Ten Unanswerable Evergreen Discourses

One of the most frustrating things about being deep into RPGs in a serious way for a very long time is that the same conversations seem to keep coming up. Year after year, decade after decade. Every few years a new cohort comes along and convinces itself they’re the first ones to have thought of these questions or these answers. I’m not sure what to tell you other than…sometimes that’s true. Mostly it’s not. 

It’s not true because, in most cases, the evergreen topics are by definition unanswerable. Isn’t that exciting? I love that there are fundamental questions about gaming you literally can’t answer. Call them koans or first principles or core values if you want. 

And yet folks continue to be convinced they have the answers. It’s great! And frustrating, particularly when bad-faith arguers move the goal posts until they’ve “won.” And occasionally enlightening. 

For the sake of my own sanity, where I’ve ended up in my gaming life is a commitment to be open-minded about just how unanswerable these questions all are. Stay curious and you might learn something from the folks you’re convinced are ignorant, naive, or inexperienced. 

1. What are rules for?

This one’s my absolute favorite. Without rules you have no game! But what makes them essential? And what are they for? Find your own answer to this one and so much else falls into place.

Are rules for adjudicating disagreements? Aspirational flags pointing toward what to focus on? Do they provoke excitement through uncertainty? Provide unexpected results? Small inputs to form into larger meaning?

Why do games need rules? Do we need to follow the rules? Can you cheat? What does cheating even mean in the context of an activity that has no win condition? 

I mean, I’ve got my own answers to this. This blog has dedicated perhaps millions of words at this point to answering this question. But if I’m being honest, it’s objectively unanswerable. 

2. Is [game title] the best gateway for new gamers?

Just impossible to answer without identifying your goals, your personal history, and the tastes and tolerances of the folks you’re trying to bring into gaming. “D&D of course!” is a common and tedious answer that’s trivially debunked by the vast numbers of folks who have come to roleplaying by different paths. 

I’ve used heavy games, light games, narrative games, tactical games, story games, PbtA, FitD, WoD. It never seems to matter. At this point I’ve certainly brought hundreds, if not thousands, of folks into gaming over the decades. Heck, I’m currently hooking my niece, her fiance and her entire Gen Z cohort on Zombie World (which they call “D&D with zombies”). 

Now if your agenda is to build fandom and participation in your particular favorite branch of gaming, then hell yes there’s going to be a best choice. It’s the game you love the most in that branch.

3. What is the core activity of roleplaying?

It sure seems like there’s some essential definitive activity that is “roleplaying,” right? Doesn’t there have to be? There’s so much in the world that clearly isn’t roleplaying. But hell if I can answer this in a way that satisfies everyone, much less myself. Particularly since there are so many nerds whose primary sport is being contrarian.

I feel like nailing down the core activity is up there with “what are the rules for?” in terms of identifying your own central values. Good luck coming up with your answer! Some asshole will tell you you’re wrong.

4. Are RPGs art?

Great one because both “yes” and “no” bring so much baggage along with them. So of course my personal answer is “it can be!” Yes, even the trashiest power fantasy garbage can have artistic ambitions, even if the game fails to achieve them. 

Heck, even nailing down what you’re talking about when you say “RPG” in that question is tricky. Are you talking about the individual performances? The act itself? The rules text? The accumulated assumptions and best practices of its practitioners? Where’s the art? Is Art a noun or a verb?

5. Are designers responsible for how their games are played? Are the players?

Oh boy…the ethical responsibilities of game designers and players. Good one, yeah? This entails eternal bangers like is violence bad, is objective morality boring, are fantasy races racist, are you taking this all too seriously? 

An awful lot of players and designers have tied themselves into knots trying so hard to get their ethics right. We’re going through a pretty puritanical moment in gaming, which has been a mixed bag. Lots of triumphs, but I think we’ve lost some things as well. 

The bottom line on this one, for me, is that there’s just no stopping folks from playing however they’re going to play at their own table. You may have didactic goals but you’ll just make yourself crazy wondering if those goals are being met anywhere beyond your own table. Still no answer on how to set that aside; goodness knows I haven’t yet. 

6. Are the players more important to a successful game than the system?

AKA “system matters, but it’s not the only thing that matters.” Also “[your] system doesn’t matter [to me].”

There’s always been a weird stew of hero worship and parasocialism that has led to game systems and their creators being over-valorized from time to time. Heck, as often as not the designers themselves don’t even know the strengths of their own designs! So yes of course the players are an important part of play.

On the other hand, folks who are committed to their one ruleset because it’s worked out so well for them over a long stretch tend to dismiss the importance of the rules. After all, if you have to give the rules any credit at all…how good a gamer are you, really? 

It’s absurd and, to my mind, one of the most ideological of the evergreen discourses. 

7. Should X? 

Oh my god, just take “should” out of your mouth when you’re talking about any bit of RPGs. Should rules be ignored for a better story? Should players always roll out in the open? Should the GM be treated like God? Should incentives point toward desired behaviors? Should any particular behavior be desirable? Should characters be competent, or nuanced, or one-note, or conflicted, or or or? Should games be fun? Should rules be easy? Should rulebooks have art? Should fights be fair?

