Roleplaying Philosophy Series:
- RPP-000: RPG Theory Bibliography
- RPP-099: Mad Brew’s Gaming Philosophy
- RPP-100: Defining Game
- RPP-101: Defining Roleplaying Games
- RPP-310: Roleplaying Promotes Wellbeing
- RPP-399: 10 Reasons to Play Games at the Table
- RPP-401: RPG Community
- RPP-450: Roleplaying is a Pastime
- RPP-499: Gamer Elitism
I want to start a series on the Philosophy of Roleplaying, where I explore the different styles of play and system mechanics that support them. But before we delve into higher level academic pursuits, I think we need a remedial course. This essay is about gamer elitism, its origins, and why it should be eliminated.
Of Munchkins & Elitists
I am always surprised at the amount of elitism within our hobby of Roleplaying. Our culture is permeated with terms such as twink, munchkin, power-gamer, 3etard, and 4ucktard (ok, so the last term is of my own invention). Given the propensity for people outside the hobby to dismiss us as immature practitioners of childish games at best or to condemn, castigate, and persecute us for our sins at worse, one would think we would not censure our own brethren. But we do (and the reactions of outsiders may actually prompt such behavior, but that is a topic for another article).
I need to admit that I am also guilty of being an elitist; my rant on World of Darkness LARPs being evidence as such. I have definitely developed a stringent definition of what I consider the best method or style of play. What I need to remember is that is only my assessment of what is best and it may not, and should not, apply to everyone. Better yet, I should take this philosophy and apply it beyond just roleplaying (well, I doubt I will ever change my opinions that organized religion and any genre of music but metal suck a large phallus).
I hold no illusions that this little essay on gamer elitism will change the deep-rooted views of the roleplaying fundamentalist out there, any more than I could convince religious zealots of their misconceptions. Nevertheless, I am going to expound upon the subject if for anything else, to improve my own understanding.
Learning to Play
A while back, I read an article on Lamentations of the Flame Princess about James’ (the blog’s author) take on the how and why Dungeons & Dragons is played the way it is and the stereotypes that have been assigned to the venerable game over time. Much of what James had to say hit home with me.
What I took from James’ article, “Is this how D&D is supposed to be played?” is that in the 80s a large number of players entered into the hobby because they picked up Dungeons & Dragons at their local toy/hobby store and got with their friends and began playing this cool new game. The problem was that all these players were islands unto themselves and learned how to play using modules, which were adventures meant to be plugged into an existing campaign.
There were not any mentors, or forums, much less an internet, to guide these young players. They focused on the mechanics because they were new, and they needed to be able to survive these adventure modules. So these new players would hack their way through dungeons, take the loot, and level up. And they had a blast, because it is new.
I can totally relate to his experience. I started gaming in the late eighties and while my first game may have been under more experienced (but not by much) players, every game after that was an exploration of the hobby. I remember ordering a few books from a Wargames West (now out of business) catalog back in the day. I even had to sneak a money order purchase from the local Hooks RX (also out of business) with squirreled away birthday money because my mother didn’t seem to approve of the hobby (either that or the friends I played with, meh).
I read and re-read those books over and over again. We thought we had the game nailed and we were the pinnacle of roleplaying, but we found out much later that there were many things we did wrong, at least in the eyes of rules when read as written. I don’t give a damn, because we had a hell of a time doing it “wrong.” I think that a lot of my nostalgia centers on the discovery of this wonderful hobby of ours. Learning how to play was an adventure in and by itself.
But now we have a stereotype that D&D is nothing more but 10×10 dungeon rooms filled with orcs and goblins that need some mighty slashing so you can get the gold and XP. Of course, the simplicity (which is not a bad thing) of the hack’n’slash style of game eventually loses its luster for many gamers. And so began the evolution of RPGs as publishers tried to meet the needs of gamers looking for something different.
Evolution of RPGs
As you are aware, the modern roleplaying game has its roots in traditional wargaming, with Braunstein being credited as the first RPG. What? You say you don’t have a clue about this Braunstein? Well I fully recommend this enlightening article from Ars Ludi on the roots of roleplaying games. In fact, you must read it before continuing here, I’ll wait.
Welcome back, I knew you would like that hidden piece of RPG history. So now you know how Dave Arneson was influenced to start Blackmoor, and all those story-gamers or narrativists thought they were trailblazing. Arneson paved the way a LONG time ago. Then Gary Gygax came along married his Chainmail mechanics with Arneson’s setting and that is how we got Dungeons & Dragons.
Now as gamers try to achieve that level of fun they remember having when they first began roleplaying, they begin to look for game systems that push the envelope of known playing style. The publishers start answering this demand and new games are delivered into the hands of hungry gamers. Two trends in gaming appeared to assuage these new gamer cravings.
On one hand, there was a trend to create gritty, more realistic mechanics. This led to the design of systems like Rolemaster where combat became less abstracted and action resolution depends on cross referencing dice results, usually percentile based, with numerous detailed tables. Other “rules-heavy” games included HârnMaster, RuneQuest, and Traveller (in the context of using tables for character generation at least).
But there was another trend to produce rules-light, narrative systems. This led to the creation of games like Paranoia, Amber Diceless, and Dragonlance the Fifth Age. These games have very simple and streamlined mechanics that may not even need dice. The emphasis is placed upon the story and player narration.
So the elitist roleplayer, needing to prove his superiority within our grand hobby, will cling to the extremes associated with his new preference and ridicule fellow gamers about their choice of game and style. These gamers have forgotten their roots.
Revolution of Play
I think that most gamers do not evolve. The term evolve tends to imply a linear progression from primitive (awful) to advanced (awesome). This idea does not sit well with me because it means that everything a gamer did before he got to the point where he is at is somehow bad. Hence, gamer elitism.
We are ever trying to reclaim that initial sense of fun and excitement we remember from our introduction into the hobby. The problem is that our memory of fun is tinted with nostalgia. We do not have the same perspectives and expectations we had when we started five, ten, twenty years ago. So we become disgusted with the “old” stuff and embrace the “new” stuff. Some of us become pretentious pricks who view all who hold onto the “old” stuff as inferior gamers.
However, I think that most gamers revolve. In the elusive hunt for the fun factor, we sample other styles of play. We may chew on the gritty crunch, sip on romantic fluff, or both, but eventually we always find our way back to where we began, and that is usually a middle of the road game like Dungeons & Dragons or the World of Darkness.
Keep This in Mind
What you should take away from this essay is that each gamer you meet will probably have different expectations of what roleplaying is and which game systems meet their needs. Their choice is not inferior to yours and your style of play is not the one true path of enlightenment. I urge you to try new styles of play, revisit old ones, and offer to show the initiated your preferred style, but just let them know your vehicle isn’t the only one in the garage and their mileage may vary.
We need to nurture the roleplaying community, not fracture it.