Recently I’ve been playing some more Dungeon World, this time as a player, kind of coaching an unexperienced GM through the game (it unfortunately requires this, due to the numerous unclarified rules). We’re at our fifth session and we’ve started to really hit it off a couple of sessions ago. Me and the GM often have really nice post-game reflections and the topic of “game as a musical instrument” came up. This topic also came up in a discussion on the La Locanda forum about a third party class called “The Mage”. If you’re interested in the rest of context of the discussion, I can further elaborate in the comments.
I’m not going to claim this as anything original — in fact, I believe I got the entire concept from hanging out here. I would still like to explain my interpretation of the subject here and see what you all think of this. Please let me know if this post is too abstract.
In short, I often see the overall quality of a roleplaying game text defined by how much it’s able to be effectively played just by reading it and trying with little effort. This is often left almost unsaid and assumed. While this could be a desirable quality (ease of use can be a target), it really doesn’t have anything to do with how much fun you’re going to have at the table. The player is an active participant in the game-realization process, which I would describe as reading the text, creating the system by applying it, and interacting with the system by using it.
I also see a lot language that frames games as ‘experiential’, both in the context of roleplaying games and videogame design discussion. This essentially frames the player (include a possible gm in ‘player’) as a passive entity upon which the game ‘experience’ that has been crafted by the game designer is subjected, rather than an active participant with agency, using the game as an instrument and with that interaction making the game and experiencing it.
I’m also rather surprised, because I originally conceived of this mode of thinking as adjecent to Ron’s, but I’ve started to see it as rather divergent.
I’ve also started to see this type of language in all sorts of conversations outside of games as well, and my sad conclusion is that, at least in the culture I’m immersed in, we really have zero respect of other people’s agency.
Being that Ron often frames this as instances of play being jazz jam sessions and the game representing the instruments, I’ve started framing this problem as “Should a guitar play itself?”. That is, is a guitar that doesn’t immediately teach you how to play just by picking it up a bad guitar?
Obviously, a guitar can inspire you to play a certain way and not all guitars are equivalent. I might want to play jazz with a hollowbody with some fat, warm humbucker pickups, country with a resonant Taylor acoustic, funk rock with a Stratocaster-type and modern heavy metal with a 7-string with high-output. Exactly like that, not all game systems are equivalent and they will produce different effects.
However, the guitar doesn’t play you. I can play horrible music on the most expensive high-end Strandberg. A beginner with a Stradivari violin will sound just as harsh and badly intonated.
With this I’m not trying to create some gatekeep out of player ‘skill’, but to say that the way that the player actively chooses to use an instrument has a real effect on the result, and with a specific instrument some methods are just more effective. Which, sometimes, might not even be the ones the creator intended — experimentation is great! But the player itself has responsibility in how they make use of the instrument.
I’ve started to notice that by actively taking on this responsability of “I have to find and create the fun for myself”, I’ve just been enjoying roleplaying more.