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Ritual is seriousness at its highest and holiest. Can it nevertheless be play? -JH


Rules As Written

I’m pretty much a RAW guy. I follow the rules. I don’t even usually think to tinker with the rules. If I play a game and don’t like an aspect of it, I throw away the whole game rather than make my own ‘house rules’ to ‘save’ the game. The best example of this is probably Railroad Tycoon. I hate what it did to the turn auction of AoS. Instead of a continuing auction for each space in the turn order, RT had an auction for 1st place, then turns proceeded in seat order around the table from that 1st place winner. So, really, the best strategy was to sit to the left of the person that went for 1st the most often. I hated it. The game belonged to my friend Mark. If it had been my purchase, I really would have tossed it in the trash. I hated it that much. I never thought to just keep the game and tinker with that one part of it. Maybe part of this was because AoS already existed and I could just play AoS instead of RT. Still, I think it illustrates my point. I follow the rules as written. If I don’t like them, I just stop playing the game. Years later, I’ve heard that that turn order aspect of RT has been completely overhauled and no longer exists in the same way that I hated. I wouldn’t know because I’ve never given it another chance.

An exception to this ‘playing a game only with the rules as they are written’ is any role-playing game that gives the DM/GM a lot of wiggle room to just make stuff up. When I DM/GM (or Judge as it’s called in DCC), I make public dice rolls when called for and I let the dice decide (according to agreed-upon rules, of course), but when I’m just narrating, I’m happy to make stuff up (within the confines of a pre-written module, because, you know, I’m old and it takes a lot of work to make stuff up) and fudge furiously on the fly as needed. If you ask me if your character can do something and you explain why they would be able to do it, I’ll be happy to let it happen (or call for a roll if it seems appropriate). I like to keep track of time, but I don’t really care about encumbrance rules. I’m willing to keep the rules that help with the flow I like and discard the rules that hinder this. If the players are hurting severely, but it’s still close, I might tone down that next encounter in the session to ensure that they’ll make it to the Finale, or I might not, depending on what fits the developing shared story and what best suits the mood of the table, which is always an individual judgment that takes skill and attention (I like to think I'm decent at this, but I've definitely had sessions in which the group energy just wasn't right, definitely sometimes my fault but also sometimes because of someone else at the table).

But this willingness to bend rules while playing an RPG is usually really just me following the rules as written again, because these rules as written often (in the games I prefer) point to broad discretion on the part of the person running the game to do whatever they want to do.

There’s probably a tension here in my relationship to authority and what I expect from any given structured play environment. In the context of a strategic contest, I want an external arbiter (in most cases, an agreed-upon rules document). In the context of the construction of a shared narrative, I want the delicate balance between free-for-all player contribution and some gentle bounding by a benevolent GM seeking the good of the table.

What Parlett points out (quote below) is that ALL games are exercises in co-operation and that the special experience of a game can be ruined by anyone failing to co-operate. The rules exist, but those rules only exist insofar as they are adopted by and enforced by any particular group at any particular table (which is another way of saying that all games are folk games). In a letter to rebuscarnival, I wrote that I’m struggling towards understanding how exactly this is true, this extraordinarily bold (stubbornly wrong?) idea that I can't shake, that all games are folk games; it’s something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. As long as games are played by free folk at their own tables without any external monitoring and interference, then these games are limited engagement performances at each of these tables, interpreted by and enacted by each of the players present at any given session. It is the players that preserve any given game and perpetuate that game into the future through their actions, precisely through their continued play.

Rebus wrote that when he returned to gaming (specifically RPGs) in his 30s, he was struck by the ritualistic nature of physical games. All games may not be folk games. Maybe all games are rituals?

