Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Tempering “This Is the Way”

 Persistence without insight will lead to the same outcome.”

The Armorer from The Mandalorian

I’ve been reading some miniature wargaming rules, some from the 1970s and others having been around a while that still see a good deal of play today. I’m guilty of acquiring games of various forms – roleplaying games, wargames (both board and miniature), even board games – not necessarily to play but to read for their own sake, seeing how each uses rules and components to craft a particular play experience based on a setting. Some authors of older rules assume an attitude that their particular method of playing a game is the way (at least the way for them), sometimes looking down on or dismissing other rules concepts that don’t work with their vision. “This is the way,” one might say, to coin a phrase made popular by the Star Wars Mandalorian series. Naturally where one rigidly declares their rules are the best way of playing a particular game others will rebel against it, offering an alternative emphasizing different game aspects. Much of early gaming – roleplaying as well as wargaming – evolved through this reactionary give and take, with games emerging in response to and in competition with other rules, based on what individual designers felt worked best to provide a satisfying game experience. Certainly games have changed over the years, especially with the accessibility to both publishing and distribution computers and the internet have enabled in the 21st century. To me it’s interesting to see inflexibility in a play activity, though no doubt I’ve been guilty at some point of being too rigid in my game interpretations. I remind myself that everyone finds satisfaction in games differently, that, as always, your mileage may vary. And in many cases, as demonstrated in The Mandalorian’s third season, several divergent, adversarial groups can come together, relax their rigidity, and work toward something new.

The Mandalorian series illustrates the concept of adhering to and questioning doctrine. The first season we see Din Djarin live according to the strict Mandalorian code, as he knows it, drawing aid from the community that believes this philosophy. At points in his adventures he meets others wearing the coveted Mandalorian armor; he soon discovers not everyone holds to the same concept of a “Mandalorian code” as he maintains. At one point, however, he must break a core aspect of his code during a critical point in a mission; his like-minded community members later cast him out for this transgression. Din Djarin must then make his own way in the galaxy, discovering his own personal code of values. Ultimately these rigid communities set aside their differences, while still retaining their identities, to work together toward a shared goal.

Gamers have been declaring their methods of play “the way” for a while; they’ve been reacting to other established games and developing their own for just as long. The German kriegsspielen – developed around 1800 in response to French military aggression – demonstrate both aspects of rigid adherence and flexibility in both their play style and overall evolution. Early versions took many elements of chess, modified with battlefield concepts like terrain and troop types. When the elder von Reisswitz devised his game, he created an experience using a customizable board with realistic scale, units, and rules for interactions...all moderated by a knowledgeable referee. His son expanded on this, doing away with the cumbersome board cabinet and using his pieces on topographical maps. Both games saw popularity with the Prussian Kaiser and his general staff, perhaps the ultimate “official” endorsement for a game. As kriegsspielen continued developing, two core methods of play evolved: the a strict adherence to the rules by two players (the “rigid kriegsspiel”); and a more freeform interpretation of the game using a referee making judgments on the evolving game situation (“free kriegsspiel”). Ultimately von Reisswitz was sidelined by his jealous superiors. Yet his game was so successful it enjoyed great popularity with the Prussian officer corps, supposedly contributed to victory in the Franco-Prussian War, and inspired a host of “professional” wargames that helped train military leaders ever since.

The reaction to Kriegsspielen created a host of offshoots improving on or reacting to the basic idea of a wargame. Look at the gaming fanzines of the mid-late 20th century and one sees a host of rules clarifications, modifications, and re-visualizations in the form of new games covering similar conflicts with new approaches to established rules. Roleplaying games soon followed – and continue to follow – this trend, especially in the interest of corporate branding. Dungeons & Dragons quickly faced a host of “imitators” seeking to publish their own spin on how best to run a roleplaying game (and hoping to capitalize on this new aspect of the gaming hobby). Everyone wanted to publish their vision of the best rules for a particular gaming form; and many advocated theirs as the best – sometimes the only – way to play. The collectible card game craze also saw this kind of reaction, with new games seeking to modify or adapt the format to different themes (also in an effort to capitalize on this evolutionary step). As both a designer and a player I’m still frustrated by each new game company putting it’s own spin on the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings license...a corporate necessity, for certain, but one that drains the wallets and attention spans of gamers. Gamers engage in debates touting their favorites while disparaging competitors. Each of us must find our place on the spectrum between rigidity and flexibility, especially in the face of some rules that insist theirs is the only way to play.

Miniature wargames and roleplaying games in particular encourage us to “house-rule” standards and procedures to work best for us: for our play style, our fellow gamer audience, for the toys we have on hand. During my recent rulebook reading I tried envisioning how I could play the wargame rules using the toys I have on hand. But I found most such rules rely on rigid formats, particularly in the size of bases for figures and the number of miniatures one must field in each unit. This remains one of the frequent complaints wargamers voice: games require one’s pieces to conform to very strict specifications, usually of scale, base size, and figure counts. And while I acknowledge this sets a standard when disparate gamers gather at conventions or at clubs, when I’m playing at home, as long as both sides follow the adjusted standard, the game still offers a fair, enjoyable experience.

Humans have an urge to share things they like among their friends, a hobby community, even complete strangers. Codifying their “rules” for having fun helps share those concepts that fulfill their gaming needs and find like-minded players. It’s up to individuals to read them and decide for themselves if these are right for their own particular play styles. Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. Gamers have a reputation for tinkering with established rules to reflect their own preferences. Often gamers find something in a rules set that interests them, that they find appeals to an aspect of gaming they like; they might “house rule” it into their preferred game rules or, increasingly in today’s media-driven society, create their own vision of rules incorporating original ideas and concepts from others they enjoy.

Bo-Katan walks both worlds.
This is the way. Not a rigid, “My way’s the only right way!” path, but a method whereby we evaluate and modify our play activities to provide maximum satisfaction for ourselves and, hopefully, others gathered around our gaming table. It’s certainly provided a diversity of evolution to the adventure gaming hobby even before the widely accessible Internet Age. No doubt creatives will continue playing established rules, adding their own adjustments, and producing their own versions well into the future as the hobby continues evolving.

Just as we shape the Mandalorian steel, we shape ourselves. We all begin as raw ore. We refine ourselves through trials and adversity.”

The Armorer from The Mandalorian

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