Wednesday, October 8, 2014

John Wick's 'Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game' Does Not Necessarily Indicate He Is Psychotic

First, old business:

1. More preview art for Red & Pleasant Land, available here in the next few days.
click to enlarge

"God, it's so beautiful, I love this. It just makes D&D look so fucking now"
--Molly Crabapple

2. Yes, I got paid in actual money for consulting on D&D. Thousands of dollars. Ask them.

3. No, I don't think there's only one way to enjoy playing role playing games. The internet is just dumb and interprets "Here's how I like to make pizza!" as "Only ever make pizza." Remember the Golden Rule of Internet Shit-Talking: Ask anyone who says otherwise for a quote.

Now, new business:

Like everyone else I know, I saw John Wick's "Chess Is Not A Roleplaying Game" essay and was like "Ok, that's crazy…next".

Someone then plussed John Wick into the conversation where I opined that John saying stuff like  "D&D is not a role-playing game" and "Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them." as evidence of a highly advanced state of degenerative lunacy on John's part and John showed up and argued with me.

Then, eventually, he was like Ok, let's actually talk (like, with speech) about this.

So we did. Here's a video of us debating what John said.

For the kind of people who actually care about this kind of nitpicky RPG-definition argument, it was really good. It was an actually interesting conversation. There should be more of these.

Next time I'll ask John what's up with his whole "Indiscriminately killing orcs is bad" thing.


  1. That was an informative discussion; thanks for sharing it with us!

  2. John's 'Houses of the Blooded' was a big influence on my gaming, and I always enjoy Zak's take on things. When ya see chats like this - this is what people in our hobby should just do day by day. Instead of the usual bitching and moaning that seems to take up so much energy. Interesting convo guys, love to see more.

  3. I'm curious about John's comment at 25:30 - were you taught how to RP? I'm not sure I was... I found these games that were like weird arcane magick manuals and it took me a few years of trial and error to find out how to make em work. I guess I just figured that was the standard :p

    1. I think people I know just started playing and somebody was GMing and we played along. So we just sort of started and muddled through.

      I think people had big brothers that played but not with us and everybody just sort of pretended to know the rules until it mattered.

      Like, honestly, I don't remember any moment where our "generation" got an idea how to play from another one.

      The example in the AD&D RPG (w/Gutboy Barrelhouse) was fine.

    2. I'm much younger than many people here (I started with D&D 3rd edition), but I definitely don't remember anyone explaining to me how to play the game (although a few of us did have older brothers who played a lot).

      I think I have my notes from the first couple of sessions somewhere but they are GM's stuff so they would reveal more about how I interpreted the GM's job and put it to actual practice than how role-playing suddenly emerged (which it did, that I remember).

  4. It seems to me that the discussion gets bogged down into a discussion about what the rules dictate even though there is an implicit assumption within the rules that the rules themselves are merely an attempt to proscribe structured and (kind of) universal ways to deal with resolving the most common "conflicts" within a narrative.

    The difference between a role-playing game and a board/computer/war/skirmish/whatever game is that the latter are designed around the assumption that (for the most part) their rules are restrictive and the former is designed around the assumption that the rules are just a start; a useful shorthand.

    Another difference comes down to the fact that the latter generally lean heavily towards being competitive (player-vs-player or player-vs-the restriction of non-human intelligence) where a restrictive rule set is needed. Role playing games skew heavily towards co-operative play where the competitive aspect isn't delivered by someone whose focus is to "win". In fact I think that may be one of the most important distinctions in what gives role playing games their distinctive, emergent qualities as games that can be driven by narrative rather than rules, and where rules merely serve to give semi-cogent structure to conflict resolution (whatever form that conflict may take).

