempts to spell out what the spirit is will inherently limit or perhaps even change what that spirit actually is. This is because the spirit is within the rules; it "pervades all the statistics, mechanics, and descriptions that make up the rules". The game master can do best by creating rules that capture that elusive spirit.

An analogy might help here. Think of a well built recipe. You can spell out each of the ingredients and in what quantities and how to mix them together to get the perfect concoction every time. But then try an actually describe the taste of that brilliantly baked souffle, or elegant chocolate cake. You can't do it. It's like describing the color red. We know what wavelengths make up the color, but we can't actually describe the experience of redness. It eludes definition. Trying to capture that essence is confounding and can actually impede the achievement of the spirit of the thing itself. If all we were to say is something like: to bake the perfect chocolate cake aim for the smoothness of silky velvet, with the smoky toasted richness of cocoa beans over an open fire, suffused with the immersive dip into a lake of crystal clear sugarcane juice. What the heck does that mean? And even if it does in some small way replicate the experience of a chocolate cake it will not help the cook make one. Not unless he is so intimately familiar with the parts and proportions of the recipe and how their elements combine and chemically meld to create the experience itself. That is simply hard to capture in words. And an attempt to do so can actually be counterproductive to producing the end product.

And now for the AD&D punchline, in Gygax's own words:
"For example purposes (and despite already having made the point that the spirit of the game cannot be defined in so many words), I shall attempt to characterize the spirit of the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game. This is a fantasy RPG predicated on the assumption that the human race, by and large, is made up of good people. Humans, with the help of their demi-human allies (dwarfs, elves, gnomes, etc.), are and should remain the predominant force in the world. They have achieved and continue to hold on to this status, despite the ever present threat of evil, mainly because of their dedication, honor, and unselfishness of the most heroic humans and demi-humans--the characters whose roles are taken by the players of game. Although players can take the roles of "bad guys" if they so choose, and if the game master allows it, evil exists in the game primarily as an obstacle for player characters to overcome. If they succeed in doing this, as time goes on, player characters become more experienced and more powerful--which enables them to contest successfully against increasingly stronger evil adversaries. Each character, by virtue of his or her chosen profession, has strengths and weaknesses distinctly different from those possessed by other types of characters. No single character has all the skills and resources needed to guarantee success in all endeavors; favorable results can usually only be achieved through group effort. No single player character wins, in the sense that he or she defeats all other player characters; the goal of the forces of good can only be attained through cooperation, so that victory is a group achievement rather than an individual one." (ibid 26-27)

Wow. doesn't that paragraph answer tons of "questions" and so-called "problems" that we supposedly "find" in the AD&D game? We can immediately see why racial level and ability limits were imposed. We are given in one fell swoop that entire purpose of the game--to defeat evil by heroic action, principally dedication, honor and unselfishness. and why the class system was in place with its very specific game-balancing skill set narrowly defined by class. These weren't arbitrary limitations or mistakes. They hit to the heart of the game, the very spirit of what we are taking part in. While the game doesn't exclude monster characters, or characters of evil alignment it makes it clear that such additions, modifications or "changes" should be done carefully with an eye to the spirit of the game. Indeed well-played evil assassin or thief or 1/2 orc fighter might be a challenging and ethically complex PC to play exactly because of the spirit of the game. Wholesale or wanton changes to the game twist it into something it was never meant to be and in fact make it a completely different game. Gygax made this clear when a little later in the next chapter he says about adding new material to an existing game: "Acceptability [of the new material], though, comes with a caveat: The new material must operate within the scope of the game as defined by its rules and spirit." (Ibid pg 30)

What I see as a trend in RPG's is a trend to power at the expense of actual story telling and role playing. And I'm not the only one. Gygax said of 4e "The new D&D is too rule intensive. It's relegated the Dungeon Master to being an entertainer rather than master of the game. " (Gamespy Interview, Pt 2, 16 Aug 2004) When role-playing and storytelling take a backseat to the opportunity for players to become power mongers and rules-lawyers you have a game that is more decidedly a strategy based game in spirit and not a role playing game. It is closer to a video game or a game of risk than an actual game of role playing a mutual story. Now, I'm not saying this _shouldn't_ be done. To each his own. But such changes to games like AD&D have fundamentally changed the game into something it was never intended to be.

Again, from Gygax:

"Too often, new material purporting to add to a game system is nothing more than a veiled attempt to dominate the game milieu through power, not skill. Such creativity, if it can be called that, amounts to a perversion of the game. It is much like cheating at solitaire. Understanding the scope of opportunity offered to PC's by the game system will certainly discourage the intelligent players from such useless activity."

*ouch* Well, he's not really attacking people who want to do things differently, he's recommending that you don't add add material that changes the nature of the game. Go play a different game if you want to do that--or create a new one. And I, frankly, agree.

Lastly we have the idea of the cooperative nature of play. This shows up in the divided roles of characters, and party balance being required to overcome the greatest amount and type of obstacles. Here, I would ask a question: can a party(and gaming group for that matter) game successfully together if they don't understand and agree on the spirit of the game involved? It might be best to leave this question as a rhetorical one, but I can;t help but opine here: I don't think so. I believe one of the quickest ways to ruin a game is to violate its spirit. Another is to allow interpersonal differences to impede game play--but that's for another essay. A group that is pulling in different directions might as well sit down and agree on terms, play something else they can all agree on or split up.

In the end I think we can all agree on the fact that spirit is what makes a game what it is. Each RPG has one, and some share the same spirit. But let's not say it's irrelevant, or that it doesn't exist. Understanding this principle will help us immensely in our own gaming and make us more universally capable gamers. It can act as a metric against which games can be measured, and one which I believe is more useful that crunchy or lite or soft or hard or cinematic or realistic or a dozen others. While it might be more challenging to utilize such a metric because precise definitions don't exist--I do believe it can be done.

The method of course involves rules and comparison of core rule sets and optional extensions used so often as to be considered core. Such discussions pose the danger of rules debates--this will miss the point. This is not a debate, as much as it is an endeavor in comparison and contrast. Much like a Venn diagram that can correlate what rule sets have in common and what is different. This gets to the heart of where the spirit lives--in the rules themselves.
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