EDIT: (23 October, 2014) Nearly a year after writing this, I think I’ve changed my mind on a couple of things – namely that a game can be “Objectively bad” because, shit, that’s some dangerous ground there. What qualifies a game as good, critically? That’s a tricky biscuit, and maybe the subject for a different essay. But lots of the stuff below still holds if you take it with a pinch of salt.
Before we start, here’s two things I want to set out:
ONE. It is wrong to call a game objectively bad because you don’t like it.
TWO. It is right to not like a game because it is objectively bad.
Of course, “good” and “bad” are relative terms. We can argue the definitions back and forth until the cows come home, and I don’t want to do that. What I want to do – as a writer, as a critic, as someone who’s actively engaged in games and the gaming culture, as a consumer of goods – to discuss whether things are good or bad in my opinion and talk about why I’m saying so.
“In my opinion.” That’s a cop-out phrase, isn’t it? Of course it’s in my fucking opinion. Everything I write, everything I say, is in my opinion. However, I think my opinions are right, and will continue to do so until someone proves ‘em wrong. They’re the only ones I’ve got. We shouldn’t be ashamed to have courage in our beliefs.
We need to criticise games. All of us. All players, of all levels. We need to say why a thing is good, or bad, and show why we think that. There isn’t some magic level you can attain in RPG e-peen that lets you judge a game as good or bad; you don’t have to write one to judge the quality of others. You don’t need to be a Professor of Game Mechanics to say whether something’s working or not.
THE ARGUMENTS (TO END ALL ARGUMENTS)
But the prevailing arguments amongst much of the RPG circuit are these:
“If you don’t like it, it’s not for you.”
“It doesn’t matter how bad a game is, so long as you’ve got a good GM.”
“You don’t have to use rules that you don’t like.”
These arguments deny all criticism. They derail intelligent discussion about games. They derail whatever it is that I do when I attempt to have an intelligent discussion about games.
They remind me of the 5 Geek Social Fallacies, a piece so old you have to brush the internet cobwebs off it to read it. We have a problem, I think, with being too accepting by far when it comes to rules-sets. Too forgiving. Too close. Let’s take a look at these arguments.
“IF YOU DON’T LIKE IT, IT’S NOT FOR YOU”
Not every game is suitable for every person; there are a great variety of different experiences available for when you start throwing your dice. There are great, complex tomes of rules with maths for every potential situation like Hackmaster, or Rolemaster. There are rules-light pickup games like Risus or Wushu. There are story-focused games like FATE, or there are games that focus around telling a specific story like Dogs in the Vineyard.
I know not every game out there is going to to tick my boxes. I know that, say, the class system in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 is so bound up and spread across different sourcebooks and reliant on knowing the source material to keep pace with the other players that I don’t really enjoy it any more. I know that the rules in GURPS are so fine-grain as to set my teeth on edge. I know that Exalted uses too many dice for my tastes, and relies heavily on a detailed setting that I can’t be bothered to read.
But they’re not bad. I’ve looked at the rules, I’ve played the games, I’ve decided that they’re not my bag. I can see how some people might enjoy them, but those people are not me.
But! But. Crucially. There are also bad games.
An easy one first: FATAL is a bad game. It is bad in so many ways. It so bad it’s almost, but not quite, worth reading. It is the Birdemic of tabletop RPGs, content that is so bad it’s funny and then immediately not funny, just content that creates a yawning void of hopelessness where your evening used to be.
deadEarth is fucking abysmal, but in a much more readable way – it was actually one of the first systems I ever made a character for, back when I was hungrily devouring every scrap of RPG I could find back in the early 2000’s. (It is almost impossible, in deadEarth, to survive character creation. Here is an excellent blog on that very subject.)
But it’s not just weird sideshow games that are poorly-designed, or have elements of poor design: Old World of Darkness is a bad system – compare the intent of the designers to make a gothic storytelling game with the eventual combat-heavy, unwieldy ruleset – but it was all we had. It is awkward and clunky and hard-to-use.
All those games are bad in some way, and I can elaborate as to why in another piece if you want me to. Generally it’s because the rules get in the way of the game in some fashion. But I’m not allowed to say so, because lots of people in the scene view criticism of a game that they enjoy as a personal attack.
“But people are enjoying these games!” they say. “Don’t condemn people for having badwrongfun!”
