Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Old School Design and Room In the Margins

More accidental D&D talk from Rem Koolhaas' SMLXL.

In this section Koolhaas is talking about being assigned to assess whether an old Jeremy Bentham-inspired 19th century prison--the Koepel--aka the Arnhem panopticon--was still usable considering modern-day attitudes toward incarceration and rehabilitation:

Margin

Perhaps the most important and least recognized difference between traditional [1882] and contemporary architecture is revealed in the way a hypermonumental, space-wasting building like the Arnhem panopticon proves flexible, while modern architecture is based on a deterministic coincidence between form and program, its purpose no longer an abstraction like »moral improvement« but a literal inventory of all the details of daily life.

Flexibility is not the exhaustive anticipation of all possible changes. Most changes are unpredictable. Bentham could never have imagined the present use of the Koepel. Flexibility is the creation of margin – excess capacity that enables different and even opposite interpretations an uses. Because Bentham's ideological purity could only be realized at the cost of a spacial surplus (Zak's note: the idea was a big golfball with cells on the rim and guards in the center with lots of empty space in the middle), the Koepel is such a margin. New architecture, lacking this kind of excess, is doomed to a permanent state of alteration if it is to adjust to even minor ideological or practical changes…The history of prison building has become a sequence of short-lived ideals that were challenged, faltered, and then failed. Near the end of the 20th century, this sequence becomes almost comic – like an accelerated movie. It has become impossible to build a prison that is not, at the moment of its completion, out-of-date.
Lots of room...
...for other things

Basically, the old building had extra space in it. It was an inefficient design, and that's why it's proved useful for over 130 years. That unused space translated into flexibility.

Aside from being a useful parable about how the ideas attending a thing's creation aren't necessarily the only ones that thing can express, it's also a story about durable design. Anyone familiar with the old rhetoric of focused game design ("The game is about what the rules are about") can see where this is headed.

The classic counter-example is the incredibly shambolic and old-school Call of Cthulhu, a perfect storm of traditional-game design Shouldn't-Works:

-Clunky: Up until very recently it was still basically just Chaosium Basic Role-Playing (D&Dish stats + Plus a couple more + Plus a bolted-on skill percentile skill system including some hybrid shoot skill plus dodge chance combat system) + Percentile Sanity Stat + Percentile Cthulhu mythos stat

-Wasteful: Plus 90% of the 200+ page huge hardcover book is stuff you never use in any given session.

-Empty center: Plus the insanities (the defining feature of the game) are on a barely-described chart that take up a quarter-page.

-Terrible examples: The published adventures are notorious for being railroady.

Focused design wonks have no idea what to do with this game, which has been successful in a wide variety of campaigns for most of the history of RPGing and has barely bee altered edition-to-edition.

Yesterday I ran a Call of Cthulhu game that, instead of being about neuraesthenic aesthetes confronting eldritch library horror was instead about a crew of modern cops on the edge trying to clean up a city that likes being dirty. Here is a list of the changes I made to the way we usually run things:

1. Players have to choose the 'Police' career

2. That's all
Lots of room

This game has Margin. And it's not like I had to write up things either, like I would with modern supposed-to-be-generic systems. Because the core of the game is simply "What describes things that exist in this place and time?" rather than "What is genre-appropriate?" Cthulhu characters exist in a world that still has a lot of things that, thematically, aren't horror-specific like cars and botany. And it grasps that you'd like to be able to play lots of sessions--either lots of different kinds of games, or lots of the same campaign but with evolving roles and situations, so it needs to weigh things players can do close to equally. Other trad systems think the same way--D&D, Warhammer, even FASERIP can all drift away from their default modes with barely an effort.

Just as no prison can keep up with the state-of-the-art in locking people up, no game can (or should) be able to anticipate exactly what a random one-billionth of the world's population wants to do around a table on any given Sunday.

Next time you ask "Hey what system would you use to run a game of roller-skating magic girls in the 94th century who do combat by proton-strangulation?" and someone says "D&D"--that's why. It's not because they don't know any better, it's because it'll work.

And, unlike Bentham's prison: it was designed that way on purpose.
-
-
-


14 comments:

  1. I thought I caught you on a mistake in the first paragraph: the Koepel being in Arnhem. I live in Haarlem (also in the Netherlands) and not far from my home we have the prison 'the Koepel'. Turns out that there are three such prisons in the Netherlands (the other being in Breda).

