Monday, 8 June 2009

Three True Way-ism

There is a term sometimes encountered when discussing roleplaying, of “One True Wayism” – or some variation on that theme. It refers to players or GMs with a very specific idea of how an RPG should work, and an insistence that this is the only right way of doing things. Often, the very idea that someone might prefer a different style is considered “Hurting Wrong Fun”, and any attempt at gaming in such a style must be quashed lest it infect others with its perversity. Few, if any, people identify themselves as One True Wayists, but the concept is often encountered under some guise or another.

Unsurprisingly, few people who really think about the theory behind gaming espouse such a narrow-minded view. But it seems to me that a rather more insidious version of the same sort of general idea has become quite popular. I refer to this as “Three True Wayism”. It arises from the theoretical discussions on The Forge website (now, I gather, somewhat curtailed) that classified RPGs into one of three categories: narrativism, simulationism, and gamism. The first focuses primarily on the needs of the story, the second on the demands of verisimilitude, and the third on the establishment of fair game mechanics and reward mechanisms (or such is my understanding). The argument seems to be that all of these three approaches to RPing are equally valid, and if you happen to prefer a different category than I do, then so be it (they prefer to use the word “agenda”, but then much of their terminology is somewhat opaque).

Which sounds fair enough, so far as it goes. The problem is, it seems to me, that it acknowledges only these three approaches, and, more to the point, claims that they are mutually exclusive. The theory says that a rule set can only effectively support one approach of the three, and it even seems that they have pretty narrow definitions of what those approaches are. Hence, “Three True Wayism” – the contention that there are only three possible ways to enjoy a roleplaying game, and if your approach isn’t one of them, you’re doing it wrong. It’s insidious, because the people who adhere to this attitude (and, believe me, I’ve met some) believe they are being open-minded and fair, and accepting of all other approaches, even if they differ from their own. But – unless you accept their thesis that there are only three possible, and mutually exclusive, “agendas” – I don’t think this is the case at all.

This seems to manifest in two different ways, either or both of which can be problematic to those who do not fit into their neat little pigeon-holes. The first is an overly narrow definition of what the three agendas mean. Simulationism, for instance, is supposed to be about verisimilitude, and the obvious conclusion therefore seems to be that any system that supports it must be detailed and relatively rules-heavy, to reflect the various different aspects of reality (or, at least, a particular genre's version thereof). One thinks of systems like GURPS and Hero in this category, and a great many others that were popular in the 1980s.

This attitude seems to have stifled the development of rules-lite “simulationist” systems, which, to my mind, is very much to be regretted. Three True Wayists, when pressed, may not deny that a rule-lite simulationist system is possible, but they certainly don’t seem to spend any effort in encouraging the creation of such a thing. And that, I suspect, is because it lies outside the comfort zone of their theory. I dare say there are other examples of this narrow thinking stifling creativity, but the absence of much in the way of rules-lite simulationist systems, from where I’m standing, seems a particularly striking example.

The second problem is arguably worse, because it's more explicit. And that’s the contention that there are three, and only three, mutually exclusive approaches. Assuming that one defines the three approaches broadly enough, the first half of that statement – that there’s no fourth agenda – might well be true. (One could, of course, argue that rules-lite simulationism is, itself, distinct from, say, the GURPS approach, but let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we accept that it isn’t). The problem comes from the ‘mutually exclusive’ part.

It seems to me self-evident that a system can provide a good mix of at least two, and possibly all three, approaches at the same time. A narrativist game does not have to be ‘narrative above all else’, for instance; it could allow a proportion of some other “agenda” in. Realistically, any game has to strike a balance between the three approaches – a narrative won’t work if it’s completely implausible, a simulation won’t work as an RPG if it never has any dramatic challenges, and so on. Surely it’s obvious that that balance does not have to be strongly weighted in one particular direction for a rules system to work?

Yet, while the Three True Wayists do have a term for a system that tries to balance two (or more) agendas, that term is, so I’m told, “incoherent”. Now, you can’t convince me that that was intended to be a value-neutral term to refer to a gaming style just as valid as the three they espouse. It’s pretty much explicitly saying that this style of play is inferior and somehow wrong – really no different to the attitude of the One True Wayists. Was this term deliberately coined so that anyone trying to say “I prefer incoherent games” would sound like a loony, Orwellian Newspeak style, or did it generally not occur to them that anyone would prefer it? I don’t know, although I rather suspect the latter.

But, when you poke beneath the bonnet, it’s ridiculous to assert that an “incoherent” game can’t be just as good and valid and worthwhile as one that follows a single "agenda" more or less exclusively. And, even if it weren’t, it would hardly be accepting of alternative styles of play to deride it. The Three True Wayists are here, it seems to me, falling into the very trap that their theory seeks to avoid.

Obviously, such a system could be done well, or done badly – that’s true of anything. But surely it’s possible to strike a balance? How could it not be, if you really look at things with an un-blinkered attitude? And this, of course, gets me to the point: I believe that 1st edition HeroQuest was such a system. It’s not that it didn’t have faults – it had a number – but the balance between narrativism and simulationism was done superbly and, so far as I know, has never been bettered. Yet that, it seems, had to be sacrificed on the altar of orthodoxy, because surely nobody could really like a game that worked that way? After all, no matter how much common sense said it worked, the theory said it couldn’t, and that was surely that?

But, to quote Robin Laws – who, despite having written the new 2nd edition of HeroQuest, seems to be no friend of Three True Wayism – there are more than three types of art, so why can’t there be more than three types of RPG? In fact, isn’t that just obvious?

The sad thing is, not so much that this happened – games change editions and approaches all the time – but that there doesn’t seem to be anything else available today to fill that niche. Because gaming theory says that that the “incoherent” approach must automatically be a failure that nobody could really, deep down, actually prefer to the alternatives.

Because Three True Wayism says that I don’t exist…

1 comment:

Rutan said...

I read the Forge for a few months until I felt overwhelmed by the increasingly intricate arguments about the philosophy og games and design design.

I GM because I enjoy it, and I enjoy games that my players enjoy. The bits of D&D culture that I hated back in the 80s were the after-session discussions in the pub; those that became the equivalent of 'angels dancing on the head of a pin'. Don't argue. Play the damn games!

I think Glorantha, Tekumel, Traveller and the World of Darkness, creating as they do intricate and complex settings, are prone to having their game systems obscured by a guard scholars, philosphers and professional debaters who would rather spend all their free time arguing about minute points. When all is said and done most of these arguments are irrelevant to the process of designing and running an entertaining scenario.

If one tenth of all that meaningless effort was put into design creativity there would be a lot more product out to satisfy the actual users of the games.