Flip to the back page of a set of a hex-and-counter wargame circa 1979 and you'd more often than not see a dense little section titled “designer's notes.” Though most of these rulebooks—especially those of the big name companies like SPI and Avalon Hill--were often the polar opposites in tone from the heavy writer's voice I was lauding the other day in their rpg contemporaries, this was the section that game designer cut loose from the opaque blandness of the preceding sections.
Here was suddenly the voice of the person behind the game, but most interesting of all here was the building of a case of how and why the game existed in the first place. Here was the defense of an abstraction—why the complex politics of a civil war were boiled down to a “political resource chart”--there a ranty polemic on how a competing game of the period got it wrong in its simulation.
Even as an (admittedly geeky, history-obsessed) kid in that day it was the section I often turned to first. It was the game designer talking to you directly as a critically-thinking peer, not just as a consumer of the game. There was a presumption that there was a hobby where game design was not only taken seriously by other professional designers, but by those playing it.
One of the interesting points that came up in the conversation about the disappearing act of the writer's voice here the other day was that there was a similar trend to hide that kind of direct talk in rpg games over time. (And when I say trend here let's be clear that I mean a tendency from a common occurrence to a less common one; I am not denying the reality that there are counter-tendencies in the smaller, limited pockets of indie and DIY hobbyist rpgs).
Telecanter nicely alluded to this in his comments:
“It's a small step from trying to hide the writer to trying to hide all thought behind the rules. But a writer presenting rules as covering all contingencies is at best being naive at worst disingenuous. I want to know what the tricky bits are, what trade offs were made, and if rule A doesn't work a possible B. I want to know what the goal of a particular subsystem was (maybe I can tinker to make it work better). These don't make the writer fallible in my eyes, but real.”
A dead-on observation because it's not just similar to the rollback on author's voice, it's likely related. Pulling out at random second-generation rpg rulebooks right now I am struck by how downright argumentative they seem at times.
Take this unflinching, highly-opinionated example, from Chivalry & Sorcery, second edition arguing why the game cleaves so close to a more-or-less historical model:
“The worlds of a C&S campaign are modelled upon a real culture—that of feudalism. We believe that it is necessary to provide a coherent world if fantasy roleplaying is to be a coherent activity...[Feudalism] also has the virtue of being a real way of life, existing for well over 1000 years in Europe...The feudal system was a working culture, and thus it can be used to very good effect as a model on which to base a fantasy role playing culture that will also work, often to the finest detail.”
The section goes on here for almost an entire page stating essentially that your campaign and other games totally fail unless they take a similar hardcore “simulationism.” Whatever you think about the merits of their passage, clearly they were not afraid of making cases with you the reader and hobbyist on why the chose to do things as they did. It essentially forces you to agree or disagree on a key issue motivating the game. (I so happen to be highly conflicted by that passage--which makes it all the more great as an example of something that inspires you to think.)
And it wasn't just the knock-offs making these arguments, it was the big-fish, who still had some heads at least in part in a free-flowing, thinking hobby culture. Take all those odd-seeming passages in the DMG, perversely arguing why you WON'T find rules for something. One of my favorites is an obvious answer to the in-roads of second-generation games like above:
“There is no random table for determination of a character's social status to be found here. That is because the inclusion of such a factor will either tell you little or nothing of useful nature, or it will abridge your freedom with respect to development of your campaign milieu. That is, if such a table tells you only a little so as not to force a social structure upon your campaign, the table can contain nothing of use. If it states rank, it presupposes you will, in fact, have such classes in your campaign when you might not desire them at all. There are dozens of possible government forms, each of which will have varying social classes, ranks, or castes. Which sort you choose for your milieu is strictly your own prerogative. While this game is loosely based on Feudal European technology, history and myth, it also contains elements from the Ancient Period, parts of more modern myth, and the mythos of many authors as well. Within its boundaries all sorts of societies and cultures can exist, and there is nothing to dictate that their needs be Feudal European.”
Just wonderful. A hobbyist reader was expected to think and take a stand--in cases written right into the rulebooks themselves.
Somewhere down the line, that conversation began disappearing, along with the writer's voice. Readers and players of mainstream games became consumers of opaque finished products that rare demanded that they argue with them. That's a loss.
Let's here for reviving a counter-trend: a model that returns to revealing the mind and thoughts of game designers. Not just because it appeals to the intellectual curmudgeon in me, but because like Telecanter points out in the rest of his comment that such more direct designer-to-reader conversation would “push toward making our games more 'platformy'... ”
Because, damn it, we could use a sight more tinkerable platforms and a ton fewer “complete” black box games. We could use a correction.