Let's Talk About Schisms, Plus #JoeskyTax

Earlier today, +Jens D. posted on his blog an article titled "The Rules Are Not The Game." Since there are a bunch of posts out there on how "system doesn't matter," I kind of thought that this would be another of those posts (it isn't, by the way), but what drew me in was the fact that Jens wrote it (I read pretty much everything he writes) and that the title felt a little incendiary (I especially like Jens's posts where he slaughters sacred cows and is otherwise irreverant to BS that doesn't matter). While the post wasn't about what I thought it was about, it was even better. This one, in large part, is an examination and deconstruction of the fictions we tell ourselves and our gaming groups about why we and others should play the game that we prefer. Note that I use the word "fictions."

However, Jens still got me stoked up with the post that I thought he was writing. This post is a response to the imaginary post that he didn't actually write, but just exists in my head.

In the DIY gaming community, we talk a lot about "system doesn't matter," and it really doesn't have to. I prefer to think of this as akin to what Jens is actually saying: "have fun playing your game, but don't live with the lie that you had fun because the game itself was fun. It was the people and the atmosphere involved in the act of playing the game that was fun." This is what Jens means when he says "the rules are not the game."

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This point is often trotted out as a counterpoint to the argument that "games are about what they have rules for." D&D is about killing and casting spells and dungeon delving and treasure because that's what it has rules for under this logic. Star Wars D6 is about being good at all sorts of different skills and killing things and flying other things. Vampire is about skills and supernatural powers and drinking blood and killing things. Okay, so pretty much every game is about killing things. When you get into the indie/story game crowd, things get different. 3:16 is about stress, strain, recovered memory and... killing things. But the Quiet Year is about building, taking away, exploring and making hard choices. This characterization of what games are about is clearly bunk. I do as much building and exploring and making hard choices in a game of D&D as I do in a game of TQY. It's not really the game that's about these things, right?

Sadly, I think this argument devolves into a disagreement over the deifnition of the term "the game." The "system doesn't matter" perspective takes a broader view of the game, taking as read that the game will be played with a group of people and therefore a group of people -- and the necessary social, cultural and creative dynamic of that group of people -- is a component in the game. Thus, the system itself doesn't matter nearly as much as the group that's playing said game. To the "games are about what they have rules for" folks, when we are talking about a game, we are only talking about the game in and of itself, not the context or artifacts of play. When I talk about Werewolf:tA, I'm not talking about "W:tA as played by group A or group B from when I was in high school;" instead, I'm talking about the game as presented to me, the game consumer, by the publisher.

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I would like to suggest that these two things are very different, though we call them both "the game." The thing referred to by the "system doesn't matter" crowd is actually the play of the game, whereas the "games are about what they have rules for" folks are more concerned with the intentionality of the rules, that the rules are an attempt to approximate particular details, making them primarily concerned with the intent of the game. Neither of these things are the game. One is the "game as experience" and the other is "game as about-ness." Neither of them is the game itself.

Just to take a short break from this topic for a monent, I think that it's really interesting that both parties are concerned with important philosophical concepts and linking them to the meaning or value of a particular game. One camp is concerned with the phenomenology of play and considers that of primary imporance while the other camp concerns itself with the relation of the intent of the game to actual play as translated by the rules -- the intentionality of the game (the degree to which the rules are about the things they model).

My personal approach is a bit different. The phenomenology of play is of key importance, yes, and always must be; however, this is not a feature of the game itself but rather the group that is playing it. Any attempt to divine purpose or intent from the existing rules, to me, seems like an ill-fated augury that redacts the phenomenological component of the game and illogically reduces the experience of playing to only what its authors wrote. This sort of rules-lawyering -- considering a game as a text rather than a process -- is alien to me. The rules of a game in and of themselves are not the game, but components of it, particularly in a role-playing game.

Rather, when I think about what it is for a game to actually be a game, I am invariably brought back to the concept of a game as a process. One cannot have a game without play; without play, "the game" does not exist and merely becomes the artifacts of play. If I hold up my copy of Trail of Cthulhu, I am not holding "the game," but rather an artifact of the game. But neither is the game the entirety of the phenomenology of play, since so much of the phenomenology of play could occur no matter what game we're playing. Rather, it seems like the game itself is a process, a moment of interaction between the players of the game and the rules of the game necessarily during play within the context of the larger role-playing environment. It's the moment when, during play, a rule is invoked or used or causes a thing to occur and the interaction with that rule that the players and the artifacts of the game have. That's what the game is and that's where the game lives.

Joesky Tax: Skills Made Easy

On Friday, Drink Spin Run conducted live coverage of the Swords & Wizardry Appreciation Day 2015 event. It was a really cool thing to be a part of. It was great to talk to friends like +James Spahn & +R.J. Thompson and to take questions about S&W from listener/viewers, but it was also really cool talking to +Bill Webb who, it turns out, is occupying a brain-space just to one side of my own. After talking with him, I revamped the simple skill system I mentioned on that podcast (for those of you waiting on the audio podcast, ignore that part!) into the present form.

Want to do something you don't have an explicit skill for? Roll 1d6. On a 5+, you did it. If you have a reason you're likely to succeed, add 1d6. If you have a relevant ability score of 15+ or some bit of backstory that makes sense for you having an increased likelihood of success, add 1d6 for either of those. Basically, you're building a dice pool out of "reasons why." Remember that what's good for you is good for your DM, so you may find your low Charisma score giving the DM a bonus die on his NPCs' attempts to figure out that you're lying. Or something like that. Enjoy!

End Note: This post was written using the definition of intentionality that refers to the state of thought or idea being about something. There is another sense of the word that means "degree to which a thing is intentional or 'on purpose.'" I did not use this second definition.