Tuesday, 21 December 2021

I Got My Philosophy

Can game design be applied philosophy? I think so. Some people might say everything is applied philosophy, but usually unconsciously; I will leave that topic for another occasion.

Michael Oakeshott understood modernity as a response to the dissolution of communal ties that existed in the medieval era. In times past, people understood themselves primarily in accordance with their status, and the rights and obligations that derived from it. This made their self-understanding relational, and comparatively fixed. In modernity, by contrast, people became free, whether they liked it or not, and now had to confront the world as individuals. You are not who you are because of a status deriving from birth or marriage - you are what you make of yourself

This makes freedom a challenge. Some people relish this prospect, and use the opportunity to pursue their life as an adventure. Others see it as a burden, full of unwanted risk and anxiety, and seek to avoid freedom where they can. The former are the stuff of classical liberalism (what a post-structuralist would call 'the liberal subject'); the latter are vulnerable to exploitation by authoritarians, who are willing to exert choices and make decisions on their behalf. 

This was a common concern among 20th century philosophers who had witnessed first hand the rise of authoritarianism in the interwar period. The thinkers of the Frankfurt School - Fromm, Horkheimer, Marcuse - would very much have agreed with Oakeshott's assessment. Something about the conditions of postindustrial modernity produced in a large section of the population (perhaps even the majority of the population) a deep sense of alienation, powerlessness and unease, and it was this that led them to put their faith in the hypertrophied State. The 'fear of freedom', as Fromm called it, drove the masses into the arms of totalitarianism: better that than suffer the psychic angst of having to make decisions for oneself and deal with the consequences.

This bleak vision is tempered by William Galston's notion that education can inculcate in people the kind of character traits that will equip them for life in a liberal society. If they do not inherit the virtues of self-reliance, prudence, civility, and cooperativeness from their parents and communities, they can be taught them. This is what a liberal education is ultimately all about - shaping future generations into responsible actors who will respond to freedom in the appropriate way, and will be able to take advantage of its opportunities without fear (or descent into license). 

In other words, while there are probably people who are predisposed, due to innate character traits or circumstance, to 'fear freedom', there is no reason why this should fate us to some kind of totalitarian impulse. And, in any case, the truth is that we probably all have our moments in which freedom appears to us as a burden that we would rather not carry: think, for example, of the last time you agonised over having to make a decision (say, whether or not to buy a house, or change jobs). In your heart of hearts, did you at that time never have the feeling of longing for a benevolent dictator to come along and make the decision for you? Would that not have struck you as a blessed release from the torment of being unable to decide? Ultimately, you would probably have recognised that there is something more authentic, more valuable, in making such decisions for yourself and living with the consequences, and there would have been something dehumanising about having the choice made for you. But one can recognise the impulse in oneself to seek to avoid the tyranny of options - what Kundera was meant by 'the unbearable lightness of being'.

So what does this have to do with role playing games? The superiority of sandbox-type play to the railroaded adventure path is, I think, found in its recognition that there is something more authentic about both DM and players exercising freedom - to arrange things as desired, and to pursue options within a broad scope of possibility, respectively. It is often more attractive to rely on pre-written, pre-plotted, published 'adventures', particularly when the alternative is the wearisome task of having to sit there with a blank piece of paper and pencil and think for oneself. At such times, the benevolent dictator of Paizo or WotC can have his appeal. But going down that road also somehow diminishes us. 

This also suggests, I think, that the most worthwhile RPG products are the ones that educate - that provide the reader with the tools to run a sandbox game. It is the Kevin Crawfords of this world who are giving us what we truly need, and which will encourage in us the embrace, rather than the fear, of gaming freedom. 


  1. No joke here, it was Kevin Crawford who taught me (via his games) to really enjoy sandboxes and that style of play. Before that I thought that 'making a cool story' was the pinnacle of rpg's. But then he opened that door for me. I'm ''young'' - 29 this year - and I grew up in an enviroment where the railroading was the norm. Even in the people who liked 'old school games'.

    Since then (2013 or so) it's so hard for me to go back to the other form of play.

  2. I loved this analysis. I often find new players scared by the idea of sandbox play when I DM. They find comfort in giving me full license to put them through a series of scripted events. I can understand this but it is not my ideal approach.

