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Household Name

The E.T. Paradox

by Mike Pohjola
Apr 29,2004


The E.T. Paradox

Recently a strange trend has been popping up in the RPG and LARP design discussions I've been following. It seems that many people, often game designers, seem to think that ambition is bad when authoring, designing, or running a roleplaying game. Innovative products are shunned as not really roleplaying, and new ideas are discouraged with "yeah, it's a nice idea, but my players would never like it."

Why is lack of ambition good? Why should new things not be tried? Why should roleplaying be treated as games instead of a medium? What is wrong with everybody?

It's not a rule book!

I find it very telling that people often call the corebook of the roleplaying game the rulebook. This despite the fact that the book inviariably contains material other than the rules, and often the rules section is (thankfully) much shorter than the rest of the book.

I get it with GURPS or Rules To Live By, which are almost only rules, but I don't get it when talking about Unknown Armies or Vampire: The Masquerade, which contain a whole lot of setting and other material, as well. I sure as hell don't understand why some people insist on using the term of Myrskyn aika, which has 300 pages of background material, roleplaying tips and the like, and 30 pages of rules material.

Myrskyn aika, and others like it, are roleplaying books, not rulebooks. They are books about roleplaying that contain lots of roleplaying material which might include rules. To claim anything else would be like calling War and Peace a textbook since it's a book with text in it. It's also part of a much bigger problem with lack of ambition, that's evident in many other places in the RPG scene.

Veni, vidi, and let's leave it at that

The word roleplaying games is in itself dangerous. Are roleplaying games really games? In his article "I Have No Words & I Must Design," Paranoia author Greg Costikyan defines gaming as "an interactive structure of endogenous meaning that requires players to struggle toward a goal." In my opinion roleplaying games do not fit this definition.

In roleplaying games you play a role, that is, experience and act through your character. The players' goal is to roleplay their characters. That is all. The characters may struggle towards goals such as killing dragons or solving their marital disputes, but sometimes they have no particular goals. Even when the characters have clear goals, that doesn't mean the players share those goals, or necessarily even hope their characters succeed. Any sane player playing the character of an ambitious and efficient concentration camp guard in 1940s Europe would probably hope their character does not succeed in his goals.

The meaning of roleplaying is far from endogenous - often the most interesting experiences are those which really make us think about our own actions and life choices. This is not exactly a roleplaying theory column, so I'll drop it at that. Roleplaying games are not necessarily games.

Yet there exists a vocal minority that supports massive amounts of rules and thinks good roleplaying systems use gallons of dice. The same minority tries to backtrack Costikyanist ideas, and say that since you need victory conditions in games, and since roleplaying games are called games, this means you need victory conditions in games, too.

And therefore, you can win in roleplaying games. I hear this a lot. Here in RPG.net, in international mailing lists, and sometimes from published game designers. But how could you win in a roleplaying game? Having your character as the most powerful when you stop playing, having your character succeed in all her goals, or sleeping with the GM don't mean you "win" the roleplaying game.

The roleplaying games and movies that I grew up with laid it out in no uncertain terms: You can not win in roleplaying games. And these are not some weird Finnish arthouse games and movies. These are Dungeons&Dragons and E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial. "How do you win in this game, anyway?" "It's like life. You don't win at life."

I don't remember this having been disputed in any roleplaying game I've read or played since. Nor in any movie. But was all that just propaganda? A disclaimer that nobody was supposed to believe? Where did this idea of winning roleplaying games come from?

We don't need another hero

Sandy Antunes has lately been dealing with the Kilgallon Paradox in his column right here on RPG.net. First he explains the paradox, then Sergio Mascarenhas, a former columnist, provides a solution to it, after which Sandy writes another column.

I have difficulty reading Sandy's three columns on the Kilgallon paradox, because it feels like I've been sucked through some strange time portal back to the 80s, and expect to hear ABBA playing anytime soon. I feel like a future roleplayer astronaut returning to Earth only to realize it's now ruled by people thinking dungeon hacking is top-of-the-line roleplaying.

But before I get into this any further, let's remind ourselves, once again, of what is John Kilgallon's paradox: RPGs emphasize combat. But if the game has problem-solving, I'm the best problem solver I know. Therefore, problem-solving isn't roleplay. So why have a non-combat character, since any non-combat details are just schtick.

In other words, there are only two things in roleplaying, combat and problem-solving. Also, you can only do things yourself or with the help of rule mechanics. Mr. Kilgallon's focus on RPG design philosophy seems unnecessarily limited, especially considering the fact that we have had games like Vampire: The Masquerade for over a decade that clearly focus on something else.

While combat and problem-solving are often dramatic and interesting elements in roleplaying games, they are by far not the only things. And even when they play a prominent part, it does not mean they should have meaning as themselves, but reflect the characters decisions, morals, and so on. Think Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which has a whole lot of slaying, but it's always relevant for the characters' inner conflicts, moral dilemmas, and so on. Or Luke Skywalker fighting Darth Vader, if you're so inclined.