All Games Are Rituals
All Games Are Co-operative Games

Long Parlett Quote:
Where games are valued as a means of bringing people together for the enjoyment of a common social activity, cards may be treasured for the breadth of their appeal and the depth of their sociability. Contradictory images--the nervous, eye-glazed fluttering of the casino Blackjack addict, the film-studio Poker set-up apparently staged by the local Mafia--represent the more newsworthy pathology of card-play rather than its general practice. I take particular issue with John Scarne’s assertion that ‘Nobody plays [cards] only with close friends.’ While the definition of ‘close’ may give him an out, it seems a matter of common experience and observation that card games are mostly played by people who know and get along with one another, whether family, friends, neighbours, fellow-travelers, club members, or workplace colleagues.
The pleasures of card-play may stem from the unconscious, and therefore largely unremarked, satisfaction of participating in a ritual [emphasis mine -john] governed by conventions--’rules’, perhaps, though agreed from within rather than imposed from without. Convention implies co-operation, and this imbues them with a marked educational value. The competitive nature of games is easily exaggerated and often confused with aggression, especially by those who would do away with all but so-called co-operative games. ‘Playing to win’, in a civilized society, should be a self-contained concept restricted to the field or framework of the game itself. Only the disturbed and maladjusted embark on games to demonstrate their superiority (or adequacy?) in the ‘real world’ outside.
This is not to deny that winning is the legitimate object of a game. On the contrary, playing without seeking to win threatens the stability of the group by failing to perform one’s own role in the ritual [me again -john] and thereby degrading everyone else’s. Do not be misled by a rule often encountered in gamebooks which states ‘The object of the game is to win the pool’. It isn’t. The object of the game is to compile a hand of matched cards, win a majority of tricks, or whatever, and winning the pool is the pay-off for achieving that object. Some may make it the object of playing the game, but it is not the object of the game itself. A better one is to enjoy the shared experience of talents and values held in common. Card games, therefore rightly exercised, may well come to fulfill Dr. Johnson’s expectation of ‘generating kindness and consolidating society’.
I'm going to ramble on about ritual a little bit below. I'll pause here to quote one line again that I ignore below. I don't want it to get missed: 'Convention implies co-operation, and this imbues them with a marked educational value.' Parlett doesn't quite say what this 'educational value' is. Is it simply the value of learning to co-operate, or is it also the value of being included in the conventions governing the game, becoming 'a civilized society, through this process of convention which generates kindness and through itself, through the binding of others to a common purpose, 'consolidates' society.

Primitive society performs its sacred rites, its sacrifices, consecrations and mysteries, all of which serve to guarantee the well-being of the world, in a spirit of pure play truly understood. Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.
I’ve only dabbled in Huizenga’s book, but dabbled enough to know that he compares play to ritual (indeed in some instances sees them as inseparably joined to one another). I think I need to do a deep dive, maybe a read-along here on the blog? Anyone interested?

If you’re reading my stumbling ramblings attempting to understand play, how could you not want to read someone much more intelligent than I am writing about play with chapter titles like this:


All Games Are Folk Games

So, right, moving on past that desire to read Huizenga more deeply in community (please leave a comment saying that you’re interested in this), writing that all games are folk games means that all games to some degree involve ritual performance in circumscribed times and places, not dissimilar to religious liturgy. Further, this coming together in ritual performance is the very thing that creates the ‘folk’ that play games. You belong to the community of gamers (the gaming ‘folk’) because you play games. Or in certain irregular situations created by our online environment (exacerbated by continued physical isolations), one can imagine someone immersed in ‘gaming folk culture’ who has never actually played a game. I guess this is similar to what some in the early Church called a “baptism of desire”, a situation in which this imaginary person who wants to play games desperately has been prevented from doing so. We could still consider this person “a gamer” (part of the gaming folk), but this is irregular. Normally, you are a gamer because you play games. What types of games you play determines what type of gamer you are. But it’s obvious to me (though could still be disputed) that there is some legitimacy in speaking of an umbrella ‘big tent’ gamer category that describes everyone from the cell phone puzzle app gamer (maybe) to the Vampire: The Masquerade LARPer to the chess tournament player. The why of play between these gamers is probably very different (at least in terms of self-understanding). The way that any person plays is the product of their material culture, the persons that surround them, cultural expectations/experiences, etc. What gets played is exactly what distinguishes one folk from another folk within the broader gaming folk community. I’m sure someone somewhere has done a decent taxonomy of gamers, with varying degrees of overlap in which any single gamer may fall into any category or multiple categories.

