Noisms at Monsters and Manuals has written a comparison of gaming systems with political theories, dichotomized into “top-down” games (D&D 3rd Edition) and thinkers (Marx) and “bottom-up” games (OD&D) and thinkers (Hayek). Noisms makes it clear what side he falls on (he’s a “bottom-upper,” oo-er), which he characterizes as “the right” (vs. “the wrong”), but even if you swap sides or dispute the particular product placement (I don’t believe Orwell is a bottom-upper, and others dispute Marx in the top-down category), the idea is interesting and has some bearing on a few common topics in the role-playing world. Noisms isn’t clear in the post about what this top-down vs. bottom-up distinction means, but in comments he adds:

The phrase “bottom-up” as I use it here doesn’t refer to the position of the agents of change on the social scale. It refers to the nature of the social change (i.e. not planned, emergent, incremental, intuitive)

which seems like a reasonable way of simplifying the political theories and the games.

I think in his post though, Noisms is ignoring the importance of structure and planning for achieving emergent or bottom-up change. I think this applies equally well to game systems, and I think a bit of new left anarchist debate (genuine bottom-upping, not the crypto-statism of libertarians like Hayek) can help to inform what I mean.

In essence, “emergent” social change that occurs genuinely without structure or within a limited set of rules leads to a type of tyranny; an unstructured and intuitive game system, without a reasonable extent of rules and systems, leads to a type of tyranny as well.

The Tyranny of Structurelessness

Back in the 1970s the feminist Jo Freeman wrote a little pamphlet called The Tyranny of Structurelessness, in which she described the problems anarchist and left-wing feminist groups faced in trying to do organized political activism from a framework of having no organization or rules. The key phrase in that pamphlet that critiques both the political theory of unplanned emergent change, and (implicitly) the gamer’s ideal of unplanned and intuitive play, is this:

A ‘laissez-faire’ group is about as realistic as a ‘laissez-faire’ society; the idea becomes a smokescreen for the strong or the lucky to establish unquestioned hegemony over others. This hegemony can easily be established because the idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, but only formal ones. Similarly, ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy did not prevent the economically powerful from establishing control over wages, prices and distribution of goods; it only prevented the government from doing so.

In political systems we temper these effects by putting strict rules on how much can be achieved through individual contracts. You can’t sell yourself into slavery, there are strict rules about inheriting debts, etc. We further, in the modern world, introduce laws about manufacturing and employment processes – such as clean air laws and equal opportunity laws – because it is very very obvious (from long and painful experience) that without these kinds of structures, the powerful ride roughshod over the weak. Without these systems in place, society goes to the rich, the socially connected and the nastiest people, rather than to those who strive. This is the essence of most rational critiques of laissez-faire capitalism and systems of dispute based entirely on property rights and contract law. Creating a blank space for “intuitive” change opens up the social space to being captured, not by the most intuitive in society, but by those with the most power to act on whatever intuitions they do have.

In game terms this difference is summarized by Barking Alien in comments at the original post:

you get games in which the designers/creators try to govern play as much as they possibly can by coming up with a system that can cover many eventualities, and games in which the designers do not do so in favour of devolving the power to arbitrate, as much as possible, to individual DMs/game groups

What this means in practice is that in-game, the power and benefits accrue to the PCs whose players have most sway over the GM. And, given the fractured and socially backward nature of nerd social interactions, this generally means the most socially manipulative, or those with the loudest voices. It does not mean the most creative people, though it may mean this in a well-run group with a judicious and skilled GM. Even then, though, it rewards a particular creative impulse – the desire to express your clear plans in a way that influences the world. But there’s another type of creative impulse common amongst gamers, which is to enjoy the unfolding of the world through your actions even though you are not yourself capable of expressing your aims well. This type of person is stymied by an unstructured system of arbitration.They may be very good at describing what happens to their PC after the event, but not good at suggesting what they do before the event.

In short, this type of gaming rewards the expressive, not the creative. And it is especially vulnerable to exploitation by manipulative and bullying players, who are actually very common.

A good summary might be that, under one system the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM and/or players. Under the other system, the player suggests an action and then bargains the cost with the GM through reference to a well-structured system of action resolution. The former system rewards[1] good negotiators, while the latter rewards good ideas – or even, just rewards participation, which is what we want from a game.

The main way that this structure is reflected in practice is through the skill system and the magic system. An extensive, well-designed and well-described skill system gives the GM an excellent framework within which to handle novel tasks, to set the difficulty and to distinguish PC roles. And in terms of game enjoyment, the main thing this system prevents is a situation in which a single player gets to do everything, because they’re good at arbitrating with the GM over every single task. In open, purely “bottom-up” systems, the socially confident player is able to seize many fields of action for themself, such as trap-finding, diplomacy, fighting, information gathering, etc. while the shyer or less expressive players stand by and wait for the only time when they can fit their actions to a structure – combat. But once you throw a skill structure onto the PCs, suddenly the player loses the power to do some of these things well, and other players pick it up. Those other players may not express their actions so well, but they get to be a part of the group.

