Letting go to make space for new ideas

I've mentioned before about making space for new and different things on this blog. That's been a topic that has been foremost on my mind. I've been reviewing things that I thought were true and holding them up to see if they are still true. This got me thinking about Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the most formative game in my life.

I haven't played D&D, at least not as written. I had several versions of the Basic Set while my cousins had the Advanced D&D set (first edition). I remember poring over those books (specifically the Monster Manual) because it was so evocative to my young mind. The vision of fantasy that it provided me was simply the most amazing thing I had ever envisioned. It also helped that the culture was also steeping themselves in this new game. I saw computer games like Ultima, Temple of Apshai, Wizardry, and the like and was entranced. Magazine ads showing pictures of fantasy worlds with swords, sorcerers, and magic just sung to my little heart. In high school I crushed a 9th grade state-level mythology competition in part because of D&D.

I never got into role playing in high school or college, in part because it seemed that the folks who did it were really into it and I had no clue what I was doing. I remember them telling me about their characters and their various adventures. Another part is that I'm also an only child so finding folks to play with wasn't as simple as pressing some siblings into the service of playing games. The last part was that I strongly associated role playing with D&D. If it wasn't D&D then it was some inferior knock-off that was trying to usurp the mighty D&D.

It didn't help that D&D also had an animated series that I kinda enjoyed. Creating brand loyalty in kids can be a terrible thing.

It wasn't until I ran into GURPS in the early 2000s that I seriously considered role playing games. Sure, I'd find the occasional one here and there at book sales and the like, but my interest in the hobby didn't really kick in until I found GURPS. Part of that was the promise that GURPS would be the last rule-set you'd ever need to learn. You could take any setting and fit it to GURPS and begin playing. This seemed like a winning proposition for me, in part because GURPS is a bit complex, but also because that knowledge was portable. If I just applied myself to learning this I could translate anything into GURPS. (GURPS also has some of the best-of-breed writers creating sourcebooks for it. I can't think of a better writer for alternate history and horror than Ken Hite, and that's before you get into their impressive roster of folks writing for them).

In many ways GURPS reminds me of tofu. Now, let me be clear: I love tofu. I think tofu can be a stellar addition to many dishes, especially if it's prepared properly. But I'm also aware that tofu can be misused in a lot of dishes. There are times when tofu is tossed into a dish as a meat substitute with no forethought to how it will interact with the other flavors. This doesn't play to tofu's strengths; it just reminds you of what should be there. A dish that is properly seasoned and prepared can make tofu really shine in a dish. It's the same with GURPS. Done right, GURPS can be an amazing system, especially if extra care is done to play to its strengths (realism, consistency, etc.). Done poorly it can feel flat and uninspired.

(And much like tofu I don't think overcooking GURPS does anything for it).

D&D had this as well with the D20 period. In the 1990s D&D was released under a permissive Open Gaming License where folks could create material using D&D's mechanics. This created an avalanche of material for the system, along with several offshoot systems (13th Age, True20, and countless others). It also spurred an offshoot of folks trying to recapture the feelings of the older editions of D&D. Many settings were ported to these mechanics whether they fit or not. Some played to the strengths of the D&D system while others muddled through.

When I saw Fudge in the 1990s I dismissed it out-of-hand, in part because Fudge required special dice. I'm not a fan of having to buy special dice to play a game. Nevermind that D&D requires you to have special dice --- those dice were somehow normal for me (possibly because a set were included in many boxed sets of the day). This notion that I would have to pick up special dice to play a game kept me from investigating Fudge. It wasn't until later on when I dropped my expectations that I learned that Fudge is a great game-making system. It also inspired one of my now-current-favorite systems: Fate. Had I not dropped my expectations I would have missed out on something special.

Greg Stafford created a universe called Glorantha as a response to D&D. This setting is a bronze-age world where myth and magic guide the daily lives of its inhabitants. In the Guide to Glorantha he stated that one of the reasons he created this world was because he found D&D "illiterate". At first glance this seemed like an asinine statement, and I took it as a personal insult when I first read it. How dare you call part of my gaming heritage illiterate! I've held many Glorantha books in my hands over the years and every time I tried to read them I bounced off of the mythology in there. It felt like a bad drug trip after reading Joseph Campbell's works. I tried many times to get into this world, but for whatever reason it didn't click. Then I found myself listening to "The Story of Civilization: Our Oriental Heritage" by Will Durant. (I've been reading this book for years, but recently took to listening to the audiobook). Once I understood that Glorantha wasn't strictly Greek myth things started clicking into place (I knew this instinctively, but for whatever reason I needed some reinforcement of this. Yes, I can be a bit slow with this). I also started looking into HeroQuest, which is a system that was written for Glorantha by Robin D. Laws. I started to understand much of what Glorantha was about and the emotions ans storytelling it was trying to make. I've also been re-reading the earlier versions of RuneQuest and finding things in there that helped me better understand what the designers of those systems were trying to convey. Sometimes organizing a book for folks who have never encountered the setting or the rules can be a blessing.

I've recently dropped GURPS to make space for other systems in my head. I found that GURPS took up not only cognitive space in my head but also a boat-load of shelf-space in my house. I had to let go of it because otherwise the temptation to just port it into GURPS would be there. The same is true of D&D and it's vision of fantasy. Letting go of my conceptions of fantasy, mythology, and what constitutes a good game system has widened my field considerably. It's opened me up to reviewing game systems that I previously thought were just poor imitations of what had gone before (or worse, settings that could be subsumed into GURPS mechanics). It's opened me to checking out how other systems and mechanics work. I've also realized that there are some systems that are dead-ends for my game exploration, even if they are perfectly serviceable and fun for those who enjoy them.

It's helped me realize that there are many things in my life that I've clung to that aren't particularly helpful now. I remember when I first encountered UNIX after coming from the DOS prompt. I found it frustrating to remember all of those two-letter commands (ls, cp, mv, etc.) so I made aliases for them (DIR, COPY, RENAME, etc.). It wasn't until I dropped the expectation that UNIX was just a shitty version of DOS that I could learn more about UNIX and Linux. The same is true for programming languages, books, music, art, and civilization itself. Realizing that our defaults can sometimes be hiding things from us that could enrich and expand our experiences is a precious gift. My hope is that this post helps you recognize some of these in your own life.

(Also: it seems every literate person I've encountered from earlier generations has read the entire series of "The Story of Civilization" by Will and Ariel Durant, so consider this my recommendation to check it out).