Friday, June 12, 2009

I Hate Fun- One Year Later

The original.

Has it been a year already?

All this time later, I still get many hits from the TVTropes website, and a couple weeks back the SomethingAwful forums seemed to be interested as well (interested in ridiculing it, to be exact). The thing has gotten all sorts of people linking to it, and even many people emailing me to tell me how wrong I am... almost like they're pleading with me to change my mind.

The original essay was first written in 2007 to be the intro of an issue of my heavy metal zine, decrying the download culture and 'that album was great... but what will I listen to tomorrow?' transitory nature of a fanbase that seemed to put no real value in the music forming the basis for their scene and in many cases their lifestyle. My marriage was dying fast at the time of the first writing, and that surely impacted how it came across. (Oh hell, I've already told a couple people so I might as well say it... that first part was about my ex.)

One year later, seeing the arguments about 4e and how the edition wars were raging, I saw similarities in the fanbases of metal and RPGs. The two seem to share quite a bit. Rewriting the second half of the essay to turn it into a rant about RPGs instead of heavy metal was easy. The I Hate Fun name was invented at this time and it was nothing more than a catchy title for the post. At that time, I had just moved to Helsinki and was effectively homeless, sleeping on a married couple's floor in a one room apartment. That surely impacted how it came across.

So here we go. I've not looked at I Hate Fun in many months, and so I will see it with fresh eyes, putting another wild year's perspective on it, maybe explaining things that were not well explained the first time around, and perhaps even noting where my views now differ.

Ready?

I do not hate fun, and I have to think that anyone that really took the title literally is a moron, and I suspect that many of the people trying to argue with me about it and ridicule me for it didn't read much more than the title and maybe a couple paragraphs.

What I do hate is the use of "fun" as any sort of objective thing, as many do when discussing RPGs. "Fun" does not mean anything in a universal sense; saying something is fun, or not fun, is as objective as saying, "I like peas." Yet people, especially online, will argue about things that are fun, or not fun, as if making the proclamation that something is fun somehow wins an argument. It does not - it kills discussion and argument. Invoking "fun" in any explanation or reasoning equals sticking your fingers in your ears and screaming "I'M NOT LISTENING I KNOW BETTER THAN EVERYONE LALALALALALALALALA."

Using the word "fun" in any meaningful way requires quite an explanation of what is meant by fun. The original I Hate Fun is in a lot of ways simply an essay describing what it is I do, and do not, mean by fun.

The very idea of wanting to be entertained is an exercise in self-nullification.

Perhaps a better way of putting this is, "The very idea of wanting to be passively entertained is an exercise in self-nullification." I do believe that things you put effort into doing are far more rewarding than things that you just sit back and receive. And the things that really excite me compel me to get more and more involved in them. I can't play an instrument, but I couldn't very well just be a metal listener. I had to do more, be involved, and thus I started my zine. Role-playing is quite work and time-intensive on its own, but I couldn't just stand to be a player. I had to referee. And beyond that, become a commentator and a writer and a publisher.

I can’t socialize. I won’t.

This is not true. I can. I just hate doing it. It's probably worse these past three and a half years in Finland, since I haven't picked up either of the languages all that well (curse the ubiquity of English!). But I can go out and hang out and enjoy myself, but after it's done I feel like I've wasted my time. Nothing's been accomplished. I just need a few people to bounce ideas off of and to tell wild stories to (and to hear wild stories back). After that, other people are kind of... superfluous? Thinking about it from 'outside,' it sounds horrible, but I've long said that "Good music is better than people," and certainly I'd rather curl up with a good book than have a social life. And for the last six months I've been living with someone I care for very much so that makes it easier to not seek more companionship... but let me tell you, never having a day alone is very frustrating.

But I don't consider gaming to be "socializing," because it's not just idle conversation (not supposed to be, anyway... I know I go on about irrelevant shit at the start of sessions here, but that's mainly to repeat stories that have already amused Maria, and far be it from me to only tell an amusing story once...), but actually doing something.

Now more about fun:

People want to be entertained by their role-playing, people want to sit down and get what they want out of it every time, and they want it quickly. They don’t want to work for it, and they don’t want to risk that it won’t happen when they try to play.

This is how I’ve come to interpret people when they use the word “fun” in relation to role-playing games. People wanting quick-fix, feel good entertainment exactly as they like it with as little effort as possible.

And I hate it.

Well that's all defined right there, isn't it?

