Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hickman Revolution and the Frustrated Novelist

There's a post today on The Mule Abides about "the Hickman Revolution", or, as James Maliszewski put it in the Golden Age of his blog, How Dragonlance Ruined Everything. The theory here, for those who are unwilling to follow links for some reason, is that the Dragonlance series, and Tracy Hickman in particular, are in no small part responsible for the general slide in gaming style and gaming design from 'traditional' sandbox-style play towards GM-plot-driven obsession with 'story' and, basically, railroaded narrative. The 'smoking gun' is the introduction to Pharoah, in which Hickman sets out a manifesto of sorts for his own design philosophy:
  1. A player objective more worthwhile than simply pillaging and killing. 
  2. An intriguing story that is intricately woven into play itself. 
  3. Dungeons with an architectural sense. 
  4. An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time.

The Mule Abides and Grognardia deal with these issues eloquently, and how they are indicative of the (lamentable, to me) shift in RPG design philosophy which occurred during the 80s, so I won't cover them here - I provide all this by way of background.

What I would like to add is the missing piece of the puzzle when it comes to the shift towards GM-driven story - Hickman is not just a game designer. He is also a novelist. Indeed, I think that it's safe to say that he is primarily a novelist. And the four elements of his design manifesto are exactly the kind of thing that somebody who wants to be a novelist would want in a game: objectives (to drive the plot), and intriguing story, a world that makes sense, and closure/a happy ending.

They are not the kind of things that somebody who just wants to create role playing games would want in a game, which would be more like: objectives (to keep score), freedom (for players to pursue their own goals), challenging settings, and open-ended design. 

There is a reason why Hickman's approach chimed with many gamers, and why ultimately it came to dominate the hobby during the 80s, 90s and 00s before story/hipster/forge games and the OSR began to slay the beast: many, I would say perhaps the majority, of GMs are frustrated novelists, just like Tracy Hickman was. To them, there was an allure in the idea that they could create games which were not mere games (a frivolous pursuit) but which were also stories - it was an outlet for their desire to be writers, which they could not fulfil due to lack of talent, time, dedication or all three.

Tracy Hickman turned out to be a decent story teller and writer, in actual fact (despite Dragonlance, the Death Gate Cycle, and so forth being terribly cliched and lightweight, the guy knows how to write). But the impact of his ideas, and those of others like him, on the hobby, have been rather negative, because all those frustrated-novelist GMs can't become writers too. Their desire to be novelists can only be channelled into their other imaginative activity - gaming - where they have a captive audience (their players) and a blank canvas (a 4 hour gaming session on a Saturday afternoon). This is the perfect storm for railroad-y, GM-led, story-obsessed play.

I feel bad for Tracy Hickman, as in our corner of the blogosphere his name seems to have become synonymous for "where it all went wrong". This is harsh, because he's obviously a very nice guy, and talented with it. This post is not to impugn him or his reputation. It's to lament the way in which D&D in particular has become a vehicle for so many people who really want to be doing something else than playing games: writing fantasy novels for a living. There is little that could be more detrimental to good gaming.

20 comments:

  1. An interesting take on TH and I get what you're saying. It's even more interesting if you've read TH's Xtreme Dungeon Mastery or sat in on one of his XDM seminars. Having done so myself, he comes off as a rather typical, if not overly exuberant OSR DM, one who is committed to entertainment and fun.

    You know, maybe it's just that the Desert series and Ravenloft are really damned good (imo) and subsequent modules imitated that style to follow suit. I don't know, the Dragonlance series, modules and setting are probably more responsible, especially when you were playing the cast of characters from the novels. Still, that setting and product were VERY popular among some groups of players and those of us who preferred Swords & Sorcery were simply left to scratch our heads.

    On some level, Dragonlance ruined TSR since the series set unreasonable standards or hopes of what could be achieved via paperback novel sales, consequently leading to overproduction, which crippled the company financially. Next thing ya know, WotC steps in and Tweet, WIlliams and Cook set about "fixing" D&D.

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    1. Yes, the modules did set the tone, I'm sure.

      It's funny what you say about Dragonlance setting unreasonable standards. Because when you read the Chronicles now, they're really pretty awful stuff. Hickman and Weis didn't really hit their stride as writers until the Legends. They just had lightning in a bottle with the Chronicles, somehow.

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    2. The key to the Chronicles was that they led with humor, and kept a lighter tone through most of the first book. It's the humor that humanizes the characters, just as it's the humor in old school play that makes players invest in their 18d6.

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    3. Yeah, I'd agree with that. There's a lot of charm in those books. Mostly coming from Tas, Flint and Fizban.

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  2. I am in the opposite camp. I have been going around championing the story driven side on this subject. I do respect your view to not like a certain kind of game that is illustrated by the 4 points at the beginning of Pharaoh. But why deride the people who do like playing that way?

    Growing up in the 80s, I felt like Pharaoh and Ravenloft were great improvements over the older adventures and I still enjoy playing story driven adventures over free form, random table sand box adventures. But I don't begrudge anyone for playing that way.

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    1. If there's any derision in my tone it's not conscious. Maybe there's a subconscious defensiveness on my part that comes from a gaming lifetime of being told "it's role playing, not roll playing", blah blah blah.

      Traditional gaming has been derided for so long it now sounds confrontational just to advocate it.

