The Elusive Shift: A Review in Quotes

Consult the ghosts for secrets from the past.

I initially bounced off of Jon Peterson’s Playing at the World. It was too heady and abstract but also grievously specific. Couldn’t get into it. Then I saw a couple of reviews of his new(er) book, The Elusive Shift, and figured it was worth a shot.

There was a quote thrown around the FKR server from the book that was so good I posted it on the blog: Eisen’s vow. Peterson refers to this exact idea MANY times throughout the book and it helps forms the spine of the discussion: what are role-playing games? How have theorists inside the community place their thumb on the wargaming-storygame spectrum scale and weighed in with analogies and stories? When did RPGs come into their own?

It’s a good read. One thing I found really fun was the constant reference to RPG magazines publishing these articles and hammering out ideas. It got me thinking: will RPG historians someday do the same for the major blogs of our time? Will they attempt to string together URL references and comments into the tapestry of what RPGs are and how they’ve changed? Who knows.

Let’s take a short walk through the text in quotes I found fun and flavorful. My comments are italicized.

“[Players] are not concerned with the mechanics of the affair; I formulated the rules without consulting them and ultimate decisions are mine to make.”

“Suggestions as to the way affairs are conducted are of course welcome, but are only implemented if they happen to suit me—in other words I am totally selfish about the whole thing. But nevertheless it works out pretty well.”

“These rules may be treated as guide lines around which you form a game that suits you.”
-Gygax’s Chainmail

“I don’t believe there is anything desirable in having various campaigns playing similarly to one another… if the time ever comes when . . . players agree on how the game should be played, D&D will have become staid and boring indeed.”

“If you don’t like the way I do it, change the bloody rule to suit yourself and your players.”
-Gygax (the grumpy, empowering version)

“This is not supposed to be an adversarial situation–the point of the game is not to kill off the tourists but to give them an exciting ride.”
-Johnstone, 1975

“Are you willing to allow the GM to change a rule if it results in an obvious inequity as long as the change is made impartially?”
-Drake’s Midgard Forum

“D&D is not a zero-sum game.”

“…the DM’s challenge, though, isn’t to wpe out the expedition. He/she is supposed to prepare the field so the players know they’ve been in a fight, but where the challenge was in using their own abilities–not dice or gross treasure–to survive.”

“The Referee, therefore, should generally require a positive statement of intention, as the basis of his decision; the attempt must be willed into operation by the player. It is not until then that the Referee may properly exercise his functions. He may then duly consider all the pros and cons. Losses, Tactical, Strategical, Topographical, and Accidental Difficulties etc. must be calculated and examined, and, the crucial moment having in due time arrived, as indicated by the circumstances of the particular case, he should make his decision, and, if desirable, state his reason, which, however, etiquette must protect from dispute.”
-Totten’s Strategos 1880

“[The] referee’s decision may not be contested.”
Strategos, again

“Although Totten famously promised in Strategos that “anything can be attempted,” he did not mean everything should be.”

“The referee of Strategos is perhaps best thought of as a teacher: although a teacher can adopt an adversarial posture toward students—and vice versa—both are nominally participating in a collaborative process. The referee, by establishing the general situation of a wargame, constructs a sort of test and then judges players’ performance on a moment-to-moment basis through their statements of intention.”

“Designing a dungeon has a certain kinship to designing a classroom test, in the sense that Kevin Slimak surely meant when he said that a “dungeon designer sets the problems for his adventurers and they try to solve them.” An adversarial teacher can always devise an unfair test that students will surely fail, and, similarly, some referees take pride in devising tests they know more than half of players will flunk… The rules instead recommend specifying “as many mystifying and dangerous areas as is consistent with a reasonable chance for survival,” just as a teacher amenable to the edification of students will design tests that challenge pupils yet still provide opportunities for the worthy to excel.”
I can (and should) write an article on these shared premises/principles of teachers and GMs. Many folks I know have a similar experience with this.

“It is not enough for the player to draw his pistol and then say, ‘I should fire at it.’” The player must instead make a more affirmative statement; the referee should reject vague statements that express no clear direction. Correspondingly, Space Patrol must also admonish the referee to “never assume anything about the actions of the players. Nothing happens unless the players declare it.”
Actions, not choices!

“If a player merely says ‘I’m going to try to become king,’ and doesn’t tell how he will try to accomplish it, his statement is meaningless.”
What Price Glory?!, 1978

“I don’t object to role-players as much as I object to the use of role-playing as an excuse for not thinking, or worse, thinking of ways to do the wrong thing.”
-Slimak, 1977

“The direct cause of the lack of role-playing is how the D&D level system is set up. The whole game becomes a hunt for ‘experience points.’” The result is that “the players themselves are connected too much with the mechanics of the game instead of with their characters.”

“It is up to that individual to devise a setting for his campaign and create all of the ‘world’ in which it is to take place.”

“…use the dice to guide life and death decisions and to make quick decisions without breaking your concentration.”

“Each campaign should be a ‘variant’ and there is no ‘official interpretation’ from me or anyone else.”
This is a rather shocking decentralization of power. I dig.

“If your house rules run more than thirty pages, I suggest you consider you’ve invented a new game and copyright it.”
-Gold, 1977
A great argument for “fantasy heartbreakers.”

“Stop pretending to be playing D&D; call the game something different and rework/rewrite the rules to my own taste.”

“If the players are given sufficient decision-making opportunities then the sense of control can be established. No skill-oriented campaign can succeed if the players are unable to make decisions which significantly alter the course of an adventure, and they cannot do this if they are unable to obtain information before they act.”

“Killing PCs isn’t just pointless, it’s counter-productive.”

“I like to 1) role-play, 2) have some sort of challenge to it, and 3) do so in a world which has logic and consistency to it.”

As a referee, [Blacow] is “trying to balance the role-playing, wargaming, and story-telling aspects of the game so that it’s both playable and enjoyable.” Ruefully, he had to report, “I don’t always succeed.” By acknowledging the tension created by, say, the countervailing requirements of role playing and storytelling, of enabling player agency and keeping the player “isolated” in the referee’s game world, the Blacow model provides an account that embraces the fundamental tension and contradiction at the heart of role-playing game design.”

These quotes demonstrate just how well-researched this book is, pulling from resources that I wouldn’t think to access or otherwise have no access to. What a scholar Peterson is.

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