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How do you learn what gaming is?

John and I recently spent a little time revisiting a topic we discussed before and posted about on the forum: how do people learn how to role-play? Or rather, how do they learn what a role-playing game is?

The first time we discussed this, we looked through the various games that I happen to own, and we discovered that of all the games and editions, only the 1980 "red book" edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Rules explicitly described the basis and goals of the game in any detail. The very first part of the Introduction is titled, "What the D&D Game Is All About," and even in the Foreward, the editor of that edition (Tom Moldavy) states, "This edition was designed to be easily read and used by individuals who have never before played a role playing [sic] game."

Most of the other games I own are predicated upon the idea that everyone already knows what role-playing is and how to role-play. Some of them give a cursory overview of the concepts, but even then, it seems expected that the players will really learn what role-playing is by participating in a game. That is to say, they are taught through an oral tradition, brought in as new players by long-time gamers who lead them through the "rites and rituals," as it were, of gaming - and, incidentally, pass on all of their particular prejudices, quirks, and preferences regarding what the game is and how it should be played.

On the one hand, role-playing does seem to be the kind of activity that is best introduced through participation. On the other hand, the "oral tradition" perpetuates the vague conceptions and misconceptions about RPGs that lead to frustrations and misunderstandings among players. Would it be enough for more games to follow the lead of the 1980 "red book" D&D Basic Rules, and spell out the concepts and goals? Can games afford the page count to do that? Can games afford not to?

This is an area of design in which the indie RPG games really shine. Instead of depending on the oral tradition of "how things have always been done" a lot of new games take the approach of actually writing a rule book that explains the procedures of play. Just like Monopoly or Axis & Allies, RPG rules can (and should) explain a step-by-step process for play.

Stellar examples can be found in Trollbabe, Primetime Adventures, Dogs in the Vineyard, The Mountain Witch, Donjon, and Capes.

"The Industry" doesn't seem to be jumping on this bandwagon, however, preferring to leave play decisions (and instruction) up to the group. Which is silly. Can you imagine buying a board game that has rules for how the pieces can move but no mention of how (or why, or when) to take turns? No one could play such a game.

Not only do mainstream RPGs ignore the procedure and purpose of play, but a segment of the gaming community wears it like a badge of honor. I can't tell you how many times I've seen people on RPGnet say something to the effect of "You can't tell gamers how to play, and if you do, they'll just ignore it anyway so it's a waste of pages to bother with it."

That's like saying the NFL doesn't need a rulebook because everyone "knows" how to play football. Ridiculous.

So to answer Phil's question, we all probably learned to play through the oral tradition (and we all learned different ways to play as a result, which are more or less compatible depending on our backgrounds and taste). But the next generation of gamers doesn't need to depend on their local GM as the one true voice of gaming wisdom. Modern games actually explain how to play in a clear and concise way -- for that game, and that game alone. The idea of "roleplaying" as a singular, homogenous activity across many different "games" is a dead one.

The idea of "roleplaying" as a singular, homogenous activity across many different "games" is a dead one.That's actually the topic of my next post, because my first draft of this post turned into that topic, which is why it took me over a week to actually get the post finished as I had to put it aside and come back to refocus.

Dear Blogger: your inability to recognize line breaks if the italics tags are used is inexcusable, especially when you explicitly refuse to recognize the break (br) tag. Please fix that.

Dear me: stop quoting parts of other comments by putting them in italics, it doesn't work right.

And now, months after this post, I have an actual play experience in which I watch someone get trained by the oral tradition: http://yudhishthirasdice.blogspot.com/2005/09/actual-play-with-newbs-and-simmers.html

Really opened my eyes.

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