Mastering the Game
There is an old tale of a Jewish Rabbi who talks about the fact that there is never a wrong or a right but always a middle. It's not right or wrong, it's somewhere in between. The idea of course is that truth rarely lies at extremes, but usually as some sort of compromise between the two.
I've been doing a lot of reading across the blogosphere about the very same issues I have been writing about lately and have come to a few conclusions.
There is no one true game. I never meant to imply there was one, only to explore what D&D is and was and is becoming.
There are as many ways to game as there are gamers. I've reached out to several gamers that I thought I knew pretty well, and even though we gamed together in the same games, our memories and experiences were all still somewhat different.
It takes quite a bit of self awareness and distinction to be able to know how you game, let alone try to classify how others do. This can be problematic when trying to find the type of game and gaming group that makes you happy.
Oddly, through this process I've made a few realizations, and am somewhat surprised at myself.
In a world filled with so many gaming choices, the idea of making a game is more appealing than ever. However, doing this for the wrong reasons may be more problematic than helpful for me or others.
As Gaiseric said over on dark Heritage blog, "I appreciated the elegance of B/X over OD&D, so of all of the older versions of the game out there, that's the one I'm most likely to be willing to revisit. But even then, it wasn't really what I wanted when I could see the potential in the hobby. I spent many a year on a probably somewhat quixotic quest for the Holy Grail game that did exactly what I wanted in exactly the way I wanted it—only to find it in middle age and to discover that nobody else will appreciate it as much as I do, and at best, my fellow gamers see it as merely one more option that caters to me especially and is just another game to them. Yet another Fantasy Heartbreaker, if you will." Seeking for the Holy Grail of gaming can not only be a lonely road it can ultimately leave you out in the cold forever more and people will be peeling the grail from your cold dead fingers, wondering why you ever died for this anyway.
Creating a game beyond a clone, in my opinion, has several worthy purposes to it:
One, you are in a situation where you need to publish material and need a game system within which to do it. James Raggi did this with LotFP. Though he arguably could have done the same with S&W.
Two, the game you want is not even remotely like anything out there and you really need to put it out there for people to even get the idea. I put De Profundis in this category, simply because I can't think of any others right off the top of my head--but I'm sure there are others. Monte Cook's Numenera is arguably another, but also arguably not.
Three, your doing it as the next level in your mastery of the game.
It would be hard to find other valid reasons for doing so. Publishing your house rules for a game could be included in the list, but house rules generally apply to a certain campaign setting and are best released in that format--as a campaign of a given game. You could also add I want to pubnlish materal for X, Y, or Z Game, but the copyright won;t let me. Well, that's what the OGL and clones are for. And in that case you're really doing number one, creating a game that is like a clone, but not quite so you can publish your material.
But it's the last one I want to talk about in today's post.
Every gamer I know has tons of notes, adventures, campaigns, and yes even games half written or completely so tucked away in notebooks, file cabinets and digital folders just sleeping. I would dare say for every official supplement published there are a hundred or more that are not.And by an large I think we would all agree it's a good idea that they continue slumbering away in their cold and dusty homes. The market is flooded enough already with every Tom, Dick and Harry's version of the best game ever, a cool variation, another kick a** supplement or what have you for easy consumption. A good portion of them are even free for nothing more than a click and some file space. Drive Thru RPG, RPG Now and others are popping up all the time, offering scads and scads of new material all the time. Is this a good thing?
Well, I don't know. You may be surprised to hear me say that, but I'm not sure it's good for the hobby and I'm not sure it's bad. Really I'm not. What I am somewhat satisfied with is that there is at least an opportunity at professionalism. What do I mean by that?
