Sunday, September 7, 2014

On Relativism in RPG Criticism

Protagoras. He would have defended 4e.
So there's this implicit difference of opinion among RPG critics. For some, certain games (or modules, sets of supplemental materials, and so on) are better than others. It's not a question of the critic herself or her gaming group simply liking the particular product more or preferring to play it over other games, but rather that the game in question is better, period.

But for others, no game (or module, set of supplemental material, etc.) can be objectively better than any other. It all comes down to mere questions of personal taste. If I like X (and you don't), and you like Y instead (and I don't), that's fine. As long as you or your group is having fun (and different people and groups have fun in different ways), that's the only thing that counts.

We can caricature the two positions as the fascist conservative objectivist position and the wimpy liberal relativist position.

I'm a fascist conservative objectivist. Here, I'd like to lay out some considerations supporting my point of view:

1. Objectivism in RPG criticism has nothing to with moral objectivism. I believe some games are better than others. But I don't believe that, say, playing a bad game makes one a bad person. It has nothing to do with that. Implying that my position claims that it does is a slander.

2. Objectivism is not a metaphysical position. Regarding, for example, editions of Dungeons & Dragons, if I think that, say 0e is better than 3e, that doesn't mean that I believe there is a Platonic Heaven somewhere that contains, say, a pedestal holding up a woodgrain edition of 0e. Rather, my view is that any game product either explicitly or implicitly purports to do certain things. And it's largely an empirical question how well it succeeds in doing those things. To take a non-rpg example: what's better, a hammer or a pillow? That question is of course nonsensical--certainly neither is metaphysically better. But if the purpose is to drive in a nail, I'll take the hammer. On the other hand, if I want my bed to be more comfortable, I'd rather sleep with a pillow. Now, if someone were to come along and say, 'I don't care what you like, but when I drive in nails, a pillow works better' or 'I prefer to use a pillow to drive in nails,' or (worse), 'look, my group and I have fun using pillows to drive in nails, and who are you to argue with that?' I would say, well, I wouldn't know what to say. I guess I would assume that that person was just being argumentative for the sake of it, or was somehow defective in their understanding of the terms (or maybe I was), or that person was, I don't know, well, insane.

3. Objectivism doesn't preclude the possibility that the critic might be wrong. So: I say Hammer XYZ is better than hammer PDQ for driving in nails. I happen to be wrong about that for the simple reason that every time I actually used hammer PDQ, I was, well, a bit drunk. People, including yours truly--the fascist conservative objectivist--can be mistaken. It happens. But no, that's not a knock down argument for why objectivists should just shut up.

4. Objectivism doesn't preclude the possibility that a particular difference of opinion might really be subjective. I Iike robots in my fantasy games. You don't. I would say that pretty much comes down to subjective taste. Now, for all I know, God or Plato in his Heaven or the Omega Point of the Universe, or Whomever or Whatever might come down on one side or the other--God: 'You were right, Spalding. For all of your sins (and they really were pretty bad), you were spot-on about that robot thing'--but I doubt it. However, if, say, you wrote a retro-clone based on game XYZ, and you claimed it was a totally faithful retro-clone in every way, and yet game XYZ included robots and your clone didn't, then I would say you were objectively mistaken. Your clone could be said to have failed, at least on that point or in that sense.

5. Game design is an art as well as a science. Talking about it and debating it is not only fun but useful. It helps us design better games. It helps us choose to play better games. Heck, it probably helps us to play whatever game we actually have chosen, well, better. I think it was the great James Raggi who said (probably following some non-RPG sage) that the relativist position just stops the conversation in an annoying way. What makes one RPG (or novel, sculpture,  piece of software, skyscraper, or whatever) just work better than another? That's an interesting question. That's also a useful question. Shut up you fascist, if my group likes it, who are you to criticize it? Sorry, but that's just annoying.

