Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Spontaneous Order

A long while ago - in fact it was September 2009 - I wrote this:

Joe the Lawyer has put up an interesting thread at therpgsite: If you could play D&D with anyone, real or imaginary, from any time in history, who?

My answer was JRR Tolkien, CS Lewis, Johnathan Swift and Roald Dahl. On reflection I'd also like to include Jorge Luis Borges. Our games would take place in a Member's club, complete with leather seats, tobbaco pipes, and plentiful bitter served by buxom wenches. We'd have a rotating DM-ship, meeting up every Sunday evening. CS Lewis would grumble about Tolkien's insistence on correct pronunciation of Elvish names ("Not another bloody elf..."); Borges would rile Tolkien with his anti-clerical barbs; Roald Dahl would amuse everybody with his comic creations; and Swift would confound with his unusual 18th Century phrasing.

When China Mieville, M. John Harrison, Richard K. Morgan and Michael Moorcock came in to the club for their weekly game of Dogs in the Vineyard, it would be like the Sharks vs. the Jets. Dice-downs with fistfuls of d12s flying. Bruised lips, bloody noses and black eyes. Finally everybody would settle down and it would be Tolkien's turn to get the drinks in.

It's only very rarely that I look back at something I've written and decide that I like it, and in this case, I do. That piece makes me smile. Although on reflection Mieville, Harrison, Morgan and Moorcock probably wouldn't be playing Dogs in the Vineyard - I've since discovered that Mieville is a Chaosium fan, and I think Moorcock would probably be more of a Lamentations of the Flame Princess sort of person.

Anyway this is a roundabout way of saying that I ended up writing something similar here, except what I wrote was that:

OD&D is sort of like what Michael Polanyi, Friedrich Hayek and Michael Oakeshott would have created if they had been game designers. It was pretty much all generated in a chaotic, emergent fashion through trial and error. And that's what made it crazy but also kind of perfect, in its way.

I don't expect this to be particularly interesting to those of you reading this who aren't terrible pseuds like I am, but anyway, I do sometimes think of the origins of D&D as being a very good example of Polanyi's spontaneous order in action: a couple of dozen people playing around over the course of several years with many different rules, and a set of mechanics slowly evolving and coalescing over that period without any real top-down guidance - until, finally, something like a "game", with a sprawling but lean and quite tightly evolved structure, focused specifically on achieving a certain end.

It reminds me of one of Stephen Jay Gould's old essays, in which he talked about the origin of baseball. Rather than being the invention of Abner Doubleday, he argues, citing a wealth of evidence that proves it, baseball evolved organically over time, without any top-down management: it developed from a number of more primitive games which came from a "a complex lineage, better called a nexus, from which modern baseball emerged, eventually in a codified and canonical form."

And that's really rather like the OSR too, don't you think? Many different people playing different variants of D&D, and spontaneous order emerging through the blogosphere and things like ConstantCon, producing a new structure, and a new way of doing things, quite tightly focused but having emerged through trial and error and disunity, rather than because of the actions of a small group of designers.

Anyway, I like to imagine sitting down with Polanyi, Hayek and Oakeshott for a game of D&D with Tolkien, Lewis, Swift and Dahl. I imagine Polanyi being a paladin, Hayek a mage and Oakeshott a fighter. Tolkien would probably be a druid, and Lewis a cleric. Swift, I'd peg as a rogue. Dahl would be an illusionist. Given their disparate backgrounds and interest in the philosophical, I'd run them through a Planebox campaign, of course. Start them off in the Abyss and take it from there.


  1. "Many different people playing different variants of D&D, and spontaneous order emerging through the blogosphere and things like ConstantCon, producing a new structure, and a new way of doing things, quite tightly focused but having emerged through trial and error and disunity, rather than because of the actions of a small group of designers."

    That has to the best and most inspiring description about the cross-pollination going on right now. Having all the new shared avenues for actual play thanks to G+ has just kicked up the dynamic several notches.

    I wonder though if the OSR is headed for a splitting off in the year ahead though.

    Thanks for the Planebox link, I must have missed that when it was posted. We couldn't perhaps draft you to actually run such a beast, hunh?

  2. I share your conviction about OD&D, although I am mostly familiar with Hayek's treatment of the principle of spontaneous order. I would say that the OSR shares this with many great creative endeavors, such as the American punk rock scene in the 1980's. A lot of people in a lot of towns, playing guitars and trading records until unique and highly developed forms start to emerge. And they didn't have an internet! Keep the good thoughts coming!

  3. Yeah, on the one hand I don't like some of the D&D legacy stuff that the OSR maintains but that very legacy stuff is what makes the different versions compatible enough to build on each other, which leads to many interesting things that wouldn't be possible otherwise.

  4. I think playing in a group with Richard Morgan would be intense. He would run the table on everyone with his mean as hell alcoholic fighter, when he wasn't letting terrible things happen to his character's loved ones and friends.

  5. ckutalik: Do you mean there might be a split between OSRIC-types and S&W-types?

    Regarding Planebox... I really have too much on my plate at the moment, what with this, that, and the other thing. It's why my ConstantCon participation has been pretty (sadly) minimal.

    Anathemata: Yes, it happens all over the place. The modern economy too, if you accept Hayek's view (which I largely do).

    David: Exactly.

    HDA: That's why I think Dogs in the Vineyard would appeal to him. Maybe Unknown Armies or something as well.

  6. Thanks for putting me on to Polanyi, seems an interesting guy (from what I've been able to rustle up within about 2 links from wikipedia anyway!).

    I particularly like the combination of "simultanious search for truth" + "different opinions as to what that is". The nice thing is that you get interesting network effects, but it's not a dull "our way beats everyone else's" mob democracy, as some other relativistic network theories tend to encourage.

    To put that in D&D terms, when you start doing it network style, you need better designers, because everyone is evaluating other people's ideas for how they fit in their games, testing them out etc,
    and not just being able to sit in the "glorious designer" chair and write whatever you want, or just receive the great designer's words without criticism!

    I mean anyone can still do that, but look at all the lovely alternatives springing up...

    About the writers, surely Dahl would be the rogue? Can't you just imagine him sneaking through the shadows behind the party coming up with devious little tricks!

    Maybe Swift could spend the whole game claiming to be an assasin, but actually be a bard..