Monday, September 27, 2010

The Golden Age is Now

Reader Jay Dugger pointed me toward this essay, "The Golden Age of Wargaming is Now," by Eric S. Raymond, thinking I'd find it both interesting in its own right and in its possible applicability to the old school renaissance. Now, as I've said ad nauseam: I'm not a wargamer and never have been. I've played wargames in the past, even enjoyed them, and I've often thought I ought to make more time to delve into our hobby's forebear, if only to get a better grounding in its relationship to what came after. Consequently, it's hard for me to judge the truth of Raymond's suggestion that hex wargaming nowadays is "better than ever." I can only say that, from the perspective of an outsider, wargaming, much like tabletop roleplaying, certainly doesn't seem to be in a golden age, if by "golden age" one means "broad appeal." Nearly everyone I know who still plays hex wargames does so because they started playing back in the 70s or 80s, the years that, perhaps not coincidentally, were also the heyday of the tabletop RPG.

Of course, Raymond is using "golden age" in a different way, namely as a signifier of a time of great diversity and change, when wargames design has finally shaken off the "blitz of corroborative detail" that led to monstrously complex and/or barely playable games. Again, as an outsider, I can't really speak to the truth of Raymond's specific observations. I can only say that, reading his essay, he comes across as someone who's a bit more uncritical of the notion of "progress" in game design than I am. For example, he simply states, as if it were an incontrovertible fact, that "the average quality of presentation in games has improved spectacularly since the 1970s." I'd agree that presentation has changed a lot since the 1970s, but "improved?" That's a matter of perspective, I think, particularly if, like me, you believe older styles and methods aren't always straightforwardly superseded by those that come later.

In the end, I find Raymond's essay interesting and I think he raises a number of good points that are well worth considering when thinking about the future of old school roleplaying. However, I think it's a bit of a stretch to go from "I enjoy many of the wargames produced today using contemporary designs" to "wargames today are better than ever." My gut feeling remains that game design -- like a great many types of design, really -- is highly faddish and, while innovation isn't unknown, it's not as clear-cut as its boosters would like us to believe. A well designed wargame (or RPG) from 1980 is just as playable today as it was three decades ago. However, one's perception of what constitutes "good design" can often change, sometimes to the point where one can come to believe that something one formerly judged good is not in fact so, as anyone who's spent time arguing about character classes, demihuman level limits, or descending armor class can tell you.

This isn't to suggest that innovation is impossible or that it's never occurred, but I firmly believe that unambiguous examples of innovation in RPG design are rarer than those who criticize earlier designs might wish to admit. A lot depends on what one is used to and what one expects. For example, Raymond's assertion that table lookups slow play and encourage "tediousness" is, I think, tendentious. I certainly don't begrudge anyone who dislikes tables and finds other methods easier for them, but, again, I think it's a mistake to go from that observation to universalizing its impact on overall design. I've played many chart-heavy RPGs for years and, after a while, one can become quite adept at using them. Indeed, for me, tables and charts are frequently easier to use than other methods, particularly those that involve even relatively simple mathematical calculations. I am notoriously innumerate and so derive little benefit from game designs that eschew tables on the false assumption that having the players perform simple math is a "better" design.

In short, I think the notion of "progress" is a very slippery one and so, while I am intrigued by what Raymond suggests in his essay, I can't quite embrace it. I hope that doesn't sound dismissive, because I certainly don't mean it to be. I'm just skeptical of some of the assumptions that appear to be underlying Raymond's position and that skepticism prevents me from seeing its applicability to the old school renaissance. But I need to think more on the matter.

28 comments:

  1. One of the things I've found has much improved in wargaming is stealing from the German boardgames and 'baking-in' the math so that not only are there no table lookups, but there is no 'simple math' either. This involves using special dice, cards, and tracks and tokens on the board. All the heavy rules of the past get boiled down to status tracking. Makes the 'rules' much shorter and easier to understand and play.

    I'd agree that it's not a 'golden age', but there are some great wargames being produced, much like in the OSR.

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  2. If you get the same result at the same complexity , and wealth of choices but in less time that is definite progress in my book.

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  3. "I think the notion of 'progress' is a very slippery one"

    That's because you were not born in 1830.

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  4. "That's because you were not born in 1830."

    A time before "progress" made it impossible to see a single passenger pigeon, nevermind a flock of them so huge it blotted out the sun for hours

    And when it was possible for a mother to not have frightening levels of toxic dioxin in her breast milk.

