Which fantasy rpg can carry me to the dreamworld?

Or, why each fantasy role-playing game is a different state of consciousness.

One of the biggest shortcomings of my hobby is the underestimation of the difference that exist among the multitude of fantasy role-playing game of the past.

We (I and my group of four players) have been playing the same adventure now for several months using "Powers & Perils" as our system of choice.
The more i play with them, the more i become cognizant of how much this system enables me to play with a specific flavour which i could not attain otherwise, should i use a different game.

But Arduin evokes feelings quite different fom those that may be felt playing Rolemaster, and so on.

I become more and more aware of the subtle differences that permeate each fantasy rpg of the past, and i become aware of the "spirit", of the "soul" hidden behind the rules.

We are currently playing an adventure module titled "The Nine Doctrines of Darkness". It was written and published in the eighties with AD&D 1st edition in mind, in fact all the stats contained therein are AD&D stats.
I had to change and adapt it in order to use it with P&P system.
But the story and the plot of that adventure stays unchanged, obviously.

I could make six copies of this adventure and give them away to different dungeon masters throughout the world. Each of these guys plays a different fantasy rpg.
Let us assume the six games in question are: AD&D, Runequest, Arduin, Rolemaster, Chivalry & Sorcery and Powers & Perils.
I know for certain that they would end up having six different experiences of play.

Obviously, they will have a different experience because the game mechanics are different indeed, so topics are treated differently, hit points are treated differently, combat especially, and so forth.

But what i'm saying is that the overall outcome would be different.

We would have six peculiar and unique outcomes, and this unavoidable result is due to the utterly different nature of the six fantasy rpg's we have used.

 We cannot "get rid" of the rule-system we are using, it is always there, it cannot vanish, it constantly casts its shadow on all i (as the Dungeon master) am telling to my players, everything has to pass through the filter of the rules, and it does, even if we are not always aware of it.

Today i would like to talk about the boundaries and limits of the fantasy experience we can have as players, and (partly) as game masters.

The simulation of reality through rules on rolling dice is NOT just one game company's opinion, and it is not easily defined by one limited view point.
Although Beasts, men & gods is a complete system designed to be played in itself, i strongly encourage players to NOT remain 100% faithful. Once again, reality is NOT just one game company's opinion, not even The Game Masters' opinion. I urge you to go forth and draw concepts and ideas from any other game that you see, and build your own creative concept of "reality" in a fantasy world.

Bill Underwood, preface to Beasts, men & gods, 1982 (link)

In a nutshell, the idea is that the cerebral (felt) experience of a game session is - to a some degree and extent- modified (shaped) by the intrinsic "spirit" of the game, which lies dormant inside the rules.

What is the "Spirit" of the game? Gygax himself told us in the past:

"...the understanding extends not only to the written rules but to what lies between the lines as well. This is the spirit of the game. Spirit is evident in every RPG. To identify the spirit of the RPG, you must know what the game rules say, be able to absorb this information, and then interpret what the rules imply or state about the spirit that underlies them." (Gygax, RPM pg 26)

 "The spirit of the game cannot be expressly defined in a sentence or a paragraph, and any game designer who attempts to do so is defeating his own purpose. The spirit of an RPG pervades all the statistics, mechanics, and descriptions that make up the actual rules; it is everywhere and nowhere in particular at the same time. A game master or player who simply absorbs all the rules and uses them to play out a game adventure may be able to achieve expertise in the play of the game, but in the final analysis, he is doing no more than going through the motions--unless he also perceives, understands, and appreciates the spirit that underlies all those rules." (ibid emphasis mine)
"Spirit" is codified through the rules, which are the objectification  of their authors'ideas and philosophies.
The player perceives the world and this perception is a perception of the "grammar" in which the that reality is written.

The grammar blocks are the rules. But since this grammar at its very basics is simply the manifestation (coded in mathematical language) of worldviews held by different authors (Gygax, Ed Simbalist, Dave Hargrave, to cite a few), rules exert their influence and impact in a way that transcends mere mehanics.

In fact, it is possible to feel the Spirit of the game that "pervades all the statistics and mechanics" (see Gygax quote above). Perceiving all of these "grammar blocks" all at once enables us to have both a cerebral and felt gaming experience unlike any other conveyed by a different fantasy rpg ("Spirit is evident in every rpg", Gygax RPM pg.26)

This is why we are brains in a vat whilst playing.

BRAINS IN A VAT (click here)

Much as the kind of sensory experience we may have rely on and depends on the scientist who put our brains in the vat, so the kind of imaginative experience we may have depend (partly) upon which kind of fantasy rule-system we chose to use and adopt.
At this point, what would be interesting to know is the amount of influence exerted by the rule-system , but that is difficult to quantify.
I will assume this influence is not so predominant as other factors may be (such as the storytelling ability of the game master), in making an adventure memorable, but as said, we have to take it into account as a factor which modifies our feeling and something that acts on our brains nonetheless, even if we are not always aware of that.

END OF PART I (to be continued with PART II, coming soon)


lars_alexander said...

There are only a few blogs that I can't wait for to get updated. Yours is among the top five.
Great article, and I'm looking forward to reading the second part.

I've got the feeling you're onto something important here, regarding the reception of rpgs.

Take care!

Catacomb librarian said...

Thank you Lars for your kind words.

I know for certain that only a few find these "rants" interesting..

Most of the time these pop up in my mind all of a sudden, and then i have to write them down. But yes, what i was trying to convey matters a lot to me.

lars_alexander said...

I did not only mean, that what you were trying to convey matters to you, but that your ideas seem to be important for the reception of rpgs in general. As if you could write a hypothesis on the inherent spirit of a system, and the way it can be experienced by playing in a group.

Something like that. I have to think about it myself.

Whenever ideas pop up in your mind, write them down. Otherwise thoughts get lost. I carry a notebook for that purpose.

So, I read you were contributing to the Swords&Wizardry Appreciation Day, too!

Good. :)

Catacomb librarian said...


i'm sending you a private mail.

Fenway5 said...

I very much enjoy your blog and the philosophical idea therein. I really feel the "engine" and the assumptions contained withing the games engine DO contain the feel for the system and how players experience it. My own RPG is based on TFT because of the simple logic, simple tactical experience and the heroic (instead of super-heroic) spirit of the game. It indeed colors, shapes, and informs play. Looking forward to Part II of your post.

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