Tuesday, December 14, 2021

On RPG play-styles, Part 1: Should you kill off the tourists?

Should you be acting out a part, telling a story, or playing a game?

My answer is Yes.

Players of RPGs do all of these things and more all at once, of course, in varying degrees. They always have. It's simply a matter of which aspects individuals enjoy more or emphasize that differentiates cliques and factions in the never-ending battle in quest of the Holy Grail: the Best Game Ever.

It's really all about personal preferences, not something that can be right or wrong.

Yet it's not rare to find discussions about which play-styles are correct or incorrect, or discussions of the hobby's journey from pristine purity to subsequent corruption. Sometimes these discussions are about the history of game mechanics or game companies or cultures of play. Sometimes they are finger-wagging lessons in the morality of play and aesthetics. All of these discussions have something to contribute. Sometimes, though buried in these discussions, and in the responses to them, are implicit questions like these:

  • What was the original RPG style?
  • How should we play?
  • When did play-styles first diverge, and over what issues?

Neat explanations make compelling answers.

Sometimes gamers plunge into answering these questions while covertly advocating for their own personal preferences. A few simply assert the original superiority of their own preferences without resort to evidence. Or whatever Gygax did, whatever Arneson did: that's the real thing. A frequent implicit idea is that if you find the original play-style, you have uncovered RPG play as it was intended. The discovery would show the way to play before something else came along and changed how the games work or even corrupted it with other people's less fun preferences. Still others try to leave old games behind and push the hobby to the pinnacle of novelty and evolution.

There's nothing wrong with experimenting with different kinds of play. It's a good idea, in my opinion.

What I want to say here, though, again, is that there was no original style of play, no primordial basic setting. You may ask how that is possible. D&D had a specific beginning, didn't it? Wasn't it played with a specific play-style at that beginning? Wasn't it designed for a specific manner of doing things?

No, not really! Let's take an early E. Gary Gygax--when he was still-bright eyed and not yet swimming in money while slashing at the competition--as an authority on how the game should be played, just one year after he published D&D. This is from July 1975 (Alarums & Excursions #2):

Dave [Arneson, the co-author of D&D] and I disagree on how to handle any number of things, and both of our campaigns differ from the rules found in D&D. If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another. D&D is supposed to offer a challenge to the imagination and to do so in many ways.

Gygax goes on to give carte blanche to referees to make any house rules they wish.

Look: Gary Gygax said in 1975 that D&D will be boring if everybody played the same way. What else do purists and seekers of the legendary "old school" need to drop the issue?

Even the originators of the game played differently from each other, and said so. Gygax emphasized that no two games would be alike, nor would it be as fun if they were.

You may think that Gygax meant only house rules and not play-styles, those subtle aesthetic differences in emphasis and expectations that create considerably different experiences from group to group. But no, even play-styles differed distinctly from table to table from the very first reception of D&D and its spin-off kin.

Take the issue of lethality. This remains an abiding concern today. Experienced players know that the whole tenor of a game will change if player characters are vulnerable to a surprising death at any time or if they are expected to survive for a long campaign. Players must identify with their  characters to some extent, even small, if they are to play, frequently making the issue emotional. (The degree of identification is one of those varying preferences.) You don't have to look hard on the internet to find bloggers accusing referees of cheating or coddling their snowflake players if the PCs in their campaigns are not killed off quickly or at least in constant danger of death, or opposite accusations of abuse and making things severely and traumatically unfun and meaningless if PCs die at every turn. These exchanges can even take on a political tone reflecting our fraught times, with the murderous referees cast as right-wing conservatives and the lenient ones as "woke" liberals. (Sometimes it seems that the pre-existing political views of referees drive them into these camps of preferences, like to like.) Even advocates of balancing lethality with survival (whatever that would look like) are accused of manipulation of the game and have to justify themselves. The debate about lethality can finally explode with cries of "it's role-playing" against those who cry "it's a game!" Neither faction will likely concede that it's both: a role-playing game.

So let's come back to the questions.

When did this complex of issues turn into the basis for the development of a differing culture of play?

Was there a culture of "challenge-based play" that evolved into a culture emphasizing "role-playing"?

No. Even though individual players' styles of play change over the years, this variation was not a matter of evolution of the hobby. It was a matter of player preferences from the first games. These aspects of RPGs were present from the beginning. Already in 1977, gamer Lewis Pulsipher observed in White Dwarf #1 that there were already at least two cultures of play, gamers and fantasists:

D&D players can be divided into two groups, those who want to play the game as a game and those who want to play it as a fantasy novel, i.e. direct escapism through abandonment of oneself to the flow of  play as opposed to the gamer's indirect escapism. 

