Saturday, March 06, 2010


At its core, criticism is the only antidote that human beings have discovered against error. It is the chief method that a skilled person can use to become "even better."

Alexis puts out the call for standards. That’s a hard call to dismiss; I think all of us know that some games, campaigns, players, and GMs are clearly better than others, even if we can’t quite define how. If we could define how, however, that might go a long way towards better games, campaigns, players, and GMs.

Mr. Benedicto responds with a splash of cold water:

To define OD&D -- to come to some viable conclusion on how it should be played -- is a pipe dream. Or a pipe nightmare, depending on where you stand. I don't know about the rest of you, but I have yet to lose sleep at night because we will never find OD&D utopia.

Alexis responds in comment to Mr. Benedicto:

In and amidst all the patting each other on the backs for the original, accepted games you all run, I wonder that anyone meaningfully criticizes anyone else.

Obviously, my own over-the-top indecent effort aside, are people here capable of not thinking in terms of 'us' vs. 'them'?

The emphasis is mine, because “meaningful criticism” isn’t bomb-throwing or starting fights. It’s about spending the time to really understand a work, to tease apart how it fits to together, and using that knowledge to improve what works.

Before you poo-poo that idea, understand that this is very much what Mr. Maliszewski has been doing with the older versions of D&D with Grognardia. The point of understanding the personalities, source material, and history of how the game mutated over time is to get at the essence of what it really is and what it does and why that’s so much fun.

Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to offer useful critique on a game that you’re not in, or ideas made for a game that’s not yours. A lot of what I do here has been a struggle to draw at the purest essence of what does work in my games and try to offer it up to you, and I know I’ve only been marginally successful at that. What I know I’ve done, and what I’m proud of, is offer up ideas and thoughts and tweaks couched in the context I use them in, so you can decide if they offer any merit to your own play.

But at the end of the day, Jeff Reints and I are barely playing the same game. I think I could enjoy playing at his table, if I just let go of my expectations and rolled with the gonzo, but I'm pretty sure he'd end up gnashing his teeth and ripping out his own eyeballs at mine, in spite of the fact that my players are clearly quite happy with what they've found. And poor Chgowiz would feel soiled even reading a summary of one of our games. ;)

And that pretty much kills any hope at meaningful criticism. What Alexis might call rabbit-poop pizza is my filet mignon. His pointing out that wrapping an expensive cut of meat in cheap strips of pork-butt just comes off as bizarre and missing the point to me. Likewise, my puzzlement at the rigorous background detail he meticulously crafts for his settings must seem like the results of mental impairment.

Now, that all said, I do think there is some common ground between Alexis’ games, Chgowiz's games, Jeff's games, and my own. I'm not sure, however, that there's much there to talk about. I'd enjoy being proven wrong, of course, but in discussing such matters between ourselves, the common ground forms our basic, bedrock assumptions; I fear it would end up like fish trying to discuss how wet the ocean is today.

Art by Adolphe Alexandre Lesrel.


Unknown said...

I have a feeling that the one thing that all successful DMs have in common is that they play to their strengths. The old maxim "be true to yourself" is kind of what I am getting at here.

When I was much younger, I tried very hard to run my games in a similar style to Alexis over at the Tao of D&D. I desperately wanted to create these incredibly detailed worlds with all this background information and prep work and I ended up spending a lot of time working on what amounted to a mediocre final product in game.

Now that I am a little older and wiser, I have come to realize what my strengths as a person are. I do my best work, in RPGs and elsewhere, when I am under the gun. Deadlines motivate me. Getting something done at the last minute is not just my style, it is my forte. I do better work when I have less time to do it in, possibly because I quit over-thinking things and just trust in myself and everything just flows out.

I have a ton of experience in improvisational speaking and acting - I went undefeated my senior season in high school in competitive extemporaneous speaking, and I was named actor of the year all four years in high school.

Combining my improvisational skills and my last-minute under-the-gun get 'er done skills, I have come to my adult DM style -

some last minute prep work (making sure not to spend too much time over-thinking things) and a ton of improvised details during the setting.

This probably would horrify someone like Alexis, but the truth of the matter is that is how I get my best work done. My players love it, I attract new players to my games constantly because current players can't stop talking about all the cool stuff that is going on in game, and I find that I have the time to run two different weekly games and play in a 3rd while working full time, writing two blogs and writing reviews for a gaming website. Not to mention spending time with my fiancee.

