In Defense of the World of Things (On Weapons and the Wick/Justice Debate)
I recently re-read two articles on game design theory, one by John Wick and one, a rebuttal, by Rob Justice. While I personally think Rob's rebuttal is compelling, one aspect of Wick's article does not receive proper examination or rebuttal.
"More important question. In fact, perhaps the most important question: how do any of those things–range modifiers, rate of fire, burst fire, slashing, piercing, etc.–help you tell stories?
Just a moment ago, I called weapon lists one of the most common features in roleplaying games. These things are not features. They’re bugs. And it’s time to get rid of them.
Why? Because they’re screwing up your game. They’re distracting you from the focus of the game.
Because the focus of an RPG is to tell stories."
"Like everyone else, I had become a slave to the IKEA nesting instinct... I would flip through catalogs and wonder, "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" We used to read pornography. Now it was the Horchow Collection."
-Jack, Fight Club
These are understandable and laudable sentiments; both show appropriate distain for fixating and fetishizing objects at the expense of what is "truly important." Both sentiments, however, set up a false dichotomy. Without getting too esoteric, the choice in game design is not between Wick's narrative Gnosticism and World of Warcraft's rampant Materialism (in both the philosophical and economic sense). Games require rules, stories require a world and both of these require an internal logic to make them function. To deny the importance of material objects is to deny a world its physics (not by accident referred to as "natural philosophy") just as to deify material objects is to rob the story of its humanity.
I would offer up as guidance the most often quoted and misquoted statements on our relation to the world of things: "For the love of money is the root of all evil" (Timothy, 6:10). A very important part of that quotation is often dropped; it is not money, but the love of money, which causes problems. Similarly, it is not weapon tables but the love of weapon tables that impedes good story-telling. Put another way, gun stats don't kill stories; people enthralled with gun stats kill stories, which is not to say that sensible gun stat regulation isn't a good idea.
Of Teacups and Thumbs
In a moment of supreme irony, John uses the examples of Riddick killing a man with a teacup and Col. Alan Caldwell to demonstrate why weapon choice doesn't matter and, in doing so, misses the narrative point of both scenes. The sticky thing about equivalence is that it runs in both directions; if a sword is as good as a teacup, then a teacup is as good as a sword. I challenge anyone to watch Riddick kill a man with a teacup and say "that scene would have the exact same dramatic impact if Riddick used a machete." Similarly, I challenge anyone to watch Caldwell demolish a man using only his right thumb then say, with a straight face, "you know, that would have been just as impressive if he used one of those collapsible batons."
Both of those scenes derive their narrative significance from the fact that we know, without consulting tables or statistics, that a teacup is not equivalent to a sword and that pummeling a man with one thumb is distinguishable from doing so with a collapsible baton. Both scenes are memorable precisely because of weapon choice; it is, in fact, the choice of weapon that does the heavy lifting. The scenes proffered as evidence that weapon choice doesn't matter are actually the scenes where weapon choice matters most.
Objects as Extensions of Character
When a "white hat" or a "knight in shining armor" comes up in conversation, we instinctively know what these terms refer to even if we give little thought to how they came to be. The tropes which gave birth to them, however, are telling; they arose from a kind of narrative shorthand and that shorthand does not require obsessive exploration of hat or armor design to be effective. We experience this visual shorthand every day and while we may not understand all the nuances of fashion, we understand it enough to make it a multi-billion dollar industry. Hollywood spends untold dollars and man-hours determining just how characters should look and these images tell stories as surely as any other part of the film: we learn something from the fact that Luke is wearing white in A New Hope and wearing black in Return of the Jedi.
Material possessions can say a great deal about a character, as can the way a character comports himself toward them. We know a great deal about a unkempt character in ratty clothes meticulously cleaning his sword. In The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Tuco goes from a somewhat comical and bumbling character to a card carrying bad-ass in one scene and precious few words beyond "revolvers." In For a Few Dollars More we learn a great deal about Douglas Moritmer simply from the presence of his arsenal and his weapon selection for each situation. In the first six minutes of the film, the character has said very little, yet a large amount of information has been communicated.
When gear reflects the choices of the character and those choices are non-trivial, these objects enhance the richness of the world and the game. There is absolutely no reason that objects cannot be extensions of the character, even if they are not critical. In a Q&A, John once said "Nobody cares about Wesley’s sword in The Princess Bride;" while this might be true, people most certainly would care if it were a battleaxe, a claymore, or even a stout and rusty cutlass. "No one cares" because the choice was a good one; that does not mean that the choice was trivial. In film and fiction we know the "wrong" choices when we see them; fortunately they are few and far between and seldom appear in works worthy of remembrance.
When gear reflects the desire of a player to be "fully optimized" or to gain some statistical advantage, then it becomes clutter and ought to be eliminated. There can be a fine line here in some systems, especially those in which weapons are intended to go along with certain builds and certain styles of play, but most of us can recall a character or two carrying a weapon or wearing armor that just didn't "work." I have found that this sort of thing occurs in rough proportion to the number of columns in the weapons table; the more rules which must interact, the more loopholes are created.
The question, really, is what level of distinction is best for the roleplaying game. Roleplaying games are not stories; they involve stories and storytelling, but they are not stories (or at the very least, not just stories). Roleplaying games are distinguished from stories by a set of agreed upon rules governing what can and can't happen. Roleplaying games are not purely games either, if only because the rules do not define the conditions of "winning" or "losing;" only the players and GM can determine what constitutes a win or a loss for each character and player. Additionally, a player can "win" (have a good time) even if his character "loses" (fails or even dies).
In the end, what I believe to be the goal in design of a roleplaying game is to have enough rules to make the physics of the world believable and discernible but not so many rules that the game becomes a joyless slog through equations. So what then, is the answer? Fortunately, we do not have to look far for the answer, as we already know it. The answer, in my opinion, is precisely "what we know without having to think."
We know a dagger is not a sword, but we do not know it is not a knife without thought. We know a rifle is not a pistol and we know a blunderbuss works differently. We know a hatchet is not a halberd. We know a rapier is not a writing desk, but we need to take a moment to discern why it is not a saber.
These distinctions are intuitive and their absence is jarring, undermining the physics of the world. Other distinctions are academic, and can be discarded. "Gun Porn" is not gun porn because it has details about guns, it is gun porn because those details have no redeeming narrative value. Narrative value alone should be the standard. Now, sell me on a scene where "Riddick kills a man with... oh, does it even matter?"
“Every normal man must be tempted at times to spit on his hands, hoist the black flag, and begin to slit throats.”
- H.L. Mencken