Why do we care about game texts that are instruction manuals

edited April 2012 in Story Games
In the "what do we like about OSR" thread Nathan said old-school games don't tell you how to play (I think there's maybe some confusion about what "old-school" means in this context, but nevermind that). Then Sage said that's totally not true and gave Moldvay as an example of how the game is basically an instruction manual and how that's awesome. Then Zak replied:
Posted By: Zak SWhy do you care? Presumably you already know how to play an RPG, right? I can see why 12 year old you might want appreciate instructions, but why you now?
I'm going to answer for myself after the jump.

Comments

  • edited April 2012
    1. Not all games are supposed to be run the same. I guess you can figure out things on your own and things I've learned by running one game are portable to another. But you don't really play or run Cthulhu, 4E and Pendragon the same way. When a game has instructions that go with it, that makes it easier to grok if you're fresh to that game/style of play. I didn't play B/X when I was 12 so when I read that game for the first time I was coming to it fresh, no matter how old I was.

    2. I like structure. To have clearly-defined bounds for what "an adventure" means makes it easier for me to run the game. It doesn't change the fact that I can make shit up, change things and that what we say and do during the game is of prime importance, but having that structured framework to support play makes it better for me, personally.

    3. Interactions between subsystems. If the rules say, for example, "give out xp at the end of the adventure" and there's no clear definition of adventure then it basically becomes "give out xp whenever", but maybe there's a reason why the rules say at the end of the adventure. If I don't like that reason I can still change things, right? Having specific instructions is not limiting to me any more than lacking them. I think a lot of the problems that later editions of D&D have came about precisely because people didn't head the instructions of the original games, ran into problems and tried to fix them.

    In a way that's obviously awesome. Experimenting and changing things around is an essential part of what we do. But when people say stuff like "You can't do anything in 4E except use your powers." that's obviously a not a problem with playing the game as instructed but playing the game against instruction. It's your own fault.

    4. The challenge. There's a challenge in trying to play a game "as intended". Post death of the author and deconstruction that's obviously a vain attempt, but it doesn't mean it's not challenging. There's a thrill in trying to follow the written word as literally as possible, it's an exploration of system, trying to find out where it works out and where it breaks down. While 85% of my DMing in years past has been "let's play the way we like and use these books just as a platform", I definitely enjoy trying to stick to the books. Call it research if you want. You play exactly how the book says and then you see how right or how wrong it goes and you learn something new.
  • edited April 2012
    Any game is an instruction on the practice of playing that particular game. But some games are written with a slightly skewed purpose in mind; to have the reader of the game imagine how the game would play out, but not actually play it*. It suffice to have the reader enjoy the imagination of playing. That makes the instructions themselves a kind of art ...

    - so; of course it gives joy to read a piece of well formed instructive art. ;-)

    * Some examples of pure instructive art may be found in the thread 5 minutes game-challenge.
  • I'm not 100% on what precisely you mean by instruction manual, but I'm going to write from my understanding of what you're saying. Hope I'm on the same page as you.

    Your #1 and #4 are the big ones for me. The instruction manual sort of setup is helpful to me in telling you what your game is supposed to be, how you intend for it to be played and how that way differs from how you play other games. The lines in AW/DW about how you're not supposed to plan an adventure beforehand are a good example in my mind - this is something different about these games from many others, and you need to know that since the game isn't built to function at full capacity if you violate the instruction. It's something that even veteran roleplayers may need to know since the game is different from many others.
    Should games be made so that they only provide instructions for things that are specifically different or special about a game though? Essentially, should we go with what Zak said and simply presume that they know what they're doing? I think Don't Rest Your Head does this, right? It says up front that it's going to generally assume you're familiar with RPGs and then proceeds to provide instruction for what makes the game different. The super-mainstreams, the current editions of D&D and such, can't presume that since a large part of their goal is to bring people in who AREN'T familiar with the game. However, I think that a lot of our more "specialist" games have an opportunity to ignore that instruction manual feel. In my mind right now I'm seeing Ghost/Echo - it's a page of setting inspiration and a page of rules, with very little instruction.

    And you mention the "You can't do anything in 4e except use your powers" thing. I know this is against the explicit instructions, but is it possible that the way that the entire game is built in terms of powers (not just class specific ones, but skill powers and even simple things like the basic melee/ranged and bull rush and grapple) is carrying a contradictory implicit instruction that you ARE only supposed to use powers? The general standard 4e public seems to have zeroed in on using just powers a lot of the time and thinking in those terms, so it's strange to think that none of them caught the explicit instruction and are going with a potentially much stronger IMPLICIT instruction? If so, how do you solve something like that, reconcile that contradiction. I mean, people who read carefully won't fall into that implicit instruction, do you just need to make that explicit instruction harder to overlook?
    This bit is sort of off-topic though, I think the point of this thread is more talking about explicit instructions.
  • edited April 2012
    I asked this question very specifically in a context that has been lost here.

