The Roots of the Big Problems

December 15, 2009

Some historical context on the big problems rife in the roleplaying hobby, both in regards to design as well as play culture.

Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons & Dragons was the breakout game that started roleplaying as a widespread hobby. Two features of D&D would later become problematic for the hobby, primarily in misuse and with the loss of historical context.

Incomplete Texts

Games as products, include rules to teach you how to play the game.

Roleplaying would start off quite differently -the original 1974 D&D books actually were descriptive of games people were already playing- it was assumed those buying the game were probably already playing some version of it- so the rules were more like cliffnotes rather than full instruction manuals.

New people ended up cobbling together “D&D” based on how they guessed these rules worked and whatever the local folks agreed upon. In context, this makes sense. Out of context, you have people arguing about “the right way” to play something that lacks core rule to begin with.

This would also lead to roleplaying games, in general, simply lacking full rules on how to play. Not only would this make it harder for a new person to pick up a game and learn from the book, this also means that the effect of “Many games under the same name” continues to happen over and over.

(ETA: Relevant Grognardia Quote from Gygax: “…there is so much variation between the way the game is played… there is no continuity and little agreement as to just what the game is and how best to play it.”)

Wargaming Roots

D&D was based off miniatures wargaming, and such, was focused on a lot of things specific to wargaming- combat, movement, encumberance, etc.

What would become a problem later on, was that 99% of roleplaying games would copy these features whether or not it made sense for the game concept.

Tied into the issue of Incomplete Texts, is that the context or reasons for design decisions would be lost over time, yet people still copying them over and over, with less and less understanding what purpose it served (which is basically the opposite of design). Seeing enough of this, many players (and designers!) would come to conclusion that ALL rules were shitty, and mostly worthless and not worth thinking about.

“We’re all playing the same game!”

So you had all these folks playing different games, under the same name. Somewhere, that context was lost. And those people were trying to play together.

Later editions of D&D and most roleplaying games that followed, attempted to cater to ALL of these groups, at the same time.

To “solve” the issue of gamers with mutually exclusive goals trying to play together, there’s a ton of advice in everything from the game texts to magazines and newsletters either a) trying a variety of tricks to try to keep up interest and minimize conflict or b) convince everyone involved that one method is better than all others, primarily by laying claim to “real roleplaying”, and in both cases, with a lot of shame and identity calls as the basis of proof.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
a) A hobby with the general design philosophy that design actually doesn’t matter nor does complete communication of how to play
b) A group of enthusiasts with no means of communicating what they want to do together, and a lot of shaming when that goes wrong


White Wolf Games

White Wolf games were a breakout success hitting the second wave of mainstream push, primarily by cashing in on goth and neo-pagan kitsch. Like D&D, two aspects of White Wolf’s games would become very problematic from a social contract aspect and influence most game groups, one way or another.


White Wolf games promoted a style of play in which the GM ushers the players’ characters through a pre-written story. The problem is that the GM is supposed to do this without the players ever realizing that their choices are limited or non-existent- in fact, contrary to what the rules state (“Players control the characters”) – hence the “illusion”.

Illusionism’s method is deceit and social manipulation. The GM can (and should!) lie, cheat, ignore the rules whenever necessary to produce a good story. These things were not just promoted as acceptable, but signs of a “Master Storyteller”.

Even still, it’s very hard to play to a script you’ve never read, and it’s also very hard to get people to do things without knowing you’re pushing them towards doing so. When’s the last time your unrequited crush read your mind and asked you out on a date? Or that annoying person suddenly stopped being annoying without you saying anything?

Illusionism is a fairly unreliable method of play, yet has become a common standard for most roleplaying games.

Identity & Esteem

The constant calls to esteem worked well as a marketing tool- it served to push the WW games’ branding away from Dungeons and Dragons, and also to bring over gamers from other rpgs in the hopes that this time, the game would deliver on fun story which wasn’t working out with other games.

Of course, these games carried over the problems from before, including not-really-design and wargame bits (the cries about Power Players and Munchkins still remain) except now also you had Illusionism. Which worked very rarely, if at all.

Instead of questioning the design or the theory behind that (after all, there was stacks of books saying it worked), people got frustrated and began pointing fingers and shaming. Later books would have telling phrases like, “The rules exist to prevent bitterness between the players”, which kind of tells you how far it went for some.

The Impossible Social Contract

When you have a core game philosophy that works on “I want you to do things without me communicating them to you” and “I can lie and use social pressure to get there”, there’s not really any basis on which you can build a functional social contract.

Games work because people agree to play by a set of rules. If the rules are unknowable, or, that one person is lying about that agreement, you have no basis on which to negotiate the game or even agree to anything in actuality.

Hobby-wise, this means you have:
c) An atmosphere in which deceit and social manipulation are expected, destroying any sensible space to form trust
d) A culture in which play cannot be analyzed – the methodology of the party line is correct- any errors must be with those around you

I’m pointing these things out as things to be overcome. The typical issues that are bemoaned, “I can’t find people to play with”, “Problem players”, “How do I get my players to do this?” basically grow out of these things.

Next: A Way Out.

ETA: The Forge has it’s articles back online – A Hard Look at D&D is worth checking out. If you happen across any of the OD&D “Little Brown Books” online, you may wish to look at those especially.

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