A reader linked me to a recent article by UVG author, 3rd generation Artpunkman and indie darling Luka Rejec, wherein he attempts to cope with what appears to be a perfectly reasonable if subjective and very negative commentary on his latest game by outlining his philosophy: It appears no one runs games as written!
This position is so untenable, so divorced from actually playing a game, let alone elementary reasoning, I did not just perform a double-spit take, I am still doing one. If all of existence were composed of nothing but a series of all possible double-spit takes, repeated infinitely, it would not be enough.
I am fondly reminded of an altercation with the dim-witted and foul-smelling Gus L. in the comments sections of tenfootpole, where he took blustery umbrage with my thesis that this Artpunk style leads to sub-optimal results. My position is simple:
A) it has no connection or understanding of the source material that inspired oldschool gaming
B) All the creative energies are directed into areas that are peripheral to the actual adventure or game that is to say, presentation, layout and art, rather then the substance and style of the game
C) The rules are treated as a hindrance, rather then a tool or even the object of the game
Which seems self-evident. The very point of No Artpunk (part 2 coming soon!) was to force people to engange and interact with the substance and fundamentals of the game and to dissuade the sort of easy stunt-writing that passes for good in this fallen age. Now we have here the position that states doing so is fundamentally impossible. It appears my position is certainly not without evidence. Let the fisking commence!
I doubt anyone writes a roleplaying book to suck joy and confidence out of people. I certainly don’t.
In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s not the book itself that leaves people dissatisfied, but a mindset that is quite common:
“a … game to run straight.”
I’ve seen people argue for roleplaying “rules as written” (RAW) and for running adventures “as written.”
I think this is impossible.
Not in the sense of “a hard thing to do” or “something I am not capable, but others are capable of”. No, I mean impossible quite literally.
The nature of roleplaying means that any roleplaying product is incomplete “as written”.
This is essentially a giant cope, and well worth mocking. The consideration that different people enjoy games on a different level is bypassed entirely, as is the consideration that perhaps, there is some error in the presentation or conception of the game, leading to a disconnect between the authors intent and the way the game is read and therefore played. Instead we take the bizarre position that playing a game as written is an impossibility akin to the creation of energy from thin air or two plus two equaling five.
I guess the confusion happens because roleplaying is usually seen and sold as “roleplaying games”. It fits close to board games.
But the two are very different.
Board games are closed: players have a goal (defined by the rules) and procedures (defined by the rules) to achieve that goal. A good board game has clear rules that are easy to follow. A player can win a board game by mastering the rules and using the procedures better than other players. A player who does not follow the rules is a cheater or a bad player.
Roleplaying is open: players choose a goal (sometimes suggested by a playbook) and can use procedures (sometimes defined by the rules) to achieve that goal. Or they can just talk and invent other procedures. A good roleplaying experience can be had entirely without games, defined procedures, or rules. A player can’t win at roleplaying unless having a good time with friends is “winning”. A player doesn’t become a better roleplayer by mastering the rules and using the game procedures better than other players. Often this makes them annoying to other players (a “rules lawyer”). A player who does not follow the rules is not necessarily a cheater (the rules may be irrelevant) or a bad player.
This is the sort of breezy definitional legerdermain that passes for argument these days among Artpunkmen and should have been checked immediately by any comments section worth its salt. Notice that in his comparison Luka, prompted by the wild rearing of his amygdala, omits the word ‘game’ from his definition of Roleplaying, and thereby bypasses the point entirely. Why is the vast majority of oldschool games pre-occupied with obtaining treasure through heroic adventure and the vast majority of newschool games obtained with doing whatever it is the GM sets as milestones? Because there are procedures that determine what constitutes advancement and therefore worthwhile play. It is possible to play entirely without rules yet there are no play reports of long campaigns performed entirely without rules. Why is this so? Because the rules provide an emergent framework and system that can extend far beyond the range of any individual GM. In fact, it is creating systems that allow for an organic and internally consistent world that can respond beyond the GMs discretion that is the very goal a campaign should aim for.