    Someone said they like Old School D&D versions and clones which have instructions more than D&Ds and clones which don't.

    Since the instructions in any one of them could just as well apply to all of them, I didn't see why an experience GM/player would like the instruction-containing one more than the others.

    I can see thinking it's better put together as a product, but not how it would benefit you personally.

    It seems like saying even though you already know how to put your pants on, you like the pants that come with instructions better than the ones without.
  • Posted By: Zak SI asked this question very specifically in a context that has been lost here.

    Someone said they like Old School D&D versions and clones which have instructions more than D&Ds and clones which don't.

    Since the instructionsin any one of themcould just as well applyto all of them,I didn't see why an experience GM/player would like the instruction-containing one more than the others.

    I can see thinking it's better put together as a product, but not how it would benefit you personally.

    It seems like saying even though you already know how to put your pants on, you like the pants that come with instructions better than the ones without.
    I honestly didn't get that context from the original thread.

    But yes, put in that context then it's more or less meaningless.

    Except in the sense that any new player might pick up any of those games and thus it's better for all of them to have instructions, because they might all be someone's first game.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: Teataine1. Not all games are supposed to be run the same.
    Very much so. My current mob have been playing trad RPGs for yonks, and have played a dozen or twenty. Now we're alternating Spirit of the Century with Bushido. And they don't get Spirit of the Century and grumble that it doesn't work properly—because they expect it to do something that it isn't meant to do. (It doesn't help particularly that half of them won't read it, but depend on others to read it and tell them how the systems work.)

    I think that this is quite important for Story Games. Not only might any of them be picked up by a novice roleplayer, but any of them might be picked up by a gamer with a background in GM-dominated resolution-based games.


    Another thing is that a game lacking instructions is incomplete, this might be an aesthetical consideration rather than a practical one. It's like painting the tops of architraves. I never look at the tops of architraves except perhaps when I am on a ladder changing a light bulb, but it annoys me every time I dust one if they aren't painted, because they just ought to be.
  • Posted By: Zak SSince the instructionsin any one of themcould just as well applyto all of them,I didn't see why an experience GM/player would like the instruction-containing one more than the others.
    I don't think that's true. What a 4e DM does is different from what a BECMI DM does. Just the DM budget alone is proof of that, but you can also compare two modules.

    And also this:
    Posted By: TeataineExcept in the sense that any new player might pick up any of those games and thus it's better for all of them to have instructions, because they might all be someone's first game.
    In practice, most RPG gamers play one and exactly one game during their time in the hobby: The Current Edition of D&D. So this is actually quite important.
  • What else would they be?
  • People can and will and do change how they play a game. But the more specific and clear the game is about "how to play," the easier those folks can make those changes.
  • Zak, I think you may need to make some room in your head that not all roleplayers are, or even should be,of one mind on this.

    Some players treat "game" as a general category of activity. Some players treat "game" as structured activity with explicit procedures and goals.
  • Posted By: Zak SI asked this question very specifically in a context that has been lost here.

    Someone said they like Old School D&D versions and clones which have instructions more than D&Ds and clones which don't.

    Since the instructionsin any one of themcould just as well applyto all of them,I didn't see why an experience GM/player would like the instruction-containing one more than the others.

    I can see thinking it's better put together as a product, but not how it would benefit you personally.

    It seems like saying even though you already know how to put your pants on, you like the pants that come with instructions better than the ones without.
    Context is totally important. I stand by that statement in the context of OSR games. Each plays a bit differently, and so it's useful to me to have each actually tell me how to play.

    Take Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Adventurer, Conqueror, King. In Lamentations I'm told to not use stock monsters (there are none in the book). It's a game of weird fantasy with some horror and mystery, so that makes sense. In Adventurer, Conqueror, King, there's an encyclopedia of beasts ready to be used and I'm expected to make use of them (and the players are expected to gain some familiarity with them). If I use stock monsters with LotFP it may work just fine, but from what the author says and what I see in the rules it seems like it could end up pretty boring. It's useful for me to know the default so that I can at least know when I'm going beyond what the game was designed for.

