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The Last Dark Art

Three: I'll See Your Paradigms And Raise You a Quarter

by Dan Layman-Kennedy
Dec 18,2002


The Last Dark Art: Exploring the Gaming Aesthetic

Three: I'll See Your Paradigms And Raise You a Quarter

by Dan Layman-Kennedy

Reality, we are told, is a fragile thing.

And this is all too true. A small shift in focus can change the shape of the whole picture of the world in which one moves. As John Constantine is nice enough to point out to us in Neil Gaiman's Books of Magic, it can be as subtle and as drastic as stepping off the sidewalk into the street: the view's more or less the same, only now you can be hit by a truck at any moment.

And with that colorful metaphor, we launch into this month's topic, which has everything to do with the realm of metaphor and poetry and little to do, thank heaven, with the kind of "reality" we've all been told, at one point or another, that gaming was an unhealthy means of avoiding. If such a thing can be said to exist at all.

A paradigm is a model, a set of concepts and assumptions, used to define a consensus of reality for a particular group or community. It's one of those words, like infrastructure and (gods help us) synergy, that started getting thrown around a lot in the corporate culture of the 90s until they started to lose much of their meaning and impact, but a revisitation of it is useful in an examination of the art of roleplaying. Because a game is also a set of concepts and assumptions, a philosophical system that models a certain kind of reality -- and when the group sits down to the table and unlaces their dice bags, they'd all better hope they're on the same page paradigm-wise, or their time is going to be spent doing more arguing than telling fine tales together.

"Consistency is all I ask!"
- Rosencrantz, in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard

First, let's get something out of the way: The simulation of reality, as it's understood in its most prosaic sense, is at a certain point contraindicated in the world of gaming. Don't be overly persuaded otherwise, even by games that purport "simulationism" or extensive "reality checking." What these things mostly reflect, or aim for, is not "reality" but verisimilitude -- believability, which is a different slice of toast entirely. For one thing, it's a highly malleable and personal thing, and depends more on the tastes and assumptions of the particular group than you'd think. RPGs are not, nor should they be, overly concerned with being realistic, though some may reflect a reality that has more in common with ours than others for the purposes of underlining certain ideas and themes.

Verisimilitude is, however, a useful measure of a game's internal reality, and is closely intertwined with its sister concept of consistency; these two ideas make excellent watchwords for defining what makes a satisfying gaming experience, just as they do for the creation of any fictional world. A great number of violations of what is "realistic" can be forgiven, and remain more or less "believable," in a world with consistent rules -- witness any comic-book superhero universe. Once again, roleplaying games are not really designed to simulate the conditions of "real life"; they're designed to simulate, if that's even a useful word here, the reality of stories and fictions. It's what kind of fiction the players wish to immerse themselves in that makes all the difference.

The two great pillars on which the paradigm of a game rests are also the two major building blocks of games themselves: system and setting. The first is a mechanical consideration, the second a more stylistic one, but they're fairly closely linked in the way they build the metaphor of a particular roleplaying experience.

System -- the nuts-and-bolts way in which a game works as a game, which at its most basic level answers the question "What can I do?" -- has the potential to make or break a paradigm, depending on what expectations the players bring to the table. When the assumptions of the system are at odds with the assumptions of the group, there are conflicts in the paradigm that need to be addressed -- just ask anyone who comes fresh to Dungeons & Dragons after cutting their fantasy teeth on Tolkien. ("What do you mean a wizard can't carry a sword?") At this point, things must be shifted one way or another -- either the rules can take some tinkering to better fit the players' vision, or everyone in the group has to suck it up and accept the paradigm the rules present. Both options present challenges; some systems are so tightly wound that tugging on one thread unravels the whole thing, and lots of players simply won't have as much fun playing with rules that contradict their assumptions of the fictional reality. But in general, I think the safer path is to go with the wishes of the players rather than treat system as gospel. If a system falls apart that easily with a little tweaking, it's probably not that great to start with -- i.e., it probably violates verisimilitude on a lot of levels, and can use some reworking (or abandoning for a system that fits everyone's style better).

