Friday, August 11, 2006

Theory

Okay. Yesterday, RPGpundit declared (among other things):
D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG, and therefore also the model for a successfully-designed RPG. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that D&D in any of its versions was an example of a "bad" RPG is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
He's made this claim (and stronger variations on it) before, and a lot of people seem to accept it as gospel. To be sure, there's an element of truth here. RPG theories don't work if they indicate that D&D isn't fun. It is. A lot of people enjoy it.

On the other hand, there is a fallacy inheren in this. The fact that D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG in no way entails that it must be the model for every successfully-designed RPG. There is no logical connection there at all. Moreover, the fact that D&D is the model of what most people define as an RPG does not even entail that it is a particularly well-designed RPG (though it may be).

What does it mean to be popularly perceived as the model RPG? It means that you have the largest market share around. Let's replace D&D and RPG with some other things:
Coca-Cola is the model of what most people define as a soft drink, and therefore also the model for a successfully-designed soft drink. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that Coca-Cola in any of its versions was an example of a "bad" soft drink is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
McDonalds is the model of what most people define as fast food, and therefore also the model for successfully-designed fast food. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that McDonalds in any of its versions was an example of "bad" fast food is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.
George W. Bush is the model of what most people define as the U.S. President, and therefore also the model for a successful U.S. President. It can be improved upon or changed, but any theory that suggests that Bush in any of his versions was an example of a "bad" U.S. President is by definition in violation of the Landmarks.

Now, I'm not saying that D&D is bad or anything. I'm just saying that this argument is invalid. A graduate education in philosophy has made this sort of thing into a bit of a pet peeve.

11 comments:

Jeff Rients said...

While I see your point I can't help but note that your examples are not perfectly analogous. Although I'm in the minority on this one, most other people agree that D&D was the first RPG. Coca-cola was not the first soft drink, nor was McDonalds the first fast food joint, nor was what's-his-face the first president. Coca-cola was not the undisputed leader of soft drink products for the overwhelming majority of the existence of soft drinks. McDonald's pedrigree does not go back to the origin of fast food, a technology known to both the medieval Chinese and Imperial Romans. And George Bush's position as leader of this country has been disputed. (Which reminds me, I still need to track down one of those "Charlton Heston is my president" bumper stickers so popular with NRA members in the 90's.) For D&D there is no Pepsi-Cola. There is no George Washington or Al Gore. There is no blue plate special or Taco Bell.

szilard said...

Let's assume for the moment that D&D is the first RPG (which I don't believe - I think that "Cowboys and Indians" and "Cops and Robbers" and such are LARPs... and I'm pretty sure I was roleplaying with action figures and toy soldiers before I ever played D&D).

Does that make a difference? Why?

We can imagine that the first fast food was incredibly popular. Does the first fast food define what we think of as fast food (much less good fast food) today? Should it? Can we say that if that fast food were to still exist today, that it might be "bad" in some way? RPGPundit seems to be saying that it would make no sense to do so. That makes no sense to me.

Jeff Rients said...

You're right. I'm splitting hairs here on a tangent.

But I still agree that D&D is "the model for a successfully-designed RPG." But I think one can reject parts of that model or modify them. I agreed with Pundit's so-called 3rd Landmark because I thought it was axiomatic. I have never seen an RPG outside the shadow of D&D. Never. Every RPG I have encountered has been influenced (in some cases indirectly through several generations of design) by D&D, rejecting, adopting or modifying various parts as suited the designer. I agree with Pundit's premise because I consider it inescapable, a fact of existence for anyone already in the hobby.

Show me someone who has designed an RPG in a vacuum, without exposure to D&D or any of its numerous progeny, and then we can talk.

This position brings us right back to my least favorite thing to discuss: the definition of the term "role-playing game". Ugh. You say "Cops & Robbers" in an rpg and I say your definition is unhelpfully broad. (Heck, I'd almost say you were cuckoo nutbar loony for holding this opinion, but I like you and don't want to be a jerk about it.) I don't think I can do anything to talk you into the position that D&D was Something Different, an innovation, a new thing unto itself. All I can do is boggle at the fact that you're in the hobby at all if you don't think that is true. D&D and other rpgs work for me because they tickle a part of my brain that is not stimulated by TV nor boardgames nor Cops & Robbers nor anything else.

szilard said...

