There and Back Again: Gaming Anthropology

By David Clarkson

I am a 50+ gamer; with that mantle I am expected to possess perspective and wisdom on how to best pursue our shared hobby. On closer examination all I can really report is that I have personal opinion, subjective observation and undeniable experience just for being there when this all happened.

Within that experience I have developed my own point of view that shows me a rhythm in the popular culture that is RPG gaming - a pattern I try to share when newer players come to my table proclaiming the idea of the moment is “the right way” to game.  While ideas have shared time in the spotlight and in shadow, it is my strong opinion that the two often opposing forces of mechanics and storytelling have always been there. I advise all GMs, DMs, ST’s & Judges to determine where their personal style fits if they wish to do well at their craft.

Looking back, I feel I saw gaming grow up, albeit through the lens of Dungeons & Dragons, but with the rest of the craft in a loose orbit around the Tiamat of RPG gaming. As a young 7th grader I learned Advanced Dungeons & Dragons first; I devoured the Player’s Handbook and celebrated my ability to penetrate the High Gygaxian within. Weapon speed stands out in my mind as a particular esoteric piece of the rules that gained my focus at that time. The idea that with a small amount of organization you could game the system and get to act faster in an initiative tie seemed like magic because I was able to hold my deeper D&D lore over my fellow gamers like a wizard of ill-thought-out rules. My fascination was more about how I would play the game than why I would play the game. At that time the mechanics of the game were the one thing we all felt was the secret of a good game. The core thesis of D&D was soon franchised to many other settings: D&D in the Old West, D&D spies, and, like all horror movies eventually; D&D in space. Better systems for better gaming was the zeitgeist. Soon the gaming world doubled their bet and generic gaming like GURPS or Hero Games became entrenched. In those systems anything could be reduced to the atomic structure of points. Numbers make the game fair and better, right? My schooling was complete, or so I thought.

Soon, into this high schooler’s life came White Wolf Games: the 800lb, leather clad, chainsaw wielding, perverted gorilla in the room.  More than the awesomeness of being able to play a character who was a monster, a vampire, the game promised to blow the doors off of gaming by saying “Screw mechanics, the story is all that matters; we think that so much that you should call your vampire dungeon master a storyteller!” All game stuff was rated on five stars like a newspaper restaurant review, all rolls used the same dice; you don’t even need six-sided dice. The gaming world was making a collective Sanity Check to handle the brash upstart. The game did provide some of what it promised. Storytellers were encouraged to “hand-wave” dice results and “make sure the outcome supported your original story idea”. Then every new game to come down the pike had more and more fancy ways to let the player write the game in some manner. Some even encouraged the players to agree on the next point in the story after rolling some die as if no one had to figure out the game in advance? “What about my graph paper maps?” the 7th grader in me proclaimed. “Why have rules if they don’t matter?” Soon, either by repetition or perhaps just because being able to game without preparation was helpful, I found myself entertaining and then espousing the idea. Soon I was looking at the dice and silently saying, “You’re not the boss of me!” when the roll didn’t suit the way I felt the story was going.

As an older adult; I found that I started thinking, “If a system-less game is the ideal; why am I moving 1 metric ton of gaming books to each new home?” A restlessness had taken root, looking for a game with enough boundaries to make the game matter, but not so much the game, it became about the charts and dice rolls.  I stumbled into the Old School Gaming movement, and it seemed like I was returning to the start. On the surface these throwback games became self-inflicted hazing rituals where you endured game rule requirements that defied logic. You shrugged and said; “When I was young and free, I liked calculating encumbrance numbers!” As I participated in these silent debates, even I thought that I must be a little mad. So, what was the appeal? Soon it dawned, I had learned that the rules are optional, the dice roll should support the story, right? Playing these games that looked like rulebooks unearthed from under a dusty pyramid did not mean that you were not doing it right if you didn’t follow each rule to a “T”, but the well-defined rules gave you a framework to hang the flesh of your story. If you don’t like the results of a spellcasting backlash roll, you don’t have to find yourself stuck with “everyone turns into a chicken”; instead, the botched roll can reveal a window into an alternate world where the dominant race is evolved from avian stock. Looking through that window are doubles in avian form and they can see you looking at them! Now you have the start of the Quest for the Great Chicken, instead of a dumb roll you never planned on having. Wow, this game can write itself. I felt that by bringing the two ideas together I would have my ideal method of delivering a fun story.

While I was pleased with the results of my discovery, I soon realized that my approach wasn’t a one-size fits all solution. Some players at my table seemed to show that while they liked the game itself, they were bothered by the fact that they could not always predict or at least piece together the logic after the fact and see the story unfolding according to a pre-determined set of rules. It’s almost like some players wanted to be able to determine the outcome of the story like it was a math problem! The truth is, either, both, and a combination of the two are the reason we all game. While we want to tell any story, we also are creatures that love to put structure onto our world, even ones that only exist in our imagination. The trick is for the person responsible for facilitating the experience to understand where they fall between these magnetic poles of gaming. The important point is knowing your style and then, both play to that style and make sure you make it clear to your players like the social contract that it is. Everyone at the gaming table will have a better experience including you. iIf you like to know that you can count on the movement rules restricting your tactical melee choices and you like the creativity of finding a pay to success in that maze of limited choices, go for it. If the idea of tracking miniatures on an oversized graph paper gives you hives, toss that paper map into the river! Find your sweet spot of how many rules you love, play within that sandbox and make sure you put up some signs so that no one is unaware that the sand may be deep. Everyone should have fun, that’s the point after all!