    1. I think we deal with what you say in your 1st P.

      Your 3rd paragraph is true--you can't negotiate with anyone in a 2-person wargaming

    2. To the first difference:
      Can a game with only a single, universally applicable rule be considered a role-playing game? (There is no need to add anything, so the rules cannot be the "start" - they're the "end" at the same time)

      To the second difference:
      Dear Esther and Banished come to mind as games with no clear win/lose conditions. In Dear Esther you simply wander around and once you're done the game ends. In Banished, a strategy game about nurturing an independent community in the wild, you may lose (if all your people die), but you cannot win.
      On the other side, Rune and Agon are role-playing games with a heavy emphasis on competition (both player-GM and player-player).
      My point is that this difference is not universal thus it cannot be the "thing" that makes role-playing games different from other types of games.

    3. "Can a game with only a single, universally applicable rule be considered a role-playing game? "
      It's hard to define. Is The Pool's rule "A rule" or multiple rules?

      As to this:
      "My point is that this difference is not universal thus it cannot be the "thing" that makes role-playing games different from other types of games."

      Yeah…nobody said that. Di d you listen tot he whole thing?

    4. @Ynas: I never said any of this _defines_ a roleplaying game. If you want a definition, it's incredibly simple; A roleplaying game is one in which you roleplay. What I was attempting to get across is that rule sets designed with extensibility and open-endedness in mind and also favour co-operation rather than competition between people have a great capacity to actively facilitate that end by a.) giving you shorthand rules for common situations without being the be-all end-all and b.) not being cut-throat enough in terms of pitting person vs person where hard and fast, no exceptions allowed rules are a requirement for play to not descend into a mess.

      As such, saying D&D is not a roleplaying game is silly. It is because it can be, even though you can argue that it doesn't have to be and the rules don't require it to be. D&D is a roleplaying game because that is what it is designed to facilitate but roleplaying in general requires a pallet too broad to be constrained by (relatively) simple rule sets. Worlds and interactions are complex and it's impossible to write a set of rules that can cover (literally) anything. The rules are there purely to smooth out the bits in between.

      How much of a role playing game ends up being those "bits in between" comes down largely to a matter of taste and (arguably) experience.

      The easiest analogy I can think of off the top of my head would be something like a theatre script. Macbeth is obviously a play, but the interpretation of the script and how it plays out on the stage can vary wildly. Macbeth comes alive and flourishes when people are inserted. That doesn't, however, mean that the script by itself isn't really Macbeth, it just means that it's a framework that works in concert with the people who want to tell the story, for better or for worse.

    5. @ Zak:
      When I said "this difference is not universal thus it cannot be the "thing" that makes role-playing games different from other types of games", I meant to refer to a large and important part of the discussion about what the one (or more?) thing is that differentiates an RPG from other types of games. Although many games conform to the trend Rabid described it is simply that: a trend.

      @ Rabid:
      Well, you didn't say _define_ but you said, after explaining the competitive/co-operative difference (capitalisation by me): "In fact I think THAT may be one of the most important distinctions in what gives role playing games their distinctive, emergent qualities as games that can be driven by narrative rather than rules, and where rules merely serve to give semi-cogent structure to conflict resolution".

      I simply wanted to point out that there are counterexamples to that. But perhaps I misunderstood you.

    6. @Ynas: What I was trying to get across is that the thing that makes roleplaying games what they are is what makes them conducive to encouraging roleplaying, either through tradition, intention, or purely as an emergent quality.

      The problem with looking solely at the text when trying to find what defines a roleplaying game from another kind of game is the fact that, BY NECESSITY, in order to do this you must divorce the part that constitutes the roleplay from the part that constitutes the game.

      In essence, a roleplaying game is one that mixes roleplaying and game elements. The rules ARE the game elements. That is what roleplaying games provide. A set of game elements to work alongside and interface with (at varying levels) roleplaying.

      To continue my analogy it is like saying that a theatre is not a theatre because you look at it from backstage, or when there is no play being put on. Roleplaying is a mostly intangible, etheric thing. It becomes real in the moment, not in text or rules or settings. Looking for it in those places is a relatively fruitless endeavour but that doesn't mean they don't provide a framework or inspiration for it, and if that is the purpose it is designed, Huzzah! You've found a roleplaying game.