Here’s a good essay that I found a couple months ago while thinking about these things:

Read the whole thing, but here’s the conclusion:
Through a ritual process of performance, cultural roles and situations are created and reinforced, and individuals are brought into relationship with each other. What is most distinct about this process is the way in which this negotiation not only establishes the relation of the individuals to each other but ties to the way in which the individuals interact with folk groups of varying levels.
The folk process contained within is a holistic approach to the folk group. Instead of approaching the folk group as a single entity, this study demonstrates the way in which folk groups are created and negotiated through performative acts of social linkage. By performing jokes that reference the various tiers of cultural identity possessed by the members of the group, the members show their relationship to the common core of traditions that is the folk group.
Instead of viewing the folk group as a pre-existing condition of culture, this study shows the way in which the folk group is produced and re-produced by cultural practices. Within the span of five hours, a group of people can construct a set of social relations constituting themselves as a micro-level folk group through consensus establishment while simultaneously negotiating their relationship with a macro-level folk group through auto-critique. Understanding the dynamics of this process can help reveal the overall relationship between folklore and culture.
Related is Jeremy Friesen’s struggle with how to relate to his community after a perceived betrayal of trust on the part of two others in the community. [I don’t feel qualified to weigh in on the specific actions of Koebel or Crane. It’s related to what I've written here, but also off-topic and incendiary enough that I don't really want to deal with it in this post; I’m also not invested in that community-- My outsider opinion doesn't really matter. I do think, based on limited evidence that I’ve seen, that there were failures on both Koebel’s part and Crane’s part even if I’m not convinced that either one of them is a capital-c Creepazoid]

Jeremy's post is found here (and I would more generally recommend his blog, another non-bgg site I found while away):

I agree 100% with Jeremy about trust being the most important thing in the ritual action of playing a game. Jeremy writes 'When you don’t have trust, it creates potential emotional danger.' This echoes Parlett above, that there are certain actions at a game table that 'threaten the stability of the group', when one fails 'to perform one’s own role in the ritual... thereby degrading everyone else’s'. Friesen narrows in on the relationship between GM and players, but Parlett makes clear that this trust aspect is always present in every game, which goes to the idea of 'the magic circle', which returns us to ritual and back to Huizenga.

What interests me most about Jeremy’s post, though, is the last part about 'closed games and lack of governance'.

I have a long running, personal, and nagging concern that it is a liability to not use a game with an open license.

No one’s yet coming to take the physical copies of games sitting on my shelf. I can run my B/X D&D just fine.

However, without an open license, any community around the game depends on the benevolence of the owner of that rules system. Any community that extends beyond a single game table of friends playing their version of the game. In other words, the community lacks governance around a critical and central component of their existence.
Here is an insistence that games should be 'open', controlled by the players that play the games instead of by 'the owner of that rules system'. This is a hardcore folk stance (tempered a little by the use of the word 'license' which is legalese that living folk cultures will ignore, needing no license to continue their own folk culture; it's definitely complicated right now by competing commercial and non-commercial interests in the various gaming sub-communities). Regardless of who created the rules or parts of the rules to the game that the community plays, the rules should (ideally) be always open to all because they are the common property of all through shared participation. This is a direct inheritance of card culture and abstracts culture. You can call it the DIY punk ethos or you can simply call it folk tradition. The community receives a tradition, participates in the tradition, and it then passes on some form of the tradition. There will be arguments and there will be factions, but this is how life and culture works outside of false manufactured consent.

In the RPG world, in particular, I think that 'open games' are inevitable. I could play a house version of D&D this evening without opening any rules, just based on my memory of rules systems. Some of it would be authentic. Some of it would be completely made up (I've never been the type to nerd out over Monster Manual stats, for instance; I'm sure some geeks carry an entire bestiary in their heads at all times). It is, in the best sense, a living thing, that cannot be taken away from me. I think that the same is ultimately true of Burning Wheel for others. I don’t have any experience with the system, but I’ve heard good things. The players who have played Burning Wheel for the past decade cannot have it taken from them, at least what part of it is already in their heads and hearts. In the end, RAW will always fail. It’s only what the players continue to play that matters. I know that I’ve somewhat dodged Jeremy’s final point, which is that this closed system model is a problem for the wider folk community and not for any single table of friends. I don’t know that the solution is one shared absolute standard, but just a continuance of what already exists, a de-centralized shared participation in a community that continues to identify itself around the core principles of gameplay that they have in common, “created and negotiated through performative acts of social linkage” which will never be 100% homogenous.

