The Seven-Sided Die

Roleplaying games are like music genres

Posted Thursday July 30, 2009 at 10:41 PM

In the beginning there were sticks banged on things and voices raised to the sky. It was the earliest music, and it was full of passion and primitive technique.[1. Note that I have no idea what I'm talking about since I'm not a music historian. Just run with the metaphor for the sake of grasping the argument. The exact history of music isn't relevant to the parallel I draw.] I have no doubt that Mozart and Metallica represent vast improvements in musical technique, but it's worth noting that neither drumming nor simple vocal music have been displaced by more "advanced" forms of music.

Roleplaying games are kind of like music in that way. There are a lot (and I mean a lot) of people who see later editions of (A)D&D as natural evolutions of the earlier editions, and then make the logical leap that the "more evolved" version is inherently better. Certainly, the state of the art has advanced and later editions have taken advantage of mechanical innovations that have proved to be good. However, if the incorporation of new techniques was all it took to make a new thing that is better in every way than an older thing, nobody today would listen to jazz given the existence of ska. In the case of music it's blindingly obvious that different genres have different æsthetic appeal regardless of how long ago they were invented.

So what is it that keeps roleplayers from recognising that older games have distinct styles and æsthetic appeals that many people appreciate? I suspect part of it is that the style of play can be, in part, disconnected from the rules system being used to evoke that style. Groups using D&D 4e can certainly use it to play political epics, and fans of AD&D 2nd Edition can use it for simple dungeon-crawling adventures that are little more than a string of tactics-heavy combat encounters. The stereotypical play style of any given system can be embodied using almost any other rules system. I think that this leads a lot of roleplayers to believe that using a more recent set of rules is nothing more significant than upgrading your computer's operating system—you can still play the same games as before, so clearly it is better to use the more advanced system.

To a point, this is true. If White Wolf's Storyteller system nicely supports the particular play style of your existing AD&D 1e campaign, but offers you even more system features that would suit your play style, it certainly makes sense to "upgrade" to Storyteller. I can imagine a group playing the sort of game where making that particular switch would be perfectly sensible, but would anyone argue that the play styles that original Storyteller and AD&D 1e were naturally suited to were identical on the strength of one single group's ability to fit their play style into both systems? Nobody being reasonable would make that argument. In the same way that blues and jazz are similar but distinctly different, so too different roleplaying systems can be similar but have their own distinct "naturally suited" feel and play style.

This thought was inspired by a comment on a Knights & Knaves forum post responding to common arguments against the existence of the old-school revival/renaissance:

You could ask a delta bluesman to start rapping, but wouldn't you rather hear the old guy play the blues?

I'm not really interested in debating the specifics of the original post, only in thinking about the statement that underlies the post and the quote above: The OSR is about continuing to enjoy a particular play style, not about rejecting system innovation outright. It so happens that those old games were "naturally suited" to that play style, and that many games that came later were better at a different sort of play style. But, like jazz and other styles of music continue to develop in parallel with the genres that have "evolved" from them, we can continue to develop new techniques and systems that are good for that old play style in parallel with system and play styles that have evolved from it. Imagine a world in which fans of jazz, baroque, or drum circles were scoffed at and belittled as being merely nostalgic. Crazy, right?

Besides, we all want roleplaying to endure as a hobby. If we insist that only the latest is the greatest, then we're dooming our hobby to be merely a perpetual fad with no meaningful continuity or staying power. Looking around I'm heartened to see that this just isn't happening. There is a lot of diversity, and a lot of people moving around between systems and play styles.

So keep playing and sharing what you like. Try unfamiliar play styles just as you would try listening to unfamiliar genres of music when friends share what they like. You might just discover something you never knew you were looking for, and maybe in the process you'll find that, like taste in music, there's no final reckoning for anyone's roleplaying style.

Comments (18)

Callan S.

Friday July 31, 2009 at 05:25 AM

I'm inclined to actually say that early games, and alot of games now, don't have little or no music in them. They have a bunch of notes scattered across the pages and then groups seem to make something workable of it but say it was the game that did it, rather than them.

I don't see enough content in traditional RPG's to have a style (And indie RPG's haven't quite gotten out of that either)

I think some people actually want that because basically, when a game has no real content, they play the same old way they've always played, but they kid themselves they've tried something new. It's staying in the comfort zone but enjoying the illusion of risk taking.