It's worth mentioning at this point that there are a lot of gamers who dislike "generic" systems for the reasons mentioned above -- they require too much retrofitting to adapt to specific settings, and in trying to be a one-size-fits-all they don't feel "organic" to anything (or any paradigm) in particular. I confess I don't fall into this camp; I'm too much a lover of genre-bending and DIY mixing-and-matching to be an enemy of generic systems, though the anti-generic folks make some good points which are worth considering when deciding on a system to game with. But I think the most important question to answer is whether the system supports the story or gets in the way of it. Personally, I favor mechanics that disappear unless they're really needed, but I think the same advice applies to gamers who like lots of crunchy bits. Do the game mechanics reflect the metaphor of your story, or are they at odds with it? If the world of the game isn't one of clearly-defined professional categories and strata, a system based on classes and levels is going to feel clumsy and awkward. If the metaphor of the game-world relies heavily on archetype and lack of ambiguity, then giving the players free reign with skill-based character concepts might not be the way to go.

Setting is where the system gets something to hang onto -- the broad canvas on which the picture will be drawn using the media the system provides. Setting encompasses a lot of things: genre, world, style, tone. In a sense, setting is the yardstick that determines whether or not the system is appropriate. If a system is the abstract nuts-and-bolts expression of the paradigm, then setting is the paradigm given poetic flesh, the place where you can go to have a look around at the shared reality of the game.

Again, conflicts arise when the setting presents assumptions that differ from those of the players. It needs hardly be said that this is where matters of taste play a big part; a group whose assumption is that "science fiction" equals epic swashbuckling space-opera is advised to steer clear of gritty hard-science settings, unless everyone's really willing to step out of their comfort zone. The same applies to considerations other than genre: e.g., humorous tone versus serious, or cinematic style versus "realistic." All these things are decisions to be made about the shared reality of the game and the narrative, and will affect the players' preconceptions of what is possible in the game-world (not to mention what's permissible in the table-talk). The important thing to keep in mind is that the paradigm must be a shared reality, and that all the aspects of the setting should be agreed upon by everyone in the group before play begins to prevent that shared vision from unravelling. Some of these things can be found in rulebooks -- but by no means all, even using a premade setting. One group's take on exactly how gritty, dark and grim the world of, say, Vampire: The Masquerade or Call of Cthulhu is can be very different from the next's, even in a "cannon" game -- and if the group departs from cannon, that many more questions are necessary to address.

As mentioned before, system and setting are fairly closely married (or should be; if they're obviously not, it's probably time to reconsider one or the other). A workable, believable paradigm is the result of this marriage, and when games work best, it's a kind of wondrous and subtle alchemy. One big key to making this work is preparation; another, again, is consistency. This latter is easier said than done. Gamers are an infamously mercurial folk, and often gifted with a uniquely skewed sense of humor, the combination of which can lead to tangents that run contrary to the mood of the paradigm as first established. This isn't the worst thing in the world, but a more satisfying creation might be enjoyed by all if the shared world is something everyone can invest a lot of focus in. For that reason, it might not be enough to create a paradigm that seems interesting; the real art is in a paradigm that will remain interesting by the fourth hour or third session. Reality being the fragile thing that it is, any initial decisions that help the game-reality weather the run of the game can only be good.

It bears restating: roleplaying games are not mirrors of "real life." They are mirrors of the reality of tales, of various kinds of fiction. And all fiction is, in a sense, fantasy, in that it creates a subjective secondary reality to frame a narrative. (And note that historical attempts to move fiction too far afield from a subjective reality -- e.g., the Naturalist movement in early twentieth-century theatre -- were almost universally less than satisfying as art. Too much "reality" in fiction is a distraction more often than not; and remember that when you put something wooden onstage, you have to paint it so it actually looks more like wood from the perspective of the audience.) That being the case, the fictional world should be given deliberate thought, constructed with consideration and attention to detail and with some careful reflection on the themes and ideas the creators wish to explore -- and with, it must be said, an eye to consistency (and thus verisimilitude). RPGs, with their marriage of mechanical system to the backdrop of setting, provide unique tools for the deliberate creation of secondary realities. As artisans of a world they'll all be spending a lot of time in, gamers owe it to themselves to approach these tools with conscious attention and scrutiny.

Next month we'll have a look at when metagaming goes right, for once. No, really. See you back here then.

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