A lot of the post at this point was basically being against the idea that role-playing was all about wish-fulfillment power fantasy. As I later wrote, "I'm in a different hobby than all these other folks." To me, sitting down playing pretend in order to compensate for inadequacies in real life is very, very sad.

There was also discussion about encouraging more "lifers" and less casual players. Now I'm not against casual players. I'm against them setting the tone for games. But of course what that means can become clouded. I would certainly never consider D&D, as it's been published for the past 10 years, as being aimed at a casual gamer. Not with all those expensive books and ridiculous list of character powers and detail to be kept track of. But undoubtedly the focus on temporary effects, healing surges, and other features of the 4e system are to encourage a certain sort of faster-paced play that's more generally appealing.

Take the introduction to Mentzer’s Basic Set. It is the finest introduction for D&D that was ever penned, explaining the basics of everything from classes and their abilities to combat in just seven pages – of storyform prose, not rules blather. And the first-time D&D player has an 80% chance to fail that saving throw against Bargle’s spell. An 80% chance of losing. Aleena dies. You can’t save her. You must run from the ghouls or you die. Some would say that traditional Dungeons and Dragons was poorly designed because first level characters were weak and that there was an uneven playing experience. It never seems to occur to these people that traditional Dungeons and Dragons was designed perfectly and that play experience was intentional. Mentzer’s introduction shows what Dungeons and Dragons is all about, and it’s not flashy heroism. It was never about that until Gygax was removed.

I spent a lot of time talking about and around this, but this sums up my feelings on danger, success, and the D&D experience. This is a statement of fact as far as I'm concerned, and not an invitation to discussion.

I've been accused of One True Wayism. Well... it's my blog. My way. If it's really that offensive to you... stop coming here!

It's a pain in the ass to deal with people who have a "been there, done that, and found it immature" attitude when they don't even know where there is or what that even entails. Fucking hell, it's like someone not wanting to visit China for the Olympics for fear of the fallout from the two atomic bombs that got dropped there during World War II.

Yes, I know that China was not the country that got nuked in World War II. I typed this bit correctly and purposefully. People seriously used that line as evidence that I am a fool, when they are the ones completely missing the point of what is being said here.

Gosh, looking back there's so much good stuff here. I was half-expecting to look back on this and cringe a lot. But while the original post does jump from point to point a bit, and some of the wording isn't so flattering, I will stand behind the original post and its meaning 100%. And I love this bit:

The purpose of standing up and making noise is for the silent crowd that watches from the sidelines. We need to make sure our game isn't defined by people who don't like it, we have to be visible and make noise so these people see the earlier versions of the game are being played and are perfectly viable options for them. We have to make sure they know there is a history and a legacy and a depth to this hobby which can be explored. That there is life in this hobby beyond the shiny new release, which is to be given up once the trademark overlords decide it has outlived its usefulness and decides to create an even shinier, newer release. The silent crowd should always be reminded that the "industry" can never dictate the possibilities at their game table.

So I guess I don't understand the uproar. I defined my terms and made my argument. Why are people so threatened by the idea that someone will have a firm opinion on a subjective matter and then say so in their own space?

I ended with song lyrics last time, but I can't think of a good whole song to end with this time. So... here are bits of two!

When time is ripe to revive the past
Let us see who stands triumphant

"A Tale of Pagan Tongue" from Borknagar's The Olden Domain

We're fighting by the dawn
We're fighting after sunrise
We fighting for a chance to see our life to be
And you won't take us alive

We're fighting in the dark
We're fighting after midnight
We're fighting for a fantasy reality
In case our dreams are right

On we fight!

"Fighting" from Pharaoh's The Longest Night

"(awaiting your quote to be inserted after you read the post, just like last year, Matt...)" - Matt Johnsen

16 comments:

  1. I do believe that things you put effort into doing are far more rewarding than things that you just sit back and receive.



    I didn't need to read any further as this tells me all I need to know. Very cool.

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  2. I continue to be appalled by the legions of people who so easily misunderstand what was a clearly-written and well-argued piece. And the line about China was a great joke! I still laugh at it a year later.

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  3. Both are well written pieces that get your point across with quite a few angles that many of us agree with.

    Part of this I fear is us getting older and perceiving the world a bit differently, this is inevitable. Part of this is that some of us don't fit in (or aren't sheeple-take your pick), say what is on our minds, and aren't afraid of the fallout (one of the reasons that I respect James is probably because I am this way- I say what is on my mind and don't mask it or sugarcoat it, and I am unconcerned about how what is said is taken because it is how I feel).