The goal of playing an rpg is not roleplaying anymore then the goal of diplomacy is to impersonate 19th century military officers. Roleplaying is an outgrowth, an adornment of the act of playing the game of DnD that arose spontaneously and can add a lot, but in 9 out of 10 cases, it is not the goal of an rpg. If one was playing World of Darkness storygames then perhaps, we could say that roleplaying could be the goal, but in case of most games, and certainly the OSR, XP is given for killing monsters and obtaining treasure, so that should be the metric of ‘playing well.’ Did your party just die again to an easily avoidable encounter that you could have known was too tough? Did the blue-haired overweight flower-child select Tenser’s Floating Disk again instead of Sleep because it ‘better fits his character concept?’ Then you just lost at rpgs bitch! This entire position is centred around an ‘everyone gets a prize’ mentality that incentivizes being lazy, not figuring out how the fucking rules of the game work (and breaking them is most certainly bad, have you ever caught someone at cheating their dicerolls?) and being slovenly, unwashed and dim-witted in general.
Parts Of A Roleplay
Although rpgs include the word “games”, roleplaying is more like [collaborative] theatre or a poetry session. Board games are games, but roleplaying can happen without games.
Thanks for making roleplaying sound even gayer then it already is. Yes roleplaying can happen without games but as soon as you apply the framework of a game to the act of roleplaying it becomes a roleplaying game. You can apply a poor framework, as you did with Witchburner, and sessions can cause depression and existential malaise, or you can apply a good framework, as Gary Gygax did with D&D, and it can lead to years of gameplay, an ever expanding world, sexual potency, and becoming closer to God. It is the very fact that the framework is limiting which enables such richness and creativity.
What do I mean?
To illustrate, I’ll try and break the act of roleplaying into pieces. This isn’t some kind of global theory—it’s just how I think of roleplay.
The session: a discrete time when a group of people are roleplaying versus doing other stuff, like work or sleep or playing backgammon.
The table: the shared experience of one group of roleplayers playing one or more sessions together. A metaphor.
- The players: folks getting together to invent stuff, play roles in a shared imaginary setting, and improvise what their roles do.
- The roles: the imaginary characters, forces, factions or what have you played by the players.
- The setting: a shared imaginary world in which the roleplay happens. May be based on a published work, a novel, a game setting, or an adventure module.
- The rules: agreed-upon shared procedures for playing. May include games. May include chance or randomness. May be based on a published rule book.
- The story(ies): reveals itself at the end of a session. It grows from the players’ decisions and their consequences. A story can be very different from any one player’s plan or plot for how a session will unfold.
These parts of roleplay are mostly without games.
By games I believe the author means ‘scary math and dicerolling that limit my creative (f)reeeedom’ but this is again wrong and completely alien to actual observed reality. The way this is phrased is as if rules are a sort of optional adjunct to roleplaying games that may or may not come into play, so I ask again, how many groups do you know that play games entirely based on GM’s discretion? If a setting is to have consistency and weight, if the players actions are to actually matter, it must have attributes that are, in a sense, fixed, and cannot be altered by the GM on a whim, and there must be ways in which the PCs can interact with this imaginary world that are at least somewhat predictable so meaningful decisions can be made. Over time, if you are playing a game, rules are inevitable.
One can imagine it as improv theatre that uses a game, a roll of the dice perhaps, to determine which character wins a sword duel. The dice are necessary: if the actors had a real fight, only someone trained in sword-fighting could ever win, which would be boring.
But this pertains to any action the PCs are not ‘trained’ in (how many people do you know that are trained in survival? Hiking? Rock-climbing? Sorcery? Tracking?) and in conclusion, the only thing that can reliably be left to actual roleplaying is the social component. Procedures for any other type of meaningful interaction are absolutely necessary.
Games only intrude into roleplaying when fate or chance is needed to reveal the story.
This admission makes the whole already untenable point more untenable. It is already viewed as necessary that some agency outside of the GM be invoked to resolve matters in a fashion that is consistent yet varied, and the need for excitement is also stated. It is not an adventure (and therefore not exciting) if there is not some possibility of failure, and that possibility must be governed either by dice or by a set of interactional hierarchies (rock beats scissors, scissors beats paper etc. etc.). I.e. Rules. A Game. You can pretend to be an elf (or a woman). You cannot have a roleplaying game without a game.
Game Books As Play Scripts
All roleplaying books are to a roleplaying session a little bit like what a script is to a play.