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    2. I probably read more into the post then what was really meant (the joys of communicating through a text medium). It is a interesting topic you brought up and you seem like a reasonable fellow. I have just picked up the story based adventuring torch for some reason, lately, which is probably a dangerous thing to do when all I read are old school blogs!

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    3. Well there's a bit of a difference between having "story" in an RPG and having the DM's story. Basically what it comes down to is that D&D rules by themselves don't follow narrative logic, they follow their own logic and if you want them to follow narrative logic you've either got to have a DM imposing it (which in my experience does work well at all, yours may be different) or get another set of rules that have narrative logic baked in at the mechanical level (various Indie/Forge games). Having a story-driven game can be a lot of fun, but I don't think that D&D is a terribly good fit for that play style.

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  3. Growing up DL2: Dragons of Flame was a favourite module... I read it again recently. It has *terrible* DMing advice. Absolutely terrible. Wonderfully imaginative characters and setting... but bad game advice.

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    1. Not that I disagree, I just wonder what the examples are.

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    2. While Stuart could be referring to any number of examples, here's one of the "best" from DL2:

      "This module introduces several enemy NPCs, members of the Dragonarmies. Since these NPCs appear in later DRAGONLANCE modules, try to make them have “obscure deaths” if they are killed: if at all possible, their bodies should not be found. Then, when the NPCs appear in later modules, you have a chance to explain their presence. Be creative; think up an explanation for their “miraculous” survival. The same rule applies to the PCs on pages 17-18. Most of them have roles in future modules, and must be able to return to life somehow."

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    3. Ha, well yes, that is a choice example. At that point it's actually quite hard to argue convincingly that you're still playing a game.

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  4. Maybe DMs should be encouraged to write stories, to 'get it out of their system'. And perhaps they should be forbidden to write stories set in their D&D campaign world.

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  5. I remember playing pretty much exclusively in plot-driven games for years before Dragonlance came out, but these games weren't railroads as such - sure the DM might have objectives and some sort of ending in mind but getting there relied on player co-operation and skill. I'd trace that way of playing back to Call of Cthulhu at the very latest. And endings, happy or otherwise, are a perfectly reasonable species of victory condition if you're playing for something other than gold/mcguffins.


    But I know you know this and I don't really intend to call you out on it. I just get a bit frustrated by the view expressed on a lot of OSR blogs that there's a simple opposition between sandbox and railroad. Really there's a broad continuum between them or they're even just landmarks on a gaming landscape. And on the topic of roads not taken, there's a whole field of story structures other than emergent/retrospective (sandbox) and screenwriting 101/Campbellian (the stereotypical railroad) that I think we use in our games but choose not to look at.

    So what stuck in my craw about DL was the boxes of read-aloud text and the frankly unsafe assumptons regarding what the PCs would do, and those also offended everyone I knew. But I also knew people who wanted to treat DL the way MERP treats LoTR, and to use it as an engine for telling other stories.

    (and that's just Hickman pt. 2: I jave no beef with the others)

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  6. Interestingly we have a similar problem in the video games industry in that a great many 'game designers' are actually just frustrated screenwriters giving rise to story-driven games with bloated cutscenes. Some still manage to be top notch experiences like Mass Effect but others are little more than simply movies during which the players are given a few minutes to shoot at things or press 'A' to continue.

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    1. I tend to think those heavily scripted 'games' are a much more legitimate art form than is the tabletop RPG railroad. Playing one of those is a lot like watching a movie, with an interactive element. I don't think that's a bad thing. Whereas the tabletop RPG medium is a really inferior one for "telling the DM's story".

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  7. I agree.

    BTW re "An attainable and honorable end within one to two sessions playing time" - I found this ironic, since I played through Pharoah with the GM using 3e D&D rules, and it came across as a seemingly-endless zoo dungeon grind, taking maybe 5 sessions! Of course it would have run quicker in 1e. But I likewise ran B7 'Rahasia' using a 3e/BX mash-up that ran quite fast, and I still had to cut out a large chunk of zoo-dungeon-maze at the end because it was grinding on so; it still took 4 sessions. I don't think pacing was his strong suit.

    AIR the big problem in both Pharoah and Rahasia was that the 'story' was not really 'about' the PCs; they were just a catalyst; it was 'about' (eg) Rahasia the lovely/good/beautiful Elf. At least with Dragonlance the players get to play the central characters!

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    1. Although it may be that the TSR version of Pharaoh I played was a heavily degraded version of the original Daystar release. The Mule Abides blog entry seems to indicate so.

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  8. I found your article most interesting from my perspective of having lived it. I would be the first to admit that both 'Rahasia' and 'Pharaoh' failed to achieve the fourth stated goal and were relatively clumsy in their approach to the first three. In hindsight, however, that makes sense to me given that this was an area of the craft of game design that had never been attempted and the tools to implement those goals had to be invited as we progressed.

    Tracy Hickman / trhickman.com

    You don't need a 'smoking gun'; I'll confess to bringing story and plot into RPGs.

    One minor clarification should be mentioned, however: I didn't set out to be a novelist. I believed in 1982 that all I would ever be or wanted to be was a game designer. Becoming a novelist was not a destiny that I sought (as was the case with Margaret Weis) but a destiny that found me. Maybe I was a storyteller at heart even then but it was not a career that I pursued.

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