"(Some Game) is the worst game because, sooner or later, (Some Awful Thing) always happens."
"No way, I've been playing (Some Game) since (Some Year) and (The Awful Thing) has never happened. What are you talking about?"
"Look at the (Rule Distinctive To the Game)--it always leads to (Some Awful Thing), the only reason for it is (Some Dumb Reason)."
"That's not true, (Distinctive Rule) leads to (Distinctive Awesome Result)!"
"Shuh! I've never seen it!"
This is the essential form of nearly all arguments about RPGs on-line and in publications, from D&D Edition Wars, to stuff on blogs, to arguments over GNS theory.
The problem here is, the actual thing usually at the heart of the discussion--the ding an sich as the Germans would say, the "thing-in-itself"--the thing that is being evaluated, is not the published rules of a game, or the economic success of a game, or the influence of a game, or even a person's subjective response to reading the rules--it's how actual sessions of play turn out.
And we have very little shared data on that, because--outside conventions, which are an unusual and exceptional case where the normal social rules of gaming don't necessarily apply--we don't usually watch groups of total strangers play RPGs. We can't say: "Look, see? See what Jed just did right there when he tackled the Snot Goblin? That's what I'm talking about! That's why Shared Narration with an Unfocused Universal Table Resolution System, with Low-Metagame and Nonstandard Fortune Mechanics always leads to Biscuitfiddle-Rundlegrumper-Style-Play!"
When arguing about RPGs on-line or in a publication (real-life is a whole other thing and is not what I'm talking about), generally, both parties have seen the same rules and can make common reference to the rules, and that's it--that's the end of the shared experience they can refer to.
I was going to say this is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen the script, but really, arguing about RPGs without direct reference to actual play events is like arguing about a movie when both parties have only ever seen whatever How To Write Your Screenplay book the screenwriter read before s/he wrote the movie.
Without going into my actual thoughts on Ron Edwards' GNS theory (that's a whole other kettle of fish), I've read the essays about GNS theory several times (the theory is basically that there are three types of gaming goals and that bad game experiences are--often or usually, not sure which--the result of gamers trying to play a game whose goals don't match their own) and I always get hung up here in the last part of Edwards' introductory essay:
I have met dozens, perhaps over a hundred, very experienced role-players with this profile: a limited repertoire of games behind him and extremely defensive and turtle-like play tactics. Ask for a character background, and he resists, or if he gives you one, he never makes use of it or responds to cues about it. Ask for actions - he hunkers down and does nothing unless there's a totally unambiguous lead to follow or a foe to fight. His universal responses include "My guy doesn't want to," and, "I say nothing."
I have not, in over twenty years of role-playing, ever seen such a person have a good time role-playing. I have seen a lot of groups founder due to the presence of one such participant. Yet they really want to play. They prepare characters or settings, organize groups, and are bitterly disappointed with each fizzled attempt. They spend a lot of money on RPGs with lots of supplements and full-page ads in gaming magazines.
These role-players are GNS casualties. They have never perceived the range of role-playing goals and designs, and they frequently commit the fallacies of synecdoche about "correct role-playing." Discussions with them wander the empty byways of realism, genre, completeness, roll-playing vs. role-playing, and balance. They are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough. They thought that "show up with a character" was sufficient prep, or thought that this new game with its new setting was going to solve all their problems forever. They are simultaneously devoted to and miserable in their hobby.
My goal in developing RPG theory and writing this document is to help people avoid this fate.
I don't know these guys. I believe that the author of this essay has met these guys, or people he believes are these guy (he has no motive to lie about it) but I can't genuinely say whether I believe these guys "are the victims of incoherent game designs and groups that have not focused their intentions enough" or whether these guys even actually are the bizarre sad-sacks they appear to him to be because I have not studied the case.
I would like to make sure we're talking about the same phenomenon before discussing what may have caused that phenomenon.
(Note: I am aware that the author of the GNS essays and his allies do attempt to document games in order to help them talk about games and design new ones, I'm just using this as an example of a time where it'd help to have that kind of document.)
Now I am totally ok with arguing about how RPGs should be or could be. Whether you call that "theory" or "arguing with somebody about games" is irrelevant. What I'm saying is: when making sweeping statements about RPGs, it helps to refer to specific, recorded instances of play.
