I managed to go the whole week without writing an entry here. Again. Oh, well, I'll just fit this one in before the Goth of the Week post goes up.
Edit to add: The reason I titled this entry as I have is a reference to an old column by Gary Gygax in Dragon magazine, which was called "Poker, Chess, and the AD&D Game System" or something like that.
Earlier, a reasonably well-known game designer made a post to his blog about how "game balance" is an illusion, and how yadda yadda yadda. I didn't actually finish the article, in part because something he said early on triggered my real attention. It's something that I've heard before, but it's only just now that I have figured out why it bothers me so much.
In his post, he says, "[T]he focus of an RPG is to tell stories". I triggered on this because it's the thing that bothers me. I don't play games to tell stories, so does that mean that I am playing them wrong, and have been for the 35 years since I first played a game of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons? Because that is what John Wick, successful designer of such games as Legend of the Five Rings, Seventh Sea, and Orkworld (OK, maybe not so successful with that last one), is telling me and the world. It's weird, then, that I had so much fun playing RPGs in a way that didn't involve telling stories. So, what could be going on here?
The answer, of course, is that John Wick is extending his own goal, storytelling, in playing a roleplaying game to everyone who plays them. The problem with doing that is that there are other goals that can be pursued in playing RPGs. For example, my primary goal can be described as immersion. This means, to me, that I want to pretend, for a time, that I am another person in another place with different constraints on my behavior than the constraints that apply to my existence in the real world*. Some people have the explicit goal of exploration, in which they explore (obviously) and learn about an environment of someone else's design. Some people who run games have the goal of presenting worlds, or perhaps just worldbuilding which they then justify by presenting it to others (this is my goal when I run games as opposed to playing them). Other people who run games just like observational psychology, in which they enjoy watching the decisions that other people make in the face of scenarios that they present. I'm sure that there are many, many other goals that people pursue in the playing of roleplaying games. Storytelling is just one of many, and to assume, as John Wick has, that it is the only one that matters results in a distorted view of the hobby.
This sort of dogmatic expression of roleplaying theories, in which one's own position is perforce the only one that matters and those who have different positions are doing it wrong and gaming would be better if everyone else would just get with the program, doesn't seem very productive to me. It is one of the weaknesses of the Big Model of the Forge people, it was one of the weaknesses of early expressions of the OSR, it was the motivating force behind all of the Edition Wars that everyone claimed they hated so much (so much so that now it is nearly impossible to express an opinion about one game over another without someone shouting "Edition War!") but seemed to gleefully engage in anyway.
Look, it's one thing to say, "I like storytelling, so I look for games that do this, that, and the other". It's another thing entirely to say, "Since the only reason to roleplay is to tell stories, any game that doesn't do this thing or that does this other thing is inherently stupid and a bad design". I wonder how John Wick would feel if someone he otherwise respected went and wrote a piece on how, because roleplaying is about playing a role, therefore any game which privileges narrative over simulating actions and events is inherently stupid and a bad design. Or a piece on how, because roleplaying is about exploring a fictional environment, therefore any game which impedes the measured learning about that environment by enforcing story elements creates an obstacle to play that needs to be addressed. So, how should people take his article on how roleplaying is about telling stories?
Further, I'd point out that even given his particular goal, to tell stories, the rest of his article doesn't necessarily follow. It relies on the Dragonlance/White Wolf model, in which the person running the game is the Storyteller. That is not, in my opinion, the correct formulation. Rather, the storytellers are the players, with the person running the game being perhaps the Editor (in the comics publication sense) or maybe even the Set Designer (in a filmic sense). Of course, in actuality, the person running the game is also telling stories, but her stories shouldn't overshadow those of the players. Stories, as most writers know, are about characters.
*Note that I give no description of why that is my goal. That is completely unimportant to the current discussion. If you're interested, though, it is because it allows me to examine more thoroughly the nature of decision-making and various existential questions with a certain amount of dispassion in order to… nah, I'm just kidding. It's because it's fun. And because I write stories in my non-gaming time, I am not really interested in writing them in my gaming time too. So, I want stories, if there are any, to emerge dynamically and organically from play, not be forced into yet another writers' group exercise, this time with dice instead of shuffling strips of paper with sentences written on them.