Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On System

I know I can’t be the only one tired of comparing one retro-clone to another, one edition to another, retro-clones to the editions they ape, and different entire games to each other. There’s lots of useful discussions to be had in this vein, but there’s also a lot of internet monkeys flinging poo. I know because sometimes I allow myself to be one of them.

What I would like to propose is that those of us running some recognizable version, variant or direct descendant of D&D to stop doing this. Not just the poo-flinging, but that we stop discussing editions of D&D as if we were art critics comparing individual sculptures in some snooty gallery. My main argument here is not the usual “Can’t we all just get along?” or even “Won’t someone think of the children?” Instead I would like to suggest that the very concept of ‘system’ as it is usually applied to D&D is an unhelpful shortcut. System is an illusion.

D&D (at least prior to WotC’s 3rd Edition) is made up of a variety of mechanical components but the idea that they cohere into a single system seems like an article of faith more than an established fact to me. Additionally, the intellectual framework underpinning the importance of system implicitly establishes system as a thing unto itself, as if it possessed its own agency. Yet a close inspection of individual playgroups and their usage of varying interpretations and house rules denies any authority that system-idolators might wish to claim. Within the narrow context of “D&D type games” (a label I will not define here), system just doesn’t matter.

Gary Gygax never played AD&D as published, so why the hell should we care so much about that system? Or why should we give a rat’s ass about cleaving unto the systems offered by the lesser lights that followed him? Furthermore, I reject as ridiculous any argument that the original Gygax campaign ever played OD&D as published. Have you read OD&D lately? I can’t believe that anybody can play it as it appears on the page. It’s a goddamn mess. A glorious one, full of wonder and mystery, but a mess nonetheless.

A parable: Adam and Eve are walking in Eden. They hear the distant thunder and trumpets that indicate God is passing through the far side of the garden. They go to see Him but since God has a much higher movement rate, He’s gone by the time they get there. Instead the two find some big footprints He’s left behind. “Here is God!” says Adam, gesturing towards a footprint. “No, here is God!” says Eve, pointing to a virtually identical footprint further down the trail. They proceed to argue over which footprint 'is' God. Meanwhile, the Serpent is laughing his ass off because not only have Adam and Eve mistaken signs of divinity for the divinity Itself, they’re so worked up they’ve completely forgotten the simple fact that they live in Paradise.

Brothers and sisters, it is time that we stop arguing about the stupid footprints. My advice to anyone currently fretting over which edition or retro-clone or whatever they should use is to just pick one. It doesn’t matter which one. No matter which one you pick D&D isn’t there. It’s your job to take that text and turn it into D&D. Interpret, interpolate, edit, house-rule, mangle, spindle, mutilate. Run that text into the ground. Import crap from other editions, other games. Break it and remake it in your own image. Only once you have your own version of D&D up and running does D&D in any way exist. The texts are mere echoes, shadows of someone else’s D&D. Use them to bootstrap your own D&D into existence. That’s all they’re good for.

If you meet Gary Gygax on the road, kill him.