Roleplaying books is not defined but I assume it pertains to either all roleplaying books (which is incorrect), or modules, which is wrong but consistent.
Reading a Shakespeare play might be enjoyable, but it’s very different from seeing one performed, much less performing in one. And every performance of a play needs interpretation: parts and deliveries fitted to the actors, tone and emphasis adjusted to the audience, costumes and scenes prepared to enthral here and now. And, during the performance, the players are best when they read the room and play to the audience.
Reading a roleplaying adventure module is similar, but the players are both performers and audience (and need less practice). The players preparing a session interpret a module: fit roles and characters to the players, adjust themes to suit mood and tastes, cut scenes that won’t work, and—again—read the room and play to the audience.
This is a poor analogy and does not relate to anything resembling how a module is actually used or the game is actually played. Has Luka actually ever played a roleplaying game? First of all, the GM prepares the adventure and fits it to his campaign, the players might not even know they are going to play it. Second, they don’t fit ‘roles and characters’ to the players unless perhaps they are doing a one-shot, they cannot adjust themes or mood to suit tastes, that is the GMs job, they certainly cannot cut any scenes that do not work. An adventure module is more akin to a video game level. A series of obstacles to overcome in order for the PCs to reach the goal or obtain some sort of reward. In an extended campaign, a module can just be plunked down and the PCs are under no obligation to explore all of it, and interactions might have wider repercussions. There is a lot of talk of themes but this is adornment, and I should point out almost no Artpunkman can muster any sort of theme beyond ‘misery’ or ‘being gay’, so perhaps it would be worthwhile to rethink one’s priorities.
Just like a script, neither a rule book nor an adventure module is a game or roleplaying by itself. The roleplaying is the living activity, the performance. Games are incidental for moving the play forwards.
If this is so, why are some games completely abandoned and others long enduring. Is it that there is a quality to the way they are constructed that generates long term vibrancy while others (cough! cough! Storygames cough!) are abandoned because they are airy tossfiddle?
A roleplaying book tries to anticipate how a session or sessions will work. It provides scenes, events, obstacles, choices, dilemmas, characters, and so on. A good roleplaying book will try to provide more tools for the players to cover more eventualities.
Why is the GM not mentioned? The differentiation is essential. The role of the DM and the Players it NOT the same. Also, no, more tools does not automatically equal better game. Consider the 900 page doorstopper heartbreakers, does anyone play those? It is what area you choose to cover, and the depth and ingenuity with which you cover them, that weighs far harder. I want to stress that this is not some 16 year old posting his first tentative gaming thoughts on tumblr (although I could certainly have been fooled). This is Luka Rejec, an OSR professional who writes modules for OSE, the largest B/X clone currently in circulation, and receives theoretically critical acclaim.
But, every roleplaying book is limited in three ways:
First, it is a product of its time and place and author. Every time a different group of players uses it, they are translating it to their own circumstances. This means the book changes unpredictably every time it is brought to a table.
This is a failure to abstract properly as the argument does not take into account the degree of change and any divergence in the neccessarily open-ended game is taken as proof that rules-as-written is impossible. Will there by minor changes in interpretation between different tables? Yes. Is my B2 campaign different from Gary’s B2 campaign? Undoubtedly. But if we take 100 games of B2, the similarities between them are going to be much higher then, say, the similarities between B2 and G1. There are still attributes that are recognizably B2. There still exists, even if we cannot pinpoint the exact spot, a point where most of us would say that the B2 Frank runs that replaces all the Goblins with Taliban and the players with self-replicating nano-machines is no longer recongisably B2. Also, a firm and consistent set of rules and procedures to run the adventure actually makes it easier to change, not harder.
Second, it is limited in how much information it can store and transmit. Each book leaves out things on purpose. This is a decision by the people making it. They can try to guess what will be helpful, but they never have perfect knowledge.
And one of those things that allows authors to figure out what to include and exclude is PLAY-TESTING, something you lazy @#!$!@^& might consider as an alternative to ‘guessing.’ Also if you have procedures to incentivize certain types of behavior, like gold for XP, it becomes much easier to anticipate the actions the players might take, once again underlining the deficiency in this entire approach.
