Sunday, February 4, 2018

D&D ... For Kids!

I've recently been tooling around the website Quora, where anyone can ask or answer questions on any subject, including role-playing, Dungeons and Dragons and other table-top gaming subjects.  Naturally, my opinions there are just as weird, just as incomprehensible, just as contrary as they are in the blogosphere or anywhere else.  Still, it is fun to push the envelope and answer questions.

I recently asked a typically Alexis question, mostly as a preliminary to writing this blog post:
"Why is there a right way to hold a golf club, a right way to swing a baseball bat, a right way to perform an operation, a right way to try a case, a right way to build a bridge, a right way to worship, but there's no right way to DM an RPG?"

 And not surprisingly, I received but one lone answer, exactly what I expected to hear:
"Surgery is science, do this, this happens, etc.  DMing is art, it is about creativity and individuality."

I suppose it's of little interest to most who would answer this question that "science" is about trying one hell of a lot of things before ending up with "do this, this happens" ~ and that it is STILL trying a lot of things, because that is never ending.  The bigger point about science, however, is that nothing counts as "do this, this happens" until "this" is measurable.  We're really saying that science is measurable and that art is not.

Okay, that sounds reasonable.  Let's take something measurable: say, how to tie a Windsor Knot:

And let's examine the introduction:
"Hello, I'm Charles from Louis Purple, and today I'm going to teach you how to tie a Windsor Knot.  The Windsor Knot is actually a very simple knot to tie, and its very useful because it projects confidence.  It's a wide, triangular knot, that's very suitable for presentation, job interviews or cultural appearances ... so this is how you start:"

Why am I showing this?  DMing is a LOT harder than tying a tie, so what do these things have to do with each other?  Well, I'd like to break this down.  First, Charles gives his credentials: he's a well-dressed person in the fashion industry, employed by a recognizable name.  You're not trusting Charles to explain this, you're trusting Louis Purple, which is giving its endorsement (we assume - we have no actual proof of any of this, but we take it on faith because we're hardwired to do that).

A Windsor Knot is recognizable.  And yet, still, many people are in error about what they think a Windsor Knot actually is.  Ask yourself: before seeing him tie the tie, if you even watched the video, were you absolutely certain that your perception of a Windsor tie was going to match his?  And if it differed, would you change your mind, or would you rush to argue that Charles doesn't know what he's talking about?

So, "facts" are pretty darn tricky.  If you and Charles agree, that's great.  But if you disagree, well, it's pretty much a free-for-all.

And this is what everything is like, all the time ~ and it is certainly what surgery was like for most of human history.  Which killed a lot of people.  So after a while, with really, really important things, like tying ties and removing kidneys, various entities began to take things out of the hands of common, ordinary, everyday idiots and establish measurements.  When ties mattered, absolutely everyone knew what a Windsor Knot was, because they could recognize one on sight.  When your tie was tied in some independently imaginative way, it branded you in the eyes of everyone who cared about presentations, job interviews and cultural appearances.  It showed you weren't competent to tie a proper tie, and therefore you weren't competent enough to hold a job.

But now, when ties don't matter, we've lost that awareness; most people couldn't recognize any knot from another, and so we have an endless variety of knots.  Along with an endless variety of meaningless claims as to which is a Windsor Knot or any other form, because it no longer matters.  There's no accreditation.

When something matters, like removing a kidney, we ensure you acquire a great many credentials before anyone lets you legally cut into someone's body in order to remove a kidney.  Naturally, if you wish to do this illegally, you'll find the accreditation path somewhat less rigorous.  You might need to take a few stabs at finding the kidney, though, if you don't read a book first.

My argument is that we're free to argue endlessly about things like how to DM or if there's a right way because, well, it doesn't matter.  I will never see you DM.  Apart from my putting stuff online, you will never see me DM.  We don't need accreditation to run a game and no one gives a good gawddamn if people not at our table like what we're doing.

There is something about this that really, really bugs me.  D&D doesn't matter?  This game I love?  It doesn't matter if it is run well?  Huh?

