I have always found it impossible to play magical cyberpunk outside of Shadowrun; I can’t imagine adapting the Shadowrun system to play, say, space opera or high fantasy. Similarly, I can’t imagine playing high fantasy with Traveller rules, or cyberpunk with D&D. Something about these classic games prevents them from being used outside of their genre remit, which is why I don’t naturally turn to D&D Modern, though no doubt it’s perfectly capable of the task. This is probably partly because they’re the games I grew up with, and back in that more innocent age I adhered to the setting constraints they gave me and then when I grew up I couldn’t escape them; but I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling, and I think there’s a more fundamental artistic achievement here than merely capturing the attention of a 13 year old boy when he was vulnerable. Even now I can remember what it was like to open the AD&D Player’s Handbook (I think first edition, with the badly-drawn wizard on the front), and smell the very special smell of the paper, and see that densely written text; read Gygax’s strange (and in many ways wrong) prose, and appreciate the spells and monsters and actions described therein. There’s something very specific and powerful about the way that game is presented, like it contains its own lexicon and cosmology, right there in those 200-odd pages. The style of the game determines what you can do with it, and the presentation of AD&D, along with its gaming style, is so particular that you can’t just strip out the spells and monsters and use the system to run a space opera. I’d wager no one ever has, or if they have, they’ve slowly regressed.

I was reminded of this today by this excellent review of The Name of the Wind and The Children of Hurin, which compares the modern style of one genre novel (The Name of the Wind by Richard Rothfuss) with another, more suited to its task (The Children of Hurin, by Tolkien). The reviewer says about style:

style—the language and form of the novel—is seen as an unimportant adjunct to the “story.” It is not. A bourgeois discursive style constructs a bourgeois world. If it is used to describe a medieval world it necessarily mismatches what it describes, creating a milieu that is only an anachronism, a theme park, or a WoW gaming environment rather than an actual place. This degrades the ability of the book properly to evoke its fictional setting, and therefore denies the book the higher heroic possibilities of its imaginative premise.

I think this applies to RPGs as well. Creating style in RPGs isn’t just about the book (though the AD&D 1st edition is a great example of how this is done) but about how the gaming environment is constructed. Fiddly dice and tabletop mapping (AD&D); fiddly cards and tokens (WFRP3); miniatures and maps (D&D 3rd); starmaps and starships and sparse use of props (Traveller) – these are tools to create an environment that invokes a style. In some games this style is very carefully evocative of the nature of the game, and in others it is sterile (Aria) or actually versatile (Rolemaster/Spacemaster/MERP/Cyberspace). But without creating this specific environment – in the rules, in the aesthetic of the book, in the gaming environment, and in the nature of challenges and dramatic process – the game will fail to impress. Maybe this is why generic systems tend to be less successful than genre systems, and maybe also why some setting-specific games fail (because they don’t match their style to their setting).

The reviewer gives an example of this with Tolkien, contrasting the modern 20th century style of Rothfuss with Tolkien’s genre-specific style:

It’s a book by a man who knew intimately not only the facts and paraphernalia but the mindset, values, and inner life of his relevant historical period—more Dark Age than medieval, this time, but assuredly not modern. The most obvious, although certainly not the only, level on which this registers is that of the style, which actually does approach the classic elevation that Wollheim wrongly identifies in Rothfuss. The Children of Húrin‘s syntax is compact, declarative and unafraid of inversion (“Great was the triumph of Morgoth”). Its vocabulary is almost entirely purged of words not derived from Old English sources: so much so that the occasional Anglo-French term—for instance, the phrase “Petty-dwarf” with its petit-derived qualifier—jars a little. More, it is a prose written with a careful ear for the rhythms of English; a prose with a very satisfying balance of iambic and trochaic pulses, sparingly leavened with unstressed polysyllables (it reads well aloud)

This shows well the numerous tools that a writer can use to invoke effect, beyond just plot and ideas.The task of RPGs isn’t just to provide a distracting few hours of your life (as the reviewer so dismissively characterizes Rothfuss) but to provide a means of escape to another world. You don’t get this by slinging together a skill resolution system and a character sheet. You need a style for your game, a bridge between the imagination of the players and the mechanism by which they play it out interactively. Is this more difficult than constructing a good genre novel? I’m not sure, but I’m fairly confident it’s less financially rewarding. In any case, there’s a lot to be said for the stylistic achievements of the early gaming world, even if the systems themselves were crap and we eventually moved on to better ones. And I think the linked review gives some powerful examples of why these early games held our attention despite their flaws, through the comparison of two fantasy novels.

Incidentally, this review is also an excellent and powerful defense of Tolkien.

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