6. Relativism among some RPG critics is often only apparent. What's really going on is that they're just being polite. They don't want to offend. That's perfectly okay. All things being equal, no one should want to offend others.* And everyone, within reason and without denying anything or anyone or perverting some other important value, should strive not to. So if I say, 'game XYZ is better than game PDQ for reasons ABC but in the end you have to make up your own mind', or whatever, the 'in the end you have to make up your own mind' thing is perhaps just a way to be inoffensive and polite. So, often the objectivist vs. relativist debate simply comes down to a question of presentation.

*In the above paragraph, note the 'all things being equal' clause in the second and third lines. Sometimes the other guy deserves it.

7. Objectivism concedes that the majority can often be wrong. Relativism implicitly claims that it can't (since no group can ever be wrong in that meaningful sense). In a way I suppose that makes objectivism unattractive. Objectivists often appear to be stubborn curmudgeons howling at the wind. It's often claimed that we like that. Two points: anyone with any brain must acknowledge that the majority is often wrong about all sorts of things. (They're also of course often right about all sorts of things. That's that weird thing about truth. Sometimes people get it. Sometimes they don't.) So the 'you're in the minority' slur is, well, unfair, I think. Second, I can't speak for all of my objectivist friends, but personally, I don't like being in a minority (at least for most things). I'd prefer that most D & D players played 0e, 1e or a retro-clone variation. That would not only satisfy my altruistic urges--ah great, the world is having more fun now!--but also my more self-interested ones--ah great, now I have more potential people to game with, and my self-published 0e retro-clone will sell a million copies!

If only.

So, yeah, I think 0e and 1e (and the clones and related games associated with them) are better than 3e (or 4e or 5e). They're objectively better. They're better at what all of those games implicitly purport to do--establish a mechanism that best harnesses the desire of many of us to, well, use our imaginations and our minds to create and explore, in comradeship with other like-minded souls of course, an imaginary fantasy or fairy tale world for a few hours, once a week (while eating potato chips) in the unique way that a paper and pencil adventure game allows us to. The way I've expressed it, it probably sounds silly and/or pretentious, I know. But there it is. Perhaps someone else could say it better.

What? Your desire is to move plastic figures around on a battle map for a few hours once a week (while eating potato chips)? Okay then, 4e is objectively better. You win.

(There's nothing about being an objectivist that precludes stacking the argument.)


  1. I believe that this post accomplished what is set out to do, objectively speaking.

    I enjoyed it. It put into words what I have had some difficulty explaining even to myself on what and why I find it beneficial to discuss the merits of some games over others. It justified my own "fascist, conservative objectivist" ideological tendencies in such matters. ;)

    Oh, and it gave relativism the spanking it so very much deserves especially in these post modern times.

    1. Thanks! With my terminology I thought people might confuse me with being a Randian. Not that there's anything wrong with it :).

  2. I tend to be in the "I don't want to offend anyone" category, myself... Although I couldn't agree more that OD&D and 1E are objectively better games. But, with discussions on the internet, I see a need to use more courtesy than I would in a face-to-face discussion. Now, I use alot of courtesy in face-to-face discussions, and I say this to keep the idea in context: My online courtesy, at least, I hope, is pretty thick. The purpose? So many people on the internet/forums act like complete asshats because the people they are maligning aren't physically present to punch them in the mouth for being an asshat. I really don't think this is a mature way to conduct discussion; Either end of the extreme there (asshat to punching). And dealing with trolls or flame-wars is simply tedious. So... I produce the 'I'm going to be more nice here than I am face-to-face' mentality when discussing things online. I suppose I'm extrapolating all of this due to your comments above, Oakes, about the relativist sub-category of not hurting someone's feelings. I take that approach in the hopes of circumventing potentially tedious sillyness online. But my position remains... Original Dungeons & Dragons is the penultimate game when compared to it's more modern WotC variants. I wouldn't touch those latter anymore with a 10 foot pole.

    1. As someone of Polish extraction, that deeply offends me, Tim.

  3. But are you ten feet, sir? If so, please accept my apologies in double-portions.