Friday, May 5, 2017

The "Formula RPG" and the Open Philosophy

Rob Kuntz recently released a book called Dave Arneson's True Genius. It's a frustrating book, because it's written in specialized language of systems thought and references to a further as-yet-unfinished book. While I can't read the next book yet and don't agree with the systems theory parts, there is an assertion core to the first of its three essays that I want to comment on.

The essay, called "From Vision to Vicissitude: The Rise and Reversal of Dave Arneson's RPG Concept," follows what Kuntz sees as the change from 1974 original D&D with its "Why have us do any more of your imagining for you?" ethos to Gygax's 1978 Dragon Magazine editorials that say "Those who insist on altering the framework should design their own game."

Rob summarizes what he sees as the crucial change (emphasis in original):
Moreover, and in summary, this systemic change moved the previous concept (Arneson's, 1971; and as reiterated by Gygax/Arneson in print, 1974) of DMs as absolute and omniscient creators of content for their individualized systems to a demoted position akin to an administrator of TSR's system-and-premade-adventure interface. The reader should be able to parse the two philosophical extremes by way of comparison alone.

In due course the design tenets/philosophy from the original game, now ignored, faded against an immense and growing foreground of TSR doing the imagining and creating of pre-determined/pre-structured scenarios for the consumer. The sustained promulgation of this disposable and repeatable model caused all but scattered remains of the original RPG philosophy as it was then forming to be lost. This 180 degree reversal abruptly issued in the Formula RPG experience that persists to this very day as a strictly closed form expression; and this was (and still is) a direct, and glaring, contradiction to the genius of its original manifestations: First Fantasy Campaign and the commercially successful Classic Dungeons & Dragons.
To try and unpack this, Kuntz is arguing that the philosophical shift between OD&D (which he labels as "classic" D&D) and AD&D is a philosophical shift from an "open form" to a "closed form" system, where in the former there are endless creative possibilities and in the latter there are only rules and prescriptions for what the referee is to do.

Kuntz isn't the first person to make this point. Matt Finch's influential A Quick Primer for Old-School Gaming makes a lot of similar points between an open, discursive style of play, and a closed, rule-bound approach. In practice, though, the idea that there was a "great transition" from an open to a closed game system is a hunt that has no real end. Even a definition as strict as Kuntz's could be improved on; OD&D, after all, is an attempt to systematize the open-ended game that Arneson was running.

But more importantly, what we've seen is that just about any RPG can be run with an open/DIY philosophy. Look at the game Microlite20 – that took the system-bound and rules-heavy 3rd edition of D&D and turned it into an elegant, rules-light game for referees who like the basic mechanic but don't want to be bound by thousands of pages of rules bloat. If that can be done in 3.x D&D, it can certainly be done in first edition AD&D.

Short of converting the game into a board game like the Milton Bradley HeroQuest, I don't honestly think that an RPG can truly be "closed form." The players in B2 Keep on the Borderlands can always kill the monsters in the Caves of Chaos, but they can avoid the Caves and sack the Keep instead, or they can wander off down the road, outside the established map, and the DM is then obliged to answer the question - "What now?"

This is the philosophy that animated the Braunstein games, and the Blackmoor campaign, and that made Dungeons & Dragons such a phenomenon. It allowed "What now?" to be the question, the imperative, and opened up the floodgates of imagination. And it's always been the dirty secret of RPGs that you don't need the book at all. A skilled referee can wing more or less anything if they choose to; the books are there to save you work.

It's particularly ironic that Kuntz chooses first edition AD&D as the incarnation of "Formula RPG", because the grognards who have been running AD&D forever (the "orthodox Gygaxians" if you will) have long been the biggest devotees of the GM as the "absolute and omniscient creators of content" for their individual games. In a sense, Rob is saying here that the Pope was insufficiently Catholic.