    I recently decided to stop hosting for a group that was very infatuated with the idea of the 5E railroad campaign. They did not want to switch. This post and many others in the blogosphere have made me realize why the group I was with felt wrong for me. They wanted a storyteller. I wanted an adventure.

    1. Yes, it's a preference for comfort - that's the simplest way to explain it.

  3. As an anarchist politically, I totally agree with your statements so I guess that makes me share something with classical liberals.
    Honestly, the things I fear about agonizing choices is the fear that I may not choose the best choice, because I am not in the right mind or don't have full information. (How can we know we are in our right minds? Can we ever have the full information?) I don't think I would like somebody else making that choice for me though.
    I also agree with you whole-heartily in RPG projects. I don't understand why Sandbox games and adventures aren't the norm.
    Honestly, I don't know why people make sandboxes the exception rather than the rule. I know it is often how people are just educated, but I don't know why people don't just make modules suit their own purposes, like making a house out of legos even though it is a jet on the box.
    And there's this pervasive feeling of needing to have permission. What's with that? Maybe people got that from oppressive DMs, but I do what I like. I don't need a company or the rules permission. Why isn't that attitude the norm?
    I also partially blame the poverty of modern fiction and story-telling enamoring of prescriptiveness, as if anything in history or the real world follows the prescriptions of pre-assuming storytelling.
    I'm sorry if I am going on like this, but this has really hit a nerve. When I originally heard of RPGs, the thing conjured in my mind was something like a sandbox, which was completely dashed away by the likes of Pathfinder. I just really hate railroads and the idea that the referee has to pre-plot, I really do.
    Thank the Gods for stuff like Yoon-suin and Kevin's Crawford's Silent Legions.

    1. That fear of not choosing the best choice is 'the unbearable lightness of being' in a nutshell.

    2. my guy is that its a locus of control thing. im sire its not the only factor in why people like railroads, but ive noticed that the groups who gracitate away from them tend to be fuller of those with stronger senses of personal agency in general.

      i usually had better games that way, but generally only in the aggregate, often enough there was also an increase in the rate of headbutting over methods or goals in the game itself, to the point if wrangling cats or oushing people to action over analysis

  4. This sparked a lot of thoughts for me. Somehow, the ability to regularize and universalize government structures (ie the "rationalizing" of departments and laws following the French Revolution, or any of a number of such reorganizational efforts that bring clarity and universality to government institutions and laws) is invariably linked to the abandonment of the medieval consciousness about status as a determinant of self. When "selves" become "individuals", such that one can speak of a "mass" of individuals regardless of "status" or relationship, then it no longer makes sense to have the networks of overlapping jurisdictions and special privileges that characterize the early modern governments. Thus, paradoxically, the emergence of the individual is also the emergence of the early state with its capacity for universal action over "the masses", a group which did not properly exist before.

    Still thinking about how to apply this to RPGs. ;P

    1. Yes, this is more or less exactly how Foucault described things. It became possible to imagine there was such a thing as "the population" which could be manipulated and improved.

  5. The Sage of Cindra21 December 2021 at 22:43

    I both agree and disagree. I feel like this particular discussion is often hugely polarized and only talked about in the extremes, thereby producing a less productive discussion. Goals of play are very important here. Two of my regular players are high level professionals in their fields. They both do a lot of goal setting, planning, and navigating the "sand box of life" as it were for companies. When they come to the table, they don't want to plan out the goals and futures of their fictional characters. They want to roll dice, hit monsters, do some fun roleplaying, and solve some puzzles. So they like being railroaded into a quest. Now to agree with your assertion, I believe whatever quest I railroad them into should be very open to tampering from the players. No single solution issues, just scenarios planned by me that the players react to. I would agree that player choice and freedom is always paramount, but at what echelon this freedom is given is variable and needs to suit the table's needs. Does one need to make his own guitar to be the truest, purest, guitar player? No, but some of them do make their own, and that's cool too. So some GMs say the world is your oyster. Others say the adventure is your oyster, both can work very successfully in my opinion.

    Just my 2 cents on this.

