Changing Things is Easy, Changing People is Hard
Full disclosure: this will be a very high-falutin’ theory post. It will not give you actionable material for Saturday’s game, but it may prompt in you some thoughts of your own that may yield results many weeks down the line. Your mileage may vary.
One of the reasons I originally followed @TheIdDM on Twitter (and one of the reasons I regularly took the premises of some of his posts on his blog and ran with them on my own) was not only the fact that he did for a living some of what I found very interesting as a hobby (behavioral psychology), but also that he tends to prompt some very interesting questions. One such question he prompted on Twitter went as follows (hashtag included for completeness’ sake):
It’s interesting that so many people have replied “the people make the #rpg” and yet so much time is spent discussing systems. Unbalanced?
And he’s right. What is the deal with that? For my own part, by far the majority of the content on this blog is about systems and not about people even though the people are the most important part of RPGs. Well, turns out 140 characters (or even several 140 character chunks) simply can’t be enough to express my thoughts here, so let’s begin… and hopefully by reading this you can begin to think about it, too, whether you agree with my thoughts or not.
Systems and People
Perhaps separating these two things into their own categories is something of a misnomer. After all, if we come to the logical (though disconcerting) conclusion supported by causal determinism, we can figure that a person is actually just a system with a lot of imperfect information involved. That thought is perhaps worthy of its own post, but probably on a philosophy blog and not a gaming one, so I’ll move on and leave the thought at that. For our purposes, we’re going to assume that, at the very least, the difference in degree of complexity of a human system and a tabletop RPG system turns into a difference in kind, and we’ll treat them as separate.
The first thing we need to realize here is that the tool (the RPG system) and the tool user (the person) are actually relatively inseparable, even if we don’t consider them both to be systems of simply different complexity but instead as distinct entities. Consider for a moment the martial artist wielding a sword. The sword is his tool, and if he sets it down it remains a tool but it performs no useful action. For sake of defining terms let’s consider tools that perform actions when left alone to broadly be considered automated tools (and, while we’re provoking thoughts about tools that only do things when they are used let me point you, dear reader, towards the delightful problem of the prime mover; tangential, but lots of fun to think about). In contrast, we are going to be interested in tools like the sword rather than the high-frequency stock trading machine, in that our tool of choice – the tabletop RPG – is largely non-automated.
The fact that the sword does nothing without the input of the martial artist is very much like the fact that the tabletop RPG does nothing without the input of the player(s). If nobody is there to try to take and resolve fictitious actions then the system is nothing but a pile of symbols printed on paper gathering dust in your garage (or, for the more digitally-inclined among us, a set of bits gathering e-dust on your digital storage device of choice).
There is another fact that this analogy illuminates: the martial artist can fight both with and without the sword, and while many principles are the same, the specifics of execution are generally very different. This points out that we can use many different systems, and while each of them will give us something different and worth having, at the same time the ability to play an RPG (or defend yourself) lives entirely within the player (or martial artist). Put more simply: a sword and your hand (and D&D and Call of Cthulhu) are different means to the same ends, and the skilled user can use both. Confused yet? Sorry.
Basically, the fact that you can do something different with D&D than with Call of Cthulhu is no different than being able to do something different with a rubber mallet than a steel clawhammer, or a sword than a spear. Using this knowledge, then, let’s try to look at things from a simpler perspective.
Systems as Tools
Let’s change our analogy for a minute and discuss firearms, a topic hot in the mind of the United States and around the world. If you go to a forum for firearm enthusiasts, and you say “I want a firearm to shoot at things”, the very first question you’ll probably be asked before anyone helps you decide what to buy is “what things are you going to be shooting at?” If the answer is “people breaking into my house” the gun you want is different than if the answer is “a deer in the woods”. Why? Because different guns make certain gun-centric tasks easier than others. This is the principle behind specialization: a specialist tool will beat a generalist tool at the specialist task.
The same is true of tabletop RPGs. Running a game set in the Cthulhu mythos is probably easier with Call of Cthulhu than it is with GURPS: specialist vs. generalist. Given that running an RPG at all is generally a specialist task (given how niche the hobby is, and how fragmented it is), it is probably no surprise that discussion about what system to use is the first thing that comes up. Just like the gun enthusiasts, the RPG enthusiasts assume that you are a constant and the tool is the variable. What’s up with that?