If you're interested in 'open RPGs, here's a good place to start:

I’ve rambled on and on. I’m getting old. Every day, I know it more concretely that I cannot and will not know even the tiniest bit of knowledge, in gaming or in most other things. I know very little. I’m afraid that even the things I do know are held in a shallow and superficial way. I can’t know everything. Maybe I can know a few things well. I’ve shared in a few places on the ‘geek this article on centireading. Like the games struggle, I’ve often thought that I’d be better off getting rid of 95% of my book library, especially the mountains (mountains of boxes) of unread books to-be-read-in-some-perfect-imaginary-future-in-which-I-have-unlimited-time-and-unlimited-attention.

It’s a ridiculous scene, but I’m moved by Truffaut’s (take on Bradbury’s) community of book lovers that burn their most beloved books in order to keep them. It is goofy and unbelievable, but sometimes there's still some shred of truth in the hokiest hokies.

I think this is why I’ve come to prefer simple RAW, the type of RAW that can be easily memorized and internalized, whether it is half a dozen card games that I could play from memory with a single deck of cards, or the half dozen games I could play on a go board or chess board or with pen and paper, or, yes, following the example above, the skeletons of a basic RPG that exists in my head. I think that this is maybe the best argument for my continued simplification, that I really want to know, deep in my bones, the games that matter to me. Because I'm not the kind of guy capable of memorizing Tale of Two Cities, but I know I can handle a few Blake poems, and that's what I'm looking for right now, gaming gems that are the equivalent of short poems, maybe deceptively simple, but worthy of deep familiarity, shining more brightly the closer they are handled and used.

I’ve said that I love Babylonia. Do I love Babylonia enough to remember how many hexes are on the board and the exact distribution of tiles, so much that I could reproduce it on my own if I lost my copy? Maybe. It’s an edge case. So many mass-produced games today are just that, mass-produced, dependent on industrial techniques that often are militantly against this deep internalization. There are probably a handful of persons who have this deep familiarity with a 1,000 counter war game or 1830 or Magic Realm or whatever. I hope there are. I know that there are Magic players who will somehow instantly have a deep familiarity with every single card in a new set as soon as it is announced. It goes back to my old post about The One Game, I guess, and I don't have mine. But maybe I can have a handful of games that I can know well enough to pass on to my kids that they can pass on to their kids.

If you lost your ten favorite games today and could not order replacements, could you reproduce them yourself? Maybe this is a silly question, but is it? To continue the religion comparison from above, I’m sure that anyone who has spent years in a liturgical tradition could faithfully replicate the ‘shape of the liturgy’ if not always all of the exact words used throughout. To move to a sports comparison, is there any lifelong baseball fan who would not be able to recreate baseball if civilization collapsed? I’m sure there would be a diamond in the field just as soon as everyone’s basic needs were cared for.

Some of this is definitely personal preference, and specifically personal preference that has shifted in me as I've grown older. Some of this is just me tilting at windmills. And it's all exploratory. I'm not even sure how far I'd go with any of this. And of course some part of me loves the game industry churn as much as anyone even as I'm disgusted by it. It is a marvel that there are so many ideas for so many games and that we have the resources and the ability to produce them, plus the increasing interest in a growing community that wants to play them. I can't quite tear myself away from this heavily commercial scene even as I find the smaller more folk-oriented (based on traditional decks, print n plays, abstracts) scenes more interesting and would probably be happier if I could force myself to throw away 95% of the games cabinet. I'd be happier, I think, if we could go back to a gaming culture established organically as part of Parlett's civilized society, in which everyone shares in a common foundational gaming language, but I also know that I wouldn't ever want to force that on anyone; It's something that has to happen naturally in a community or not happen at all.

Don't listen to me.

I want everyone in the world to know how to play Plus-Minus Jass and I want them to play it clockwise around the table.

I want the tradition I like and screw the tradition I don't like.

I am a beast.

I am a 21st Century American Man.

I am at my highest and holiest when I play.
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