    In reverse, ACKS tells me to set up a fantastic world in which the players can grow to a role of power. Lamentations tells me to make a largely "real" world where the players will, if they're lucky, accumulate some small power. If my ACKS world doesn't have multiple cities and regions and so on a lot of the rules for, say, running a Thieves' Guild fall a little flat.

    Stretching a bit to the edges of OSR, Moldvay tells me to run adventures that cover the moment they enter the dungeon to when they leave and divvy up treasure. Stars Without Number would be sorely lacking if I only covered the adventure part, the larger game of managing factions and ships is a huge part of why that game rocks. (Moldvay is certainly not Renaissance and SWN is not fantasy, so take them or leave them, but they're both in that style and are great games.)

    There are plenty of instructions to one OSR game that wouldn't apply to another OSR game. And, even if two games do share a lot of the same instructions, I don't know that until they both include those instructions. So I'd prefer to have that text in the game. It's useful to me.

    There are, as other people have mentioned, a ton of other reasons too: they make it easier to hand to someone else, they give me insight into what's in the designer's head, and so on.
  • edited April 2012
    Posted By: ndpWhat else would they be?
    A collection of procedures for resolving specific tasks.

    In the original context I was talking about bits of Moldvay that actually lay down procedures of play, like adventures starting with the players entering the dungeon and the DM then telling them what they see. The game that doesn't tell you at all how to play is probably a straw man, but I'm thinking of the difference between, say, Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Into the Odd. (No slight against Into the Odd, it's still a short playtest document so it's totally excusable that it doesn't give very clear procedures yet.) Lamentations clearly tells me as the GM what to do and how to do it, Into the Odd has a few gems of advice but otherwise leaves me to my own devices.

    The original context was "why do you love OSR games?" This style of actual instructions on how to play is something I see a lot more in OSR games than many of RPGs. DC Adventures, for example, gives me less instruction on how to actually run a superhero adventure than LotFP does on how to run a weird fantasy game.
  • It's also nice when a game tells you what it's for.

    take yourself back to 1996....
    AD&D session 1:
    - gnome fighter wanders around, gets into a couple of fights with wandering monsters.

    AD&D session 2:
    - gnome fighter and half-elf druid team up, get into a fight with a boar.

    We sort of had fun, but we got the feeling that, without buying a module, we weren't playing it "right". We had no one to answer this question for us, either, so we just decided to rip off tropes from video games and Braveheart for our games, until I got into college and heard about the Forge and encountered games that more explicitly tell the reader how to use them, without needing as much social context.

    Honestly, without reading the Old School Zen essay, I'd have assumed all D&D games were Carnegie town (i.e. railroads! lololol). To see proof that this is not so is nothing short of delightful, especially because I have always wanted to enjoy D&D and it took the OSR for me to be capable of doing so.
  • Posted By: Zak S

    Since the instructionsin any one of themcould just as well applyto all of them,I didn't see why an experience GM/player would like the instruction-containing one more than the others.

    Agreed, assuming I already know how to play, then all the game needs to do is explain the exceptions, like "dude, in this game armor doesn't count against werewolves."

    Though if I'm new to an OSR game, I need at least one of them to tell me the basics. What if I never learned to put on pants! I might end up looking like Chris Cross, and then all I'll be able to do is warm it up or jump. OMG the horror.

    My understanding of Sage's original comment was that he appreciated the instructions as someone who likes to make games, not so much as someone who needed them. But I could be wrong. I sometimes often am.
  • Matt, see my posts above. I feel like those exceptions are so common that I want a game to explain to me how to play in concrete terms. Like what if some OSR games still had a Caller? I'd have no clue how to do that!

    Basically, I find gaming way more diverse in usage than pants.
  • I am experienced GM, but I grew up playing Marvel Superheroes and Toon (D&D was banished for being evil). So here I am, 30 years old, with no real idea how to play D&D and I'd like to. Those instructions are handy!
  • I didn't think D&D was/is the entirety of the OSR experience. I mean... is it?

    The reason I ask is that, say, the Glorantha experience and the D&D experience, both as social phenomena and as procedural phenonmena, are pretty different. Or Rolemaster. Or Tunnels & Trolls. We didn't get into those games (just) because we wanted better physics engines.

