Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Rules are not The Game

I have questions. What is The Game? Why does the system matter? And why do so many people believe that their choice of a game is superior to those of others? How do you even compare the experience of an individual group with that of another group? This is not a rant ...

The Best Game Ever!

We all know the phenomenon. A new game hits the shelves and produces some hype. Sometimes people just believe the colorful advertisement, sometimes the hype just resonates quality, but in all cases you will find statements online* how a game rocks the table or how it is superior to another game (or edition of the same game, for that matter). It's not that difficult to understand if it's just parroting the propaganda (it ain't pretty either, but I can get the motivation), but if it's some play test report claiming such a thing, I'll sooner or later ask myself how much the DM in question had to do with the impression. And then it's not about the game anymore, but about a DM making the game shine.

It's a fact I very often see ignored. A group with a capable DM tries a new game. The DM, being capable and all, has read the rules and is enthusiastic enough about it to get the group to play it. At the time they come together, he already has some ideas what he likes and what not. To make the game work at the table a DM will always work with what he likes, because if he wants this game to have a future at his table, he needs to sell it to the players hard enough to make it stick.

Here is the fun part: if he succeeds, the players will run around, telling everyone who wants to hear it or not how genius the new game is, what great rules it has and how much fun it was at the table. All that jazz. But it had been the DM all along ... Anyway, there's more to it.

Confessions of a Bookseller (Interlude, of sorts)

It's basic sales, really. If you have the name to promote a product, you may use it. But if you are not famous and you want to sell something, you're not sharing your opinion per se, you're sharing your enthusiasm. I don't know how many books I've sold without ever reading them. One could say I had an informed opinion in most cases and it comes with the territory when selling books (fun fact: there are roughly 100.000 new published books per year  in Germany).

In the end you'll try to find out what a potential seller might want and then you use what you know to make him enthusiastic about a book he doesn't know. If you do your job right he might even end up liking it. But you didn't sell him a book, you sold an opinion by using enthusiasm. Often enough his own opinion, for that matter.

Because (and here is a big secret about selling books) you can't know how a stranger will experience reading a book. Even if you've read it yourself you won't be able to use that knowledge and apply it on someone you don't know. Sure it helps and part of the job is to find out what a buyer liked and compare it with your own reading experience or, if all else fails, with that of a colleague. You'll try and make that connection, but it will stay an educated guess.

This gets exceedingly more difficult with specialized literature, because you either need the specialized knowledge to sell those books or the buyer brings it and already knows what he's buying. Now take role playing books as an example and you'll see how difficult it is to really know what a game is about and how impossible it is to give an informed opinion about it in a way that helps someone else understanding a game short of reading it himself.

The easy way is to "sell an opinion". This is the short cut, you share the enthusiasm about an experience you had with a game. It's not about the rules or the product, it's a sales pitch.

So what is The Game?

I think we have established by now that it ain't what they tell you on the cover or what others tell you about it. Can't be. Neither it's the experience of another group. It's not even the rules, because we all know how every system of rules will play out different at another table.

If I where to make a guess, I'd say it all starts with a lie you believe and can get excited about. It's that enthusiasm a set of rules needs to get a chance. Depending on how long that enthusiasm holds, a game will end up being played at a table. Understanding this means understanding why inspiring artwork and good writing are essential for role playing books. You need those little "lies" to push through and get to an understanding of how to promote the game yourself. So at this stage it still is not The Game. For this to work you'll need players.

My very first rpg. I saw that cover and I wanted to
play that game. Still do, as a matter of fact. It helps.
So if a game gets past a DM it needs to be successful at the table. The rules in this are secondary, really. What's important here, as I mentioned above, is if the DM is able to sell the game to the players. Or better yet, if they can come to a broad agreement about it. Now it's that shared enthusiasm that needs to hold long enough to make a continuing game happen.

So if a game works at a table it's the product, the rules, the DM and the players in concert with each other. It's never one of those factors alone and it's always a very individual experience.

How can one game be better than another?

Objectively speaking, it can't. If someone tells you another game (or edition) is so much better or superior or whatever, it's most likely (sorry about that) bullshit. They may like it better, but even that is most likely subject to change over time. People might change their view on a system one way or another, they get a chance and reason to read some rules themselves and come to another idea about how they like a game or not ... You name it. Those things change with experience, getting older or meeting new people.

I believe that's the important part here: it's the synergy of all those loose elements that make a game The Game and never just one aspect of it, but it all starts with enthusiasm and it really doesn't mean it'll work that way for everyone else.

Fourth Wall and all that ...

I'm not saying that promoting a game is wrong or that it doesn't need good writing or inspiring artwork in role playing games. It doesn't come down to "YMMV". No. I want to get excited about this stuff and I want the opportunity to find out myself. Getting fired up by the enthusiasm of others is a great way of finding new things to love and play and share. For me it is an important part of the hobby.

There is a limit, though, and it stops with people starting to defend "their" game as the absolute one and only, with edition wars and how this rule is wrong or that way of playing it is superior (if not to say "the right way"). I'm sick of that stuff. Tell me what's good, tell me what 's new. It's all good if it works for you and maybe you're able to convince me to give it a shot. This is all fair game and I'll do the same. Sharing enthusiasm for ideas and games is what this (blogging, the hobby, playing) is all about.

But please understand that we all just share personal experiences here, not The Truth. There's no reason EVER to fight about any of it or claiming some game is "better".

The rules are not the game, the product is not the game, but we are (so play nice).

* It is possible to hear this stuff in real life, I guess, but let's stay online for diversities sake.


  1. You write: "How can one game be better than another? Objectively speaking, it can't."

    That's objectively not true. There are some games that just have bad mechanics.

    Yes, sometimes that is a subjective opinion, but you can't make the blanket statement that one game can't be better than another. Anyone whose even heard of FATAL knows for a fact it is the most terrible thing to ever be called a "game". There's also the example of The World of Synnibarr which is its own special kind of terribleness.

    Objectively speaking, there are shitty games. So other games must be better than these shitty games.

    Now, if you were to say "Objectively speaking, no version of D&D is really superior to another version of it; it's more a matter of taste." I could almost agree with that sentiment... but that also doesn't excuse the terrible editing and organization that happened in 1e rule books to make that version of the game the most difficult to read through and understand.

    Later versions are "better" in that they had editors and were re-organized to make the rules easier to digest and understand.

    So, yes, I somewhat agree that for any individual game session, the DM makes or breaks it for the rest of the group. But you can't then extend that to mean "No game is better than any other."

    1. Alright, this is an argument I most likely can only make for role playing games. But it's something I can do since the post talks exclusively about role playing games: if we can agree that the rules are not the game, but the synergy between rules, DM and players (maybe with a wider context of effective marketing) make what we perceive as a game, then it is objectively true that if a game fulfills all those factors, it is not a bad game.

      I think this is the point you missed, since your argument is completely based on rules. But since gaming groups have a self-regulatory mechanism that allows tinkering to an extent with a game that makes it playable under certain circumstances, with gaming communities (online or offline) to help along the way (that's why it's an argument I can't do with the same confidence for board games, for example), it is impossible to claim that a set of rules couldn't be played if there are actually groups out there using it. Those who wrote the rules of the games you gave as examples, for instance.

      In this context it's, in my opinion, totally legit to say that no game is better or worse than another. If it doesn't work for you, that would make it subjectively bad, but it doesn't mean others won't have fun with it. Right?