Maybe we had an unusually large number of rules when we played make-believe as kids...

In any case, as I saif it is irrelevant whether D&D was the first rpg.

Here is, maybe, a better example of why:

I'm going to posit that the Ford has roughly the same relationship to automobiles that D&D has to RPGs. There may well have been cars before the Model T, but they are largely irrelevant influence-wise.

(Note that my knowledge of automotive history is spotty at best. It is somewhat irrelevant if my facts aren't true, though. The point is that they could be.)

For the first 30+ years of the automobile industry, Ford was the undisputed leader. No car was made which was not a near-direct response to the Model T.

(Remember, D&D is about 30 years old.)

Can we imagine, today, a car that is made by someone who isn't Ford that reinvents the automobile? Something that bears little-to-no relationship to the Model T?

Sure. It's easy.

A lot of that is because the automobile industry has changed dramatically in the last sixty years. Cars are made for a variety of specialized purposes (fuel-economy, speed, storage capacity, passenger capacity, comfort, etc.). Cars are aimed at a variety of different demographic groups - most of which weren't targeted as Model T buyers... and many of which didn't even exist when the Model T was sold.

RPGs are (for lack of a better term) a technology. Should we expect this technology to remain stagnant? Should we define the technology in term of whatever the historical industry-leader is doing?

Can't we imagine that - maybe in twenty years if not today - there might be rpgs with very specific goals from D&D marketed at very different demographic groups from D&D - that don't look like D&D?

If not, we aren't very imaginative.

szilard said...

A few other points:

D&D and other rpgs work for me because they tickle a part of my brain that is not stimulated by TV nor boardgames nor Cops & Robbers nor anything else.

Great.

I don't see how this is relevant, though. Different people get different things out of RPGs - and that's great. For some people, it is very much like watching TV. For other people, it is a lot like a strategic boardgame. For a lot of people, it is like none of these.

There's no reason in my mind that different sorts of RPGs couldn't be created that emphasize these different aspects. Many of them might not look like D&D. You and I may not enjoy many of them. I think it is a bit self-centered to deny the "RPG" status to the ones that don't appeal to us in the way most RPGs do.

Show me someone who has designed an RPG in a vacuum, without exposure to D&D or any of its numerous progeny, and then we can talk.

This is a more interesting point, but it doesn't actually support the claim that RPGPundit was making (i.e., that all RPG Theory has to recognize that D&D is a good - if not the best - RPG around).

I'll point to my other historical examples, though. Historically speaking, all modern car designs have been influenced by cars that had their design influenced by the Model T. Does this mean that any theory of car design has to recognize that the Model T is a good car (much less the best possible car)? I mean, by most of today's standards it is pretty lousy.

Jeff Rients said...

Ah, now you've hit an analogy I can follow! Thank you for making another attempt. The Model T throws some additional light upon what you are saying.

I don't see how this is relevant, though. Different people get different things out of RPGs - and that's great. For some people, it is very much like watching TV. For other people, it is a lot like a strategic boardgame. For a lot of people, it is like none of these.

So why do spend time play Exalted and D&D rather than Cribbage? What makes it work for you in such a way as to make it a superior way to spend time compared to say, knitting or needlepoint?

Can we imagine, today, a car that is made by someone who isn't Ford that reinvents the automobile? Something that bears little-to-no relationship to the Model T?

If it bears no resemblance to the Model T, in what way is it a car? If ants were hats they wouldn't be ants anymore. All you're doing here is pushing me towards Settembrini's position, that Forgie games are a different animal entirely.

it doesn't actually support the claim that RPGPundit was making (i.e., that all RPG Theory has to recognize that D&D is a good - if not the best - RPG around).

Maybe you are right. But I'm going to stick two more watered-down points:

1) Every non-D&D RPG I've ever seen was somehow a response to or development from D&D. (The handful of D&D-like items that preceded the game I'll term proto-RPGs.) I have yet to see a comparable parallel development from an outside source. So any theory that includes 'D&D is crap' is just talking trash to its parents. I won't go so far as to call that theory invalid, but I will view it as suspect.