Friday July 31, 2009 at 06:39 AM

D7: Good post.

Callan: Some scattered notes are easier to flesh out in some directions, others to other ones. Also, your characterisation of traditional games as bunches of scattered notes is quite a strong claim; do you want to provide some arguments to defend it?

Callan S.

Saturday August 01, 2009 at 05:16 AM

What type of evidence do you accept? Often in discussing these things I try and provide some evidence, only to find the other person dismisses it as an evidence type - usually several posts in, of course. Then they say they are tired.

Anyway, one quick one is try writing up the rules in a traditional game in flowchart format, without adding anything that isn't in the book. You'll find lots of bits of flowchart aren't attached to any other bit of flowchart. Just floating notes.


Saturday August 01, 2009 at 08:20 AM

This is an interesting discussion. I have my own thoughts on the relation of play style and system, but they would hew off in a different direction and derail it.

Monday August 03, 2009 at 06:13 PM


If one looks at roleplaying games as formal games, what you say is true to significant extent.

If one looks at them as enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling, what you are saying is simply irrelevant.

My default assumption is the latter.


Please do not let me and Callan steal your blog. We have this habit of getting into huge rambling arguments.


Tuesday August 04, 2009 at 03:19 AM

@Callan: I seem to have a talent for uncovering the intent behind a set of rules, for better or worse. With Burning Wheel and 4e I actually went too far into focusing on the stuff unique to the systems, such that I forgot to import some of my own "same old way" and they didn't work very well. So, I see what you mean by a disconnected set of notes. Still, I find that even obviously disconnected sets of notes can have a strong character, if you can divine how the designer meant the game to feel. AD&D, for instance, has a strong feel to it due to the writing and the sorts of stories to which it lends itself well, and it's a very disconnected set of mechanics.

@thanuir: No worries. I would be pleased to sit on the sidelines if there were a vigorous debate here that I just happen to have nothing to contribute to. I can always jump in if I have something to say. Besides, that was also partly a cop-out for my lack of time to comment then. ;)

Callan S.

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 05:37 AM


If I look at it in a way that makes my points irrelevant, then my points are irrelevant?

Yes. Yes, they would be.

I don't really have a problem if any/all 'roleplay' games are intended and sold as enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling. As long as that's printed on the cover or blurb.

But here we'll no doubt get into something that roleplay games are so much about being enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling, they don't need to actually tell anyone they are not formal games.

I'll just raise my hand and say when I encountered roleplay games for the first time, I took them to be formal games. Badly written formal games. I saw alot of potential for a well written formal game (fallout 3 is a video game example of what I had in mind from the start (well, all the fallouts, really)).

I've got this uncanny feeling that yes, I'll be told that roleplay games don't have to inform anyone they are enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling and not formal games. As if people can buy an RPG, expecting a formal game like the rest of the market sells, and it's okay if they don't get a formal game. Is my spider sense wrong?

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 04:50 PM

I am saying that the claim you are making depends on very particular assumptions (that roleplaying games are formal games).

I have little idea on how roleplaying games are marketed. I don't have much interest in that, either. I like roleplaying as an activity and it is very easy to teach people by showing. The games are utterly seconday, really, to me.



Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 07:15 PM

For that matter, I don't see most roleplaying games as formal systems. In fact, that might be a defining characteristic for me to see something as a roleplaying game.

It seems to me that the common story around people's discovery of roleplaying games is, "I opened this book/box and fell in love with the idea of a game where my characters could do anything," in contrast with the fixed choices of formal games such as board games or video games.

So, coming from that perspective I don't consider games like OD&D to be formal, and hence they do have a "feel" or "music" to them when I read or play them.

(This is probably part of my problem with 4e. It is far too formal for me to feel like it's offering me a world to play in. Instead it feels like it's offering a set of rules to manipulate, which happen to have some window dressing, much like a board game.)

Callan S.

Wednesday August 05, 2009 at 11:40 PM

Tommi, no, my claim doesn't rest purely on assumptions. I'd grant that, if RPG's, even just a few, had on the front cover or in the blurb, that they are enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling, then they are. See, I would take that as evidence my assumption is wrong, atleast for those games, and perhaps for all RPGs. I can be proven wrong on this - it's not just me pushing an assumption.

Does your assumption have a way it could be proven wrong? Because if it doesn't, how can I prove it wrong?

