Sunday, October 6, 2013

The People vs. System Mastery (Ode to the Dungeon Master)

Charlie over at Dyvers started reading Role-Playing Mastery by Gary Gygax on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Being published in 1987, the tome is problematic for several other reasons than the obvious "only system mastery can lead to a fulfilling game experience!"-antics (Gygax is referencing AD&D quite often, but had TSR already left and the witch hunts of the satanic panic were on its peak). It's an interesting read and everyone interested should join discussing it. So this is related, but I wanted to add a more contemporary view of the topic. System mastery is the pink elephant in the room everybody decides to ignore. Here are some thoughts.

All I hear is excuses

Presentation is key if you want somebody to understand the rules you're writing. Having all necessary rules in one book is one way to make this possible and it has been successfully done for D&D (I'm talking about the Rules Cyclopedia, of course). But presentation goes deeper into the system than just accessibility. Rules for role playing games should cover most eventualities and build a complete frame from which everything else could be achieved or derived. This should be basic, not optional.

What do we get instead? A game that publishes itself obsolete within a few years because of rules bloat and a licence for everybody else to publish additional rules without any quality control at all, just to accelerate the process. This is, of course, on purpose, because you can only earn money with a game if it's not complete to begin with but has the need for clarifications and alternatives already build in to a degree that makes it easier to just buy the follow up instead of making the game your own. See the pattern? Sounds familiar? I hope so.

If this is questioned you will hear excuses as long as it is convenient. After a time they'll just say, they hear the complaints now and it is time for a change. Now they'll listen from the beginning, of course. And they need you to believe this, too, because only if you believe in a final nature of published rules, you will value your contribution (or lack thereof) more than the work that is implied by buying and using the books. Or to put it another way, it's the illusion of a finished product and the bluff that the customer was somehow considered during the process.

This, in turn, has so many implication, it's hard to see where to start. For one, the quality of a game designer working for a big company is not measured in his ability to make a good game or system or adventure, but in his ability to produce those illusions to sell more product. It will produce a system that totally relies on product support, final answers regarding the system will always need the publisher to have the final word. It also diminishes the position of the DM dramatically and to a point where players think they have the right to use the rules against the DM*.

System Mastery is still possible in those games, but they sure make it as hard as humanly possible to achieve, questioning the need for it all the time, damaging one of the most important parts of the game in the process. The rest is done by the people believing in the publishers and talking about the game in a social context**.

All I hear is lies

The first lie you will hear when encountering someone who's into playing the game, is that you can sit down and start to play. In a worst case scenario it's the most annoying thing you can have at the table. Why is that? There are at least the social etiquette and the long-term narrative aspects that need to be considered as essential parts of the game. Those are pretty basic concepts, but they should be understood before the game starts. The rules are secondary to the interaction of the people meeting to do nothing else for hours at a time but playing this one game***.

This is only natural. You just don't tell someone you want to get excited about something you're excited about, how much he would have to invest to have fun with it. Or the desire to have someone joining the game exceeds that person's suitability for it. But it's wrong nonetheless.

The second lie is that those players knowing all the published rules of a role playing game have an advantage in the game. Not only is it as worthless as only knowing the rules of chess, it also ignores the theoretical nature of published rules. At best they could be considered as a proposal. The more complex the game, the higher the probability that a DM will custom it to his needs. It's a natural reaction, but mostly not considered as something that is an important part of every individual game and as such predominant to the rules. Of course, most of the early rule books were aware of this, but what it really means when they write that the DM has the last word about the rules is mostly ignored nowadays.

The lie in this particular case is not that there is a use in knowing the rules, but that there is an advantage to be gained for a player. To be honest, I hate this kind of thinking. It's selfish and all that might be achieved with an attitude like this will most likely damage the game. The important thing is to know how the DM interprets the rules and how that benefits the group. A player might have an active part in the individual manifestation of a system and he should have at least a basic understanding of the rules, but as soon as he searches for advantages only aimed at personal gain, it harms the game****.

Again, it is only natural. A published system is the common ground between individual groups, after all. And it's normal for players to look for the best possible character or weapon or whatever and talk about it. It's the first thing you encounter when making a character with another player and not with a DM guiding you. But in the end it means just two things: a broken part of the system will be used against the system, players will have no problems with finding and abusing broken parts of the system. Doesn't make it less wrong, though.

The pink elephant

For the publishers it's more important that you buy the game than that you're actually playing it. As far as they are concerned, they will provide you with everything they deem necessary to play the game, as long as you're willing to pay for it and they see a profit. After that they'll make sure enough people believe they had an epiphany and the next edition will right all the wrongs that have been done in the past. They don't help.

Players who'd rather believe in the marketing and advertisement of a game and what it means for their nerd-ranking than actually starting to think about what it means to play a role playing game, will harm the game in one way or another. They don't help.

Casual players won't help either, but might not harm the game as much as an ill informed but more involved player. They are just not interested enough.

But what is left? If you take away the hyperbole and fanboys associated with the next best rpg in print and believe finding solutions for broken rules to be a DM's duty, you have to consider talking about system mastery, too. This is, at it's core, the DIY movement. This is why, after the commercial pressure of establishing something new had faded, Pathfinder and Basic Fantasy suddenly produced functioning 3E clones or why Swords & Wizardry and all the other clones are considered to be variants of D&D.

It's the sole reason for the OSR being such a vivid and expanding community and why it's, at least in my opinion, not only about D&D, but about discussing and discovering what is really important in all role playing games: how to make it work. It's not about a free adventure the-guy-on-that-other-blog did (which is nice, nonetheless), it's about seeing that it is indeed possible to do such things and an idea how to do it. It's about experimenting with what was proposed and pushing it to it's limits to see what happens.

It's what nobody wants you to realize, what nobody really talks about: this will result in an individual version of the game you want to play and it will (eventually) result in system mastery. But it is work.

Consider this as an Ode to the Dungeon Master. The game is yours, make it work and do with it what you want.

*To clarify: I'm not against players using the rules in a clever way, maybe even to beat "the system", but as soon as a player starts a sentence with "But the rules say...", implying that I'm DMing the game wrong or to my advantage or with an agenda or whatever, I will make sure that the player realizes it will have severe consequences if he keeps doing so during play. In the end, if the players don't believe in my integrity, they might as well go somewhere else.

**I'm not talking about blogging or discussing in forums, because those activities are not about introducing new people to the hobby, but discussing it among people that are already in the hobby. Thought I might clear that up.

***I once had a new player that was just staring at me, listening with a faint smile, as if I were some kind of radio and he was treating himself with some sort of entertainment. He just didn't realize he had to participate...

****To be clear about this, in my opinion is a combination of rules that leads to a way too powerful character considered a broken part of the system and I won't allow it. A powerful character is not result of a system, but result of good role playing.


  1. You scored a critical hit with this article.

    1. Thanks! Also for taking the time and read all of it!


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