Monday, 25 May 2009

Objective Schmobjective

Madness reigns at Grognardia; sanity prevails at Wondrous Imaginings.

I respect James Malisewski a lot, but posts like this leave me scratching my head. You don't get anywhere trying to explain objectively why Monopoly, cricket, chess, barbeques or grapefruits are good. People like them or don't like them based on entirely subjective reasons. Why should a particular style of role playing game be any different?

The idea of a "clear and rational" argument in favour of a game is about on a par with somebody sitting me down and trying to explain why Metallica are good through reference to their sheet music and an analysis of chord changes; or maybe a girl I'm not attracted to trying to explain "clearly and rationally" why sex with her would be a good idea. Ain't going to happen.

EDIT: Or, for example, somebody trying to explain why Star Trek XI is better than Star Trek II by appeal to logic.


  1. I've read Malisewski's post several times now, and I'm not sure I see where he ever argues that the value of old school games in and of themselves can or should rationally explained or argued.

    I believe he is seeking a sharper definition of what old school gaming is, one that is based on something more objective than a mere "feeling," as he puts its. To define something is necessarily to attach value it, right? I could not give you objective proof why Metallica is better or worse than say AC/DC. But I could lay objective details that allow us to distinguish the two bands from each other.

    Malisewski is trying to do this with old school gaming, I think, by asking: what concrete characteristics distinguish the old school from other forms of gaming? If "old school" simply means whatever ones wants it to mean, then it is difficult to have a conversation about it, anayze it, or promote it, all of which are Malisewski's larger aims.

    Admitedly, he clearly prefers old school gaming to other types, but I don't think he is trying in any way to prove its superiority. Rather, I believe he trying to articulate a set of criteria that distinguishes the old school from other school's so that he can more clearly explain why he prefers it. It's impossible to prove that Monopoly is a better game than Chutes and Ladders, but it is very possible for me to point to specific objective characteristics of Monopoly and explain why I prefer them. Claims of value can still be supported, if not proven, with rational argument.

  2. Jesus. Now the old school movement has advanced to the point where someone has to define it before we can enjoy playing it. Sheesh.

    That may be the worst post James has ever made....I re-read it numerous times and I'm still shaking my head. Are the "Old School" police going to kick in my door and stop me cold if my game doesn't measure up to a nebulous Guide to 10 points of Old School Gaming"?

    Mark my words, trying to get a committee together to form a "criteria" of what is or isn't considered old school gaming is Step One in the end of this burdgeoning movement....

  3. I've just been avoiding this latest skubstorm by burying myself in graph paper and random tables and ignoring the [noises off].

    Yep, life is good in my little bubble o' solipsism.

  4. @Chris: No, it's my little bubble o' solipsism. ;)

    James asked, I asked why it was important. He sort of answered, and so I obliged the concern with my Historist PoV, and a small shopping list (which I do think equally apply to Tunnels & Trolls and to a slightly lesser degree Empire of the Petal Throne, as to the D&Ds of yore).

    My players (sans one guy who played the classics) don't have any knowledge of, nor likely, any interest in the history (they are in their early 20's) of the earlier D&Ds. They just show up each week and I ask them to tell me how they are searching the corridor.

  5. See, I don't really think that he was arguing for an "objective" value judgment of Old School, but rather an objective definition of Old School characteristics. BUT, his post came off as overly defensive and put everybody off. I'm not sure what he's responding to, but it seems likely that he had his feelings hurt in some hostile corner of the net, probably reading the 4e vs. Old School threads at therpgsite or something.

    If old James M. has a failing, it's got to be the fact that he reads *everything* relating to OD&D on the internet, even the bile filled posts of mindless 4postles, and he takes the trolls WAY too seriously.

  6. Ironbeard and Fitzerman: I was mainly referring to lines like this: I think there are enough clear, rational, and unambiguous arguments in favor of the old school....
    In other words, I agree he wasn't arguing that he could prove the superiority of 'old school', but he was arguing that there are rational arguments to recommend it as worth playing.

    I absolutely disagree - you don't persuade somebody that football is fun through logic, you play a game with them or take them to watch one. That's what 'old schoolers' should be doing if they want to spread the word.

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  8. Noisms - What if you took me to the football match and I still didn't like the sport. Would that mean that it would be imposssible for you to attempt to convince any further about the merits of the sport, perhaps by using argumentation? What if I didn't like what I saw because I didn't understand or fully appreciate the sport's objective charactersitics before me. I have attended football games and I've not enjoyed them. Perhaps if you had been there to supplement my experience with an argument about the games nuances, I may have changed my mind.

    Don't get me wrong; the immediate experience of a phenomenon is a crtical aspect of what we are talking about, but I do not believe it is the only possible one.

    Indulge me for a moment. Let's say two people read the same novel and one finds it brilliant, the other finds it infantile and shallow. In this case, both people have direct first hand experience of the phenomenon that is being valued. Is that the end of the story? Do they have to just walk away and say "well I guess in matters of taste, every opinion is equally valid so there's no point in discussing them or in arguing in favor of either position." Or is it possible that each party could point to specific characteristics of the novel and attempt to use them as evidence in an argument in support of his or her respective claim of value. People do this all the time.