2) D&D remains the center of the hobby due in no small part to providing a satisfying gaming experience to large number of participants in the hobby. There have been times when other designs had the opportunity to knock D&D out of the number 1 spot. The hobby is littered with these also-rans.

For the first 30+ years of the automobile industry, Ford was the undisputed leader. No car was made which was not a near-direct response to the Model T.

(Remember, D&D is about 30 years old.)


This reminds me of a question I had the other day. How old is the Indie scene? Sorcerer was first published in '98. That was 8 years ago now. In 8 years Vampire came out of nowhere and came about as close as anyone in knocking D&D off of its pedestal. Meanwhile in the first 8 years of its existence D&D went from 'that weird wargame' to carving out its own genre in the gaming world. By the end of that first 8 years D&D Basic sets were already on the shelves of Toys R Us and K-Mart.

What has the Indie Revolution done in those first 8 years?

szilard said...

1) Every non-D&D RPG I've ever seen was somehow a response to or development from D&D. (The handful of D&D-like items that preceded the game I'll term proto-RPGs.) I have yet to see a comparable parallel development from an outside source. So any theory that includes 'D&D is crap' is just talking trash to its parents. I won't go so far as to call that theory invalid, but I will view it as suspect.

There are many different ways to say 'D&D is crap' - and some of them are more suspect than others. For example:

Very Suspect: D&D is crap and all those who play it are stupid for doing so.

Kinda Suspect: D&D is crap because it does a bunch of different stuff in a mediocre way rather than doing any particular thing good. Specialized games are better.

Less Suspect: D&D is crap for a lot of people who might enjoy some other RPG but who are turned off by any of a wide variety of things justifiably associated with D&D.

2) D&D remains the center of the hobby due in no small part to providing a satisfying gaming experience to large number of participants in the hobby. There have been times when other designs had the opportunity to knock D&D out of the number 1 spot. The hobby is littered with these also-rans.

Sure. The hobby, though, is a niche market at the moment - and is largely self-selecting. The "large number of participants in the hobby" is still a tiny, tiny fraction of the population.

If RPGs gained a significantly broader appeal, I'm guessing that it would be due to games which bear less resemblance to D&D (in terms of gameplay, if not marketing) than to some indie games. In such a hypothetical future, I can imagine D&D being a niche RPG. Is that something you are incapable of imagining?


What has the Indie Revolution done in those first 8 years?

They've raised a lot of questions.

They've explored new territory (some of which I am fairly sure has influenced D&D's development itself in various ways).

They've created some games for different demographics (Trollbabe, Cats, Primetime Adventures, Cartoon Action Hour).

I see the indie games as experiments that occasionally yield something really cool and/or useful.

Jeff Rients said...

I see the indie games as experiments that occasionally yield something really cool and/or useful.

Yes, I agree with that. I have a big pile of indie games of greater or lesser interest to me. I've played some of them and enjoyed the time spent on them. But the Indie phenom hasn't overthrown or replaced the preceding paradigm, the way D&D pushed board wargames to a more marginal status, nor the way Vampire tried to do it to D&D. The Indie movement has done some good work, but it hasn't set the hobby ablaze to the same degree the previous 2 revolutions did.

szilard said...

Of course indie games haven't made as big a splash...

Most of them are either designed for niche markets within the gamer population, or designed to appeal to people who aren't typically in the gaming population.

In either case, they have universally lacked the marketing that would be needed to popularize them.

Sure, some people talk like there is (or should be) this huge indie revolution thing going on. I don't see where anyone could reasonably expect that, though. I think the fact that there is all this experimenting going on, though, is good for RPGs as a technology.

Jeff Rients said...

Looks like maybe I shouldn't have been so quick to denounce the indie revolution. This is from Mearls:

"I think that if you tabulated total RPG sales per booth at the show, the Forge booth/IPR would have come in third behind WotC and WW. It's interesting to watch Ron Edwards's predictions from 1999 slowly come to pass."

szilard said...

That's fascinating.