    Before we had cars...or over 100 people each day being killed by cars in the U.S. alone and several times that number being injured, often quite severely and/or permanently. Or a total area of the U.S. bigger than the state of Georgia that was once thriving wilderness but is now just so much asphalt. Or all the pollution resulting from the process of obtaining and burning all that gasoline and its effects on health and climate.

    There is no unambiguous capital-P Progress, in game design or anywhere else in life.

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  5. He seems to be lumping in a lot of different types of games under the heading "wargame" that I probably would not. And wooden blocks are somehow innately superior to cardboard counters? Not when you're trying to stack 'em, they're not...

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  6. The Golden Age is whichever one you like the most.

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  8. @ Will

    That was expertly and eloquently put.

    Due to the ambiguity created by communicating through the internet, I wanted to point out that I agree with you. My point was that anyone who believes in "Progress" in this era is rather foolish.

    I might have been better suited by bumping my given date up 20 years, but my point about it Progress being tied in to Queen Victoria's reign and Manifest Destiny in the US, is still valid I think.

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  9. Oh, I see. Went completely over my head!

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  10. The internet does that (which ties back into our whole discussion, I think).

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  11. @Will, not being covered in pigeon poo could be described as progress. ;-)

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  12. While kvetching about Progress, do also keep in mind that in 1830, life expectancy at birth was 51 years in the USA, a woman could not only not vote, but if married could not own property, money, or anything in her own right, and in some parts of the USA, it was legal to own another human being outright.

    I'm not arguing that all change *is* progress, but neither is it *not* progress. :)

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  13. Of course it all depends on how you want to define golden age as its use is not applied uniformly. I would say that to me, the more recent years of rpgs are a golden age from the standpoint that almost any genre, style, flavor is available and easily shared with enthusiasts given online and print on demand methods now available. It might not be the most popular it's ever been and it might not make the most money that it's ever made, but as a consumer you're pretty likely to find someone producing rpg material that you're interested in getting.

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  14. I grew in the lap of a war gamer back in the day. My dad and uncle played countless Avalon Hill games. And I joined them off and on. Later when I got older I tried my own hand at them but often ended up playing solo versions of the game (oh the fond memories of Submarine!). But, I never could get my friends into these games. These days games like Conflict of Heroes capture for me the thrill of Squad Leader without the headache and crunch. And my friends find them a lot more accessible as well. Not to mention there are dozens of games now that build on the Axis & Allies model that make great entry points into the hobby. Though some of them are as complex and befuddling as any old hex grid game (I'm looking at you Twilight Imperium).

    But overall there is big surge in board gaming going on right now. And many new shops have opened up to cater to many levels of game play. And I really like what I have seen in these games and those shops. There are some fresh ideas being tried out and great energy. Some ideas and players will stick and others will go away through the part of gaming evolution. But, others revive old ideas in new ways.

    I love this blog, but today you guys seem a bit contrary.

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  15. I grew up as more of a wargamer than an role-player. My dad had a whole library of Avalon Hill titles and, although he was the one who introduced be to AD&D, I always enjoyed a good game of Squad Leader, 1776, Russian Campaign, etc. That said, I would have to disagree that we are currently in the "golden age" of wargaming. I will grant that there are some excellent gaming published each and every year, perhaps better games than were published 20 or 30 years ago, but as far as I am concerned, the "golden age" of wargaming ended when Avalon Hill shut its doors in 1998. Unlike role-playing games, there was never a D&D of wargames - the one game which stood head and shoulders above all others in the genre, a yardstick by which all other games were measure. The closest thing wargaming had to D&D was Avalon Hill as a publisher of a wide variety of games. Avalon Hill stood out above most other manufacturers because 1) their games were well produces, with heavy cardboard pieces, mounted boards, heavy card-stock charts, nice, colorful maps, etc. 2) their games were well researched and presented, 3) most of their games were fairly easy to learn, with rules divided into basic and advanced rules sets. A lot of their earlier games only required a dozen or so pages of rules to begin play, with advanced rules for additional flavor. 4) their games were balanced and fun to play - they put a lot of time and effort into playtesting. Not surprisingly, AHs games still have a large following to this day, even games long out of print, judging by their annual presence at the WBC and the high sales prices realized on Ebay for OOP games. When AH closed shop, the hobby lost its center of gravity - there might be plenty of high quality games out there, but the industry was permanently fragmented. The golden age of wargames is over in the same way that the golden age of television ended with the rise of numerous cable channels and the loss of a shared viewing experience.