    7. @Rabid: I agree that role-playing games cannot be divorced from the social context they occur in and emerge from.

      I also agree that a game's written rules are not what make it a role-playing game (that is, they don't put RP in RPG), and that there may be rules that make it easier to emerge than others (I think it happens to be a very elusive connection, though, for there is no clear answer to what exact rules work so).

      However, I remain unconvinced that the absence of clear win/lose conditions or the co-operative aspect would work as a sort of catalyst to facilitate role-playing. I am not categorically opposed to the idea, though, I just don't see the connection (cf. Agon or Rune vs. Dear Esther or Banished).

    8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    9. The connection I am drawing is this:

      Roleplaying requires (by necessity of more or less infinite choice) loose, interpretive methods of resolving conflicts, whether that be by universal resolution mechanics that can be tailored to just about any situation quickly, on-the-fly rulings or consent between players and referees.

      Unclear/open-ended win/lose conditions and the co-operative aspect are also suited to that kind of environment where stricter, competitive play is not. There is a lot of overlap in terms of approach.

      (I deleted the previous comment because immediately after posting I realized I'd garbled the whole thing right in the middle of a paragraph. My apologies.)

  5. Narrowly looking at the tail end of your conversation with Mr. Wick regarding the public airing of partially-formed potentially-crazy ideas, I think there is a lot of value to be had in having live-fire idea-testing, but it's best to do so in a more anonymous environment. Can you post the same crazy idea as "John Doe" and defend it or win supporters? Without the benefit of your existing cachet of reputation? The same idea expressed by Zak S. is very different when posted on as opposed to when published as an editorial attributed to Jimmy Carter in the New York Times. The primary reason the chess article is seen as relevant is that John Wick wrote it, more so than the contents themselves. The contents are debatable and interesting, but the fact that RPG Luminary John Wick expressed them is the hook that draws your attention to the matter. Nobody cares what John Fitzgerald has to say about rules interpretations in the new version of D&D. Many more people care what Mike Mearls says.

    1. I think there's no good argument for posting half-baked ideas but doing it under an anonymous name is probably better than doing it as A Game Designer.

  6. This was a really, really great post. I think John Wick had some valuable questions and insight, but I think he made some assumptions and sweeping generalizations. I did appreciate his perspective and I appreciate his side of the conversation.

    Zak, I think your arguments about the game rules fostering roleplaying and creating an atmosphere where roleplaying naturally happens, rather than mechanically necessitating roleplaying were critical. Maybe the game mechanics don't explicitly reward roleplaying, but instead create scenarios and referee empowerment that both encourage roleplaying.

    in the end, D&D IS a roleplaying game, and the first mass-produced and pop-culture RPG. That some people can play the game as a war game or board game doesn't detract from its place as THE crucial roleplaying game.

  7. I am about twenty minutes into the recording. Jesus Wilhelm Christ, listening to Wick is annoying. You had more patience with that nonsense than I would have.

    1. Whatever you think of the way Wick talks, it's that patience that separates a useful from a useless debate.

      Wick had the patience to talk about the crazy thing he said--that is what makes him head and shoulders better than the zillion other internet rubes slinging half-baked ideas around.

      If you can't stand the heat, don't start a fire.

  8. "There is no fluff in an RPG" is now my mantra.

  9. One point from the LBBs:

    "We urge you to refrain from writing for rule interpretations or the like unless you are absolutely at a loss, for everything herein is fantastic, and the best way is to decide how you would like it to be, and then make it just that way."

    There is your tactical infinity codified in the "Afterward" (sic).

  10. That was very interesting - thanks for posting the full video. The fluff-to-crunch transition in RPGs nicely illustrates an occasional frustration I have with wargames: I want to do crazy, outside-the-box stuff, but the rules won't let me (and I can't hack them to do that, without making the game unplayable as a referee-less affair). I don't get that yearning as often with vehicle-based wargames - it makes sense in BattleTech that pilots are limited to maneuvering and firing - but it makes me very impatient with character-scale wargames. I keep wanting to turn them into RPGs, so I can expand my repertoire of dirty tricks.