Finally, it is limited by the nature of roleplaying as an art form. Every player at a table can push and pull a session in unexpected directions. The way a session moves will surprise even other players. The author of a roleplaying book has no hope of guessing where every session or any session will go.
Yeah but so what? You can anticipate the majority of events. There is no demand for perfect accuracy, merely one for utility. Either your scenario gives enough tools for the GM so the PCs can meaningfully explore the place (or participate in the murder mystery) or it does not and the module is useless to that particular group. If your scenario is useless to enough groups, it becomes known as a useless scenario. If the above argument is valid, it simply means that no game book is any good, which by extension includes yours.
I know there’s some division. Some people enjoy structured roleplaying sessions that are a lot like board games. Others enjoy very fluid sessions, which are a lot like a writer’s room. Yet others want a preplanned storyline, like playing a screenplay.
I didn’t write this post to say that one is better than the other. Each is a tool—a playstyle that can be deployed for different effects at the table.
The Unwritten Blessing
The open nature of roleplaying is a liberation for playful imagination.
Notice choice of words, open, liberation, playful. How mortally afraid are we, that anyone at the table could take anything that transpires there the least bit serious. I would be interested in a sort of breakdown of mathematical intelligence among the Artpunkmen. It has long been my suspicion, from interaction as well as reviewing, that Zak S and Patrick Stuart have a high verbal/creative but very low mathematical intelligence that enables them to come up with fun concepts but generally causes them to stumble when they have to work with considerations like scale, integrated systems of resolution or abstractions. Is there a self-selection in this process that causes this tendency to exacerbate over time? Low math guys go for Artpunk and start making their own artpunk, which is even less math/system until you get the position that you shouldn’t really have them anyway and they don’t matter? Food for thought.
No roleplaying product needs to be used “just so” as written for every participant to have a good time.
That is not the issue. The issue is that it should be useful as is, so any modification can be easily integrated into an extant framework. If I have to do most of the work, I might as well come up with something myself. If I read it for ‘inspiration’ I can just read Gene Wolfe.
A player running the material does not have to memorize all the material and all the rules. By adapting and improvising, they make the game unique to their table, more creative, and closer to their players.
It is not mandatory, but which creates the better game? A GM honestly absorbing the material, and making a few well-considered alterations, or a lazy, drug-addled pothead ad-libbing some shit on the fly and going ‘uhh….uh…fuck’ when he figures out he missed a crucial component to the adventure and now its a meaningless piece of shit and everybody facepalms and groans ‘NOT AGAIN LUKA, THIS IS EXACTLY WHY MR. GERALD TOLD YOU TO STUDY HARDER’.
A role player does not have to stick precisely to a character or storyline. They create unique characters with unpredictable story arcs and shared experiences that belong just to them and their table by adapting and improvising.
What storyline? Story is, by your own definition, something that is created afterward, as a result of play. A lack of firm guidelines for success and failure causes people to act in the manner you describe, like a competitive Stewey-from-Family-Guy impression contest. Short lived, short time preference, no impact. Spit.
A writer or game designer does not need to write a perfectly plotted module or a rule system where every rule locks into a flawless structure. Providing a toybox of procedures, guides, rules, moods, ideas, story seeds, characters, complications, scenes, and events gives the players a sandbox in which they can play to their hearts’ content and create stories no one author could dream of.
First, and this should be re-iterated, nearly any Nu-OSR toolbox I have seen is lazily thrown together junk that leaves the actual design work in the hands of the GM. It is what separates amateurs from people like Kevin Crawford, Alexander Macris or Gary Gygax, who actually consider how rules operate when they are integrated into a system and provide a robust framework that can be easily altered or expanded in the manner you describe. Your approach is just lazy. You don’t like doing the work. Creativity is fun, actually considering how that creativity can be integrated into a game system takes work, you don’t like doing that work or you are bad at it but you have to come up with elaborate rationales to avoid admitting that. And this is not a personal attack, in the sense that this is hardly a flaw unique to mr. Rejec.
Never As Written
Hence my call to all roleplayers. Embrace the NAW.
Writers and designers should accept that they cannot provide a total roleplaying experience.
Players should accept that every rulebook and adventure module is a skeleton that they must animate and make their own at their table.