(Pulsipher divided these two further into two more subcultures of play.)

But we can go back further to 1975 to find the discrepancy of expectations emerging amongst some of the very earliest players.

In the science-fiction-fan zine-collection APA-L we have records of back-and-forth exchanges among some of the hobby's first players and Dungeon Masters and their reactions to the game. Their comments are revealing. They represent immediate, fresh efforts to seek standards and goals of play.

Mark Swanson (discussed here, scroll down) was one of them. At the time I'm referring to, he was a college student from southern California who had played wargames and loved science fiction. He started playing D&D at MIT in October of 1974. (The game had been published in January of that year.) Swanson was a major conduit for introducing D&D, which he encountered in the science fiction club at his college, back to the science fiction fans of Los Angeles.

Swanson created a dungeon called Gorree. He wrote about it on February 27, 1975 (APA-L 511), alluding to its lethality. So far, six out of seventeen PCs to enter it had died.

The next month, Ted Johnstone (a.k.a. Tedron) had gotten his chance to try this new game. He played an elf fighter named Khamsin. Afterwards, he was exuberant. Like Swanson a few months before, he was hooked. Johnstone wrote about it in APA-L 513 (March 13, 1975):

It's a hell of a game. It is, as I suspected, a new order, a new dimension, of game.

He also immediately predicted some aspects of the hobby:

I can see Dungeonmmasters of taste and imagination becoming in high demand. A D&D club may chip in to pay for a visit of someone with a highly reputed Dungeon -- or one to which they may have acquired a partial map from previous adventures. Weekends will be reserved months in advance by people who wish to experience a well-crafted Dungeon, and parties will seek each other out.

And he raised the issue of lethality. Mind you, this is someone who had played in just one exhilarating session. But he responded to Swanson from the month before with a statement of preference:

Six out of seventeen is a pretty high mortality rate. I'd say your Dungeon was a little too high-level too close to the surface. One fatality out of ten should be enough.

Immediately after this first experience, Johnstone was designing his own dungeon, like just about every other early player, and stating what he liked best.

Johnstone was also the gamer who devised the convention of referring to dice as D(number), such as D6 or D10.

Five weeks later, Johnstone had already formed a further opinion about what the game was about, relating this opinion specifically to the issue of lethality that I discussed above, which is still discussed constantly today. On April 24, 1975 (APA-L 519) Johnstone wrote, responding to Lee Gold, who was Dungeonmaster for his first game:

Remember, Lee, this is not supposed to be an adversarial situation -- the point of the game is not to kill off the tourists but to give them an exciting ride... Maybe our interpretations of the Game are beginning to drift apart. I would certainly avoid Swanson's Dungeon because of the vindictive air I feel in his constructions... 

Right there, 15 months after D&D was released, brand-new players were talking about different play-styles, different expectations, different opinions on character lethality, the role of the referee, and the purpose of the game as leisure entertainment. And these differences correspond exactly to some of the issues on which players are split still today.

For Johnstone, there was a not-supposed-to in D&D. The game was to give the players an exciting ride. The referee was not supposed to be adversarial. That meant few player character deaths.

To Johnstone's credit, he recognized that this was his interpretation of the game. This was a new phenomenon and it could be interpreted differently. Within one month, though he felt he had drifted apart from some of his friends on what the game was for, foreseeing the potential of a tasteful and skillful Dungeonmaster as an entertainer. (I think of the back cover of the 5e Dungeon Master's Guide, where it says, "Entertain and inspire your players.")

Johnstone's view was just the kind that some RPG commentators of recent years have excoriated as unoriginal, not proper to the game, against its purpose, a way that it was "not supposed to" be played. To these present-day gamers, players who whine about their dead characters are just wimpy snowflakes who don't know how to play real D&D. Deal with it, right?

Well, you can disagree with the long-deceased Ted Johnstone, if you like, and say he didn't really get how it was supposed to be, but that doesn't change the fact that from the moment gamers opened their first D&D sets, in the first year of D&D, they had different expectations, different needs, different concepts of how the game would work.

They still do today.

Play-styles diverged every time a rule book was opened and fell under a fresh gaze, every time a player was dissatisfied with his Dungeon Master's dungeon and decided to make his own, every time a rule made no sense. Some people got into acting out the roles. Some liked the tactical combat. Some liked the stories. Some just liked to laugh with friends. Same game, different preferences.

The fundamental debates about RPGs were baked in from the beginning. They are part of the nature of this kind of game. That's where the cultures of play diverge. It's documented.

I'll have more examples of these early variations and early examples of supposedly late developments another time.