The Gaming Philosopher Post 2: Why Many Arguments About the Best RPG Are Dumb

In my first post, I promised to discuss not just ways that discussions of philosophical topics (such as time travel) can improve your games but also what light philosophy can shed on just what it is we do when we play games. Today, I want to turn to this latter issue and discuss, in part, just what role-playing games are. More specifically, I want to talk about those lavishly illustrated, wallet-draining sets of rules we all love so dearly. What’s the point of having a set of rules for an RPG? What do these rules represent? And what does all of this tell us about the kinds of debates we get into in our community about which systems of rules are better than others?rpg-bookshelf

Let’s start with the goal of all RPGs: telling a story. When we tell stories, especially in a group, we’re describing a sequence of events that unfolds in a world that we’ve created as the setting for the story. Whether we’re playing an RPG or writing a novel, this basic (and perhaps unhelpful) description of the storytelling process is basically the same. The problem comes from the fact that we’re usually telling stories to or with someone else. If we want our friends to think about the story in the same way that we think about it, we may have to list a ton of boring, trivial facts about the story to ensure that everyone’s on the same page. We can reduce the number of these trivial facts we have to state by relying on what are called “rules of generation” to fill in the gaps and let us move on with our story.

This discussion has been pretty abstract so far, so let’s consider a concrete example. Imagine that you’re Sir Arthur Conan Doyle writing a story about Sherlock Holmes. If you want your audience to understand the sort of hat that Sherlock Holmes is wearing, you need to provide a description of the hat. However, you probably don’t need to mention the fact that Sherlock Holmes has a belly button. Why not? After all, if the author doesn’t state that Sherlock Holmes has a bellybutton, how can it be true that Sherlock Holmes has a bellybutton? The answer comes from the rules of generation: in general, any character described as human is going to be assumed to have a bellybutton since most humans have bellybuttons. We rely on these rules of generation to fill in the gaps in our stories and tell us what is true in the world of our story but not made explicit. To use an example from D20 Radio’s GM Chris, the rulebooks for Star Wars games don’t tell us that Gungans blink, but this doesn’t mean that Gungans don’t blink.

So these rules of generation, along with the stated facts, help us to determine what facts are true in the world of our fiction. But unfortunately, sometimes multiple authors disagree about what’s true in the fiction, and this conflict may be difficult to resolve. My friend Alice may be playing a quick-witted gunslinger on the run from an evil organization. As the creator of the organization, I believe that the organization is incredibly powerful and that the gunslinger doesn’t stand a chance against three of their best agents in combat. Alice, on the other hand, believes that her character is more than a match for these agents based on her years of training. How do we adjudicate a situation like this where two storytellers working together may reasonably disagree about what’s true in the fiction? Well, if Alice and I were writing a book together, we could have a conversation and hash things out, but in the context of playing a game, this would take too long and be boring. So we rely on rules that we’ve agreed upon beforehand to tell us how this combat will shake out. Alice and I are both required to assign statistics to our characters that correspond, roughly, to how well the characters we control measure up to one another. When there’s a conflict, we rely on these pre-established rules to tell us what to do, and we give one storyteller (the GM) a privileged position as the interpreter of the rules who will be responsible for laying down the law in tricky situations.

evil-dmThe rules are there, then, to help us resolve conflicts between two storytellers quickly and painlessly. But the rules also serve other functions. For instance, most game systems contain combat rules that turn battles into tactical mini-games that are fun in their own right, so much so that some RPG combat systems have been translated into the rules for freestanding miniatures games. The rules are also meant to represent and depict a specific sort of fictional world well. They provide us with general regularities that best balance simplicity and strength so that the rules can faithfully represent the parts of the fictional world that we care about the most while also allowing gameplay to proceed quickly. Frequently, balancing simplicity and strength in the rules involves a trade-off. The simpler the rules are, the less faithfully they may depict what it is really like to, say, hack into a corporate website or hack an alien’s arm off. What’s more, what counts as simple to one gamer may seem complicated to another, especially depending on differences in the gamers’ gaming histories. For instance, if I was raised on D&D, systems that are similarly D20-based may seem simpler to me than they would to someone who has played only Shadowrun or White Wolf systems.

This whole discussion brings me to my central claim in this article: most arguments about the superiority of one set of rules over another are dumb. Why? Well, most of the time they involve one person arguing that some set of rules is too simple or too complex while another party argues that it’s perfect. Hopefully, the previous discussion makes it pretty obvious why this debate isn’t going to be a fruitful one: sets of rules are going to have their virtues and vices relative to a specific context. If my gaming group doesn’t run into a lot of conflicts with one another where we need the rules to adjudicate what’s true in the fiction we’re writing, we may be able to make do with fewer rules than a group where the players’ visions of what should happen conflict with each other frequently. One group may be more invested in playing a tactical minigame than another group. And perhaps most importantly, different gamers will care differently about the balance of the simplicity and strength of the rules. More complex sets of rules will typically allow for greater strength of these rules, allowing them to faithfully represent more fictional situations than weaker rules. Simpler rules, though, will allow gameplay to proceed more quickly so that gamers can get onto the parts of the game they care the most about. So if I want a game that faithfully represents computer hacking, I may be willing to accept a more complex system than someone who just wants to get through the hacking quickly and move on to the exciting combat. My point here is that what makes a set of rules virtuous or vicious for a particular gaming group depends on idiosyncratic features of that particular gaming group that can’t always be generalized to gamers as a whole, so discussing the virtues of a set of rules (or really a campaign setting or style of game) without referring to specific gaming contexts or play styles is unproductive and usually devolves into a mere shouting match.

From theweem.com

From theweem.com

I doubt I’ve shocked anyone with this conclusion, but hopefully it has suggested a more fruitful way for discussions about the relative merits of gaming systems to move forward: we can assess the objective features of a game system and compare them across different games by making our context clear. When we claim that a game is simple and intuitive, we can make it clear what our gaming background is so that others can determine whether they’ll be likely to find this game to be simple as well (n.b. most articles on the GSA website contain author bios that give this information, so many articles on the GSA about RPGs are already going to avoid the kind of problem I’ve laid out here). We can also make it clear what sorts of minigames and complexity we like in our RPGs so that, again, those we are discussing a system with can determine whether they would find this kind of complexity in a game forgivable or even desirable. And finally, we should make it clear what our gaming groups are like when we endorse a game so that those with more agreeable or disagreeable gaming groups than our own can take our recommendation with a grain of salt. In short, I think that, in general, a greater responsiveness to the context in which our games are played when we’re discussing the virtues and vices of certain RPG systems may make our discussions more fruitful for all involved and, hopefully, keep them from devolving into the shouting matches we frequently see within the community (though, thankfully, not on this website!).

Well, that’s it for now. Any thoughts on philosophical issues in or adjacent to gaming? Let me know in the comments!

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