    On the other hand, the narrative and tactical infinity of RPGs requires a lot more from players. When everyone is at their peak, RPGs can be a lot more transcendentally fun than wargames, but if people don't have good ideas (on either side of the screen), sessions can really suck. Wargames offer a more dependable level of fun, but they sacrifice tactical infinity to get there, so basically they cut the tails off the distribution. The worst wargame sessions are less bad than the worst RPG sessions, but the best wargame sessions are also much less good than the best RPG sessions.

  11. When did D&D first get Charisma, Reaction modifiers, Alignment, and the like? Those rules, along with the implied setting, all drive role-playing and thus role-playing is part of the rules.

  12. What would be added to Chess to turn it into an RPG?
    -Recognition of resolution for situations not explicity defined within rules
    -Ability to shift focus of resolution from session to session and even from turn to turn.
    -Rewards in play that coninue to enhance play during a session and in further sessions.
    -Abiity to play indefinetly without achieving a goal beyond enjoying the act of. playing.
    -Ability to create new "pieces" and have a game that can react to those new piieces.

    All would turn chess into not chess. There is no reward in chess for not risking a pawn, you are going to lose some. You do not win because you have more pieces when the other player checks your king. You do not get to keep playing with pawns barney and phil and gain any benefit from the expereinces of barney and phil in the last game.

  13. The point about John's friend that's into martial arts plays back to the whole detailed weapon lists thing, I think. "Weapon choice" is a tactical decision, and the precise details of that tactical decision can have important consequences, like when kobolds attack you while crawling through a tunnel (no room for polearms, bows, or large swords) or when your rival is hiding in the holy temple (it's sacrilege to shed blood there).

    Weapon choice is also (and this is something I would expect John Wick to realize) in many cases a social distinction. What's the difference between a katana and a wakizashi? Who's allowed to carry them, for one thing - and adding a mechanical difference makes the decision to have one or the other a more interesting choice. You might get punished if you're caught with a sword too big for your station, but if you carry a smaller one you'll be at a significant disadvantage against samurai.

  14. From Mr. Wick's rant: "The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games. You can successfully play them without roleplaying."

    Poll: how many games do you know which can't be played without roleplaying? Because I don't know anyone - and I've played CoC and I've played Vampire. Correct me if I'm wrong, but my guess is: there's no such thing as a roleplaying game in-a-narrow-sense.

    I'm busy transcripting the recording, but I barely can understand spoken English ("a roleplaying game have no blobs"). So I'll assume I'm missing the very best of it.

    Whatever, if I understand it correctly:
    - Mr. Wick argues you can roleplay chess (or not, depending on the player).
    - Zak replies that D&D, unlike chess, allows roleplaying to affect the outcome of the game (or not, depending on the GM).

    ...and that would be a roleplaying game in-a-broad-sense.

    Back to Mr. Wick's: "You can successfully play [insert game name here] without roleplaying." Bad thing or good thing? For Mr. Wick, who focus his games on roleplaying, it's a bad thing. For me, who don't give a fuck, it's not a bad thing.

    (As a sidethough, WTF does "roleplaying" stand for anyway? I mean, in the context of a game, these words seem to mean a different thing depending on who you ask.)

    So-called roleplaying games are not about roleplaying (or rather: they are not _just_ about the roleplaying). Neither they are games - no win condition, no loose condition. For precision's sake, I'd call D&D, CoC and the likes "roleplay-able game engines" (roleplay-able like in "Magic" the collect-ible card game). Or "multi-purpose game engines".

    I wonder if all of this makes sense, so far. I hope so.

    1. WARNING: the author of the previous post has been diagnosed a PDD-NOS.
      "NOS" my ass - I have a full-fledged Asperger's Syndrome!