How can we talk about RPG's being like music genres, if there is no method to prove they aren't? Providing another assumption without a method to disprove it, is not supporting evidence.


Thursday August 06, 2009 at 12:01 AM

Keep in mind that meaning is not a formal system, so not every statement a person can make is provable. I merely put forward an argument to persuade the reader to accept an analogy, not to logically prove a structural identity.

The purpose of an analogy is to establish common ground for building fruitful discussion and insights. If the analogy doesn't work for the reader, there isn't much I can do.

Callan S.

Thursday August 06, 2009 at 12:58 AM

But isn't the analogy there to eventually result in physical actions/deeds?

If the analogy is wrong, then the eventual physical, real world action will be as well, wont it? I know were just talking, but eventually it'll lead to us physically acting, right?


Thursday August 06, 2009 at 01:15 AM

If it was an engineering analogy, sure. But this is a matter of culture and belief, which can be neither right nor wrong, but merely useful for encouraging and discouraging particular social interactions.

I put forward the analogy to say, "Hey, how you play is a matter of taste, just like what music you like is a matter of taste. Live and let live." The analogy to music is merely persuasive, not logical. I'm using it as an intuition pump to get the reader to consider my conclusion, which is that they should play what they like and respect the fact that other people will play what they like.

As a bonus, if the analogy is persuasive it become plausible in the mind of the reader that "old" styles of play are not "primitive" or "less evolved", merely different.

Getting the analogy to be accepted wasn't my purpose, merely a tool to get people to think about play styles differently than seems to be the norm these days. Just changing a few minds would be a "success" for this post, so I don't need or expect it to work for everyone, nor do I need the analogy to be a perfect 1:1 correspondence.

(Besides, if you want to get philosophical, no analogy has 1:1 correspondence between its two parts. If it did it would not be an analogy, but rather an identity statement.)

Callan S.

Thursday August 06, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Well, with the gaps I refer to, it often doesn't seem to be repeatedly banging on a drum or howling at the sky - it seems to be doing them every so often, with long gaps in between. I think the nar essay on the forge refers to some accounts of that.

In terms of someone regularly beating on a drum and/or howling at the sky, so to speak, I take your point. Indeed I'd say it's beneficial to go back to origins, every so often.

Friday August 07, 2009 at 05:26 AM

I’d grant that, if RPG’s, even just a few, had on the front cover or in the blurb, that they are enhancements and modifications to freeform storytelling, then they are. See, I would take that as evidence my assumption is wrong, atleast for those games, and perhaps for all RPGs. I can be proven wrong on this - it’s not just me pushing an assumption.

As mentioned, I don't know how roleplaying games are marketed and I don't particularly care, either. The first time I happened upon the idea that they should be formal games was, I think, some times after I happened upon the Forge community.

Does your assumption have a way it could be proven wrong? Because if it doesn’t, how can I prove it wrong?

I offered you another way of looking at roleplaying games that explains the phenomenon you noticed. I have no intention of proving anything to you. You can, at your discretion, consider this other perspective or ignore it. I find having several possible perspectives on any one thing to be valuable and useful; your mileage may again vary.

How can we talk about RPG’s being like music genres, if there is no method to prove they aren’t?

I think it is a new perspective from which to look at roleplaying. Correct and incorrect are useless ways of looking at it; a more pragmatic point of view is applicable. Does the perspective offer some new insights? If yes, it certainly is valuable.

Callan S.

Saturday August 08, 2009 at 11:39 PM

I really took this thread to be, to a degree atleast, about RPG designers improving their own skills. Especially with the references to games evolving and such.

Tommi, in terms of them improving their skill, offering a perspective doesn't go anywhere. If the designer intended an aid to freeform imagining/not a formal game, but doesn't write that on the games cover in a world that's full of formal games, at the very least he's screwing up in terms of communicating.

Sunday August 09, 2009 at 05:11 PM

As far as I'm concerned, new perspectives are extremely valuable for improving my thinking, hence all cerebral skills. (New perspectives may also help with other skills, but not as reliably).

As mentioned, I am not interested nor knowledgeable in how roleplaying games are marketed. I may become interested if I decide to publish something, but in my current situation, I am simply not interested.


Monday December 07, 2009 at 07:48 PM

I actually wrote this more as an anti-edition-wars post. I thought of it as being directed more at groups than at designers, especially the parts that talk about "your group" and switching between established but different systems.