Right now, I can't get into a game as a player.  Not because I can't find one.  Hell, I could probably figure out how to get into a game in the next couple of hours ~ there are about three game shops I know that are running games right now.  No, my problem is that any game I can find is going to be, almost certainly, a total shit-show.  That's not a definite fact.  I could be wrong about that.  It's just that in the last 30 years, every single live example I have ever seen of a game, both on and off line, looks like the last fucking game in the world I would ever want to play.  I mean, these people who are running these games seem cosmically incapable of running the sort of game that would remotely interest me.

Let's have some examples.  I'll skip imbedding the videos; I'll just quote as much of the introduction as I'm able to watch before feeling I have to roll my eyes:
Call of the Wild Ep. 1 "I will be the Dungeon Master, and I will be running ... through another Epic Campaign of mine.  In this one, these adventurers start as members of a barbarian tribe ..."  Gad,cliche.
Out of the Abyss, Session 1, Part 1 "I'll be your Dungeon Master for this travel through the Underdark, and out of the Underdark, perhaps maybe, no, [mumble mumble] they're probably just going to die ... [players giggling] ..."  Oh, ffs.
D&Diesel with Vin Diesel:  [speaking in excessively dark Pantomime]  "The small village of Bronbog has recently come under a baneful curse.  The young are born deformed and demonic.  The denizens are driven to madness and suicide.  Those that remain, stubborn ..."  Trying pretty damn hard, aren't we.
YogsQuest, Episode 1 "YogsQuest!  Scraping the bottom of the barrel of adventure. It is the age of heroes ... unfortunately, none of them were available at the time of recording ..."  Okay, this is supposed to be funny, but the first two jokes are older than steam, so I'm not that fucking impressed.

And no, I'm not going to feel bad that I'm judging these books by their covers.  I'll explain my reaction.  It is something akin to entering a doctor's office to be examined, only to find the floors and walls haven't been cleaned.  It's something of a clue, see, as to why I should immediately get the fuck out and find a better doctor.

You, gentle reader, most likely see nothing wrong with any of the above.  They're fun, they're dramatic, they're just dudes mucking around, playing a game.  What's the big deal?  It's not like any of this really matters.

That's why this blog is so damned contrary; and why I am contrary.  It matters to me.  The games above don't sound interesting, they sound cliched and boring; like the Wandering Gamist's quote put it in my last post, "To pretend to heroism or godhood has lost its appeal to me; better to strive for true abilities in this beautiful, chaotic, universe in which we find ourselves."  I so agree!  The examples above strike me as derivative, amateurish, pandering and lacking any real substance.  I don't want to play in a game where I'm a "hero" or even an "anti-hero" ~ or any crude stereotype of a wooden character.  I want to play an actual human personality, with depth, individuality, self-determination, with the power to meaningfully examine the ethical quandaries that arise from my decisions, while pursuing a worthwhile purpose enabled by my imagination.  That is, I want to be me ... and fight goblins.

This is the creative and individual "art" that runs contrary to the do this, this happens "science" that starts this post.  Only it is my belief that, as a character, if I "do this," what happens should NOT rely on the creativity and individuality of the DM, but upon the rigorous, reliable fundamentals of what happens in all art when we investigate motivation, narrative and conflict.  We've spent thousands of years interpreting and establishing principles for the effectiveness of creating art that perfectly fits the "do this, this happens" argument that is supposedly only applied to science and not to art.

When art is run without rigor, we get the cheesy content I've linked above.

I'd like to believe that rigor in this particular art form of RPGs is possible ... because right now, what passes for "the best" examples of role-playing wouldn't receive even minimal attention if it was attached to any other form of art.  It's juvenile and reflective of the outside world's perception of Dungeons and Dragons: that it is a children's game.


Hollow Scribe said...

I have a feeling it would be very interesting seeing you as a player, especially as there's both this blog and the online campaign (IT'S ALIVE!) to see your DM:ing. Though that obviously would require someone running a game you'd play in.

On the topic of art, I feel like it's outright silly to say "D&D is an art so there's no right way, so I'm right". Yes, sure, a kid scrawling with a crayon might be interesting, but you generally won't say it's the pinnacle of paintings. There might be different ways to do things, but you can still also do them with different levels of skill.

And I agree that a lot of the games you can watch online are quite lackluster...

JB said...

I can’t believe this post has only one comment. I could build a series off it.