I could never do this if I hadn't figured out what my strengths were and played to them.

Zak Sabbath said...

I suspect that if a group of people get along on a human level (outside the game)--then when they play they (consciously or otherwise) adjust and compromise so that they're running a game thay can all enjoy.

You might not cook the same way for yourself as you would for your diabetic grandma or a five year old, but you could probably manage it if you tried and it;d probably be good.

Since people are the most fun thing in the game, i've never found it too hard to sacrifice a little of the aesthetics to let the right people play.

Zak Sabbath said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Natalie said...

I think the idea of a commitment to excellence, as Jeff Rients put it, is important. Taking it seriously in the way that kids take play seriously. Devoting attention and energy and even a little thought to it. And yeah, there's enough distance between my games and Alexis's games and Jeff Rient's games that we're not all necessarily on the same page, but I've learned more than a few things from Jeff and Alexis writing about what they're doing and why.

I suspect that if a group of people get along on a human level (outside the game)--then when they play they (consciously or otherwise) adjust and compromise so that they're running a game thay can all enjoy.

What's funny about this idea, for me, is that the people I most enjoy hanging out with outside of gaming, and the people who I rock hardest with within them? Same people. Works both ways, too: Sometimes I'll meet someone through gaming and discover that we have all kinds of other things in common, and sometimes I'll drag one of my friends into trying Traveller or whatever and discover that she's a totally rad player in addition to being all kinds of awesome to hang out with otherwise.

trollsmyth said...

Carl: It looks like you and I have very similar fortes. ;) You won't get much argument from me, but...

Zak Z & Oddysey: You two won't get much argument from me either. However, it still leaves us foundering for good critique in our games. Basically, unless we do record our sessions and others care enough to listen and understand them, we're pretty much left critiquing from inside, relying on the other folks inside the game to critique each other's performance. Which works to a certain level, but makes it very hard to include outside input. I suspect that, over time, that sort of "critique incest" causes a certain level of stagnation.

Though, going back to your comments, the solution would be to invite and accommodate new blood at the table, wouldn't it?

Zak Sabbath said...

My secret scheme for season two of the show is (budget permitting and assuming we're welcome), take the "I Hit It With My Axe" crew on the road and see if they can handle how Alexis, Raggi, Rients, et. al. run D&D.

trollsmyth said...

That would be very, very cool, and for all sorts of reasons.

Raggi would be, I think, the most interesting and entertaining, but also the most expensive, unfortunately.

E.G.Palmer said...

I think an organized system of game critisism would be self defeating, as far as OSR style play goes. As you say, yourself, Rients, Raggi, and others,me too, all have varient game styles. We all gain by contrasting, comparing and thieving from each other. This is like a case of hybrid vigor, a constant exchange of gaming genes which keeps the game vital.
Definition requires selective exclusion, and to overly define a thing is to kill it by preventing it from adapting, growing, learning new tricks.
There are places I won't go with the game because of my own tastes, but I won't accept dogmatic limits from outside and thus, a standard of game critisism would be of limited utility for me.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I think to successfully critique someone else means that we both have to share the same ethics, morality and goals in gaming. It's not like critiquing someone at football, or at work - it's critiquing someone's art. That's why I always read movie/book reviews with a jaded eye, because the reviewer can never truly share the same "space" as with the author/director unless they come at the material from the same POV.

I've always tried to approach any discussion about other games and comparisons from the "I" position - this is why XYZ works for me, this is why ABC doesn't. I echo a lot of things said here, which basically sums up to "At the end of the day, you're running the game that you're going to have fun with."

My critique is of my own game. I read something that you do, or Jeff does, or Alexis does, and I think about how I feel about it, I think about how it could work at my table and I think about what it gives me. When I do something right or wrong, I tend to hold that up to games that I admire (or don't like) and I critique myself against that.

And poor Chgowiz would feel soiled even reading a summary of one of our games.

Not true! I had a lot of fun reading the Google Wave game you are participating in. The only reason I can't play is I'm way overloaded right now. I learned something from all that.

The only time I've ever felt "soiled" was the time I was sitting next to someone that hadn't showered... ;)

Natalie said...

Not true! I had a lot of fun reading the Google Wave game you are participating in. The only reason I can't play is I'm way overloaded right now. I learned something from all that.

The Google Wave game isn't the one where one character is trying to start a werewolf brothel...