Friday, 26 March 2021

The Reasonable DM

The English common law relies to a surprisingly large extent on a single magical word: "reasonableness". It appears everywhere. Businesses must make "reasonable adjustments" so that employees with disabilities can work without being at a disadvantage in comparison to other colleagues. To be recoverable, damages in negligence must be "reasonably foreseeable". Contract damages can only be awarded for losses "reasonably in the contemplation" of the parties as a likely result of breach. Exclusion clauses must pass the "reasonableness test". A public authority must not make a decision "so unreasonable that no reasonable authority" would impose it. I could go on. 

The virtue of "reasonableness" is that while it sounds very definitive, what is "reasonable" of course varies according to the eye of the beholder. Once you get into the realm of what is "reasonable", you are basically in the zone of the judge's discretion (although, of course, previous cases will tend to influence his or her decision). But this isn't such a bad thing. HLA Hart, probably the most influential jurisprude of the 20th century, used "reasonableness" as his example of what he called a standard rather than a rule. Real life is too complicated and messy to make hard and fast rules that will apply in every case. That will rapidly result in injustice and contradiction. It's often better for judges to have some flexibility by applying a standard - like reasonableness - instead. Not always, because if everything came down to what was reasonable, judges would simply be deciding each case on its merits, and that would result in an unpredictable and arbitrary legal system. But there is space for a bit of vagueness. 

The important point about "reasonableness", of course, is that it's not a floating signifier - it can't just mean anything. Its meaning is socially constructed, like that of all words, but that doesn't mean it lacks all objectivity. As Stanley Fish would say, there are a potentially infinite number of ways in which anybody could interpret "reasonableness" in any given context, but the great majority of these will be "ruled out" by social and cultural expectation. You could interpret a decision by a public authority to ban the use of all languages except Klingon in public buildings as a reasonable one. But nobody realistically would, because that wouldn't accord with the way society constructs the meaning of "reasonableness" in the main. The way English judges used to refer to this phenomenon was by talking about somebody called "the man on the Clapham omnibus". What a judge determines to be reasonable is what this archetypal figure (basically, a lower-middle class employee on the bus on his way to work) would consider to be reasonable on the basis of the facts presented. So whether or not, for example, a business has made reasonable adjustments for a disabled employee is not a total crapshoot. The judge is deciding that question in reference to what an ordinary, sensible person in possession of the facts would consider to be reasonable. That is socially constructed, but social understanding of words has an objectivity to it all the same.

Making a game of D&D work has a lot to do with the DM making decisions about what would be reasonable. Can my character do [x], where [x] refers to persuading somebody of something, telling a convincing lie, pulling off a neat combat move, reacting suddenly to an unexpected event, ducking behind that pile of crates, tugging a potion out of his backpack while simultaneously backing away from the dragon, or any of the other infinite number of things that a player will want to do in-game which aren't covered explicitly by the rules? Well, would it be reasonable for him or her to be able to do it? That isn't the doorway to arbitrariness. It is an invitation for the DM to make a sensible decision on the basis of the social expectation of what reasonableness entails. Far better this than the alternative, which is to try to make a rule to cover every eventuality - and a 20,000 page long rulebook, and an unplayable game, as a consequence. 

Monday, 15 March 2021

Oh Baby, Let Me Reminisce

Patrick put up a great post about the dimly-remembered origins of OSR blogging. I could of course have commented there - but why pass up the opportunity to get some of that sweet, sweet site traffic here? Let me instead ride on his coat-tails and provide some links to some of the dimmest, darkest corners of the deepest levels of the Old School Megadungeon. These are the blogs that inspired me when I was sitting in an office in suburban Yokohama thinking about D&D, just a kid with a crazy dream, and which eventually I decided to try to emulate in my own small way.

Trollsmyth's first post was in 2006, when the world was truly young - before our sanity was blasted by social media and YouTube, when One Direction were not even a twinkle in Simon Cowell's eye, and when 'Let It Go' was still 7 years from first being heard. It may not have been the very first 'OSR' blog, but it was certainly one of the great beasts of our early Triassic.

Sham is now only at best hazily remembered, a ghost of the ancient dead. But he lingers in the stories of old warriors as they gather around camp fires at night, whispering that he may yet one day return.

I would have said the same was true of chgowiz, who even nuked (most) of his old blog and left just a few dozen shattered fragments (you can find them by clicking through the 'older posts'), but it turns out he is still out there, presumably plotting his 'King Over the Water' style return.

Taichara had a great blog which has been through periods of immense melancholic silence, but never truly faded away; word is she is coming out with a book.

Rob Conley remains, still pursuing his controversial strategy of writing useful material people can actually put in their games, rather than the esoteric ranting the rest of us seem to specialise in.

Same goes for Kellri.

I wanted to find Melan's old therpgsite posts on the Tyranny of Fun and his childhood adventure gamebooks, and also Philotomy's Musings. But they all appear to be long gone now, washed away by the encroaching tides of time: look on our works, ye mighty, and despair! 

Tuesday, 2 March 2021

The Game Is The Thing

I've been neglecting the blog - a combination of house refurbishment and lots of extra work, but also DMing a regular weekly game. I've remarked before that regular play somehow correlates with a diminished need to think obsessively and write about gaming. This seems to be the pattern.

You notice this a lot with football pundits who never actually played the game professionally. I listen to a lot of football podcasts, mostly put out by pseudo-intellectual journalists who think about the sport far too much (Second Captains is the best, for those who are interested, despite Ken Early having gone so far up his own backside it's unreal). One thing you begin to notice after a while is the really absurd level of detail that is read into the tiniest and most trivial of events - and the contrast between the very simple but cutting observations that former players and managers tend to offer about the game. 

(My favourite is the story Roy Keane once told about Brian Clough - that the most profound advice the latter had ever given him was, "Make sure you always pass the ball to somebody on your own team." But I also love the story about Harry Redknapp telling Roman Pavyluchenko to "Just fucking run around a bit." Alan Shearer had similar sage advice: if you're out of form, just make sure you at least "run around a lot".)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. I love listening to Ken Early dissecting 30 seconds of conversation between Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher over the course of 30 minutes, or delivering a 10 minute analysis of a tweet by Neymar. This is what being a fan is about. Immersing oneself, wallowing, in the glorious mud of truly purposeless ephemera. But it isn't really football.

The same is true of D&D. Ultimately the game is the thing, not the discussion of it. Sometimes it's easy to forget that, especially when you get out of touch with rolling the dice. In the modern age there is no excuse not to set up an online game and play. Do it - you won't be disappointed.