When Kuntz presents the idea of the "formula RPG" as a betrayal of the basic RPG idea, he disrespects the long tradition of kitbashing in gaming as a hobby. Indeed, the true genius of Dave Arneson was as a kitbasher, taking ideas that had been present in games like Wesley's Braunstein and the Gygax/Perren Chainmail, and creating in them a synthesis that opened up a much richer type of experience than, I expect, anybody thought would be present at the time. And if you read The First Fantasy Campaign, you will find a surprisingly large amount of matter about the fairly "conventional" wargame campaign that Blackmoor became over time.

Once someone understands the open philosophy - which, rather than a creation of Dave Arneson, I would say is present in at least the 1870s free Kriegsspiel - there is no such thing as a truly "closed" system. The referee simply needs to open it up and ask the players, "What do you do next?" Even a game like HeroQuest could be used in a radically new way, as I'm sure it has been. (If you don't know what a free Kriegsspiel is, I'd suggest reading Playing at the World.)

The truth is that dungeon modules are often treated as parts to be kitbashed. You can take them and use parts that you like in your own dungeon, or take the map and restock it, or reskin the whole thing as a completely different affair. Gus L at Dungeon of Signs frequently looks at ways to use modules outside of their original purpose, and if you spend enough time around the OSR you'll find that this is a normal thing. If you look at the great OSR books that I've pushed over the years, like Carcosa or Red and Pleasant Land or Yoon-Suin or Veins of the Earth, most of them contain a lot of ideas and tools (particularly charts and generators) that can be ripped out and used elsewhere.

Of course, there is gaming that is rote and bland. It is not accidental that I am not an enthusiast for Pathfinder or adventure path type gaming in general. But this is not preordained from the system or the existence of modules; it's just a way that people play. Some people just like dungeon bashing, and there is nothing wrong with that. I have a coworker who loves Pathfinder gaming, and carefully planning his PC, and then setting that up against a mission from a module. It's not my fun, but he clearly enjoys it.

But - the open philosophy that animated the Blackmoor campaign is not "lost" in "all but scattered remains." It is a rich idea that continues to animate games.down to this day. The OSR has done a lot for "sandbox" and open world types of games, and I think Kuntz, long distant from the RPG scene, is simply ignorant of the realities of the games people are playing, because open philosophy in gaming is in no way lost and scattered.


  1. I haven't read the book, but I did recently compare G1(Which I'll call Gygax's first module), Tomb of Horrors (another semi-Gygax thing) and Temple of the Frog (Arneson's first published adventure?). There is a difference, and on some level its a sense of openess and possiblity - with Arneson seemingly more willing to throw up an independent world fiction and say "Players figure it out." It's not much of a distinction though G1 being a similar solidly location based adventure with almost no plotting.

    So there might be something to Kuntz's view, but it seems far less clear or serious then your reading of him.

  2. Interesting post, But with respect, I'm not really sure what you're arguing. That anyone who wants to can change any rule set, whether it's OD&D, AD&D, Pathfinder or Monopoly, is a truism. But I think Kuntz is right (from what I understand he is saying, based on your post) that the emphasis as well as the practice changed from OD&D to AD&D, or perhaps, to AD&D 1.5. I think this was due to Gygax's change in presentation as well as the way the hobby evolved. The more mainstream it became, the smaller the proportion of people you had that were willing to take the time and energy to hack things.

    But I think it's also true that the more rules you have - presented in "official" form in a "core" book - the more it's implicitly suggested that the rules are more than just a framework, but, rather, an all-encompassing set of governing strictures. You think we left something out? Well then wait for Core Book 5. You want to do something different? Well, then, wait for us to publish more and different settings.

  3. I do believe that later editions -- such as 3.5 -- endeavored to "wrest control" from the DM. I cannot tell you the number of times that my players cry "But the book says . . . !"

    Aggravates me no end. So I look for ways to respond, such as:

    "I call upon Pelor!" -- Player

    "Yeah, well . . . that would be me."



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