Systems as Variables and Affecting People
The answer is in the title, really: people are harder to change than systems (or at least they are systems that are harder to change than other systems). What is quicker, generally: establishing a new habit or making 30 dollars to pick up a new RPG book? Usually effectively making habits takes about a month of performing a task routinely (I speak anecdotally, but I think it’s pretty typical that it takes a few weeks before you can truly begin to do tasks on autopilot). Meanwhile making 30 dollars to get a new RPG book takes, in the US, at most a fair chunk of a day of work. If it’s 30 times faster to get a new RPG book than it is to make new habits, is it any wonder we’re obsessed with the quick fix? And really, shouldn’t we be? Why do things the hard way? More on that in a minute.
The difference between learning to shoot accurately with iron sights on a rifle at 400 meters and putting a telescopic sight on your rifle is the exact same difference between learning to use D&D in the horror genre and buying Call of Cthulhu. This is because, as I’ve established, it’s a lot faster to spend the cash and get the specialized tool for the job that makes your life easier. But… why does it make your life easier? What’s going on?
As it turns out, just as much as the person affects the tool (that is, without the person the tool will not function), the tool also affects the person. If you are using a certain tool, you will be doing a certain thing. Ever hear the saying “if all you have is a hammer every problem looks like a nail”? This is what that’s talking about. If you have a pistol you really shouldn’t be shooting at targets 400 meters away, and if you have a sniper rifle you’re really better not walking inside a house and shooting somebody right in their face from 10 feet away. By simple virtue of having a specialist tool you are going to use that specialist tool for its specialist task. If you have Call of Cthulhu out on the table, chances are strong that you’re going to run a horror game. If you have Ars Magica, chances are you’re going to be running a game about wizards in the late middle ages. And on and on.
What that means is something I picked up on as soon as I first played Spirit of the Century after only having played D&D: a good system is going to manipulate you into doing things, even things you ordinarily wouldn’t think to do, that fit the experience the game is trying to help generate. At the time I referred to its character generation method and use of Fate points, compels, invokes, and aspects as “tricking you into roleplaying well”. It felt very clever, that a game through clever use of incentives and the rules can make you do something well even if you suck at it to begin with.
This means, in fact, that we come around full circle. If you want to hit distant targets, and you’re bad at shooting at distant targets, you may want to invest in a telescopic sight. But once you get used to hitting targets at a far distance, you’ll find hitting them without the sight much easier than it used to be. If you can’t fight at all, learning to fight with a sword is going to make you suck less at fighting unarmed too (although perhaps not to a great degree). And so, with RPGs, if you can’t do horror games at all, Call of Cthulhu is there to instruct you, consciously or not, on how to do horror games.
So, at the end of that 1500 words, here’s what I’ve concluded. People are more important than the tools they use. But, despite this, the people and the tools are inextricably linked. There’s a reason forums across the internet discuss the best gun, or the best hammer, or the best RPG system: the tool is incredibly important, and it is also the easiest thing to change. And, by changing your tool, you can also change yourself. Slowly. Two birds, one much easier stone.
There is one thing I noticed that didn’t really fit with the flow of this post, and that’s how damn easy it is to change the tool of a tabletop RPG. Just about anybody who’s played one for a couple of hours can start changing the rules willy-nilly and at no real cost to themselves. Consider audiophiles, or car enthusiasts or any other hardcore fandom of tools, who spend thousands and thousands of dollars to acquire the perfect tools. Now consider how much gamers spend on dice and minis – again, thousands for tools in many cases. But now consider that the most critical tool to the tabletop RPG gamer – the game system – is exceedingly inexpensive. There is no real barrier to entry to start talking about how to improve an RPG system, and indeed by their very nature RPGs require their users to tweak the rules in at least very small ways (custom monsters, traps, whatever). Compare this to, say, firearms, where only licensed professionals are even allowed to make most of the changes to those tools (while they may not apply the telescopic sight, they made it, and they made the gun it’s on, too), and you have a serious recipe for endless discussions on the system rather than the people since basically anyone can contribute (though not always well). Just something to think about, I guess.