    1. Yes, I get that argument and I understand the appeal of turning one's brain off and just having fun.

  6. This is an interesting thesis, and not without merit, but to me it leaves out the more middle-like path of "structured freedom." For years I played a type of (what I call) "episodic D&D." Characters would go to dungeons/adventures, not with any particular story or railroad plot, but based (mainly) on level, number of players, and interest...with no requirement or expectation that they would "finish" or "complete" a particular delve.

    However, there was no "sandbox" about the campaign. The players were not wandering around, exploring the world. Choices were not "wide open" as to what they might do in an evening. They'd say things like "next week, we want to go back to that Necropolis," or "between now and then my character is looking for someone to weaponize these poison sacs I removed from the giant snake." I would prep for the following week and they'd begin at the entrance to the dungeon.

    This is different from how I run my current game (or how I've run certain other RPGs in the past), which is far more of an open "sandbox." But much like my own life, in provides me freedom within structure. I have something of a schedule five days a week (as I have to get the kids to-from school, prep meals, do chores), and generally try to get to Church SOMEtime during the weekend (though day, time, and location varies immensely). But what I otherwise do within that structure varies from day-to-day, based on priority, necessity, and financial concerns.

    Hasn't stopped me from blogging or writing/publishing books in my free time...though those things are completely outside my normal structure. My family, home life, and civic responsibilities does limit/curtail my freedom of choice...but it also provides focus, substance and meaning to the choices I make. And, in many ways, the structure I live is a cage that I have built for myself.

    Railroad-totalitarianism only appeals slightly less to me than gonzo-anarchy.

    1. Sure, but that's what I think William Galston was talking about. In order to really enjoy the freedom which liberalism provides, you must also have a structure of self-discipline, societal mores and social morality, etc. Freedom within a structure.

  7. It’s worth noting that for a lot of newcomers to D&D or RPGs in general, their prior experience is in computer RPGs — Skyrim, the Witcher, Mass Effect, etc. Most of these “open world” RPGs are ostensibly sandbox games, but have a railroaded plot and constrain player choice to the programmed bounds of the game simulation.

    This means players may expect an open world but a scripted “plot” with breadcrumbs leading to what the DM wants them to do to advance the story. Breaking this mindset — or showing how the “OSR sandbox” play style has value — can be difficult.

    The open-world-with-railroad-plot is such a huge expectation in video games now that even the biggest, most “sandbox” games eventually adopt the model — just look at Minecraft, for example.

  8. I think there's one big flaw in your post here: basically you're conflating risk aversion and choice paralysis.

    The sort of fear you're talking about isn't so much fear of making the wrong choice but simple risk aversion. Nobody wants to be put in a position in which if they roll snake eyes their family loses their home. In game terms that would be the difference between something like Night's Black Agents where no randomizer is involved vs. OSR in which horrible things can happen due to sheer bad luck vs. 5e in which the consequences of a failed roll are softened in many ways (especially if the DM is fudging things to keep you on the rail road). In job terms that would be like being a small business owner vs. being a civil servant vs. being in the private sector. In many ways being a (very) small business owner (like me) is more secure than being a private sector employee since while my income does bounce about a lot from month to month there is a much smaller chance of it going to zero, but at times I wish I had a desk job in the military so I wouldn't have to worry about housing, retirement, etc. etc.

    Choice paralysis is a separate issue. In the modern world we often have so many choices it's hard to rationally process them. Railroading solves this by getting rid of choices but Old School gameplay more often deal with choice paralysis by limiting them. "Here's a map of the world, what do you want to do?" is often so unbounded that we can make useful decisions but "here's the door of a dungeon, what do you want to do?" often works a lot better (at least to start with) since the sandbox is small and walled so we few enough choices that we can actually process them intelligently.

  9. Interesting post and comments. What I miss, apart from one comment, is not just that people would like to be railroaded, but do not want to be consciously aware of it, but lots of people expect, and want, story structure. They want to "have an adventure". Story structure gives comfort, and certainty. Without it you have to "make your own story". That is hard, and requires more thinking, and choosing, than they are comfortable with. Also expectations. When doing a published scenario, you have an idea about the challenge. Within a sandbox you might trip a challenge that is either too small, or too large, and thus unfun, for your group.