Game Bashing

11 Jun

Game bashing is a thing that has been around since Gary Gygax hated the first D&D clone. It is a thing many of us have done at one point or another. In fact, many a role-playing game has been written because the people who wrote it were not having fun playing a different game. I wrote Play it Cool, because I had a horrible night playing DC Heroes by West End Games.

But ever since Ron Edwards proposed that game writers facilitate the creative agenda of players when writing their games, I feel that we’ve reached a kind of scientifically divisive point in the game bashing rhetoric. For example if I say that Dungeons and Dragons is a role-playing game, this means something scientifically, and even politically. It doesn’t just mean that D&D is about winning, about succeeding in one’s efforts to solve tactically interesting encounters. It means that D&D is less of a game than Traveller, because Traveller is a role-playing game. And that doesn’t just means that in Traveller you get to play around in a universe of worlds and immerse yourself in the minutia of the lives of the characters that inhabit that universe. Saying that Traveller is a role-playing game, that it is a toy, a sim, also means that it is less of a game than Ben Lehman’s Polaris, which is a role-playing game. Polaris is a game in which the role one plays, the story that is told is the only thing that exists. Characters don’t need to eat or sleep unless that’s a compelling part of the story. Somehow role-playing games like this, so called narrativist games or story games have taken a sort of high ground, and other games have been relegated to lesser status.

I guess I see why this happened. When we think about what people find fun about role-playing games (tactics, fantasy worlds, or story telling) we have to admit that you enjoy a tactically interesting gaming experience playing chess. You could enjoy the fun of exploring a complicated and rich fantasy world in a computer game. But only in role-playing games could you enjoy the fun of making up an exciting story with your friends. So people who have this creative agenda kind of dominate the discussion about new games, while people who enjoy tactics tend to dominate board game and war game discussion. And people who enjoy exploring fantasy worlds dominate discussion of MMORPG computer games, or world-building projects like Orion’s Arm. Nobody complains that Orion’s Arm has no narrative premise or that shogi isn’t immersive enough.

Even though I see how it happened, I feel like it didn’t have to happen this way. A game need not be considered more shallow or more profound, worse or better, based simply on the creative agendas it caters to. And the politics still trip me up. I find myself in a situation in which I want to say, “This isn’t that type of game.” But I stop myself. Or I don’t stop myself and I go ahead and say it, and then I get attacked, as if I were some sort of elitist nerd who’s games are better than the one currently being discussed.

For example, I was just on RPG Stack Exchange, and someone asked the question, “What does Deep Speech sound like?” Deep Speech is the language of D&D4’s Cthulhu monsters, Aboleths, societies near them, etc. The answer of course is that nobody bothered to make it up, D&D4 simply isn’t that sort of game. And considering that D&D takes place in a world that is entirely made up, if we were to now make up an answer, it would be gibberish to you.

For example, I answered, “The accent falls on the ultimate syllable, unless the word possesses a prepositional prefix, in which case the prefix takes the accent. Epiglottal consonants are more common than dental ones with the voiced epiglottal fricative being particularly common. It has a class of sentence ending words often called attitudinals that convey the speaker’s relationship to the sentence, ‘I experienced’, ‘I was told’, ‘I surmised’, but most of them are used to convey moods or emotions that only aberrant creatures and natives of the Far Realm can properly experience. Dipthongs are common in attitudinals and rare in all other Deep Speech words.” It answers the question perfectly, and before the moderators moved it, it even got an up-vote because someone else really liked the answer, but unless you are a linguist, it’s total gibberish.

D&D4 isn’t about this sort of stuff anyway. The game measures distance in “squares”, not feet or meters. They aren’t trying to give you the impression that your imaginary alter ego is exploring an exciting fantasy world. The game has an absolute standard of good and evil. They aren’t encouraging you to tell profound stories about difficult moral choices. No, D&D4 has “per encounter” abilities, meaning a super power that you can use once per encounter. So D&D must be about encounters, about negotiating one’s way past tactically interesting encounters. A player does not need to know what Deep Speech sounds like in order to roll on one’s skill, or make an attack, therefore it will never find it’s way into a D&D4 book, except in the most haphazard type of way, for example, writers choosing exotic and cool sounding place names or people names for areas where characters speak Deep Speech.

If he really wanted to play a game that has answers to those questions, like, “How do they write and how do they pronounce this letter in this language?” then he should be playing Empire of the Petal Throne.

I know it’s elitist, pretentious and annoying to go around telling people they are playing the game wrong, but seriously, if you want to know what Deep Speech sounds like to surprise the other players, you are definitely playing D&D4 differently than the way the game is written. I am certain of this, unless I somehow missed when they added a rule that allows you a bonus if you as a player learn a satanic language, like in Dark Dungeons. And you shouldn’t expect Wizards of the Coast to have answers to something that comes up in only your game. How many copies will they be able to sell if they write a book about the sounds that can be made with Illithid mouth-parts? Very few. OK, so they aren’t going to write that, because almost nobody cares.

You can play the game differently. People play variants of Backgammon, Checkers, Dominoes, etc. And they aren’t wrong. It’s not wrong to play differently. It is only wrong to expect Wizards of the Coast to anticipate how you play differently and to have an answer prepared for you.

Incidentally, there is a game where revealing the startling side adventures and back story elements of your character is part of playing the game well. Not D&D4. You get no benefit for it in D&D4, and no penalty for absolutely lacking back story. The game where it matters is called The Destiny System, and you can get it here.

And I posted all this on my personal blog rather than on that thread in Stack Exchange because I didn’t want to be rude and vote down his question or tell him his question is crap, poorly worded, that I answered his question but he didn’t care, etc. (He never specified in his question that he only wanted to know if there was a canon answer to his question, and I’ve already established that expecting a canon answer from WotC is idiotic, so making up answers should be fair game.) I didn’t want to get involved in a flame war where people would think I was bashing D&D. But I still felt like I wanted to get it off my chest, and repost my response in case someone was making a fantasy retro-clone of MegaTraveller, and they wanted some inspiration to help them fill in those random word generation tables. I tried snarkiness and it was misunderstood. Rudeness would be clearer, but I don’t care enough to be rude to their faces.

If this exchange had happened on any of my more regular forums,, or, I wouldn’t even be posting here. The question would have been asked, “What does Deep Speech sound like?” and I would have posted the answer you read above, and the people on those forums are so admirable and secure that I would have gotten a response like, “Well that’s certainly an answer, but I was hoping for something canon, unless that is canon, in which case could you please post the source.”

And I would have just replied, “No it’s not canon, but there is no canon answer and I doubt there ever will be. It may be true that nobody takes these guys seriously anymore, but I think WotC would rather not rile them up by providing children with a grammar of tentacle monster language.”


One Response to “Game Bashing”

  1. thejamminjabber 22 September 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    I know this post is a few months old, but D&D seems to be in the air these days…

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