Tuesday 4 September 2012

From One-Nerd Game to Multi-Nerd Game

People who write about role-playing games sometimes harken back to a Golden Age of the olden hobby. In this white box dreamtime, the nerd did sit down with the jock and everyone in school was swept up in this crazy D&D fad, before [your least favorite edition] happened and everything collapsed.
The last time D&D was ever marketed to cool people.

Others quest for an El Dorado, a revitalized hobby scented by Febreze instead of cat piss. In this odyssey, families, regular folks, and the ever elusive middle aged soccer mom are skilfully steered clear of all things stigmatizing, difficult and awkward - lost sheep emerging into an engrossing world of participatory narrative that they never knew.

These twin idylls are probably distorted and certainly unrealistic as a characterization of the past or the conceivable future. They read like the “glorious past, glorious future” thinking of extremist terrorist groups (pdf link) although I’ll allow that those who follow roleplaying dreams destroy only disk space on forum servers.

All the same, many of us have glimpsed the possibilities. The impromptu game on a train with an utter non-gamer. The clique of punks in my high school who ran a wild mishmash of Runequest and D&D. And the Eden myth is somewhat true - earlier versions of the rules are more friendly to non-geek play. This is not because the rules themselves were readable and playable by the average person – quite the opposite! Rather, it’s because they invested most of the rules knowledge in the referee.

The approach up through AD&D was to give the DM authority and keep as much of the rules secret as possible. The DM Guide was supposed to be a secret from the players, the attack and saving throw matrices locked away inside its covers and behind the sacred screen. Skill use was entirely the province of the DM.

This meant that players could take a naive, analog approach to the game. With no rules knowledge at all, they could proceed by just saying, “I do this, does it work?” More to the point, they didn’t need to be confronted with a wall of stats and procedures. It’s not that they had no agency; it’s that their agency was completely in-character.

And then the nerds ruined it for everyone else; the way that, buying cases of cards at a time, they destroyed Richard Garfield’s vision for Magic: The Gathering as an ever-unfolding surprise. The nerds had to know what they needed to hit armor class zero; they had to have clearly defined skill procedures; eventually, they had to have feats and powers to feel special. As character options< became more complex, optimized builds became a focus and obsession. Instead of the wall of nerd elitism stopping at the DM screen, it grew to enfold the whole playgroup.

So D&D stopped being a one-nerd game and started being a multi-nerd game. Rule systems that put everything up front, no matter how simple, miss this point. To get non-nerd players into the game, you don’t need to increase their sense of understanding or control over the rules. In fact, you want them to ignore the rules and trust the referee. And that’s something you can’t buy in a store – a DM who is socially skilled, deeply knowledgeable, and trustworthy.


  1. I started out totally agreeing with you... but then I put on my 3.X hat, and wondered if an enterprising DM couldn't run a 3.X game in the old school way by shifting all the rules-crunch knowledge to their side of the screen?

    In reality though, that's how 4E went - our players weren't interested in copious time spent optimizing and learning system mastery, I filled the gap as DM, and burnout was inevitable. If I as DM am handling the rules burden, I want to do it with a simple system I actually like.

    1. Where the 3.X hat would start to cramp is in what the players are doing with their character builds. You would pretty much have to do that for them, too, and hope they didn't notice the difference in in-game power as a result of "just wanting to play" different types and concepts.

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  3. - You must be this obsessive to play -

    That kept me out of chess club, several sports and fashion design. But not out of DnD or CoC or even GURPS, each of which I learned just enough to get playing. I think you're right!

  4. One are where old D&D fall down in this respect is it's use of multiple die mechanics. It is better for new players if every time they try to do something they can just pick up the dice and roll without having to check first what die to use and whether they want high or low.

    1. I've heard this argument a lot, but I've never actually seen it make a difference at the table. 4E is "d20 roll high" all the way, but it was much more difficult for new players to get into in my experience than B/X with its multitude of die mechanics. The referee just tells the player what to roll and what they want. You're a thief, roll under this percentile number. You're a fighter, roll high on a d20. You're a cleric, roll high on 2d6 to turn those undead. Not an obstacle, as long as the ref knows the rules.

      The downside (procrustean bed) outweighs the upside (simplicity) of core mechanics in my opinion.

  5. Good post, the last paragraph is wonderfull.
    I can't really say about one-nerdity or multi-nerdity but the last paragraph really nails the difficulty for newbies to break into the hobby.
    I couldn't agree more.
    I still remember when a newbie was introduced into our group, at the time we where playing 3.x, she lasted one session.
    I will always remember the shock and confusion on her face when she first saw the character sheet.

  6. I just stumbled onto this old blog post, but 100% agree! As long as their is one super-nerd, the rest of the group can be casual players and still have an excellent gaming experience.