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  16. ESR tends to enshrine his likes and dislikes as Universal Truths. I think it's some sort of consequence of his weird Libertarian Objectivism.

    Interesting essay, though.

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  17. @HgMan: If you swap in "Game Designers' Workshop" everyplace you wrote "Avalon Hill," then I'm right there with ya. GDW was my favorite wargame (and RPG) company, followed by AH's Victory Games division and Task Force's Star Fleet Universe. I agree, though, that AH (and SPI) were the anchors of the wargame field in business terms-- everyone knew who they were.
    I still consider myself more of a wargamer, but I spend a lot more time on RPGs than hexes.

    No, this is not the Golden Age of wargames (for me), 'cause I'm no longer under 25, with enough money to afford a new game every 4-6 weeks, and a brother as an in-house partner to play all weekend long. I walk around conventions and stores, but I don't buy any new games because I don't want to take the time to learn them.

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  18. I think AH's near monopoly on board wargames probably stifled a lot of creativity. Many of the AH and SPI games were basically the same - attack factor vs defense factor consult the CRT. Today's large variety of games from many vibrant publisher is a big improvement over the situation in the 70s and 80s.

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  19. Having more variety of simpler (even simplistic) systems doesn't make today's wargames better. The only "good thing" many modern games get sometimes is preparation time of the units on the board for the first turn. That coul take more than the actual game with many titles.

    Sometimes I prefer a detail-heavy slower game (even if I have to spend an hour and leave the board prepared the night before), but maybe next day I only have time for the fast bunch-of-D6-rolling of something like the Axis&Allies "collectible minis game" (and I better don't start on this).

    More to choose from? Yes, undoubtly.
    Better to chose from? No, not really.

    Unless you include those older classics, of course ;)

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  20. "Sometimes I prefer a detail-heavy slower game (even if I have to spend an hour and leave the board prepared the night before)"

    I take it you don't have cats :)

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  21. I firmly believe that unambiguous examples of innovation in RPG design are rarer than those who criticize earlier designs might wish to admit

    Just out of curiosity, James, can you tell us something that you do consider a rare "example of innovation in RPG design"?

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  22. I'm allergic to cats, and have a room all for my games, that I defend from any outside interference from my wife :D

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  23. I think that Eric's blurring the line between wargames and general boardgames a bit in that essay. In terms of components and aesthetics, however, the statement that "the average quality of presentation in games has improved spectacularly since the 1970s" is hardly debatable, even given the subjectivity of aesthetic judgments. Remember that statement is talking about the average; the majority of wargames published in the 70s and 80s had pretty terrible production values and components. The availability of desktop publishing and other more advanced production tools has made better quality in these departments far more accessible and far less expensive than it once was. As fauxcrye noted, there's been a renaissance in boardgaming in the last few years, including a large number of european imports, which combine wonderful game design with gorgeous production quality and graphic appeal.

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  24. @ Matthew Miller

    James has cited elsewhere that he believes aspects a la the FATE system were an innovation.

    Of course I don't claim to speak for him, but maybe that would answer your question.

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  25. If you get the same result at the same complexity, and wealth of choices but in less time that is definite progress in my book.

    I can buy that, although I don't personally don't see efficiency, especially when you're only talking about seconds or minutes, to matter much when it comes to gaming. I don't think, for example, the shift from a chart to a simple formula saves such a huge amount of time that the continued use of the chart can't be justified on esthetic grounds, if not others.

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  26. My point was that anyone who believes in "Progress" in this era is rather foolish.

    I don't know about "foolish," but naive certainly.

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  27. Just out of curiosity, James, can you tell us something that you do consider a rare "example of innovation in RPG design"?

    I'm actually planning to make a post about this, so I'll present my position there, but, in the meantime, I'll say that the primary unambiguous innovation in the hobby has been in terms of writing and organization. Games became much easier to read and understand on their own merits rather than requiring a lot of meta-context from the larger hobby.

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  28. James has cited elsewhere that he believes aspects a la the FATE system were an innovation.

    This touches a bit on the post I'll be writing on this topic, but let me clarify: I think there have been lots of innovations in the hobby over the years, but I think comparatively few of them can be called "progress" in the sense of being universally applicable to all segments of the hobby. Something like the aspect system from FATE is most assuredly an innovation for certain kinds of fast-moving and/or cinematic games, but I don't think they're universally useful to all kinds of RPGs and so I'd be reluctant to call them "progress" in any absolute sense.

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