Saturday, February 21, 2009

Like Banquo's Ghost: Edition Wars and the One Right Way to Play

I like reading Grognardia. I suspect a lot of other gaming aficionados do, as well. One of the things I appreciate about James Maliszewski’s exploration of gaming topics is that he’s quite clear that all he is doing is expressing his personal opinion and preferences. “This is what I like – you might think differently.” So it has always struck me oddly when people object to his preferences (like here and here), just because they are his, well, preferences. It struck me as particularly odd that people have been showing up to deride his preference for older versions of D&D because the latest version is somehow “better.”

How is one edition of D&D “better” than any other? Well, it depends on the standard you are using. If you use the standard of “what’s currently published as D&D?” then certainly, Wizards of the Coast’s latest offering is “better.” If you use the standard of “what was the original expression of D&D?” then you have a variety of choices, because D&D itself was originally an evolving creature – but there is a clear demarcation line: “Original” D&D was the three little beige books, supplements I to IV, and some clarifications and additions found in The Strategic Review and The Dragon. Some people like the first edition of AD&D, and that’s another example we can point to. The problem with trying to debate the choices of other gamers using these standards is that they are really expressions of personal preference. What’s better for you is not necessarily going to be better for me, and vice versa. The only way we can resolve this is by negotiating what we want to play, when we sit down to play together, then and only then. In other words, we need a social contract for game play. Please understand I am not talking about GNS theory here, specifically, but the idea that there is a set of implicit and explicit agreements made amongst game-players about the game they want to play. This includes everything from when and where to play – and for how long – but also regarding what rules to use for the game.

Now a lot of writing has been done on the nature of the social contract in gaming – examples can be found here, here, and here. These are decent as far as they go (and there are more), but many of these articles touch only abstractly or in passing about the issue of the rules of the game itself. This is where there is a ghostly third party at every gaming table – the game publisher. “How is the game publisher at the gaming table?” you might well ask. The game publisher is at the table through the rules for the game – and then later through rules clarifications, additions, subtractions, and later editions of the game. The more that a game publisher does of the latter, the more “present” they are at the gaming table. But the publisher isn’t aware of what you are doing at your gaming table; they are simply managing their product in the best way they know how to stay in business. So their reasons for making changes (“improvements” some might say) to the game are almost entirely separate from whatever on-going social contract you and your friends have with each other as players and referee(s). But many people use published changes as justification for making changes in their game-play. This is problematic, because we can’t assume everyone agrees on the standards used for making changes or even that there might be some end goal of “perfecting” the game rules. I would submit that a great deal of the “edition wars” problem lies in the interpretation – or rather, mis-interpretation – of the place of the game publisher at the gaming table.

At one point I might have agreed with Tim Kask about the nature of this problem – “it’s those darn kids on my dungeon lawn!” (or something similar) But it wasn’t the players that were solely responsible for all those anxious calls to Lake Geneva for rules interpretations – Tim’s memory must be playing him false. There were no small number of referees who wanted “the official ruling” on any given subject. Why? To bolster their authority in the social contract! Little did players and referees back then realize what this might do.

You might ask, “So where did such behavior come from?” Wargaming and miniatures play, for one – just take a look at WRG miniatures rules and their history, and you will see what I mean. But this was just as much about a lack of clarity about that social contract between everyone at the table. When disagreements arose, as they inevitably would, some players and referees saw it as easier to appeal to an external standard – the publisher’s official ruling. This was done for entirely innocuous reasons – reasons like seeking clarity, genuine confusion, and looking for helpful advice. But like Banquo’s ghost at the feast, such appeals were often used as a reproach to how things had been done up until that point – and both players and their referees granted the ghost far more authority than Gygax or Arneson (or anyone else) had ever intended. Well, up to a certain point in time.

Submitted for your consideration: “Role-Playing: Realism vs. Game Logic; Spell points, Vanity Press and Rip-offs” From The Sorcerer’s Scroll, by E. Gary Gygax, pp. 15-16 and 21, The Dragon #16, July, 1978.
“Many seek to trade on D&D’s popularity by offering ‘new’ or ‘variant’ systems which fit only with D&D, even though the game is not actually named. Buy them if you have money to throw away, but at peril of your campaign; do not use material which alters the basic precepts of the game….Use your imagination and creativity when you play D&D, for there is much room within its parameters for individuality and personalization; always keep in mind that everything in the game is there for a reason, that major systems are carefully geared and balanced to mesh together to make a workable whole. Changing one part could well ruin the rest, and then what would you play?”
What makes this passage problematic is not that Gary was defending TSR’s product. That is perfectly understandable. What makes it problematic is that he is using an appeal to the publisher's place at the gaming table to bolster his position, i.e. “You’re doing it wrong if we say so.” This is a far cry from Gary’s letter published in the second issue of Alarums & Excursions (and which appeared about two years before), edited by Lee Gold, in which he says,

“If the time ever comes when all aspects of fantasy are covered and the vast majority of its players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed. Sorry, but I don't believe that there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another....I desire variance in interpretation and, as long as I am editor of the TSR line and its magazine, I will do my utmost to see that there is as little trend towards standardization as possible. Each campaign should be a 'variant', and there is no 'official interpretation' from me or anyone else."

Now it is possible that Gary changed his mind, which is perfectly fine. It's pretty clear that Wizards of the Coast has followed Gary's later advice as part of maintaining their business model. What isn't all that smart for everyone else is to continue to let the publisher go unacknowledged at the gaming table. There is no reason why such a position should be accepted without consideration - the social contract you have within your gaming group doesn't require adherence to an "official" version of the game, unless everyone agrees with it (and if you have, then more power to you). If you reject the necessity of "official" status, then the best edition of the game is the one you collectively like to play.

And that, my friends, is what Gary originally intended, anyway.


  1. I hated having to drop out of our Petal Throne game, Victor, so it's good to see you blogging. :)

  2. Thanks for the look back at the early days of D&D. I like your notion that the publisher was the invisible member of the gaming party, but can't imagine any of the DM's I knew back then appealing to Lake Geneva for a ruling. That was the sort of thing boardgamers did. ;)

  3. Like it or not, the publisher's opinion carries a certain weight. I'd have to say I don't like it, because I agree that ultimately the only thing that matters is what rules the ref and players want to use.

    But I've learned not to underestimate folks' desire to "play like [they think] everybody else is playing." And don't even get me started on the pressure for uniform rules for tournament purposes.

  4. Like it or not, the publisher's opinion carries a certain weight....I've learned not to underestimate folks' desire to "play like [they think] everybody else is playing."

    Oh, definitely. I think one of the biggest differences between "old school" gaming and more modern forms is that "old school" explicitly rejects conformity for its own sake. It's part of looking at gaming differently - and therefore comes into the social contract of gaming almost instantaneously.

  5. it's good to see you blogging. :)

    Thank you! I'm glad you are checking in and reading this stuff - it's blather and nonsense most of the time, but I try to be moderately interesting.

  6. Two things: Publishers are in it to make money and will always prefer and insist that you buy their products. WOTC is the prime example of that.

    Where player imagination is concerned, there is nothig that can not be imnprovised. DMing is like Jazz. Oh, I have all the defense plans and responses and maps and rooms pre-written, but beyond that, anythign goes. It is very easy to9 maintain the all important "game balance" - each game emchanic innovation must apply equally to the players, the monsters and the NPCs.