    Finally I think that part of this is the world changing around us a bit and our remaining solid. I am not going to run with something because it is popular or widely accepted, I am going to run with it because it is something that I can believe in, work with or I feel is worth spending time on.

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  4. "I Hate Fun" didn't change the way I game, but understanding it explained (and cemented) a change that was already in progress. Thanks for writing it.

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  5. I reckon it was the way it was written that really incited people to respond. If I recall correctly, your purpose was to get other people with a similar viewpoint excited and motivated to do something about it. What you managed at the same time was to get a lot of people who felt that they did not share your point of view excited and motivated to respond. There was a good thread on the Giant in the Playground that discussed this article at length.

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  6. I do believe that things you put effort into doing are far more rewarding than things that you just sit back and receive.

    Man, if only I could convince my wife of this.

    :rimshot:

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  7. It never seems to occur to these people that traditional Dungeons and Dragons was designed perfectly and that play experience was intentional.

    I suspect that one of the reasons people argue loudly and irrationally with your original article is that this sentence, and sentiments like it, are so obviously stupid that your non-embarrassment confounds them. (I mean, here, not that class-imbalance is unintentional, but that the first few iterations of D&D are alternately inadequate and grotesque, and consistently juvenile, their originality and fun notwithstanding.)

    Your vitriol about the development of roleplaying games being 'change' rather than 'evolution' is defensiveness rather than analysis. Of course RPGs have evolved in the last 30+ years; Gygax and his contemporaries had no idea how to design them, they used what they had, and American gamers (vs European roleplayers, a very different group in general) had to settle for 'storytelling' games whose basic model for everything was combat - a world of obstacles vs a possible world of dramatic situations more generally.

    I don't think one way or the other about 2e, and find 3e a strong attempt to solve the wrong set of problems, but premature optimization and misappropriated adaptation-resources are still evolutionary in character.

    Brother, I love your Esoteric Thingummy and enjoy your blog, but enjoying the fumes from your own rant doesn't actually confirm its 'correctness.' Nice polemic and all, but insisting that the original purpose of D&D is its 'true purpose' - and make no mistake, you are insisting precisely that whether you wish to be or not - just shows that you're out of step with most newcomers to the hobby. Maybe that means they misunderstand your fun; maybe that just reveals your incapacity or refusal to empathize with theirs. Ho hum.

    At day's end, D&D's claim to fame is its antiquity. And that's more or less it. There's no D&D subsystem that hasn't been matched for cleanness and effectiveness and evocativeness in some other game, no fluff that hasn't been surpassed for elegance or savage beauty. So what. So: understand that your own fun, the 'old school' D&D fun, is an incredibly narrow thing that the rest of the RPG hobby, even the slightly-narrower FRPG hobby, does not treat as primary. And please, please shed this silly contrarian check-out-my-awesome-butch-awesomeness pose that carries over into your elves rolling dice fun hour. No matter how many spellcasting adolescent escapist proxy figures you sacrifice to your precious unlucky dice rolls, we're all still somewhere at the disreputable end of the machismo spectrum.

    Which is of course another thing that puts people off about your writing, but which I can't really blame you for. I have my own fantasies and they'd likewise bore you too.

    Peace! And keep up the good fight, whatever the fuck you're fighting for.

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  8. >>There's no D&D subsystem that hasn't been matched for cleanness and effectiveness and evocativeness in some other game, no fluff that hasn't been surpassed for elegance or savage beauty.

    This statement is so obviously stupid that your non-embarrassment confounds me.

    >>elves rolling dice fun hour

    >>spellcasting adolescent escapist proxy figures

    If this is all you think it is, why would you bother?

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  9. >>There's no D&D subsystem that hasn't been matched for cleanness and effectiveness and evocativeness in some other game, no fluff that hasn't been surpassed for elegance or savage beauty.

    This statement is so obviously stupid that your non-embarrassment confounds me.


    Wow. I was grumpy when I wrote that last comment.

