Saturday, 24 April 2010

There are all kinds of sources for our knowledge, but none has authority.

One of the things I like about traditional RPGs, and older editions of D&D in particular, is that they have what David Brooks calls "epistemological modesty". That is, the designers seem to have understood the futility, indeed the foolhardiness, of attempting to come up with a coherent and robust system from the outset that will work for all players; their philosophy rather seems to have been to provide a starting point, a toolbox, with which DMs and players can make what they will, and which have almost been conceived with the expectation of evolution and change. The lack of cogency in these games, and the very necessity of house ruling them, is seen as a flaw by some, but it's all a matter of perspective; I suspect Karl Popper, William Morris and Michael Oakeshott would all have approved of OD&D's approach.

In fact the history of RPGs could in many ways be seen as a struggle between epistemological modesty and reductionism. On the one hand you have those who believe in decentralisation and freedom of interpretation. On the other are those who think that the complexity inherent in a game played by literally tens of thousands of different discrete groups at any one time could be simplified to the point where a satisfactory unified mechanical structure could be maintained. The latter seems like tilting at windmills to me, but it's been the philosophy of game design since at least the mid-90s.


  1. I never thought of it being an epistemological issue but I think you're on to something. Probably the first really reductionist game I played was GURPS and at least the first edition touted their insistence on using "reality checks" during the game's development (i.e. checking how fast a horse runs, how many times you can swing a sword in a second, etc.) Were the mechanics of GURPS seriously meant to model reality? I think in way they were.

    Great post!

  2. Samuel Alito, on the other hand, would not be pleased...

  3. Nicely put, and a good antidote for the "right way to play" mentality. I have always argued for the toolbox approach, and seen it as a strength of our games.

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  5. James: Thanks.

    mikemonaco: Yes, GURPS is an interesting example in that it is a toolkit while at the same time reductionist, demonstrating that while all epistemologically modest games are toolkits, not all toolkit games are epistemologically modest. ;)

    Zak S: I've never heard of the guy and the wikipedia article was "tl;dr"... but I'll take your word for it!

    Dave: The idea that there could ever be a one-size-fits-all "right way to game" is crazyiness, isn't it?

    Vincent: He's out of fashion nowadays, but I'm doing my best to fight the tide.

  6. A great, concise view of each side of the coin. The very thought that TSR's slogan, "Games for Your Imagination" actually attached itself in latter years to a reduced theory of the game experience is ironic. Further, and IMO, the Golden Age of D&D stands before the headlong release of pre-made adventures, which in turn flattened the playing field to an understood for commonality sake. Its rigidness exists today in even more insoluble forms due to the reverse-engineering of the game to fit those models.