Thursday, March 28, 2013

Musing: Voiding the Warrantee

It almost seems like the monthly of D&D campaign is trapped in Xeno’s Paradox and I never quite seem to get there. This is my last chance to blather on about it before I actually have to produce something. So blather I do.

There’s the well-known Alfred North Whitehead quote “The safest general characterization of the philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato." That gets bandied about in various other contexts with different names, but RPGs, with their very specific, documented creation date, are footnotes to Gygax and Areson. I hold this to be self-evident. Bust more than that, I think that all of RPGs after the original D&D come from ‘voiding the warrantee’.

To the best of my knowledge Lisa Padol coined that phrase in the meaning of taking a game system and using it to do things that the original designers never intended. Her example of this was using D. Vincent Baker’s “Dogs in the Vineyard” not just in other settings but without using the community design rules which Mr. Baker insisted were integral to the game. Once you do that, she argued, you’ve voided the warrantee and can no longer complain that the system doesn’t work as advertised.

The three little brown books and their supplements presented a very specific game of exploration, interaction and conflict built around some incredibly versatile ideas: that the ‘figure’ used has a distinct personality; that the physical figure can be abstracted away entirely, eliminating the need for any game board at all and making the figure a ‘character’; that the character’s experiences carried from one game session to the next allowing for improvement of skills and personality; the expansion of the referees role to that of creating a scenario against which players form a semi-unified front. Yes, the inclusion of fantasy and SF elements in war gaming was interesting, but they had been going on for a while at various war gaming clubs. The concept of a referee who had to make on the fly decisions when people made crazy ass moves with dragon minis when fighting Napoleonic soldiers was also established among war gamers. It’s the big four ideas I mentioned that were unique and powerful.

And as such were immediately taken out and tinkered with in ways that would void the warrantee. Of course, the original LBBs ended with “why do you want us to do more imagining for you?” or words to that effect – the designers were urging people to fill in the games gaps in their own ways, implying there was no warrantee.

Later, of course, Gygax would famously declare that too much of that sort of thing rendered D&D to be a “non-game” since there was too little continuity from table to table. If no one was sure what rules were in force it made his dreams of respectable tournament play (and quite likely higher profit margins, and a clear legal break with Arenson) impossible. Hence AD&D and its much more rigid, theoretically complete rules.

Anyway, it’s not entirely true that there were no warrantees: the game as presented worked just fine. OK, the rule book was a opaque but it could be easily taught and was no worse than other small press war game rule books out there. (I remember my own confusion as to why Villains & Vigilantes had its sectional numbering system until I started playing Magic Realm and saw that it was drawn from the old war game rules.) But people wanted the game to do things for which it was not designed.
The game has creatures from Tolkein in it, how come it can’t accurately model Tolkein? It claims Howard and Burroughs are inspirations but it doesn’t accurately model Conan and Carter? If it’s meant to model big adventure novels why does my PC keep dying? Why isn’t it more realistic in its combat? Why isn’t it more realistic in its depiction of magic? (?!?!) Why isn’t it more realistic in its depiction the church in the Middle Ages? Why do gold pieces give experience points to anyone? Why does killing monsters give experience to wizards? Why isn’t there a more detailed kill system? Why doesn’t it have more pole arms? (For God’s Sake, think of the pole arms!)

Of course the answer to the first half of these questions is “it’s inspired by, not modeled on; isn’t trying to be anything except itself.” The answer to the second half of the questions is “It’s an abstraction to keep play moving, deal with it.”

These were, of course, unpopular answers for some people, and gamers have spent nigh unto 40 years trying to get the rules in the LBB to do things they weren’t mean to do, voiding the warrantee over and over again. Hell, this whole blog is dedicated to voiding that warrantee by producing my own game rules for specific campaigns, trying to twist the tools of roleplaying into highly specific configurations far outside anything the original designers intended. And that’s good. It’s great that Gary and David told us to stop asking them to imagine for us at the end of their seminal work. More of us should do our own imagining rather than waiting for the great rules/story gods in the sky to provide us with our consumable entertainment.

What isn’t good, at least in my humble opinion, is denigrating the original D&D games, or indeed any older game systems, because they didn’t do what we later decided we wanted them to do. Taken on its own Dungeons & Dragons is a perfectly fun, playable game. It’s not broken, as long as you’re not using it to do something it wasn’t designed to do.

If you void the warrantee, the designers are not responsible for your lack of fun. If you don’t find the game as written fun, it’s probably because you enjoy other games, not that this one is broken. I can play Cribbage for hours. Setback bores me to tears.

A Distant Inheritance, which wraps up on April 20th, was built from the ground up for a very specific style of fantasy campaign. Being a tale of knightly princes, elven wizards, stalwart hangers and Halfling burglars it’s the sort of thing that lots of people would turn to some flavor of D&D to run…and D&D would do a crap job at it. Oh, you could make it work, but it wouldn’t feel as much like the Hobbit as A Distant Inheritance does, and I’d have to twist a lot of rules to get the same story driven outcome. D&D is just a bad fit for this sort of fantasy; trying to force it won’t make anyone happy. In May I’ll be starting a D&D game (in fact, next month’s D&D game) with this same group of players) and it will be in the service of a very different game.

Which is how it should be.