I’ve been away from the gaming table for three months now. Even though I’ve been following the development of Shadowrun Sixth Edition and working on a few design projects, this is the first time since I was eight years old that I’ve really been an outsider to tabletop gaming. Those three months – and my own projects – have given me space to think about gaming in ways I haven’t since I was a younger gamer. I’ve been thinking a lot about the approach that game systems take to making play work at the table.
I’m not 100% sure that “approach” is the word I want to use. It’s the closest my brain could get. I want to be clear – I’m not talking about how “real” a game feels, or how abstract. I’m talking about how it works at the table… how the play experience is meant to come together to facilitate the act of playing a game that is also the act of telling a story together with other people.
Roleplaying games are a social activity. So games have explicit or implicit ideas about what the social compact will be at the table and how that gets translated into the way the game is played. My own theory is that games are better when that social compact is explicitly taken into consideration when the rules are being written but maybe in the course of writing this I’ll find I’m wrong. This is a big topic and one that will involve some judgement and possibly even arguing with myself so… here goes.
I want to start at the beginning… Gygax/Arneson era D&D. To aid in clarity, I’m going to use the term D&D to represent the whole of box set D&D as well as 1st Edition AD&D. The specifics of certain rules (race-as-class or THACO, etc.) don’t matter – just the approach, which was largely the same between the games. This is also not meant to encompass other OSR-style games like Tunnels & Trolls, Arcanum, or Rolemaster. Those games strayed away from the initial assumptions of D&D in a variety of ways, but it is my contention that the approach D&D took was more important than anything else it did to create the hobby of RPGs. And it’s something that I think deserves a look back.
So what do I see as D&D’s approach?
I see the approach as DM-initiated, Player-driven, Emergent (with Randomness), and Action-oriented. I know that definitions are important, so I’ll explain what I mean when I use those words.
This is a crucial point. Reading back through old manuals, it’s very evident that these games were predicated on the assumption that the DM would create (or choose and modify) a game world and that this game world would exist to house the players. The DM was in charge but assumed to be above it all, pulling the levers behind the scenes but neutral to the players in adjudicating the game. The DM would run the encounters, roll up treasures, and set up future adventures for the PCs to pursue (or not) but would not tell them what to pursue. Really, the DM shouldn’t even know everything that the PCs would encounter along the way as many decisions could be affected by the results of random outcomes.
This is straightforward. The players didn’t just play to find out what happens next, they played to drive what would happen next. The nature of early D&D was exploratory and gave players a lot of freedom. They could choose any direction and something would be out there waiting for them. This is especially interesting to me because in those early games, so much could hinge on randomness. Maybe the players decide to set off for a city on the other side of a desert. But their first encounter along the way proves to be too much for them and a PC dies. So they march back to the closest village, get sidetracked by something they encounter there and never end up going to that city across the desert until 8 levels later? The world feels like a place where “stuff” happens and the PCs shape that stuff by intervening.
Emergent (with Randomness)
The kind of word that gets writers in trouble. My definition is simple. I mean that the interplay between random rolling and the choices of the players leads to unexpected (or unexpectable) outcomes. The game isn’t deterministic from the point of view of the players or the DM. The game just happens. D&D accomplishes this by building the game experience around exploration and random encounters to go along with a strict accounting of time and a resource-driven play cycle. It’s elegant, if not always intuitive.
And with those ideas explained, that brings us back to the social contract. The social contract was baked into each of those parts – as well as other rules – that gave the game its tension and its motion. The idea was that the players wanted to be at the table and that they wanted to proactively shape the world around them. The DM didn’t feed them adventures, the DM provided a world full of possible adventures. It was also assumed that the DM did the most work, that the DM wanted that level of responsibility and also accepted the burden of playing fair even though they had the most power.
Playing fair didn’t always have to mean just one thing – and sometimes there was a need for interpretation at the table. That power was entrusted to the DM in this social compact for the betterment of the experience.
To consider the case of a specific rule. Consider the fact that the DM rolled Move Silent behind their screen rather than the player rolling a skill check. This mechanic really changed the dynamic of how these checks worked because the player had the tension of acting as if – of course – they succeeded. This shows off a clever way that D&D created tension but also clearly shows the expectations of the social compact. This rule only works as long as the player trusts the DM. There is a clear power imbalance between players and DMs based around how much information they have, and that imbalance creates quality tension for the players. But only so long as the players trust the DM and the dice. The exact second that trust is lost, the whole thing breaks down.
And, as with all human inventions, that social compact often broke down. And it is my contention that basically everything since that moment in game design has been an attempt to create a game that works in the absence of that social compact. It’s also why so many players claim that they don’t really like or understand old-school D&D; because a lot of its quirkiness depended on realizing how all the little bits that came together to make up a play session were subverted or useless without that initial social compact.
That’s enough for now. I want to follow up on this to discuss DM Determinism and the Age of the Metaplot. Then I’ll move on to Player-facing Determinism. And then look at some of the ways that certain contemporary games have benefited from all this design over the years and tried to create something new and old at the same time.
I know I’ve been away, but, as always, thanks for reading.