And there we have it. A justification for incompetence. Not only should you not strive for making something that can be run as written, as a player you should just accept that nothing you buy will be runnable without you doing considerable amounts of work. Just ‘make it your own.’ Of course, guidelines to doing that would almost be procedures so we will omit those also. Incidentally, if you do want to buy something that you can run, pretty much as written (or with guidelines for conversion), might I be so bold as to recommend Palace of Unquiet Repose (now Electrum/Silver/Copper bestseller depending on the edition) and Red Prophet Rises (Gold bestseller). If you are out of cash, fear not, No Artpunk Vol 1. is a splendid collection of adventures that can all be run as written.
The meat and motion of roleplaying emerge over and again with each session and cannot be predicted or bottled with inks and papers.
That’s fantastic. So we won’t be needing any of your stuff then?
Finally, for anyone running or playing any of my settings or adventures: I’m just a person who puts words and pictures and toys together on a page. I’m no omniscient sage with a secret plan that can reveal a perfect roleplay. None of my works is perfect. None should be run as written.
And how glad we are to learn you will not even make the attempt.
There is no perfection, only the roleplaying that comes to life with every session when some friends sit down to imagine they were someone else, somewhere else, embarking on some quest with ends unknown. Players that fit their roleplaying to themselves will have a kind of perfection.
Continuum fallacy. Just because Perfection is an unattainable goal does not mean it should not be striven for or that quality does not matter, or that use at the table does not matter. You are making excuses for being lazy.
If you are going to pretend to make games that people can play, one of your tasks is to make sure that they can actually do so. Don’t fall for these self-indulgent attempts to lower the bar, and trick some honest module cobbling guy just looking for something nice to throw in his campaign to buy a busted shoddy mess with pretty layout. Do better.
Never as Written? Nuh uh. AAW.
Taking criticism is tough, but it must be done. Until mr. Rejec stops making excuses for himself and decides to rethink his ill-considered position, he certainly won’t get anything from me.
Canada is pretty good so far. Hope we don’t get nuclear war soon. More reviews soon-ish? Peace!
EDIT: I might as well take his postscriptum into account as it provides additional context that I might otherwise be accused of omitting.
Communication Post Script
And one last injunction: if a roleplaying session is not enjoyable, the players should stop playing and discuss why. Should an event be retconned? Should the rules and modules be changed? Are the players exhausted and would prefer some simpler fare, like Ticket to Ride?
It sounds like Ticket to Ride might be the superior alternative, if you are considering the alteration of modules and retconning of events to please a player base. This is all terrible and incentivizes the worst type of whining. No you do not stop play during a session even if you bomb hard. No you do not arbitrarily retconn events because the game has no meaning then. Best break out that Ticket to ride set.
Roleplaying is a language game, and language is often about communication. And sometimes, some games or plays just don’t work for some people at a particular time. And that’s perfectly ok. It’s ok to say when something doesn’t work for a person: that’s how folks figure out what works. After all, any time a group of friends do something together, they’re balancing and compromising and finding common ground, and that’s the joy (and often annoyance) of the human condition.
What are you actually saying, beyond the written equivalent of the heart-shaped rainbow-ray the carebears fire from their chests?
Of course there was a post- postscript.
Clarification Post Script
Some feedback I received suggested that I was lowering the bar for adventure design with this post. This could not be further from the truth, but – in a tragic way, this misunderstanding of my intent illustrates my point:
So not only was I not the only one to point out your self-indulgent narcissism but you are now doubling down on it by taking the position that anyone doing so is actually only validating your point. This is going to be special.
Every written text, on its journey from author to medium to reader, suffers information loss. Roleplaying, as a performance style of play, inevitably suffers more information loss than a book or a board game because it has more layers of interpretation between the designer and the eventual play experience.
I am going to give you a tip. Every time you start an argument with ‘Every […] has […]’ I want you to take a handful of ground glass (could be a broken bong) and contemplatively chew on it while mulling over whether or not it proves anything that you want it to prove. You are just pointing out its harder, but that only cements my point that you don’t want to do the work and are now making excuses for that. You are lazy.
There is an inevitable gap between idea, intent, and execution. Every rpg product is thus necessarily incomplete and doomed to failure. It can still be good. It should be good.
A buyer and a player have a right to expect a good product. But – every rp product will fail at some point: there will be edge cases, gaps, openings. And these are necessary to the structure of roleplaying.
