I am a regular reader of and occasional commenter at the left-wing political/academic blog Crooked Timber, though I don’t usually link my blog to them (the American political blogsophere is a bit scary). Recently, however, I discovered this post on the new Dante’s Inferno computer game, where anonymous commenter noen makes this great claim:

The repetition [in porn and in WoW][1], the dross, is important. It is through the repetition that one realizes the value of the object of one’s desire by failing to achieve it. There is a great deal of the obsessional repetition of “dross” in religious observance also. That’s the whole point.

The goal of religion, porn and gaming is the grinding. It is the core that is the real distraction.

This is surely meant to be an amusing aside, right? But it got me thinking about sandbox gaming, story-gaming, and the oft-repeated claims that D&D 4e has been designed to be like an MMO. Particularly, I notice in the role-playing blogosphere a really serious dislike of story-based gaming. Old-school gamers (who seem to dominate the blogosphere outside of 4e bloggers) are really anti-story. They seem to have a strong preference for individual modules, and for sandbox gaming without a plot. Stand alone modules are often (especially in the early days which the grognards valorize) just a vague story and plot-hook to get the PCs on a treasure hunt – i.e. a kind of pen-and-paper based version of World of Warcraft’s grinding. Story is often associated with the “faggy” elements of the newer games like the “storyteller” systems by White Wolf, not with the “pure” older systems (and yes, I have heard them contrasted in this way). So what’s going on here?

Fragmentary social relations and the Grind

I don’t think this type of play is that popular with role-players. I have played and DMd in earnest since 1986, and I can safely say that I have played in very few sandbox games. The vast majority of gaming I have run or played in has been story-based. Not necessarily of the “kill the bad guy and save the world” kind – indeed some was quite nihilistic – but always with a plot. People like story, and our models for role-playing are mainly novels, which are pretty heavy on the story. In later years I have often played with friends who aren’t hardcore players, and I’ve noticed that the further I drift from the hardcore gaming community the less they care about randomness, system, and sandboxing, and the more they want story, description, description and story.

But my experience was in Australia, where role-playing is not that popular or common and one often has to take what one can get, player-wise and system wise. My best players have (with a few shining exceptions) been almost invariably those who were completely ignorant of system, or the RPG scene. Now, something these people have in common is that they aren’t dysfunctional nerds, and they value coherent, wholesome social interactions.

Then I moved to England, and had within 1 year three really bad role-playing experiences – shitty DMing and shitty playing. Two of these experiences occurred in a story-free, sandbox type gaming environment being run by hardcore old-schoolers (one shitty player was just a classic example of a violent British idiot, so doesn’t really fit due to culturally-specific retardation). It occurs to me that this style of play is very compatible with the fragmentary, meaningless style of interaction which characterizes the social relations of early teen boys – the exact environment in which a lot of players of my age grew up, and which is very nicely described in this book. These are also the style of fragmentary social relations which one sees in WoW a lot – join a group for 2 hours, fuck around, disappear. I think there’s a relationship between these things, and the grognard school of role-playing thought, which is all about trying to hang on to your old school roots, is also all about hanging onto a social milieu which we remember from our early teens, when this sort of fragmentary interaction made sense to us. I think the grognards are valorizing a style of play which is at best out of whack with what most people I have ever played or DMd with want to do, and which is tied to a socially disruptive and transient stage of human development which, let’s face it, a lot of nerd boys have never grown out of[2]. Those fat bearded know-it-alls at the pub who have an opinion on everything (and God, did I meet a lot of these pricks in the role-playing clubs in London) love this kind of teenage boy interaction – they’re still doing it at 40. Those of us who have moved on from that have also, I suspect, moved on from the stand-alone module plot-hook-for-a-dungeon-crawl random-monster style of play, to something a bit more socially and intellectually fulfilling. Grognardia essentially admitted this today with his little rant against change.

Story-free gaming as religious observance

The other noticeable trait of these grognard blogs, of course, is their worship of gary gygax. According to a commenter in the “I Hate Change” thread of grognardia, “D&D divorced itself from Appendix N entirely” when in 4e “Ioun has become the goddess of magic”. You certainly hate change if this is a problem for you. You also have elevated a single edition of a single game to the status of a bible, complete with appendices. This is religion at its heart, and what do all religions have in common? Hatred of change, unwillingness to tolerate dissent, they’re a haven for people who seek shelter from the consequences of their own social problems, they are full of bullies and disciplinarians, and they tolerate no narrative that conflicts with their own. This is why they suit the “grind” noen refers to in the comments at CT; and why their adherents are so fond of story-free games and suspicious of any later innovations which dilute a game-style that was developed for a feckless audience of socially isolated and emotionally stunted early-teenage boys.

4th edition gamers and the story

A common complaint I’ve read about 4e is that it has reduced the rules to a style of computer game, like WoW, with tanks, DPS characters, etc, and this represents the lack of commitment to real gaming of modern youth, their attention spans are short, blah blah blah. The irony for me is that the blogs which are most resistant to story-free play are the ones by 4e players. In the socially isolating and confrontational context of the British pub gaming scene, the most fun I had in a game I played in was a 4e game. Why? Because the person who chose to DM it had been lured away from previous editions by the promise of simplicity and freedom for the GM, and the character traits which drew him to 4e make a good DM.  It’s the focus on the story, the primacy of social interaction and the shared nature of the game which makes 4e alluring to these people. Ironically, this is what the grognards claim that OD&D encourages, even while they are eschewing the story and engaging in a complex grind, similar in fashion to the MMO they hate 4e for having “become”.

I don’t intend to turn my gaming into a repetitive litany to Gary Gygax. Nor do I intend to reduce my DMing to a kind of sophisticated dice-rolling facilitator, or a disciplinarian high-priest of the Old School[3]. I will continue to DM for what my players want – an interesting story, in cool places, with high risks and high rewards, played in a way that is mutually satisfying for everyone involved, and not self-consciously situating itself at the heart of a geekish metaculture no-one outside of a few beardy opinionated fat guys gives two hoots about.

fn1: I think this is why you also see, in the threads of those blogs, a lot of comments about how players need to be “taught to be careful”, “disciplined”, “warned”, etc. For christ sakes, this is a game, something we do for enjoyment. This 80s British public-school model of “play” in which the bigger, stronger kids keep the smaller ones in line is not applicable anywhere in my life, and it makes me feel dirty when I see it being still enacted in my hobby.

fn2: I am a strong proponent of the claim that porn has important validity as a measure of social interaction and political currents. Porn has changed a lot over the years, and its current gonzo incarnation in the west is as much a product of industrial decisions and consumer powerlessness as is the current plot-free dross that we’re seeing in the computer game world. I inserted (pardon the pun) porn into this comment thread for that reason…

fn3: not that I’m suggesting anyone wants me to or is trying to make me do so. This is rhetoric by way of conclusion, ok?