Sunday, August 6, 2017

RPGs Are A Brick Test

Last Edit: 8/1/2017

As a child, my therapist tested me for intelligence. One aspect of this testing was a Brick Test. The gist, if you want to ignore the link, is that you are given time to answer what you can do with a brick. Creativity is (allegedly) tested by enumerating a lot of answers. As a really shallow scratching of the surface:
  • You can probably hit someone with a brick, you could certainly throw it, could you make a bullet with it? What non-obvious weapon-like uses are implicit in a brick?
  • You could probably build something with it, a house or a fence are pretty obvious (assuming you can get many bricks or scale the brick up or down as needed). What sorts of architecture could utilize a brick that are not immediately apparent?
  • You could make a sundial or cave it into a simple wheel and depending on the stone used in brick-making you could maybe utilize it to start a fire, it certainly could be the basis for comparative weighing or a counter-balance in some machine. What sorts of tools could be shaped from a brick?
  • Building on the wheel, you could probably slap some wheels on a brick and make a very inconvenient skateboard or roller skate. What sorts of vehicles can be shaped from bricks?
  • You could sculpt something with the brick (even something functional like a key, at least in theory) or paint or decorate it. What sorts of art objects and utilitarian functions can be shaped from a brick? 
Ultimately, children tend to score higher because they aren't constrained by practicality, e.g. you may be able to build a boat with bricks but only a child would bother with considering something so impractical. The brick test itself is an excellent metaphor for RPGs.

Rules (whether light or pedantically enumerated) are taken up by players and applied to a situation which a DM provides in order to creatively approach the uses of the rules. Explicitly: players are given a series of moving parts (NPCs & Situations) and creative constraints (rules) which form a "brick" onto which they project a solution. In the best cases, like children, players come up with a strange and wonderful and implausible solution that they develop organically between the constraint of rules and the properties of a situation and NPCs. Some solutions are obviously more likely to succeed than others, hence the concept of "challenge oriented play." Conversely, rules heavy systems tend to limit the application of wild solutions because there is an appropriate skill to apply to the problem at hand. As a simple example: later editions of D&D abstracted the action of disarming traps by making it a skill as opposed to the older format of "ask the DM a bunch of questions and use resources to mechanically disarm a trap" (hence the confusing carryover of 10 foot poles to a system that utilizes dexterity checks and disarm traps rolls rather than prodding things with poles and jamming pitons into mechanisms). Personally, I prefer the latter. The counter argument of course is the purpose of the game is Hack n' Slash and traps are there to make the Thief feel good about not playing a combat focused class. Alternately, there is the narrative approach that the purpose of the game is to have long conversations and make social rolls.

Because of the conjoined potential for creativity (there is not a single solution to the problem at hand, merely increasing degrees of possible success) and openness (a referee isn't constrained by rules pushing a particular solution), I prefer an OSR approach. Opposed to the free-form nature of a more open set of rules, many contemporary approaches attempt to impose narrative and genre constraints by funneling players along a railroad so they may eventually come to a series of set pieces. For example, Pathfinder Adventure Paths and many WotC products accomplish this by setting the DC for checks that could bypass the solution they impose, providing plot armor for NPCs and making some encounters impossible for parties to even approach certain areas. The approach of many OSR products (there is plenty of dross) is to instead provide the party with: NPCs, a loosely defined area and some things happening around them so the party can jump into plotting, pilfering, and otherwise unleashing chaos (which leads to their own climactic set pieces that players had some agency in creating).

Drawing back a bit, let's say that a "brick" is one standard unit of fantasy; Elves are noble and sad, Peasants farm, Fighters fight, Dragons guard treasure. There is a lot of mileage to be gotten from this brick; as a counter proposal to simply creatively approaching the "brick;" I instead propose a sort of meta-Brick Test regarding RPGs. Therefore, the aim of this blog is to:

Assess RPGs to Articulate:
  1. The significance of an RPG module or system: why is it interesting, what it is trying to accomplish, how does it fit in to the grander pastiche of this pastime? Is there some aspect that proposes a significant alteration to the brick presented to the players?
  2. How can I reskin this into some grander or weirder design: what are the guts and bolts available to you if you pick this up, how can it fit into something you are already doing? How does this mutate the proposed "brick?" How does a crashed spaceship or mythic underworld or Fey kingdom redefine the parameters of the brick?
  3. Ultimately, and this is a gloss of a gloss, my interest in products explicitly for RPGs is more akin to some forms of literary analysis. What assumptions are baked into a system or module that (artificially) limit the more open and brick test-y solutions players would ultimately like to engage in (unless you play with an extremely boring table).
Assess Literature to:
  1. Amend Appendix N for more interesting outcomes. I actually am only familiar with some of the original Appendix provided by Gygax.  Keeping with the metaphor The Lord of the Rings has become a predominant influence in defining what a brick looks like (it also wasn't supposed to define the genre). This helps explain the really abysmal genre constraints that pop up. What happens if high fantasy is replaced with (my personal opinion) better reference works. This is something fueling quite a bit of the OSR, but the cannon can always be expanded (especially given the parallel renaissance in genre fiction which hasn't quite seeped into the conversation around RPGs).
  2. Explain why I assume something was in the appendix in the first place: there is a vision behind the original game and some of the choices are interesting in what they assume is the purpose and narrative to the game (I am not the first person to make this observation by a long shot).
  3. Come up with strange ideas that hopefully other people run with. Settings (and by extension PCs, plots, NPCs and monsters) could always use the fruitful integration of some new material, both in the sense of newly published and novel to be integrated. This, collectively, is a question of: what if we substitute a grapefruit for a brick? How about a knife? A block of wood? What different solutions and interactions are proposed by altering the implicit genre assumptions?
Assess Academic Literature:
  1. To figure out some totally weird quirks to move away from vanilla fantasy.  As a series of short glosses some of which are more fleshed out than others:
    • Anthropology is rife with the description of (often made up) social organization that absolutely could lead to some fascinating setting changes. James George Frazer describes kings slowly entombed by ritual; sacred and authoritative while, paradoxically, completely incapable of enacting government because of the sheer volume of rituals they were engaged in and taboos they were required to observe. Isn't this more interesting than another king with a crown directly petitioning a bunch of mercenary adventurers to fetch something?
    • Economics is strange because while money is always tied up in RPGs it is often abstracted, what happens if the world is cash poor and works on a barter system?
    • What sort of founding myths inspire a society? How would interacting with that society be totally different?
    • What historical epochs create good conditions for this sort of game, what can history do to fundamentally warp our brick? 
I think all of this flows into a sort of meta brick test: what can be done with various objects to fundamentally rethink how certain aspects of RPGs are approached. Perhaps in a narcissistic way: how does plotting out an adventure often constrain player choices and how can this be rectified and identified, how could a different sense of the world be generated from fiction and academic literature to produce a more robust, evocative or strange world. What are hooks, details, historical facts, alternative economies, weird rituals, etc that give players are more unique and rewarding brick to play with.

Obviously, this introduction is just that: an introduction (I will probably actually write content soon) but it makes sense that I should try to explain a project before embarking. This is co-run with Claire Diane (who will introduce herself in her own time) but who in my humble opinion is the better half of this collaboration.