    OK, let's talk about it. What D&D subsystem - other than the rich, clever-if-you-pretend-that-essentialism-is-clever 9-way alignment system - remains a standard in RPG design today? I don't mean 'idioms,' now; obviously there are many features and assumptions of the hobby that originated with Gygax and Arneson (and Gygax's grotesque prose style remains a standard touchpoint, the way trickle-down economics can't quite be exorcised from grownup political discussions). 'Character classes,' for instance, spring from Arneson apparently - yet 'classes' are themselves an awkward way of abstracting training and skills (cf. GURPS for the mechanics-heavy canonical solution, any number of modern story-games for mechanically-light solutions). Dice-rolling is general and predates D&D of course, and the old basic combat system and many story-form assumptions come from miniatures tabletop wargaming in any case.

    No, I mean here 'subsystems' in the game-mechanical sense. What's one thing that D&D does better than any other roleplaying game? And since your preference is for the pre-2.0 games as I recall, let's restrict the conversation to those (I'm happy to spend time ripping on the later editions later if you'd like!).

    So: James, can you please tell me - as a shared exercise, or if you insist, as a way of overcoming my embarrassment - a D&D mechanic/subsystem that remains the premier example of elegant roleplaying game design?

    (I'll even nominate a possibility: the ripped-off 'Vancian' magic system of the original. There are systems I prefer, and 4e's magic system is more flexible and world-integrated, but this is one strong canonical contribution.)

    ***

    As for escapism: I like DMing, enjoy worldbuilding and storytelling. The usual. Indeed I suspect we have similar attitudes about the morality of D&D (as I recall from reading your posts about difficult moral choices in adventures). But then I'm not trying to get away with describing D&D as a particularly (psychically/emotionally?) dangerous form of fun. My language is overcompensatory in any number of ways, but slathering on the machismo isn't one of them.

    And I'm serious: I do love your blog. I just think the 'Fun' post has some serious problems, reflective of what I suspect are shortfalls in empathy. The basic argument is actually quite a strong one, marred by posturing and nonsense. Like I said: my first comment was, as the Scoobies would say, a little 'bad mood-y.'

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  10. (I should say not 'remains a standard' but 'remains the standard of excellence.')

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  11. >>What D&D subsystem - other than the rich, clever-if-you-pretend-that-essentialism-is-clever 9-way alignment system - remains a standard in RPG design today?

    The question is irrelevant. D&D, as the most popular game, is going to be the thing that people react against when making new designs. I actually think Ron Edwards' widely-misunderstood Fantasy Heartbreaker essays are brilliant. "Like D&D, but better!" isn't going to take over the world. Totally different concepts might, just by being different. (of course, by abandoning a version of D&D, that opens the market to recreations of the abandoned versions... thus the simulacra and Pathfinder)

    >>What's one thing that D&D does better than any other roleplaying game?
    >>can you please tell me a D&D mechanic/subsystem that remains the premier example of elegant roleplaying game design?

    These questions miss the point. You have to take games as a whole and not judge based on individual items. It doesn't matter if a game is structurally perfect at every individual part if it isn't appealing as a whole, and likewise a complete kludge of disparate items might be great to play.

    But I am not going to completely dodge the question of D&D's mechanics.

    Poaitives: Quick-as-hell character generation. 3d6 6 times down the line, pick a class, roll HP and buy equipment. (Determine spellbook if a MU or Elf) AD&D adds race as well, but all the classes and races pretty much have standardized abilities. Very quick and easy, even for a beginner.

    The character determines the role. You don't know who you'll be playing before you roll those dice. I consider that a great strength of old D&D. You see what you have and then apply your imagination to that to make it come alive.

    The lack of customization is I think a key to play style and edition differences. Quick character generation without a lot of detail means you don't need a million rules to make all of the detail meaningful, and you don't need to take steps to keep a character alive for fear of wasting all that time coming up with the perfect build. You don't have to feel guilty that Bob's character just died from a poison needle trap if he's ready with a new character in 5 minutes. You don't come into the game thinking "power fantasy" if you realize your next guy could be a physically feeble yet wise man.

    And it's scalable for individual campaign needs. Want customization? Place your scores in the order you want. Want more powerful or special PCs? Use the '4d6 drop lowest' method or one of the dozen means to roll scores. Traditional D&D is extremely versatile for many campaign and play styles if you tweak certain things, and it can handle this without changing the process of play.

    (You know what I don't get? Systems with classes AND skills.)

    Abstract combat. No hit locations or maneuvers or any intensive detail allows for quick resolution. Individual character ability is important but the characters' combat roles aren't hard-coded into the rules or the classes.

