Thursday, May 14, 2009

Books Every Gamer Should Own: Rick Swan's The Complete Guide to Roleplaying Games

In November of 1990, the world of role playing games was still largely a mystery to the majority of mass culture. Most people "knew," thanks to the culture wars, that D&D was devil worship and it made you go crazy like Tom Hanks in "that" made for TV movie. There had been some products released in the 1980s that attempted to convey to the lay person what role playing games were about and what some of the best role playing games were. These products did a good job of introducing the concepts, systems, and assumptions underlying role playing games as a hobby. They also provided great information to those who wanted a better understanding of these games than the evening news was providing them -- sadly not enough people read these books and some of the misconceptions regarding rpgs linger into the modern day.

While the concept of what role playing games are was a mystery to the majority of the public, the vast array of products available and whether they were of good quality or not was largely a mystery to the majority of gamers. Unless you subscribed to THE SPACE GAMER, WHITE DWARF (before it became all Warhammer all the time), THE DRAGON, or some other gaming magazine -- most of which were fairly obscure and weren't available at your local bookstore (THE DRAGON being the exception) -- you had no source for thoughtful and accurate reviews. Since the creation of the role playing game hobby, circa 1973 with the publication of D&D, literally hundreds of new games -- in a wide variety of genre -- had been published. Some were still in print, others had come into print and faded away. Unless you had a phenomenal hobby store in your local community you were likely unaware of the majority of these games.



Into this product rich and information scarce environment arrived a perfect catalog for the role playing aficionado, Rick Swan's The Complete Guide to Role-Playing Games. Even if the "complete" in the title was a bit of an exaggeration, there were many games excluded from the book, the volume is was an invaluable resource for the gamer who wanted to know what was available in 1990 and whether it was any good or not. The fact that the book is topical today is a testimony to the insightful reviews provided by Rick Swan. The majority of the reviews are "true reviews" and not merely product recommendations. This is because the reviews don't merely provide a recommendation pro or con a particular product, they also give a glimpse into the history and mechanics of the game. One can determine whether a particular review is a "true review" or a mere product recommendation by asking themselves one simple question about the review, "does this review add value to the 'art' in addition to evaluating a particular product or work?" In the case of games, a "true review" would include meaningful discussion regarding game design -- from either a mechanical or narrative perspective. Many of the reviews in Rick Swan's book meet this criterion.

This isn't to say that I agree with every review, I don't, but it is to say that the vast majority of the reviews in this book are a worthy read for gamers of any generation.

An example of an argument that Swan presents in the book that has shaped the way I view my hobby (how often can you say a review has shaped the way you view a particular medium?) is this section of his review of the Dungeons and Dragons Game -- in this case the Red Box Basic Set and not AD&D:

Purists grumble that D&D isn't just simple, but simple-minded. The rigid character classes give players little freedom in customizing their PCs, and advancement by levels is arbitrary and unrealistic. The magic system and combat rules are illogical, Armor Classes represent the chance of being hit rather than offering protection from damage, experience points are meaningless and abstract, the adventures are juvenile... you get the idea.

These grouches completely miss the point. Complaining that Dungeons and Dragons is an unrealistic RPG is like saying that chess is an inaccurate wargame. We aren't talking about delving into the social structure of medieval Europe here, we're talking about tossing fireballs at lizard men and swiping gold pieces from ogres. Dungeons and Dragons provides a streamlined, easily mastered set of rules that emphasizes action and adventure. And as a bonus, it's an excellent introduction to the entire hobby.


This is only a small section of Swan's review of the D&D game, which he gives 3 1/2 stars out of 4, but within these two paragraphs you can begin to see an underlying philosophy of what role playing game design should focus on. In this case, the argument is that it is perfectly appropriate for a game to focus on fun at the expense of realism -- an argument that Gary Gygax often made in THE DRAGON while defending his creation. Amazingly, many of the criticisms launched at Basic D&D can be heard in the criticisms many people are making of the newest edition of D&D (4th Edition). It is often said that the game is overly simple, for MMORPG obsessed teens, for those too stupid to understand the complex rules of 3.5, and a score of other statements that echo the sentiments that Swan so easily pushes to the side. Like the Basic Set, 4e is an excellent introduction to the entire hobby.

As I wrote earlier, Swan's review of D&D is one of the things that helped shape my appreciation for the gaming hobby and helped me form my underlying philosophy. My philosophy is simple, the system should serve the intention -- an adaptation of form follows function. But in the case of my gaming philosophy, ornament isn't necessarily a crime -- ornament can be the purpose; and in the case of games the narrative "fluff" can be said to be the ornamentation surrounding the mechanical design. The ends of gaming is "fun" and though that word can have many definitions, it is the goal of the game designer (and the DM and players in interactive role playing games) to play toward the goal of fun. Needless to say, fun trumps verisimilitude at every turn in my gaming philosophy. I'm not a purist. I like elements of chance introduced into my games. But then again, much to the dismay of Adolf Loos, I adore art nouveau.

It is this love of "form follows fun," that also points to the review where I most disagree with Mr. Swan. He is unkind to the classic Pacesetter game Chill. According to Swan Chill is:

a horror game for the easily frightened...While most of Chill's vampires, werewolves, and other B-movie refugees wouldn't scare a ten-year-old, they're appropriate to the modest ambitions of the game...Though it's been out of print for years, Chill remains as popular as ever on the convention circuit. I'm not sure why...Chill is too shallow for extended campaigns and lacks the depth to please anyone but the most undemanding of players.


I guess for Mr. Swan it's okay for a fantasy game to be about throwing fireballs at lizard men, but it isn't okay for a horror game to be based on the Universal Classic Horrors or the glorious Hammer films. Mr. Swan, it seems, is only satisfied by the deeply nihilistic horror of the Lovecraftian kind exemplified by Call of Cthulhu where life is meaningless. Too bad, Chill has some wonderful fodder for the Game Master well versed in the classic horror tale who wants his players to be ghost hunters like the Winchester Brothers rather than gibbering lunatics who have seen what man was not meant to know. I have always been struck by how an individual can defend the simple gateway game on one hand, but then dismiss another because it isn't high art. And that criticism can apply to any number of critics.

Disagreements aside, the book is a wonderful and necessary edition to any gamer's library.
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