Badwrongfun is a word with an agenda; one that says you can’t judge something that other people enjoy, and that doing so makes you an insensitive jerk. (This is where it all ties back into the social fallacies again, by the way.)
I’m not condemning the people, but – brace yourselves – I think that they’re doing it wrong. And that doesn’t make me a jerk. That makes me critically aware. I’m condemning their tools. I think that the games they’re using are in some cases flawed and in other cases complete fucking bobbins and we need to have that sort of criticism in place because we’re grown-ups, damnit, and these things are art.
Just because someone enjoys something doesn’t make that particular thing good. In fact, a lot of the reasons people enjoy bad games is thanks to the second argument…
“IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BAD A GAME IS, SO LONG AS YOU’VE GOT A GOOD GM”
Obviously. Yes. It doesn’t matter how terrible this beer is if you get to drink it with your best friend. It doesn’t matter how bad the music is if the drugs are good and your mates are there. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable the bus ride is if you get to see your wife for the first time in three months at the end of it.
There is an excellent talk on RPGs That Aren’t D&D that I recommend you watch if you’ve not already, because it’s a great source of new games info but also because the guys doing the lecture make a great point at the start of it:
If you were playing D&D and you had fun doing it, think about what was fun. Was it the act of rolling a dice to see if you hit a monster? Or was it something daft that one of your friends did? Was it a particularly memorable character that stuck with you? Was it a favourite dungeon that you took over and made your home?
Because only ONE of those things is in the rules, and that’s the top one. The other ones are all you and your mates having a good time.
And that’s fine! But we need to separate the rules from the improv if we’re going to talk critically about games. If you had a great time playing a game with a GM who knew all the rules back-to-front and knew when to use them, and when to let the story take over from the rolls – when to fudge dice, when to drag out fights, when to cut them short, when to let the rules go completely and just tell a story for a bit – then you had a great GM, not necessarily a great rules-set.
Don’t defend a shoddy game because you’re friends with a good actor. Worse, don’t defend a shoddy game because you once knew someone who was great at ignoring specific parts of it.
Which brings me on to my final point…
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO USE RULES YOU DON’T LIKE”
Everyone house-rules. That is: everyone has little tweaks to their games that make them run in a fashion according to their tastes. I house-ruled the psychic system in Dark Heresy into oblivion because, as it stood, I couldn’t plan combat encounters without the party psyker either steamrolling the enemy or passing out and summoning a demon. (Neither of which make for a fun experience for anyone else in the group.)
This is the most common defence against bad games; that the rules are optional. That we’re all there to have fun, and we can cut out rules that we don’t like. Okay – but unless the game has been expressly written to support random parts of it being entirely removed or changed, you’re no longer playing the game. (GURPS has been written in this way, I believe. I can’t stand it, though, because it’s cracker-dry.)
“Don’t use rules you don’t like” is an excuse to write shitty rules. Do that enough and you have a shitty game.
House-rule, please. Make games your own. Do what you want to them. Just don’t defend your modified version to me, or anyone else, as though it were the original thing.
STOP MAKING EXCUSES
You, as a player, need to look at the game with a critical eye and think: what’s the system trying to do? What sort of stories is it designed to tell? Are the rules encouraging that? Do they match up with the fiction of the setting? Does the mood of play match the one evoked by the book?
Every game is designed to tell a story, by the way, not just “story games.” That’s a stupid distinction to make and I’m tired of having to make it.
D&D is designed to tell stories about interchangeable adventurers killing bad things and growing in power. Shadowrun is designed to tell stories about slick professional metahumans planning a run in meticulous detail and using every resource they’ve got to get out on top. Wushu is designed to tell wacky, over-the-top one-shot stories about characters who never, ever change and solve most of their problems by kicking them through windows. Every game makes you tell a different story. Every game pulls on different narrative levers.
Don’t be afraid to poke under the surface and think: why is this rule here? What’s this rule doing? How does it make the game better? Don’t be afraid to think that the people behind the games have made bad design choices. Think like a designer. Better yet: think like a designer’s editor.
Games can be good and bad, and have good and bad bits. It’s up to us to say which are which, and argue with each other, and not to be afraid to say it. This isn’t elitism. This is criticism. Saying someone’s favourite game is bad isn’t the same as saying they’re a bad person. Remember that.