And where are those?
Thanks to the internet, fucking everywhere.
The first unedited actual play recording I ever heard was this podcast of the Cthulhu adventure Horror on the Orient Express.
What immediately struck me was how bizarre it was to be listening to it at all--if you really think about it, it's extremely rare to find yourself observing people you don't know casually sitting in their own homes hanging out for days on end.
You hear what this one thinks is funny, you hear what that one thinks is offensive, you hear what this one assumes everybody knows, you hear all the assumptions of a social context (a real one, not a fictional one) that isn't yours at all--which is surprising.
And this isn't just overhearing something for 10 minutes in a restaurant--the recording goes on for 20-some hours--the artificiality imposed by their knowledge of being recorded melts away fairly quickly and what's left seems like a fairly honest document of how these people roll.
Unless you're a private detective or a certain kind of lawyer or a very dedicated peeping tom, its unlike anything you've heard a thing like this before, because 99% of the time you're set up to eavesdrop on other people's lives (on TV, usually) it's fictionalized or framed in such a way as to entertain you. Not here.
The second thing that struck me is they were very likable people.
The third thing that struck me is that they play in a completely different way than I would have--a way that would've bored and frustrated me, in many cases. And one which, if accurately described in words, would have led me to believe these people were not my kind of people at all. (They do a lot of shopping, and role-play through meals with very detailed descriptions of what they ate, and nothing ever happens during the meals.)
The fourth thing that struck me was they seemed to be having a lot of fun.
The fifth thing that struck me was, had I been there, as a player or GM, the game would almost certainly've been totally different, because--in a Heisenberg-uncertainty-principle-type-way--you being there makes everybody nice with a brain (and these people are nice and have very big brains) try to alter the social contract (perhaps unconsciously) to fit your play style.
Point being here, the actual play recordings that are now becoming available on the web are, really, the very first time there's actually been lots of data (that both sides of an argument can refer to) to back up one side or another in arguments about what does or doesn't equal fun in RPGs. All the sales figures, surveys, and hearsay anecdotes are nothing compared to this.
-If you go to the WoTC site you can hear the Robot Chicken guys play D&D 4 and you can also click somewhere else and hear the Wil Wheaton + web cartoonists crew play the same system with the exact same DM. The games are different in every way. Does system matter? Does DM matter? There's some data right there.
-If you go to Yog-Sothoth.com (the same site that has the Horror on the Orient Express recordings) there are recordings of that group playing Keep on the Borderlands using D&D 1. It is completely different in every way from how anyone I know would've played, but it actually sounds remarkably like the Robot Chicken people playing D&D 4.
-Same module, different edition. Same group, different module. Different group, same system, different genre--how do these things affect play style? Now you can do side-by-side comparisons.
-I've heard people describe games as "a really intense session of...." generally not meaning intense just as in "exciting", but intense as in "psychologically difficult but possibly cathartic" for the player. I have never ever had anything remotely like this happen in a game (and am not sure I'd find it at all interesting or fun) and I'm not sure how it would work--if someone who is into this kind of gaming can point me to an actual play recording that they feel fits the bill, I'd be glad to listen.
-Marketing--WoTC puts up (mostly unedited) actual play recordings--does anybody else? If not, they should.
-Retro clones? For things like battle mechanics--watching or hearing an actual play recording is infinitely clearer than reading the mechanics in a book and comparing them to other retro-clones to see which you like best. Get on that.
-Academics? Need to write a paper for your sociology class? Start listening to actual play recordings. "This paper is based on a survey of over a hundred recordings of..."
-"You would like _____, you should try it!" Nobody has enough time to try every game in the world. Listening to some people play it, however, this is something we maybe have time to do.
-GMing advice? A recording's worth a thousand words. I would LOOOOOVE to hear side-by-side recordings of (say) James Raggi, James Mal, and Jeff Rients all running the same module for their respective groups.
(-side note: our show will be edited down, because it's meant to be a show, so it doesn't exactly fit the 'raw data' bill that I'm describing here. Nevertheless, I may get some long stretches up one day for scientific purposes.)
-Fun? Fun is the goal. And you can hear fun. A recording can end an argument about whether something can be fun.