    Although the prisons are more than a century old, they are still being used, but not for long; it has recently been decided that the prisons will be closed and sold in the near future. The destination of the buildings is still unclear, but the one in Breda will first be used to shelter fugitives.

    I really wonder what will happen to these unique locations.

    ReplyDelete
  2. As a recently converted "focused design wonk" I would respectfully disagree: I have been playing traditional games for decades including my own fantasy heart breaker (a mix between what was hot in the 80s and 90s) and just recently found out that since then the RPG world has moved on. Just reading through some of the PbtA games gave me a whole new idea about how to run games. What I am saying is: If you are an awesome DM and have great players you could run whatever you want and it will be awesome. For the rest of us it is nice to have a rule structure that encourages or enforces good roleplaying / DMing, including rules for partial successes and player agency but also best practices like narration before and after dice rolling, making your players shine and most of all trust (stuff that is missing in trad games where the DM still is an authoritative, godlike figure). .

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. If you don't have an awesome DM and players, stop playing and change personnel.

      Delete
    2. yeah dude- fuck narration before and after a die roll, it's the age old Stunt description before the dice hit the table issue from way back to Feng Shui (now fixed in v2) that was absolutely awful in Exalted (now not fixed in v3). After is the only way to go-- throw the dice since it's something you are letting the dice decide, and narrate after the effect is known.

      Delete
    3. that is also silly, littlemute, there is no One True Way.

      But you still need decent personnel--the game that is supposed to work with the sucky GM and sucky players is not ever going to deliver.

      Delete
    4. Horst: Dr. S, with this new glasses I can read much better.
      Dr. S: Fuck this shit. Stop reading or have better eyesight!

      Delete
    5. If you have a shitty DM and players, my guess is you're still not safe to be driving with those glasses.

      Delete
    6. I believe it's possible for people to learn to be better at playing or GMing. Rather than become replaced as a member of the group and quitting the hobby forever, I'd suggest reading, studying, doing things in different ways, learning from others and practice.

      Delete
    7. No, wait, I'm responding to the stupidity of your rhetoric, "stuff that is missing in trad games where the DM still is an authoritative, godlike figure"

      (an elected office does not a godlike figure make)

      ...rather than to what you _think_ your argument is.

      If your game works well for you and makes your peeps more interesting than they were: THAT'S GOOD.

      The way you expressed that point, however, is dripping with moronic postForge supremacist fake-logic ("godlike"?) and you should stop doing that because talking like that makes you a bad person.

      Delete
  3. @VS
    You're banned--you can't make unprovoked personal attacks and then expect to be welcome here.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Why "supremacist"? The guy who wears the glasses doesn´t claim that. For me as a "shitty" DM I like the fact that I can give the players some room to contribute to the story and that is something I didn´t find in trad games (explicitly). Obviously you can run an old school game that way as well

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Then that did not come through in your rhetoric.

      Saying that a simple thing like "trust" "does not exist in trad games" does not exactly inspire confidence:

      "
      , making your players shine and most of all trust (stuff that is missing in trad games where the DM still is an authoritative, godlike figure). .
      "

      If you're amending what you said then ok.

      Delete
  5. Koolhaas's Junkspace is my favourite D&D module of the 2000's:

    "Air, water, wood: All are enchanted to produce Hyperecology, a parallel Walden, a new rainforest. Landscape has become Junkspace, foliage as spoilage: Trees are tortured, lawns cover human manipulations like thick pelts, or even toupees, sprinkler water according to mathematical timetables"

    "Junkspace is hot (or suddenly arctic); fluorescent walls, folded like melting stained glass, generate additional heat to raise the temperature of Junkspace to a level at which you could cultivate orchids"

    "To accommodate a nether world of manual labor, the concourse suddenly turns into Casbah: improvised locker rooms, coffee breaks, smoking, even real campfires … The ceiling is crumpled plate like the Alps; ... The floor is patchwork: different textures - concrete, hairy, heavy, shiny, plastic, metallic, muddy - alternate randomly as if dedicated to different species … The ground is no more."

    "Because it is endless, it always leaks somewhere in Junkspace;"

    ReplyDelete
  6. A party of level 1 characters vs a level 10 monster.

    Go.

    Sheer awesome.

    ReplyDelete