    "Player skill" means something different in early D&D than it does in later, and surely we can agree on that. The build, and combat tactics, are extremely important in later editions. In earlier editions, a character with crappy stats with a player who has no more interest in combat than to say "I attack. Hit. Three points" every round can succeed just as well if he players well.

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  12. The magic system. The system obviously works, no matter one's opinion on whether it's the best system to use. Using a magic system inspired by Jack Vance is no more arbitrary than any taking it from any other source, really. It has a unique flavor, that's for sure, and most arguments I've heard against it are variations on "real magic wouldn't work like that!" using some other author's work as an authority. *shrug* It's what it is, it works, and with the character level system it also is extremely easy to scale NPCs to the exact power you intend him to have with not a lot of effort, and it gives the idea that magic is fickle and weird (without taking away spell slots, mind you) as anything.

    And yeah, the level system. Great for eyeballing approximate power. "Fifth level fighter" as an NPC isn't so different to prepare for play than a 1st level or 10th level. It's fast and easy.

    Easter eggs. The newer editions may have them, I don't know. But with the old D&D editions, little chunks of inspiration are spread out through a good deal of fiction, just waiting to be found. The early D&D groups were as much book clubs as game groups, it seems, and it's so great to get a little added surprise when finally reading some of the source material.

    The lack of "narrative" elements like fate points or aspects... D&D doesn't simulate much, but it certainly models quite a bit. The appeal of role-playing to me is finding out what happens. Putting in things to "maximize drama" or anything of the sort make me think I'm participating in bad television. I don't want genre emulation or support of particular themes, I want a way to model certain things, and then see how it all shakes out "if it was really happening."

    People who don't understand our enjoyment often call our affection for the old systems "nostalgia gaming" or similar. But I daresay in our youths, D&D just was, and we played it because we liked the idea and it was what it was. Today, decades later, we look at it through more mature and experienced eyes, and in my case having played tons of other systems, and can appreciate it in ways we never could because of the added scrutiny we are able to apply to it now.

    The game works. No matter what innovations or changes or whatever have come down the pike, that doesn't change the fact that the old game works just fine just as it was released back in the day.

    >>But then I'm not trying to get away with describing D&D as a particularly (psychically/emotionally?) dangerous form of fun. My language is overcompensatory in any number of ways, but slathering on the machismo isn't one of them.

    I certainly don't see it as machismo. You're not a tough guy for having a 15th level fighter no matter if you had to scratch and claw your way there or if it was a Monty Haul giveaway.

    But the game had a certain level of challenge involved and definite and perhaps even high possibilities of failure.

    The save or die effects, rust monsters (and disenchanters and rot grubs and ear seekers), the very idea that characters are not superheroes or maybe even special at all, that's not a "macho" thing any more than playing the Tri Tac system is macho because you roll for bone damage and tissue damage and bleeding and hangnail whenever you get hit.

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  13. I would think people wanting buffed up characters in a game where success and doing cool stuff as part of the premise speaks more to machismo than wanting a game where getting snuffed out is a likely and frequent outcome if you don't approach the game wisely. But I've never been that good at this macho stuff. :P

    I wouldn't want to play a game of chess where all my pawns were replaced with knights or bishops or any such thing. I wouldn't want to play Monopoly where people get free cash reserves as they please, you know? It's the difference between beating a video game on the normal (or more difficult) setting versus the beginner setting.

    WOTC took something that was rough and had the same potential for ugliness as beauty and filed off all the rough bits and made it all slicker... while slapping the same name on it AND while telling us at the same time that "the game will remain the same" while making big changes in the name of "fun."

    It's annoying and they deserve scorn for it.

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  14. (sorry to split that up, but there's a character-length limit on responses...)

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  15. James -

    These are thoughtful responses and I won't be able to come back to them tomorrow. Thanks for that!

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  16. The problem I see with your counterpoints is that they seem to showcase low levels of detail as design highlights. A lack of maneuvers in combat isn't necessarily a good thing...what if I want tactical options?

    For a more direct example, why is it good that a player must roll 3d6 in order for his stats? If I want to play a beefy fighter-type, and I roll a 6 for Strength, a big part of my enjoyment of the experience (since you seem to have difficulty with the word "fun") is sliced away right in the beginning. Sure, I can play a weak but skilled guy...but I *wanted* to play a fighter, and the game is basically telling me "To hell with what you want. This is what you're getting and be happy with it."

    Screw that, man. I encounter enough conflict in the actual games without having to battle the system itself before I even start.

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