Shining Dodecahedron

One geek's views on role-playing and games in general.

This place is all about discussing paper-and-pencil roleplaying games. I'm Jay, and I run this joint, but that doesn't make me smarter than you. This will all work best if I say things, and you say what you think about them, lather, rinse, repeat. With luck we can all understand the hobby a little better. If you have a topic that you would like me to start a thread about, post a comment here. If you've got something to say about characters (my ongoing topic du jour), post a comment here.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Like Stradivarius

It think it was Ron Edwards that started the analogy of role-playing to musical jam session. It’s not a perfect analogy (none of them are), but thinking about it can help us learn to be better game designers.

When musicians get together and jam, they have a few things: an instrument (voice counts, of course), skill with the instrument, understanding of the part that the instrument plays in the style of music being created. That is to say that musicians who seriously jam are prepared for the experience. Even then, being as prepared as they can be, a really good jam session is hard work for all involved.

Now look at role-playing. The majority of the role-playing rules written assume that the players come together prepared, as if it were a jam session. But people are very ill prepared for roleplaying. No one has taught players the correct method for contributing to a collaborative story. No one has told them what their parts are. No one has taught them to trust their secret, creative selves to others. No, the opposites of these things are true. Our society (I speak for Americans here, but I’m guessing for most others as well) beats the creative urge out of kids by the time they get to high school. Kids who tell stories are geeky or nerdy and condemned to a life of ridicule. Even those that manage to keep in touch with the creative forces within are taught to keep it to themselves. They’re trained to trust no one with their ideas and vision. We also teach our children to be competitive. To strive for dominance. To collaborate only as far as it gets them ahead.

The current state of the role-playing industry is essentially telling a group of average folks to have a jam session without any instruments or instruction.

So what do game designers do to help? Generally, they provide lots of information about the one thing that players don’t need help with: imagined people and places. Instead of giving people tools and instruction to help them make stories together, they give them homework. They vent their frustrated novelist urges into encyclopedic sourcebooks and charge people through the nose for them. Those untrained jamming musicians without instruments? We’ve just told them that they have to make do without, and that they can only “jam” to a single tune.

In short, designers of games are going about the process all wrong. If we want players to jam, to improvise using their own creativity, we need to show them how to imagine with a group of other creators. We need to teach them how to share the limelight. We need to teach them what to contribute and when. We need the rules we write to be the like their instruments: that make clear their parts and enable creativity to flow.

My suggestion is that we should change the way we think about rules. If something is in the game that doesn’t help players jam, it doesn’t belong. Don't try to tell people what to imagine. Tell them how to imagine better together, no matter what the subject. Give them a well crafted instrument and the training to use it and they'll make the music all on their own.


Blogger Ben said...


With the caveat, of course, that pre-establishing some elements of the imagination can actually help with the jamming process.


Monday, May 30, 2005 5:19:00 AM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

Absolutely! Setting some boundaries for what play is about is part of helping people jam. It’s like when you sit down with the other musicians and somebody says, “let’s do something like this…”. Direction setting is good, telling people all the details up front (or worse, expecting them to read the details up front) is bad.
I’d even go so far as to say that detailed settings can be good as well. The issue here is one of technique. If your detailed setting opens up avenues of creative involvement for players it is good. If it provides a bunch of accounts of the author’s creativity while hindering actual play, it is bad.
For example, pretty much every GURPS sourcebook has great information that players can riff off in it. At the same time, they don’t tend to have a lot of restrictions about how to tell your story in them. In my mind, detailed setting information that is helpful, by and large.
An even more extreme example: the Volo’s Guide books for Forgotten Realms (AD&D 2nd edition). Totally gritty details about world stuff. However, none of it gets caught up in meta-plot and it is all optional. The GM can mine the books for gems of inspiration to use in his game, and no player is required or assumed to have read it. At the same time, players are not generally discouraged from reading it (it isn’t “GM ONLY!” material). It provides context to setting and color without dictating direction.

Monday, May 30, 2005 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous brennan taylor said...

What I find interesting, from an commercial perspective, is that books with fully-realized and interested imaginary worlds sell better than bare-bones 'rules only' types of products. I think you need to find a good balance where both aspects support each other, with rules integrated into the imaginative framework of the game.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 12:10:00 PM  
Blogger Marc Mielke said...

That happened to me in spades.

I love to write; I hate the idea of people reading my work.

I refuse to discuss RPGs with non-gamers, and get very embarrassed and upset when others do around me. When asked, I've learned to be very evasive about what I do on weekends.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005 3:07:00 PM  
Blogger Paul Tevis said...

I'm definitely a fan of the "toolkit" approach to RPG books. Tell me what the world is like, tell me how the rules work, then tell me how to put it all together. Too many books omit the last step. It's no surprise that two of my favorites, Dogs in the Vineyard and The Dying Earth RPG, include that vital third section.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger John Kim said...

I question your assumption that what people really need are rules for collaboration and not material to riff off of.

If I give a bunch of non-roleplaying kids something like The Pool or Universalis, I predict they'll shrug and go do something else.

On the other hand, if I give them an original role-playing setting that they find cool (like Castle Falkenstein or Aberrant, perhaps) -- then they'll be interested and even without rules provided, they will cobble together ways to play in that world, whether it's make-believe or freeform online writing or some homebrewed rules. Obviously it's better to provide good rules as well, but imaginative material is vital. This can include setting material, but I think that providing core stories is important too (cf. Mike Mearls' "Core Stories in D&D").

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 2:02:00 PM  
Blogger Jay Loomis said...

John -- I have no such assumption. I had hoped that I clarified that in my reply above. What I'm saying is that what people need are tools and resources that help them create stories collaboratively. Those tools and resources can and should include some material to riff off.

I am also saying, however, that it is easy to start dictating to players the ways in which they tell stories by providing too much prescriptive setting (usually in the form of meta-plot). And that this is not so good.

My main point, however, was that we shouldn't assume that players know how to play the game the way we designed it to be played. Players need to be given help and instruction. I don't think that there is one way to make this happen, I just think designers need to think about it when sriting game rules.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005 5:54:00 PM  
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