Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Um, it's about fun?

There's a lot of OSR-related fan blogs out there, and I subscribe to several of them, but perhaps one of the most prolific in terms of pure "if it ain't OSR it ain't anything" screed is Hack and Slash.  I sometimes think the whole OSR thing reminds me a bit of the question of a vegetarian diet.  There are those who occasionally go meat-free or at least appreciate what vegetarians are trying to do, those that are "I'll eat fish but that's it," those that are strict vegetarians, and then there's vegans.

Me?  I'm in the first category. I can respect the whole "player agency is good, rules light can be fun and encourage creativitiy," etc.  But I'll still play another game if I feel like it because just like I think meat is a good thing, I think skill rolls are a good thing sometimes too.  The "fish only" people are like individuals who like Castles and Crusades--I'm basically on board, but I'll still indulge in an increasing Armor Class and a stat-check system.  Vegetarians are your OSR-clone users, and vegans are the one who think that Gygax and Metzer hung the moon and that 1st Edition AD&D was the beginning of the end.

Back to C-, the author of Hack and Slash.  In his latest post, he goes off on game realism, laying down the hopefully hyperbolic statement:
Making things more realistic ruins games. Changing things to have them "make sense" destroys fun.
But he even doubles down by saying this is "the most important thing" about game design.  In the comments section, "Beedo" responds:
Nice, righteous, pre-holiday rant. It feels like we ought to be able to boil this down to a pithy statement ("realism is the enemy of fun"), or some kind of equation that demonstrates that as detail, rules, and realism increases, fun decreases.
Now it is not often that I wade into the frothy pool of nerdrage that is OSR-related game theory discussion, but I will this time, mostly because I get frustrated when people ascribe the capacity of fun to a particular quality of a game, particularly when they do so in a monolithic manner.  Here are my questions:

  1. Why doesn't C- like 4E in that case?  It is so unrealistic that I've considered it to be more in the superhero genre than the fantasy one, as every PC in the party is able to summon thorns to sprout up to attack enemies, fire clouds of arrows at once, or transform into a frost giant.  
  2. For that matter, it also eliminated the minutiae of keeping track of food, rations, even torches which, by the way, is simultaneously lauded by the OSR community as an asset of early editions of D&D, because it forces good tactics.  So is logistical detail good or bad?
  3. Where's the recognition that the primary factor of RPG isn't in complexity or agency but in the people with whom you are playing?  The best damn game system in all of Christendom can still get pounded into the ground by gaming with a jerk, especially if that person is the judge.  By the same token, a lousy system can be enjoyable if you're gaming with friends.
See, I think the whole "let's talk game theory so we can find the best RPG experience" is the blogosphere's way of chasing the will o' the wisp.  Tabletop gaming became marginalized because it became the provenance of people who were marginalized in the social ethos of young adulthood (and I'm speaking as one of them).  And all those uncomfortable jokes we kick around about gamer hygiene and social ineptitude are there because they exist.  Knights of the Dinner Table is funny because we know those guys  and we've gamed with them.

And you can criticize whether or not you have a skill roll for Climbing all you want, but we all know that if you were gaming with people whose company you enjoy you probably wouldn't give a tinker's damn about a skill named Use Rope.  The best game campaign I ever played in was Robotech of all things, because I was good friends with all the other players and the judge loved the genre.  I will freely admit it was a sandbox game (although we didn't call it that at the time) and he allowed us a lot of leeway, but that's not a question of rules, that's a question of design.  And frankly you can do more with design when you have a group you like.

And frankly I've played some solid game systems with people I didn't like and was miserable.  It's worth noting that most of these sessions were ones that came out of joining the hive collective of the gaming community, like Meetup or the ol' bulletin board at the gaming store.  In short, they were fully inculcated gamers who like gaming, so there's no question about intent.  I think the rise of online gaming at the expense of tabletop RPG's is ultimately because we realized it was easier to game with people when we don't have to have them in our homes.

I'll finish by saying this: it's great if you love simplistic games or crunchy games or "realistic" games (whatever that means when you're playing in a fantasy genre), and I think that you can be gratified or frustrated in play by the ruleset, but "the most important thing" in roleplaying games is the people.  If I were to adopt a real mission in terms of educating the gaming community via this blog it would be on the ability to recruit the friends you don't mind playing Apples to Apples with into your D&D campaign.

Comments welcome.

Over at Strange Vistas