Thursday, July 22, 2010

A State of RPG Anomie?

In my senior year of high school I took a Sociology class. One of my favorite concepts from that class that stuck with me over the years was "anomie." A simplistic definition of anomie is lawlessness, but it really doesn't quite describe the concept very well. The term is defined by Websters as "social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; also : personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals."

More often that not anomie is not a general "anarchy" that permeates the entirety of a society, but rather its an uncertainty of how to behave focused on a specific aspect of a society. My Sociology teacher made certain to point out that anomie can occur within a society that has too few or TOO MANY rules pertaining to a given aspect, such as sexuality, ethnic relations, etc.

I always found the thought of people being uncertain how to behave due to the existence of too many rules to be the more fascinating scenario. Tangentially, I'm definitely a big believer in the concept of too many rules being the cause of the very behaviors that those rules were meant to curtail.

What does all of this have to do with roleplaying, you ask? Well, I was reading this post at Jeff's Gameblog today, and I started wondering if there are too many RPGs out there...specifically fantasy RPGs, whether they are related to D&D mechanically or not.

Question: Could the ever-growing plethora of retro-clones and other D&D-esgue games freeze players in their tracks, unable to actually run/play games because they don't know what system to use?

Now, I am definitely a supporter of variety, diversity, freedom of speech, etc. But seriously, does anyone else ever sit back and wonder if there's just too much of a good thing? I'm going to sound like an old guy here, but I remember a time when D&D was pretty much the only game in town. Sure there were other game systems out there, but they all paled before the grandfather of RPGs. You gave deference to D&D as pretty much the go-to game, but could dabble in burgeoning systems (in the ancient days when I was a kid) like Palladium, etc. Or maybe all of this is a biased perception based on my personal experience.

All I know is, when the 1990s came along, D&D was well into the 2nd Edition, and TSR was releasing a sh*tstorm of material. As was Palladium. And I think we can agree that no where near all of that stuff was good. Come on, some of it was sheer crap! But you could only determine that by poring over tome after tome after tome. And let's not forget all the other game companies with their own systems making a push to stand as equals (or superiors) to D&D, flooding the market with their own RPGs. We drowned in it all, many gamers burning out on the glut of material!

I've been thinking that "RPG anomie" can vary greatly from person to person depending on a whole host of factors, such as amount of time available for gaming, the amount of house ruling a person wants to have to do, etc. These factors are just the tip of the iceberg, however.

But getting back to Jeff. He seems to be having the same problem I've been struggling with since the beginning of the year. As I've mentioned elsewhere in this blog, early this year I made my personal discovery of the OSR and retro-clones. And looking back I certainly did slip into a state of anomie! I didn't know what to play! There seemed to be so many options. And I'm what I consider at veteran gamer, but even I wasn't immune to the shock. This relates back to the debates I've seen on the blogosphere about the OSR's ability (or lack thereof) to bring new (young?) players into roleplaying. With so many choices, a returning vet or a fresh-faced newbie may sit in a coma-like state, unsure of what to choose. There's the chance that this may cause them to not even bother to move ahead into the gaming world.

I spent months vacillating between potential game systems, from Swords & Wizardry, Labyrinth Lord, and Basic Fantasy to Microlite74, Hackmaster, RuneQuest, Rolemaster, Dragon Warriors, Dungeonslayers, and on and on and on! When I would tentatively decide on one, I went into a vicious circle of failed house rule attempts.

Finally I checked out Castles & Crusades and liked what I saw, and decided that it had the rules set that appealed to me the most. A big factor was the fact that I was happy with most of the rules as published, so I could do minimal house ruling. I'd rather spend the time preparing and running adventures rather than house ruling.

But then Finnish firebrand and rising RPG auteur James Raggi waved the Lamentations of the Flame Princess carrot in front of me, and like the good donkey I am I bought his boxed set! Now I'm second guessing whether or not I'll be using C&C in the near future!

Here's something else to consider: combine lots of game system options floating around the Web (including all the variations on the D&D rules thanks to retroclones) with a bunch of gregarious players, and you may find that your gaming circle has become a democracy, where players begin putting out their opinions on just what rules set the group should be using! It's good to want to please the players, but is this a recipe for disaster? Do I spell potential mutinies in the future? Could disagreements between GMs and players over what system to play cause the break up of gaming groups everywhere?! Human sacrifice, cats and dogs living together, MASS HYSTERIA!

OK, I think I need to wrap up this post. Seriously, everyone, I would really like your thoughts on this. What are the effects of so many RPGs being available? Do you see any potential problems, or do you think otherwise?


  1. Initially, I think it could be a problem, but ultimately I think it's a benefit. I would much rather have a variety of games and systems that I can choose from (and draw from) for running my game than to only have a few systems. The more ideas that get thrown into the mix, the more ideas I have to work with to make the game exactly what I and my players want. Paralysis by analysis is possible, but eventually you just have to pick a game (or two) and start designing and playing.

    Your game may not appeal to the majority of the gaming population, but who really cares? It's your game. Whatever system you choose to run will eventually get house-ruled and tweaked to fit all the people at the table anyway, so why worry about it?

    I don't even really see the choice between C&C and LotFP as a real one. Use the C&C core if it works for you mechanically and add the stuff you like from LotFP. Simmer, covered, for fifteen game sessions, tweaking occasionally. If the players don't like it, let them cook something up.

  2. To clarify my thoughts on C&C versus LotFP, I see them as two totally different gaming experiences. LotFP represents something more closely resembling OD&D, while C&C is more like a hybrid of 1st Edition AD&D and 3.0-3.5 Edition. I might try to run LotFP for my first campaign, then move to C&C after the end game of my LotFP game. Of course, all of this depends on me actually succeeding in my return to gaming/GMing! I have a lot of reading, planning, writing, gamer finding, etc. ahead of me before I can actually get these campaigns I keep referring to going ;-)