If something good is to come out of Kilgallon's Paradox, then it is that focusing on problem solving works poorly in roleplaying games. Especially if these are computer game type puzzles, since those typically have one clear answer that you either get or you don't. In life, and often also in roleplaying games, problems are more complex than that, though. How do you help these two people on the road to peace? Do you try to talk to the PC that you think is abusing her boyfriend? Is it nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles?

The actual content comes from being your character in an interesting environment, and interacting with the other characters and the environment. Sometimes this is bashing gnolls, sometimes it's learning to accept you have terminal cancer.

Content, not rules

Now, Sergio Mascarenhas counters the Paradox with the following: "Things like problem-solving fall back upon the player, not the character, because "if the *game* DOES NOT has problem-solving, socializing, etc., it is not a game but an automatic procedure. Therefore, problem-solving, socializing, etc. is the gaming in roleplay."

I agree with Sergio in the sense that only focusing on the rules would make the game an automatic procedure of rolling dice. He seems to indicate that characters can't socialize with each others without the help of rules, which I obviously do not agree with. Still, we both seem to be of the same mind that rules-based actions are not really content in roleplaying games. Recent roleplaying theory sees rules as tools of roleplaying (much like background music or costumes) instead of roleplaying elements.

A good example is Rules To Live By, which was published 2001 by Interactivities Ink. It's about a hundred pages of rules mechanics for LARPs, which I personally find to be about 99 pages too much. Content to be used with the rules has also been published, namely The Book of LARP. It contains several articles on designing and running LARPs, and six ready-to-play LARPs. Incidentally, Sandy and I both wrote one of them. While the LARPs contain RTLB mechanics, many of them can be played without them - making the rules a tool that the GM can use if she so wants.

Paradox, Schmaradox

While there's nothing wrong with strategy games, perhaps roleplaying games could be something different. Less strategy, perhaps, and more roleplaying. In the recent book on roleplaying theory, Beyond Role and Play, Paul Mason goes through the first 25 years of RPG theory. Apparently when the first edition of Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974, it wasn't even called a roleplaying game, but "rules for fantastic medieval wargames."

In the 80s, the more avantgarde roleplayers got the idea of telling stories through roleplaying games, and thus such games as Ars Magica and Vampire: The Masquerade saw daylight. In those games, the main element wasn't fighting random-generated monsters, but roleplaying your character. Nowadays, of course, telling stories is seen as possible and fun, but not really relevant to the essence of roleplaying games any more than endless dungeon crawls are.

I don't know, maybe Kilgallon's Paradox was written before these games were created, but seeing it as a current topic seems very redundant to me. It seems to describe the problems of the first edition of D&D, but surely everyone has heard of Vampire, and subsequent games.

We really need more bad games?

Sandy explains how published roleplaying games should be thought of more like products, and less like creative works. Maybe, if you're a particularly unambitious publisher. But to give such advice to RPG designers and authors is undefendable. What, you want less originality in the marketplace?

Always targeting for the lowest common denominator would slowly kill any interesting phenomenon or medium. Roleplaying itself is something that would've never gotten started, if those early folks had listened to the others who said D&D is not really a proper war game, and no one would want to play it. Think of all the surprise hits that keep taking the industry by surprise in books, movies, and television. Star Trek was a strange socialist vision of a future where Ruskies and Niggers can be officers, and was canceled after three seasons, only to gain huge status in syndication.

It is understandable (though not commendable) that big studio executives count probabilities since they target their stuff for hundreds of millions of people world-wide. But currently roleplaying games are not big money-makers, and there is no point in treating them like that. A typical new roleplaying game might sell from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand copies. Why not try something new for a change? White Wolf did, and look at how well they have been selling.

Meanwhile in the real world

If everybody had been content to making the kinds of beer-and-pretzel dungeon crawls this trio seems to be suggesting, roleplaying would still be a sub-scene of war gaming. The word "roleplaying" would probably not even exist.

However, because people have been willing to develop the scene, to try out and publish new ideas and concepts, we have such original games as, for example, the recent Dead Inside. The content of the game is trying to regain your soul by doing good deeds, by stealing a new one from someone else, or some other way. In the process you probably encounter supernatural creatures in this reality, and the other one. Very interesting.

Myrskyn aika was a roleplaying game that created a pretty big opposition among the "Old School" gamers of Finland. Most of the criticism was concentrated on the fact that there weren't enough game mechanics, there was too much world material, and that because of these, the game was clearly "targeted for beginners." (To be fair, there was some relevant criticism as well, as I've discussed in previous columns.)

Not wanting to listen to "the marketplace," I set out to write the kind of game that could've saved me from all those crappy teenager hack'n'slash RPG sessions, if it had existed back then. I did, and it sold so well that other Finnish publishing houses are going to publish roleplaying games as equals to any other book.

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What do you think?

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