Recently I finished my masters degree. It was the first time I had to write something to the standard of professional acceptability required by the academic community. It had to be critiques, edited, re-edited, reviewed, analyzed and critiqued again. I spent almost two years to complete it. Granted it took a year to do my research, but my point is, it was not a quick process. And the experience gave me several things, not the least of which was a newfound respect for academic writing. Because even once you have it to a level of acceptability from the academic establishment at your college, you then release it into the academic world generally with your name attached to it. All the world can now view it with all its warts and blemishes, despite how much time you spent scrubbing them away. I also realized how important and critical honesty and transparency is.
All that being said, it does not qualify me to write a game. I'm not even sure it qualifies me to critique a game from anything more than an amateur status. So what does all this have to do with gaming? Well, the huge open source market that now saturates the gaming community may be good for gamers and gaming for more reasons than I had previously realized. If I am so ready to get up and shout about what a game is or isn't--what the hell do I know about it? I can cast stones or throw flowers at WoTC or Gary Gygax or other gamers and game designers all I want, but really, what the hell do I know?
Do I really know anything more than what I like and what works for me and my gaming group? I don't think so. And I don't care who you are, you simply cannot play all the games out there. Certainly not enough to really know the games as a player or referee to the level that you can adequately critique them all. Now, I know, I know, movie critics don't have to create movies, and literary critics don't often write novels. But I do have a degree in English Language and Literature and my intro to literary criticism always explained to me that critiquing a written work should always come from some stance or other. You should be using some framework or rubric by which you are choosing to criticize a novel, and not just spout off in relation to what your gut says and an ability turn a phrase. So, what really qualifies a person to critique a game?
Well, this is where Mastery of the Game comes in. Being able to truly understand gaming and what gaming is is no clear path to gaming enlightenment. Mastery of a Game in the sense of being so aware and clear on what a game is, what it was intended to do and what it can and can't achieve is a monumental task that few, I think, are able to assail it. However, what I do think is that you should get out some pen and paper and just try to write a game some time. Write a game some time that is either
1) Completely different from any other game out there = Amber Diceless
2) A completely new spin on a game, genre or approach out there = DCC RPG
3) A unique enough expression of a type of game that you can call it yours = Crypts & Things
and then maybe you'll appreciate what actually goes into writing a game. And I don't mean just your 3e house rules, or the way your group plays Shadowrun or something like that. I mean a game you could slap a shiny cover on and sell without violating copyright if not the world's sensibilities. Something you not only wrote but playtested. In fact not just once, or ten but hundreds of times. As a friend of mine recently said, playtested the hell out of it. And revised and refined until it was a well oiled machine. Or at least until you couldn't hear its squeaks and rattles anymore.
I've begun to realize that putting the blood, sweat and tears into writing a game of your own will let you master the idea of gaming in a way few other things will. Of course it goes without saying doing the same thing in adventures, campaigns and other supplements will give you a good idea as well of a particular rules system. 5e has done this in somewhat the way 3e did and is pushing it in an unprecedented manner. You have huge PR and marketing just by writing for DMs Guild right now. Which brings me to my last point.
If you really want to know what its like and if your creation is even able to pass general muster, put it out there. Make it free if you want, but you might as well and take the extra step now and raise it to a decent production level. Try and find some art that you feel captures its essence, and do a decent job with layout. Once you feel like you've got it there, put it out there. It is surprisingly easy to do so on RPG Now, Lulu, or any others that turn your crank. Make a face book page for it, or a website and be open to having discussions with people about it. This is a brutal process, very humbling, and I know this simply by watching those I admire for doing this very thing.
If you can do this, and survive and still game, I don't even care if you never play your game again--chances are you've come to appreciate other peoples games a lot more--you will have taken a significant step towards actually Mastering the Game. For having passed the equivalent of gaming's academic community. And then I will take what you say about games and gaming with more than a grain of salt. If you notice, very few game designers have a lot negative to say about other people's games. I suppose this could be self interest, but I think it's because they know what it takes to do so, and are a lot less quick to shoot holes in someone else's house. That and they are too damn busy creating an gaming to take the time or give a damn.