Substitutions as an anti-pattern

I've had a pattern that I'm starting to realize can be an anti-pattern. These are patterns that aren't particularly helpful, though they don't have to be harmful. This pattern is substitution, where I will try to find a substitute for something that I'm no longer able or willing to use. A few examples:

  • Instead of using Windows I use Linux because I prefer to use an operating system that better fits my values and mindset.
  • Instead of using a commercial IDE I use vim because I feel I have more control and I've invested a lot of time to learn it.
  • Instead of buying into Amazon's book-selling ecosystem I use a Kobo because it has an ecosystem that allows modifying the device and easier access to load files onto it.

There's many more but you get the idea. Each of these is a conscious decision to substitute one thing for another.

Where this gets tricky though is when I'm actively removing one thing from my life. This is when I start spiraling out and wondering about getting an alternative in place to not feel the discomfort of that item's removal. This is about maintaining comfort levels so I don't feel the discomfort of the substitution. For instance if someone said "you may no longer have meat" I would immediately think about all of the meat-alike products that I could use instead of meat (which is a good exercise anyway, and can lead to some more interesting options).

Again, substitution is not a bad thing in itself, but where it gets tricky is when it leads you to jump from one thing to another to replace the experiences you had with the item.

I had a long history with GURPS. I made it my mission to collect everything that I could (my goal was to have a complete set of the GURPS books, which is an absurdly large amount of books. I made it pretty far though before I realized that in order to do better game design I needed to get GURPS out of my head (GURPS is like the tofu of gaming; it takes on the flavor of whatever setting you add to it but still feels like you're playing GURPS underneath). So when I got rid of GURPS I felt I needed something to take its place. I felt I needed another generic roll-under system with lots of historical modules. Enter Basic RolePlaying System (BRP) and its progeny Legend, OpenQuest, Revolution D100, and Mythras. I started collecting modules for this system in the hopes that it would fill the void left by GURPS of having lots of historical and interesting fictional settings. This also lead me deeper into Call of Cthulhu, Glorantha, and Pendragon, which are the three main games that came out of BRP's parent company Chaosium. So I dove deep into those settings as well hoping to get all sorts of interesting ideas.

In short I was looking for the equivalent of a tofu substitute (or gaming methadone if you want to choose a different analogy).

Was I going to play these games? Unlikely. They were just there for interesting ideas and excellent reading material. Glorantha is considered one of the great settings for roleplaying with rich world-building that advanced the art of roleplaying into a more literate direction. Call of Cthulhu was a catalyst for a whole slew of games with fragile human protagonists that were doomed before they even finished character creation. Pendragon set a high bar for Arthurian storytelling and introduced the idea of generational play where you're not only playing your character but the offspring of your characters. And Chaosium, Design Mechanism, D101 Games, and Alephtar Games created many mythic worlds and settings that I found interesting to read.

Read is the operative word here. They were stand-ins for the reading material that I had for GURPS. Sure, BRP is a great system but it's not where my head is. My head right now is happier with Fate, Fudge, GUMSHOE, Dramasystem, and Ironsworn. BRP was one more system to add to that and it wasn't one that I was going to put the time in to learn.

(Worse, Chaosium has made some questionable licensing decisions around NFTs and problematic co-founders. They also have a BRP third-party license that isn't like the Creative Commons License of Fate, Ironsworn, Dramasystem, and GUMSHOE. But these are things I'm going to gloss over in this post.)

I started realizing that I was looking for my gaming tofu / methadone when I started picking up other historical settings for Fate and GUMSHOE. But this time I don't mind because they're systems that I'm actively developing for and thinking about. But it's still something to be mindful of.

And as a game designer it's one thing to appreciate how folks did things in the past, but it's not how things are proceeding. Many of these ideas were revolutionary in their day. That's great if I was thinking about how to design games for the 1970s and 80s. They're well-understood now, and folks have branched off into much more interesting territory.

I'm not mad that I'm wired like this. Recognizing that I have this tendency to reach for a substitute when the original thing isn't working is not necessarily a bad thing, but understanding why you're reaching for it is important. Is it because you're trying to pull away from the discomfort of that thing not being there, or are you truly filling a need that opened up because of the lack of that item? Realizing that I was searching for "Fate Pendragon" made me realize that I was falling into that trap. I don't need to find the substitutes for things that I've let go, I need to be at peace with these decisions and let myself realize that not every gap needs to be filled.

It's a lesson I'm still learning.