The minute I see “should” in any discourse I just quietly scroll past. 

8. Which comes first, the fiction or the rules?

Kind of a subset of “what are rules for” but this one, to me, is more in the weeds of what actually happens at the table. And the answer is: it depends on the game. I love fiction-first play, and I prefer it when the rules are invoked to reflect the common reality as we understand it. But also the in-game fiction and the out-of-game conversation, guided by uncertainty or not, are in constant dialogue. Who even knows which one came first?

On the other hand, rules are often the most straightforward way players have to put their hands on the fiction. They want their play to matter and it can be hard to get everyone on the same fictional page before going to the rules. I have players at my own table to this day who simply don’t like working things out “in the fiction.” They want the objective authority of rules to back them up.

Roleplaying is some weird shit y’all.

9. Is theory useful or a gatekeeping tool?

Oh man. It’s both.

There’s been a lot of excellent RPG theory work done by lots of different communities over the decades. They all have something interesting to add. They’ve all created ideas that turned out to be garbage, or turned out to simply be incomplete. They all come with agendas. It’s unfortunate that it’s hard to really dig into play and design theory in an institutional way, but the work is worth doing.

But, yes, ignorance about game design history and theory is regularly used to dismiss younger, marginalized, outsider design. This is where the good shit is going to come from, folks! Don’t be stupid about slamming designers because they don’t know their games are, dunno, incoherent or something. 

Theory can be useful, and occasionally its advocates have been gross. Every good thing can be misused.

10. Is safety a thing? 

Tricky one, which is why it comes up again and again. I think the answer has to be “yes” but I’ve got a bunch of asterisks that come with it.

For one, I think the emphasis on safety has pathologized an activity that is harmless 99% of the time. The fact that safety tool materials show up in virtually every game these days makes it seem like roleplaying is way more dangerous than it really turns out to be. 

For another, all those tools showing up everywhere point at deep design laziness. It’s real easy to drop in a boilerplate statement about the X-Card TinyURL and “fascists aren’t allowed to play this game.” It’s a genuine design challenge to actually make your games safe from the get-go. And to correctly identify the problem areas where harm might come about (versus mild to moderate discomfort).

And finally, there’s no safety without consent and resilience. We don’t talk enough about that third one, and it’s easy to get defensive about it. But it’s a three-legged stool, I think, that’s stronger when all three legs are strong.

But somehow you’ve got reactionaries out there who dismiss the concept of safety entirely. It’s a marketing position and cultural marker as much as anything, I think. What I really have never wrapped my head around is the reactionary crowd that both dismiss safety as a thing, and insist their games are capital-a Art. Nothing more boring than safe, unchallenging Art, my dudes.

Like the rest of these evergreen discourses, it’s really an unanswerable question for everyone everywhere. Straight middle-aged white guy with some savings? Gaming is awfully safe! 

Time is a Flat Circle

Just remember the next time you see some gaming discourse starting up online and you think to yourself, “wait, wasn’t this solved forever ago?,” these ten will never be settled. Except by you! Yes, absolutely settle them for yourself. Know your own tastes, beliefs, biases. But … maybe don’t feel so compelled to settle them for anyone else. 

Or be surprised when someone disagrees.

4 thoughts on “Ten Unanswerable Evergreen Discourses”

  1. This is such an amazing post! I guess these questions keep getting asked because they’re important to us as a community. But for me, I think they reoccur because I keep changing my mind about my answers, whether because of my gaming group at the time, or my own evolving experience. It can get tedious, but I think we enjoy pondering these in the same way we ponder the nature of the universe or the meaning of life.

  2. What are rules for?

    I would even take a step back and ask: “What are we even talking about when we talk about rules? What are rules? What specifically is a rule, and what might not be a rule?”

    Are we talking only about the rules written in the game text? About house rules from the social contract? Generally about social rules at the table? About unwritten rules of a play culture? About the rules of the specific fiction genre we are playing?

    After all, we can say that all the following are rules:

    a longsword deals 2D6+3 damage
    “Be a Fan of Player Characters”
    in The Between, one must not talk about a character’s backstory, except in two instances (Mask of the Past & Vulnerable Move)
    in principled freeform, I can’t narrate within the domain of your character
    during a single session of Blades in the Dark, we established at the table that we will always complete a full cycle of the game

    For me, an interesting area of discussion is how these different orders of rules relate to each other.

    The dychotomy that currently intrigues me in this context is contrasting the old story game thesis that “the game is about what its rules are about” with the “rules elide” thesis that “rules are there to quickly abstract what we don’t want to focus on during play, but what is important for the convention, and then the game is about what is not mechanized, what is in the fruitful void – where we zoom in and play with the fiction itself.”

    Of course, this is somewhat a discussion between gaming cultures, but I wonder what other interesting things could potentially arise from integrating these positions.

    Great blog!

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