This is particularly noticeable in OD&D, which is one of the few old school games not to have a skill system of any kind. It seems to me that the OSR is full of comments and posts by people who exalt this ability to express actions and negotiate them with the GM over the desire to be involved effectively in a group (in the sense that I mean it above), and I don’t think this is a coincidence.

Essentially in these kinds of games, social ability is like temporal power in the real world, and the lack of structure in the game rewards social ability just as it rewards temporal power in real life. But this social ability doesn’t make you a better person, just a louder one, and shy or ineloquent people should be able to enjoy these games too. I think it was in response to those peoples’ lack of enjoyment of the game that the later systems incorporated much more extensive structure.

The Tyranny of Tyranny

The classic response to Jo Freeman’s article was the pamphlet The Tyranny of Tyranny, by Cathy Levine, that reads like a bit of a gender-essentialist screed (oh, radical feminism, how you have failed women…) and argues, essentially, that structurelessness is a cultural alternative to existing ways of thinking, and that small groups coming together in voluntary association without a movement behind them can both protect themselves from exploitation and generate new (revolutionary) social change. The key quote relevant to gaming would be this:

What we definitely don’t need is more structures and rules, providing us with easy answers, pre-fab alternatives and no room in which to create our own way of life. What is threatening the female Left and the other branches even more, is the ‘tyranny of tyranny’, which has prevented us from relating to individuals, or from creating organisations in ways that do not obliterate individuality with prescribed roles, or from liberating us from capitalist structure

Dropping all the politically specific language here, we find a claim that less rules governing interaction will give more freedom to individuals to create new social organizations and new ideas.

In game terms we see this with the common complaints about D&D 3rd edition, with its extensive feats and skills and every situation covered by a rule, in which people stop thinking about what they want to do and start worrying about what they can do. There is also a strong risk of gaming the rules when they’re at this level, and also of a type of regulatory capture – that if you can get the ear of the GM you can bend the rules in ways that others haven’t, and this will leave you significantly more powerful or capable than everyone else. I think in fact every GM in a system like Rolemaster or D&D 3rd edition has seen this happen – it happened to me in 2nd edition AD&D, for sure. Also, gaming under these rules systems includes a lot of “red tape” in the form of rules checking, character development, etc. that can be seen as a hidden cost or regulatory burden stifling creativity. This regulatory capture and red tape is exactly a common complaint libertarians make against organized social structures, which brings us full circle to Noisms’ synthesis of Hayek and OD&D.

The Balanced Approach: Social Democracy of Gaming

Of course, the most effective model we have for social organization in the western world is social democracy, which protects people from the worst excesses of laissez-faire society while protecting peoples’ freedom of action. Such systems are commonly misconstrued by libertarians as “central planning” or “socialism” (see e.g. Glenn Beck on healthcare), but they’re so far from such a scheme that the comparison is silly. In game terms I think the analogy is with rules-light skill systems, flexible combat and magic systems, and an immediate reward system for creative self-expression (stunting) that isn’t essential for game satisfaction. This rewards all the different social types at the table and guards against excessive effects of bullying and social manipulation without falling victim to regulatory capture or high costs.

In my view the games that best fit this model of a social democracy of gaming are probably the three versions of Warhammer (but especially the third), Exalted, the Japanese game Double Cross 3, my version of the d20 system (or in fact any version that isn’t loaded down with D&D’s heritage), and maybe (? I can’t recall clearly ?) Shadowrun. Original D&D is too unstructured to fit this description, and D&D 3rd edition has piled a huge edifice onto an otherwise quite functional system, so that it carries a high cost in-game and is vulnerable to rules manipulation. I think Rolemaster can meet my conditions for “social democratic gaming” if it’s run by a good GM with a lot of experience, but usually it’s the ultimate communist game – a good idea in theory but it doesn’t work in practice[2].

I think a lot of people who laud earlier versions of D&D are ignoring the often quite toxic social dynamics that sprang up in early gaming groups, and don’t care about the game being available to the shy or the socially inexpressive. I think that just as good GMing has to take into account the social dynamics at the table, good game design has to take into account the many ways the game design can reward or discourage certain types of personality type from playing. Being a good social democrat, I’m all in favour of equality, and I think the game should be available to as many different types of personality as possible, so I think we should eschew strong ideological brands like Marxism or libertarianism, and instead focus on practical, simple systems for enabling everyone to get along…

fn1: by “rewards” here we mean, “provides a chance to act and have your actions resolved in a way that you can have faith in,” not “gets to succeed at the action”

fn: I don’t actually believe this about communism, but I think it’s an excellent phrase.