Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A World Without D&D

Columnist Adam Davidson who blogs for NPR and writes for the New York Times about money made a point in the January 15 issue of the New York Times Magazine that struck me as having a gaming analogy.

“Over the past decade or so, a significant part of Wall Street’s business has shifted from serving the financial needs of the nation to profiting from ‘regulatory arbitrage’—making money by playing with the rules of the game.”
—Adam Davidson, “A World Without Wall Street”, New York Times Magazine, Jan 15, 2012, p.14-15

I could paraphrase that in gaming terms by saying, “Over the past decade or so a significant part of the RPG experience has shifted from exploration and role play to character optimization—deriving entertainment from exploiting the rules of the game.”

Of course some people would regard that as a criticism of that mode of play. Which it is. But, I will happily honor and respect the rights of my fellow gamers to play character optimization. Even to the extent of working to provide opportunities for it in my homebrewed rules. It’s not my personal native mode of play, but I’ve done my fair share of it in CRPGs and in various tabletop games. Some of these games seem to require at least some investment in character optimization in order to achieve success in the game. Gone, it seems, are the days when creative use of available resources and out-of-the-box solutions to encountered problems were acceptable currency in terms of game progress.

Davidson talks about how Wall Street provides an environment for moving money around that normally wouldn’t be available. The activities on the Street enable risky investments because the risk is spread out over a large population, reducing the exposure. D&D, as the “boss” of RPGs, functions much the same way. It attracts an audience of players and introduces them to the idea of roleplaying. It provides an environment for independent developers and homebrewers to explore creative and alternative forms of roleplaying, and novel game mechanics.

Like the gaming community, the finance community includes risk-takers and conservatives. It contains cheaters, idiots and geniuses. It contains vocal minorities, silent majorities, and minute-by-minute churn. (I think the gaming community functions a little slower, but not much.) Suffice to say that this seems a relatively “normal” state of affairs for human communities.

Without the presence of D&D the RPG landscape would be very different. I suspect it would be much smaller and more primitive. There are those that say the hobby of playing RPGs is dying. I believe that the rapid evolution of new forms of D&D, spurred on by CRPGs and social media is a sign that the hobby is very much alive.

As Anna, one of the regular commenters here said:
“I think the one positive about 4e stumbling so badly is that people did look for other games to play. Some were CRPGs, but a lot were not. I often feel that the iconic status of D&D pushes equally good, if not better products, out of the market.”

I agree that, as a result of 4e’s faults, people were more open to exploring other games. But, I think that it also opened the window for those other games to materialize. And for the gaming public to express opinions about the kinds of games they want to play.

So let’s have an Old School Renaissance of RPGs, and let’s have CRPGs that are mostly char-op engines in (sometimes) beautiful packages, and let’s have new editions of D&D that try to bridge the gaps between playstyles. Because in the end it means the hobby is alive and surviving. As Charles Darwin said:
"I love fools’ experiments. I am always making them."

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