Equivocation. Everything is flawed, therefore making something good shouldn’t be the goal. You then hinder your own point by re-stating that quality is important. You then double down yet again, by implying that an rpg having flaws is actually good, meaning that your (presumably flawed) Witchburner rpg, is actually BETTER because IT HAS FLAWS.
It doesn’t matter. Edge cases are, as you say, on the edge. This entire line of argumentation is predicated upon an ultra-autistic interpretation of RAW, that implies that any deviation not covered by the rules is automatically invalidated. No you simpleton! Your Witchburner game missed THE FUNDAMENTALS and as such PEOPLE COULDNT PLAY IT EVEN WITH GM IMPROVISATION. No one is saying a game should cover all the eventualities, but it should most certainly cover the majority of cases.
That’s my point.
Listen, I fuck up some sentences and I have the tendency to repeat myself so take it with a grain of salt but maybe the written word is not for you.
It’s like books. The best book possible will still end with things unsaid. And it will, of course, end. The failure is part of the necessity of its existence.
If it is the best book possible (?) then leaving things open is not a failure but a necessary condition for its success. Why are we comparing books with roleplaying games? They are fundamentally different mediums. Why not compare calculators. The best calculator possible performs consistently across conditions. Why not make that comparison?
The ideal roleplaying adventure will be written in such a way that it is easy to pick up and play with minimal preparation. It will be enjoyable today and the sixty years later. It will work out of the box. It will have a wide audience. It will be memorable, and fun, and bring friends closer together.
Having to improvise a lot, or providing only a skeletal structure that people have to tinker with heavily means it cannot be run out of the box. Stop hitting yourself. I would have had some respect if you would have just come out and said: ‘The ideal roleplaying game will be written in such a way that it looks pretty on a coffee-table and can be flipped through and tittered and marvelled over endlessly and then put down again with a minimum of fuss.’
But, even this adventure will still have gaps and failings. It will be impossible to run as written. Words will change. Ideas will fall out of fashion. Jokes will not work anymore. Styles of play will change. The cultural context will be different.
Players will inevitably be exhausted by the gaps in the adventure. Because players are different. They will come with different concepts. A writer does not start a novel by explaining how gravity works, but someday a reader on a space station may be confused by many novels of Old Earth.
Yes enthropy exists what are you actually saying? Someone said ‘your game sucks’ and your counter is essentially ‘Perfection is impossible’ smug eye-closing optional.
An adventure will assume a certain play style and leave “obvious” things out – because to repeat obvious things is boring. leave some things out. Then, people from a different play tradition will have problems.
Yes but so what. This is a solved problem.
A 20 year old player from Virginia and a 40 year old player from Slovakia and a 60 year old player from Travancore will inevitably read the same text differently at the same time. And parts of it will fail unpredictably.
Yes so you write the work in a manner that makes it easy for your presumed demographic to work with and if a key percentage is unable to use it we can conclude you have failed. You still have to do the work dude.
Ideally, a roleplaying product will address as many issues and leave as few gaps as possible. But, this is a matter of practice, experience, and fit. Unfortunately, the solutions to this issue—of inevitable rpg failure—do not scale. They are at the levels of individuals and tables.
The conclusion, and I shit you not, is that failure is inevitable, and therefore Luka could not have done anything else, nor will he be able to do anything else in the future, to change that. Also you are wrong. They do scale, your users are going to fall into a few statistically likely categories and you can (and should) absolutely aim to please the majority of your supposed audience. Stop coping, stop making excuses, take a shower and clean your room bucko!
I hope to address some possible solutions in a future post. Roughly, a writer learns from their mistakes and does better in later products (my personal hope as a game designer), a player learns from their experiences and chooses materials that suit their tastes, and a table (and especially the player running a session) figures out what and how to adapt.
But that’s another topic and a future post.
A writer learns by taking feedback earnestly and owning up to their mistakes instead of profligating self-serving midwit-theories about the futility of ever trying to make something that can be run as written. If you had just written this paragraph in response to the feedback, we would have had the same take-away, although you would have looked considerably smarter in doing so.
I award this post 3/5 Bubble Boys.
A fine week to everyone, and remember: Gatekeep, Gaslight, Girlboss! Thank you.