Sunday, December 13, 2009

What I Learned from Porn Girls; or Rules--What Are They Good For?

I have become a regular reader of Zak Smith's wonderfully titled Playing D&D With Porn Stars blog. And not because of the implicit promise of prurient delights. Don't misunderstand, I'm perfectly happy to look at pictures of pretty girls like Kimberly Kane. But the fact of the mater is that I would enjoy Zak's blog just as much if his players were not professionally naked. His posts almost always cause me to think, to laugh, or both.

That is the certainly the case with his latest Actual Play report. That, in of itself, is surprising to me, as I rarely find those interesting. Even the reports of fascinating settings from clever Referees (such as Planet Algol and Dwimmermount) usually cause my eyes to glaze over. I think the difference is that most "Actual Play" reports are, in fact, summaries of the in-game narrative while Zak's are really reports of actual play. That is, his posts are about the players rather than the characters. Reading about other people's characters is, for me, uncomfortably like reading gaming fiction; reading about other people's players is a great window into how this strange past-time of ours is actually played.

All of that is by way of introduction to my subject. In Zak's post, he makes a reasoned and reasonable argument for the utility of edition 3.141's Barbarian class and, by extension, many of those elements hated by the grognards. He suggests that the new player, confronted by the limitless options of the table-top rpg, finds rule-based options helpful; something solid to sink her extra-sharp teeth into (sorry about that).

I think Zak has identified something that most of us oldsters forget: the existential dilemma of gaming. "What do I do?" is the first reaction of an adult playing this game, often followed hard upon by "What can I do?" Those of us who have been playing for decades tend to forget this problem. If you were introduced to gaming, as most of us 2nd Gen gamers were, the dilemma was not so acute. Kids have an utterly uncanny ability to make up their own rules at the drop of a hat. If you haven't watched young 'uns at free play in a while, then do so. All they need is the barest seed of a game--"Let's be ponies!"--and off they go. But when you, the putative adult join, you're apt to face the same problem as the adult newbie gamer: "What do I do?"

Stepping back, the phenomenon that we are looking at here has to do with the limiting function of rules. When edition 3.141 was introduced, a lot of people thought that the additional rules meant additional options for play. "I have a Feat that lets me do that? Cool!" What wasn't immediately obvious was that this is the opposite of the truth. By allowing a character with this Feat to do this cool thing, the game explicitly tells everyone without the Feat that they cannot do this cool thing. In less rules-heavy games, pretty much anybody could do that cool thing, if the Referee and the group like the idea. The rules do not, in fact, open up options, but limit them instead, which is to say that they define play.

This much is basically a truism in the OSR now, so I won't belabor the point. But what is less accepted and is what Zak has identified, is that new players find comfort and direction is limiting their options. If you have no idea what to do, being told that you can do anything you want isn't very helpful. Being told that you can do X,Y, and Z is.

Now this leads me to an intriguing conclusion. With all the talk about how the hobby needs a good, introductory game, it occurs to me that something along the lines of 3.141 isn't a bad idea. Maybe there was a good reason that that edition brought a bunch of people into the game. Those defining mechanics can be analogous to training wheels on a bicycle (although that is not a very good analogy, I'll admit). The thing is that, as with training wheels, you aren't supposed to keep them forever. Good bicycle riding and good gaming both ask for you to remove your limiting factors and go nuts.

One might argue that back in our day, when we walked uphill both ways to game, we didn't need no stinking training wheels. Maybe not. Besides the fact that many of us learned from older gamers, there is the big difference that potential gamers today have more alternatives than we had in the all those online thingymabobs, many of which have already inculcated the idea that training wheels are good. Which leaves me to wonder if the ideal intro game would be something quite limiting in character, but which does not run to extended game play. What if one of the Wizards' edition only ran to Level 3, a Basic Game, after which you dropped all those defining rules, took off the training wheels, and just let go?

Post-script: Although I have only glanced at it, it looks as if Green Ronin's Dragon Age rpg, may be exactly what I am describing here. However, I don't really expect them to drop rules as the game levels up. But we shall see.

2 comments:

  1. > that new players find comfort and direction is limiting their options

    There's a concept in UI design along these lines. "Curse of options" or something like that. "One button" Apple products are the pinnacle/extreme of this. I believe even some scientific research that supports your conclusion.

    AH bookcase game style programmed instruction, where you started playing with just the barest rules, then each new scenario introduced another layer, such as artillery, or tanks. Is a good way to get people into RPGs. Even simple rpg systems are massively complex (compare to Risk or even Cataan which is very complex for most people).

    I'm building my next campaign (both rules and "the world") with these concepts in mind. Few choices up front, but adding more options/background/choices with each session.

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  2. Great points. But here's the interesting bit: the Avalon Hill games added rules as you went along. But I'm suggesting that you delete them as you go along. In other words, start with D&D 3.141 and play up to OD&D.

    Mind you, this is just a theory. I'm not sure how it would work in practice.

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