Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Gary's Rules I: Basic Structure & Combat


The rules provide the structure of role-playing games, in Gary's words they are "the general framework within which participants operate" (77).  As we saw before, they provide (implicitly or explicitly) the objective of the game (see the idea of the spirit of the game from chapter 2).  There is enough meat in this chapter for me to reflect on it in at least two blog posts, so this first one will confine itself to the how Gary sees the fundamental elements of rules in RPM, and further to focus on the two key areas of insight that the first part of the chapter offers.

Gygax breaks the rules down into seven categories.  Those categories are
  • Objective
  • Time and Distance Scales
  • Movement Rates
  • Combat
  • Character Types
  • Technical Data
  • Rewards
He acknowledges a difference in emphasis between play and realism, and tends to note how in each area the rules indicate whether a particular RPG comes down on the side of playability or accuracy.  While his brief reflections on these are of some interest, and indicate a breadth on his part recognizing the validity of different approaches within RPGs, there is a clear standout as far as which is the greatest, and it is carries forward from what Gary sees as the objective of RPGs.

As a reminder, objective for Gygax means more than the obvious purpose for playing a game: fun.  A game's objective is how fun is had: what is a game's specific way of having fun?  Games have different ways of having fun, and though he recognizes that RPGs have some range in different kinds of fun, there is distinctive which makes RPGs an identifiable game genre, defining the range of what is an RPG.  The above bulleted outline gives a clue to Gary's answer: for him, the purpose of role-playing games (or at least, and especially, D&D) is "make-believe combat" (79). 

It is common knowledge that the first RPG came out of military miniatures or war games.  But it would be a fallacy to assume that the origin of a thing dictates its identity and purpose.  We can easily imagine, for example, that Tarot has its origin in other kinds of card games.  But for Gary, war gaming is more than an origin for RPGs: "the core of the game is the combat between the players' characters and the nonplayer opponents controlled by the game master" (79).  We can know see how the outline provides a sandwich structure: Combat is the central rules feature, and the other features are understood as support.  The objective is victory in imaginary combat and the rewards will be appropriate to victory in imaginary combat.  While he acknowledges other kinds of imaginary action, such as problem-solving, "the heart of the action" is "combat of a personal sort" (79).  This takes us right back to the invention of the idea that the player takes on the role of a single combatant, which Gary owed to Dave Arneson, in war gaming.  Acknowledging that "rules systems that are virtually nothing but combat are, without question, not role-playing game systems" he still insists that relagating combat "to an adjunctive [sic] position [is] best understood as overemphasizing role-playing to the exclusion of gaming" (Ibid).  This offers a fascinating insight into Gygax's thinking at this point.  RPGs are seen here as not merely born from war-gaming, but a kind of war-gaming.  In fact, Gary's playing "role-playing" and "gaming" against each other above indicate that he is equating gaming in this context with war-gaming.  It would be more accurate then from this POV to use the phrase "role-playing war-game" rather than role-playing game.  Proponents of other points-of-view might well ask why it wasn't called combat-role gaming.  For "some RPGs will stand as virtual battle games, some as abortive attempts as theatrical training, but most will lie somewhere in between" (emphasis mine, 80).  This shows Gygax at a moment when he is better at issuing norms than describing the way things are.  I propose the logic of the sentence demands that it be re-written as "some RPGs will stand as virtual battle games, some as virtual theatrical games, but most will like somewhere in between" if it is to hope to stand as a description of the field of play.  This is of course an area where gamers' feelings run high, but whatever my own preferences, I have no need to tell others' what they should be doing here, only how I want to play: "somewhere in between," but perhaps more theatrical than General Gygax.  I'm glad to have authorial evidence of his preference, but it is mainly of historical interest to me.  Gygax has arguably slipped from describing the spirit of the game to prescribing the spirit of his subset of the game: a trap that I argued he earlier avoided.  So I turn to the other area of insight.

Where I find Gygax most suggestive is in the first part of chapter 5 as he turns to a more general description of gaming.  "The game is the culture" and "the rules are the standards" that "attempt to describe a culture based upon an adventures life of make believe" (82).  There is a broad enough umbrella to take in combat, problem-solving, and the more personal extroversions that Gygax seems uncomfortable with.  Of course I don't want to sit through theatrical training when I sit down with my friends and my funny-shaped dice and who wants theatrical abortions at the game table?  But I do want to imaginatively embark on an adventurous life in a fantasy setting that will overcome problems, force villains to yield, slay monsters, and express and develop character, however rules-intensive I may or may not want any of those areas to be at any given seating.  The idea of game as culture and rules as cultural standards that allow the culture to function are interesting.  Further, Gary will take these ideas in a direction that I will cover in my next Tomeful Tuesday, and a direction that I am quite excited about: the rejection of the dichotomy between "crunch" and "fluff."  A popular way of terming the pairing that I utterly despise!


  1. Thanks for posting these articles, Theodric. I had missed the first one, but went back and read it after reading this one. Not having read Gygax's book, myself, I appreciate getting a glimpse into the mindset that initiated RPGs as a hobby.

    I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say about the "crunch versus fluff" dilemma.

  2. Interesting insights into one of the great minds who started it all. I recently had a chance to listen to Frank Mentzer speaking about the early days of D&D with Gary, and one thing I noticed was Frank using the term "Role-Gaming" exclusively, instead of the more common "Role-Playing". This in my mind supports the notion that Gary originally envisioned role-playing as a sort of war game, albeit one played with only a single character.

    And I'm also looking forward to reading your article on crunch versus fluff.

  3. Thanks, Paris, Navdi (and previously, Trin) for the interest in this series. The Mentzer story is intriguing!

    I have added a Tomeful Tuesday tag (Label) to help folks find any earlier discussions in case they were missed.