You Can’t Do That in RPGs: a History

Originally published at Mobunited.com. Please leave any comments there.

The history of RPGs is the history of things you can’t do, and various strategies to veil, deny or accommodate that fact.

Players like to think they can go anywhere and do anything with their characters unless there’s a mechanism in place to solidly prevent them (and make them like it) or trick them (also, to make them like it by preserving the illusion of freedom). The desire for freedom versus its practical impossibility is an enduring tension so it’s easy for RPG designers/thinkers/grognards to score cheap points by railing against restrictions in one game, or designing a solution that is really way of disguising restrictions.

The oldest restriction is the dungeon crawl. Gamers like dungeons because they have pretend physical walls. For some reason, pretend matter trumps other kinds of pretending, and players don’t mind it getting in their way much. Classic dungeons are usually flowcharts that push explorers toward some signature encounter, even if there are some pass/fail encounters, backtracking and general screwing around to deal with in the interim. The only exceptions are random dungeons, and even the old generators enforced some rising tension with the character level to dungeon level equivalence.

(Wilderness encounters in old D&D were interesting in the way they weren’t level dependent, but the need to get from location to location was restriction enough.)

The dungeon’s flaw is that many people eventually get bored of them, or learn to despise increasingly dodgy rationales for hauling ass through a flow chart. These types accused GMs of lacking imagination or defying realism, and complained they wanted to focus on character portrayal and romance and things, but they had to deal with the Maze of Peril of the Week.

Eventually angry players and inventive GMs figured out that you could do without physical walls and simply outline the rough course of play, but they kind of blundered into this with a healthy dose of denial, because nobody could really admit that the whole point of these structures was to remove the freedom to do anything you want.

Unfortunately, without pretend walls, GMs were forced to get honest or desperate. Some asshole would always ignore the signals and wander off. This happened in dungeons, but the jerk couldn’t get far, because he had to walk the flowchart. When the only restriction was linked to story flow, it was harder to develop a pretense to keep everyone on the rails. Designers provided theme and mood and setting tools to help GMs roughly delineate what players could do (plot against the Prince in Vampire, say) and couldn’t (all kinds of stupid shit that Vampire players did anyway).

One of the tricky elements of this scheme was that it required the GM to show his hand as an artist instead of ascribing it to a trick of the dungeon. But people have been educated to be suspicious of art. They believe it’s something social deviants make to subtly mock them, or it was something created by mighty white men in days of yore, such that it would be arrogant to follow in their footsteps with art of your own. Certainly, modern people are not allowed to manipulate signs meaningfully unless it’s for large commercial interests. Some companies tried to convince gamers that they were some form of social deviant and allowed to dress oddly, dye their hair and make art, but this was only semi-successful and generated resentment that would simmer over the next decade and a half or so.

At some point, people playing through these plot and trope-based restrictions started to believe the GM was making all the decisions (which was pretty much bullshit, but these players have been around since the dungeon, when they kept walking the wrong way up the walled flowchart). Interestingly, many of these players were total book bitches. They didn’t want to be told what they couldn’t do, but vaguely understood that they needed to point to some basis of unity, even if it wasn’t the other players. If they were going to do anything, it was what the book told them. If things went bad, it was the book’s fault.

Eventually, this heady mix of misanthropy and ad hoc textual criticism met the Internet and formed a community. Members wrote their own games. Naturally, they  (like so many others in previous eras) half-knew that the central problem was keeping people from doing whatever they wanted, but this group was even less likely than the last to explicitly admit this. They did however know what they would obey, which was whatever was in the book. They’d ruined play by picking text over people, so they thought they could probably solve it by tinkering with the text.

Naturally, the games that resulted were more restrictive than all prior games, but this could be ignored if you believed that “playing the game” was equivalent to “obeying the book.” In the dungeon era, you’d throw up physical walls inside a mountain to kick people to a final confrontation with an evil witch, but some bastard might run away and get drunk in a tavern, and the best you could do was ignore him, give him a loaner character or kill him. The new games were designed so that there was no support for ever going to a tavern – that doing anything besides getting up the mountain to face the witch was meaningless, stupid, and possibly a moral violation resulting from abuse or brain damage.

Game designers like feeling like they’re making people they’ve never met play a certain way, so this approach became quite  popular. People who’d left the business to do something more profitable wished they’d thought of it, and some folks working in the commercial end of game design realized that it was terribly simple to come up with contrived metrics for design success by using this style. If it didn’t work, the players were obviously doing it wrong.

Unfortunately, these new strictures didn’t sit well with everyone, and newer games were designed to be unplayable if you didn’t accept your inability to wander off to the pub. These malcontents stuck with older games. Some of them went right back to the dungeon, where the old Flowchart Made of Rock would provide some solace. Some of them stuck with plotty games. The community was a house divided, except for the shared belief that if they played some other way, they’d lose their freedom but if they obeyed their school, they could pretend this wasn’t really happening. It was happening, though. To everybody.

What’s the solution? In some special play groups (though more than you might think) participants crossed the watershed and realized two things:

1) Restrictions were necessary.

2) It was natural to fight against them.

And in these special groups, the participants realized that this tension was never a flaw, but a remarkable source of inspiration. This tension created novel solutions. The group needed to develop new mechanics to support leaving the beaten path, but in such a way that the wayward player returned. The GM learned to moderate his vision, or figure out what happens when the group leaves the dungeon half done. They accepted that some disputes were inevitable, even passionate ones, as people are liable to be passionate about their creative efforts. Through forthright talk, compromise and above all compassion for every participant, these groups accepted the problem and turned it into another toy to play with.

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