    To say that logic cannot be used to justify aesthetic claims or matters of taste is really to reject centuries of literary and art scholarlship that does just this.

    That said, your quotation from the original essay does support your case. While I believe that Malisewsky is in no way trying to police the boundaries of the old school like a cop, his post did have a rather self righteous tone that clearly rubbed many the wrong way.

  9. "or maybe a girl I'm not attracted to trying to explain "clearly and rationally" why sex with her would be a good idea."

    See, I'm betting she wasn't explaining idea with enough beer.

    /snark off

    The one time I've been subjectively turned around was after seeing Starship Troopers. Initially didn't like it. Then my buddy Dave explained it was a satire. The HUMANS were the facistic bad guys! It was like a light switch being thrown in my head. Now I recommend it.

  10. Here is my logic. I want at least a vague definition of old school gaming.

    If someone says "Im going to run an old school game" and I say "That sounds fun, let me book off four hours of free time, an exceedingly rare commodity I might add, to go play that with you"

    I want some vague idea of what I agreed to. If he "Feels" that old school gaming is an indie story game with shared narrative control and collaborative world building. I am going to be pissed.

    "Old School" is a genre of gaming, its no different than "Action" or "Sci-fi" or "Horror" for movies. I use those specific examples because any given movie may really be more one than the other, "Alien" for instance may subjectively be "Action" or "Sci Fi" or "horror" to different people, but those genres are defined enough that people can justify and discuss why it is the genre they think it is.

    If they said they feel it is a romantic comedy, we could say "no, you are nuts, if you try and tell your girlfriend that to get her to watch it, she will gut you with a fish knife"

    Definitions of what something is, is important. Its why things have names.

  11. Ironbeard: You see, you're talking to the wrong person - I really do reject the centuries of art and literary scholarship which you speak of! I don't accept the possibility of persuading somebody to like a work of art through appeal to reason - the only value in arguing is convincing somebody, by the sheer passion of your argumentation, that they should give the art in question another chance. But that isn't the same as appealing to logic; it's an appeal to emotion.

    I've had enough conversations over such-and-such-a-film is good or bad to believe that opinions are only ever changed by this - passion of argumentation, not reason.

    crazyred: Well, I'll give you that one. But that's more like giving you the missing piece in the puzzle than it is persuading you through reason.

    Anyonymous: There's no official or agreed definition of 'horror', 'action', 'romantic comedy', 'fantasy', 'science fiction' - but we're happy to say "I know it when I see it." 'Old school' gaming is the same thing.

    Your example seems to me a bit like saying, "What if my friend invites me to see an 'action' film but it turns out it's a romantic comedy?" That never happens, or if it does, your friend is a weirdo.

  12. "Your example seems to me a bit like saying, "What if my friend invites me to see an 'action' film but it turns out it's a romantic comedy?" That never happens, or if it does, your friend is a weirdo."

    LOL! And that remains at the crux of the matter: what good is a definition if the definition isn't exactly the same one between those two people. And the chances of any of us checking off a list of Ten Essential Old School Parameters EXACTLY the same as the ten guys next to you is virtually nil...

    Which means shortly we'll be seeing lists like this from different bloggers, each highlighting ten completely different points, and nothing is solved. Blech.

  13. Dammit, I don't know how you do it, Noisms, but this (and your follow up directly above me) is very nearly my thoughts given words. I don't think I've ever bristled so much at anything James says, even though I love the ol' guy to death and back.

  14. Noisms: What about modern art? Most people reject it unless they learn through rational exposition what the artists are doing. The artists knew what they were doing, were ahead of the angry mob until the mob was placated with explanation decades later. Im talking about Cezanne, Picasso and van Gogh not Hirst or Amin.

    I think it is a disgrace that so many people who couldn't write a single interesting post on older ways of playing (not you) are trying to shout down James M., someone who has proven he has plenty to say on the subject. Why do people think their opinions are of interest when they have little or no knowledge to back them up? The reaction to his post has been entirely emotional. People are simply afraid of being excluded from a good thing, which of course they never will be.

  15. I find all of this infinitely fascinating but then I realize I have the benefit of being an outside observer. I am not a D&D fan, old school, new school or anything inbetween. One of the many reasons is this very subject.

    I've said it before and I'll saying it again - you never see Star Trek, Mutants & Masterminds, Mekton, Ars Magica or Traveller fans trying to define the 'RIGHT' way to play their game.

    Barking Alien

  16. I've said it before and I'll saying it again - you never see Star Trek, Mutants & Masterminds, Mekton, Ars Magica or Traveller fans trying to define the 'RIGHT' way to play their game.
    You've never seen Traveller fans arguing about the right way to play their game? Really? I thought that's all they did, often to the exclusion of actually, you know, playing Traveller!

  17. Granted, Mutants and Masterminds 2e had only one or two fairly minor changes at all from 1e, the biggest one being how sidekicks work. But I have seen some pretty hardcore arguments between Freedom City and Meta-4.

    You've never seen Star Trek gamers argue? I remember being part of a flamewar that went for months between Star Fleet Battles and everything published since.