    Historically speaking the whole "all RPing is the same, rules don't change that" thing was born out of a later generation of players. I guess that's one part of what confuses the heck out of me about OSR advocacy that doesn't take that into account.
  • Posted By: Paul BI didn't think D&D was/is the entirety of the OSR experience. I mean... is it?
    99% of the games and books I see coming out of the OSR, or people who identify with it, are built on the D&D chassis. That seems to send a pretty clear message, at least from where I stand outside the movement. You get the occasional discussion or hat-tip to Traveller, Gamma World, or Call of Cthulhu, or more rarely Tekumel, but the general discourse seems to pretty firmly be about D&D.
  • edited April 2012
    Could the diversity of takes on "instruction" be an argument for partitioned product design?

    Stick the "basic how to play" instructions in one chapter, the "specifically what you do every second" mandates in another chapter, and the "here are some tools and toys" worky bits in another chapter.

    Groups who already love their own formula, or love winging it, can just read the third chapter. Groups who want to be told exactly how to play, as per most board games, can read all the chapters. Folks who are in between can read the first and third chapters, getting the gist and the tools, but skipping the details that'd feel constraining to them.
  • Posted By: Joe McGuffinPosted By: Paul BI didn't think D&D was/is the entirety of the OSR experience. I mean... is it?
    99% of the games and books I see coming out of the OSR, or people who identify with it, are built on the D&D chassis. That seems to send a pretty clear message, at least from where I stand outside the movement. You get the occasional discussion or hat-tip to Traveller, Gamma World, or Call of Cthulhu, or more rarely Tekumel, but the general discourse seems to pretty firmly be about D&D.

    True dat. I'd expect an OSR type ook at something like my much loved Lords of Creation or Gangbusters would have a much different approach taken.
  • Posted By: Zak SIt seems like saying even though you already know how to put your pants on, you like the pants that come with instructions better than the ones without.
    I would like that too!

    I'm the sort of guy who's always reading Preambles and Forewords and Afterwords and those sorts of things. Glimpses behind the curtain, peeks at the great sausage-making machinery.

    I mean to say that I like these sorts of things as ornamentations of form, not mere utilitarian bits of function.

    That being said, if I never see another piece of in-character fiction in a game book, I'll be entirely happy.
  • "The greatest enemy is improper use of the gamevehicle for some purpose other than its intended one" - E. Gary Gygax, Role Playing Mastery 1987
  • Posted By: Snake_Eyes"The greatest enemy is improper use of the gamevehicle for some purpose other than its intended one" - E. Gary Gygax, Role Playing Mastery 1987
    Wow. I have never seen that quote before.
  • Posted By: Zak SIt seems like saying even though you already know how to put your pants on, you like the pants that come with instructions better than the ones without.
    Actually, it's more like saying even though you know how to put your pants on, no one else needs to be taught how to wear pants.

    Using that same metaphor, there are a lot of people showing up to play wearing pants differently. A lot of people wear no belt. Some groups require all players to wear a belt. Others don't care, but do care about your jacket and tie. Some like to let their pants hang lower than their hips. Others prefer a waist line above the belly button. Others hate the idea of pants entirely and mostly wear shorts or skirts or nothing at all.

    Or maybe it's a bad metaphor. Pretty much everyone past the age of 5 knows how to wear pants. And even though it took most of us 4 or more years of almost daily practice - first wearing pants then putting them on - we consider it an easy task. I don't see how that relates to gaming at all, except to imply that people who want instructions for games are not as competent as a five year old who can dress herself.

    Gaming is a complex skillset. A lot of people have used algebra, but I don't trust that everyone I meet could do so with proficiency. A chess set without instructions would be considered defective by many, though you could play it. What about a chessboard with checker pieces? What if it included pieces that are completely unfamiliar? Is it still like chess? Would an instruction manual telling you the basics of how to move pieces be useless?

    A card deck without instructions is just a tool. Am I going to play poker or hearts? Maybe I can trust that a person knowns that hearts and more valuable than clubs. But what about aces over kings? What about these Joker cards? What's the numberical value of the Queen and does it matter?

    The ways to play on chess boards or use a deck of cards are pretty varied. But the possibilities of the ways to play a roleplaying game are moreso. Heck, the definition of what defines a roleplaying game is cause for contention. That's still true even if you are limiting your scope to "old school" games.

    With all that in mind, why wouldn't you want an instruction manual as your game text? What would that accomplish? What are the benefits? What does that mean about the audience? Where do you draw the line on elements that are too basic to go over? Is it worthwhile to provide a reference for concepts not covered in the book just in case?
  • I feel like my experience of reading Ars Magica 4th edition and coming away with a better sense of what happens between adventures than what happens in an adventure fits here. I've read the rules for lots of things, but still feel the need for instructions sometimes.
  • edited April 2012
    Post #12 (by Sage): +1
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