Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Rules as Written, Game as Played

 The essence of a role-playing game is that it is a group, cooperative experience.”

Gary Gygax

Chevy Chase's character from
Community prepares to run D&D....
After last week’s missive about “rigid” and “free” rules I started thinking about the flexibility roleplaying games have always offered and the variable experience they provide when mixing a rules system with a setting, a particular gamemaster, and a certain group of individual players. Sure, all games provide some variability with different participants within the more rigid structure rules impose. But roleplaying games offer a lot of room for interpretation to suit different play styles: which rules a gamemaster relies on and which they use infrequently or even ignore completely; to what degree the participants focus on rules, character roles, or setting; where an adventure moves and how it involves players and their characters. Roleplaying games give us lots of freedom between the rules as written and how we run them, subject to interpretation and collaboration between everyone at the table. All these variables sometimes lead to inconsistent quality. Sometimes game sessions can be terrible; but with the right combinations, the experience can seem magical. Each person at the table and their interpretation of a game (internally as a mindset and externally through play) represents a wide-ranging variable...all of which can affect the course of the game and the satisfaction each person finds in it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Rigid or Free?

 A key issue from the outset was whether it was better to codify the game system within comprehensive rules and charts or to base the modelling of movement and combat on the wisdom and experience of an umpire.”

Philip Sabin, Simulating War

Early wargame rules established two acceptable play formats: rigid and free. When military personnel started creating wargames in the early 19th century, an umpire or even a team of referees adjudicated wargame conflicts. Those in the “rigid” style adhered to carefully crafted rules governing many, if not all, possible actions and contests within a game scenario. The referee served as a knowledgeable intermediary, someone so immersed in the rules as to function as a reference when applying them consistently during play. This allowed players to focus on the action depicted on the wargaming table from the perspective of officers commanding troops in the field, much as they’d been trained. Those in the “free” style relied on their own military expertise and judgment to interpret the situations on the board, possibly also with some institutional doctrine and perhaps loose guidelines regarding conflicts on the battlefield. Free kriegspiel relied on an expert’s informed yet subjective opinion rather than established, comprehensive rules. As wargames evolved they branched in several directions, including professional and hobby as well as rigid and free. Free games continued to exist — especially in the military sphere or exercises like matrix games — but most games, especially in the growing hobby, skewed toward rigid. We can look at games in our own time through the lens of rigid and free play...but they primarily sustain the trend toward the rigid end of the spectrum.

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

“No Superlatives or Absolutes”

 The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

Joseph Conrad

I believe games have a great deal to teach us about ourselves and the world around us, beyond simply the escape and enjoyment they provide (though these in and of themselves make them worthy). In times like these, where the world and society seem bent on tearing themselves apart – apparently indifferent to the humanitarian cost – we seek solace, however momentary, in our favorite pastimes. As I try processing all of this, I remind myself of a game-related maxim I’ve tried to bear in mind in my later adult years. I once applied it, along with numerous other guidelines, as editor for West End Games’ Star Wars Adventure Journal and other roleplaying game projects. It has, oddly enough, echoed beyond those years within the Star Wars film canon, though many ignored it as inconvenient. “No Superlatives or Absolutes.”