Friday, May 23, 2008

answering Mike Carr

Before I pick on Mike Carr I should take some time to sing his praises. Mr. Carr is one of the less-remembered greats of the hobby. If you catch me in an ornery enough mood I will argue, perhaps at length, that his Fight in the Skies (a.k.a. Dawn Patrol) was the first published RPG and not that johnny-come-lately Dungeons & Dragons. He wrote module B1 In Search of the Unknown, a classic of the Whisky Tango Foxtrot school of dungeon design and an excellent tool for getting new DM's up and running. He also edited a crapload of early AD&D material.

So why am I picking on him today? Late last week I re-read his foreward to the first edition Dungeon Master's Guide. I read the DMG cover-to-cover about once a year or so, because I'm loony that way. As a dumb kid in 1983 I thought the opening to Mike Carr's foreward was like, deep, man.
Is Dungeon Mastering an art or a science? An interesting question!
Back in the day I was too young and naive to see the way Mike pats himself on the back almost immediately. I was too busy feeling all puffed up because as a fledgling DM I was apparently some sort of superdude: half artiste, half Man of Science. At least that's how it sounds as Mike goes on to explain:
If you consider the pure creative aspect of starting from scratch, the "personal touch" of individual flair that goes into preparing and running a unique campaign, or the particular style of moderating a game adventure, then Dungeon Mastering may indeed be thought of as an art.

If you consider the aspect of experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches, then Dungeon Mastering is perhaps more like a science--not always exacting in a literal sense, but exacting in terms of what is required to do the job well.
Last week as I re-read this passage for maybe the 25th time in as many years, I was finally struck by how much pure government-certified grade 'A' bullshit Carr was shoveling in this passage. Again, I've got nothing but love in my heart for Mike Carr, but here he's so far gone he's not in left field, he's complete out of the friggin' ballpark. Let me explain.

First of all, Dungeons & Dragons, this silly little thing we do, has as much to do with science as intelligent design does. Yeah, I went there. I don't normally get political or religious in this here blog, but there it is. My point is that there's a staggering difference between one of the foundations of modern civilization and whether or not I keep better track of how long the PC's torches have been burning.

More importantly, I get from this passage that Mike Carr circa 1979 had no idea how art really works. His criteria for 'scientific' dungeomastering, the need for "experimentation, the painstaking effort of preparation and attention to detail, and the continuing search for new ideas and approaches" describes good artistry to a 'T'. A painter doesn't just throw some pigments on a canvas and call it art. Well, a good painter who knows what they're doing probably doesn't do it that way. Similarly, I can write ten lines of doggerel and pretend I'm a poet, but I'm not.

Good artists spend years honing their craft, practicing techniques, and seeking out new materials and methods. Which is why I'm coming around to the idea that calling what roleplayers do an artform maybe isn't as pretentious as I once thought. It isn't about being a wordsmith or a master thespian or whatever. Roleplaying is its own artform with its own body of rules and techniques.

What's really exciting is that this artform is still in its infancy. Like Doc Rotwang! has said on several occasions, a big reason to still do vanilla fantasy is because you're not done speaking with that voice. Other artists have moved on, the same way some folks abandoned painting with oils on canvas for acrylics on formica, or whatever. But the artist smearing motor oil on tarpaulin probably doesn't assume that no one can ever say anything new with water colors on paper. Similarly, I think little ol' OD&D still holds the promise of infinite diversity in infinite combinations, just like pretty much every other RPG.


  1. Anonymous11:28 AM

    Leaving out the details of the writing, there are still different aspects, some more artistic, some more rigorous (I won't go as far as saying science).

    Deciding whether the shark-men jump down from the trees or fly in on flying stingrays is an artistic decision. Analyzing the expected damage output of character builds is more in the realm of number crunching. Good DMing and good game design involve both sorts of considerations.

    If you have to read something 20 times to see it's crap, it's probably not that crappy.


  2. Maybe I just have a soft spot for Mike Carr -- like you, I loved Dawn Patrol to death and regret to this day that I no longer own a copy -- but I think you're expecting rigor in his definitions that he never intended. He was speaking colloquially, where "art" = "extemporaneous" and "science" = "planned." That's it. I'd be amazed if he intended anything more than that. Heck, I'd be amazed if any ever read that preface as often as you had, since it's an inconsequential sideshow to Gary's Big Top.

  3. If you have to read something 20 times to see it's crap, it's probably not that crappy.

    I dunno, man. I pretty dim sometimes. And more to the point, I first read this stuff at an impressionable age. I pretty much took the DMG as holy writ.

    He was speaking colloquially, where "art" = "extemporaneous" and "science" = "planned."

    Yeah, and that sells both art and science short for various reasons. That was kinda my point. Anyway, I'm not trying to make a federal case out of a couple paragraphs the man wrote decades ago. If I went that route, Gary would have a lot of Sorcerer's Scrolls to answer for.

  4. Anonymous12:42 PM

    "Poker, Chess and the AD&D System" perhaps?

  5. "Poker, Chess and the AD&D System" perhaps?

    FWIW, I'm pretty sure Gary disavowed that piece as being of a particular time and with particular concerns that are no longer extant. And even if he did not, it's clear that he eventually changed his tune on the matter, which is good enough for me.

  6. I think it's "art" the same way playing all sorts of games and sports is "art". That doesn't mean I disagree... just that it's more like being good at a game than being good at painting. Because... you know... it's a game and all. :)

  7. Anonymous8:22 PM

    1) If OD&D is better, it's because it makes it clear just how much we are still in our infancy. "Edwards' Gambit", the removal of the craziness at the DM level to the design level, was the only idea anyone's had so far, and it's probably wrong.

    2) Carr may be shoveling the BS - he is - but it's BS with a sting. Look at the people who are putting time into this and tell me it doesn't have at least some of the things art and science has.

    That said, good work, as usual. We need more stuff from you for Fight On! though. :-)

    - Calithena

  8. We need more stuff from you for Fight On! though.

    I plan to get you at least one more item by the deadline for issue 2.

  9. Hmmm...

    This is making me wary of the Retro/Pretentious divide.

  10. I think Mike's just a victim of his own hubris... Something any dedicated gamer runs the ragged edge of.

    The gem of this post is: "Roleplaying is its own artform with its own body of rules and techniques."

    Let's not get pretentious here, it's a very ephemeral and hard to define artform, at which most of us (frankly) suck. But there is something of art in the balance of math, history, storytelling, acting, people skills, and time management (and all the other things) that make a game great.

  11. I'm out of town at the moment. Give me a couple days... I might make a post out of it.

  12. That would be great!