Shitting on Dungeons & Dragons and other people’s fun is not cool.
In fact, D&D does a lot of things right. I’ll give you real-world proof for that, as well as theoretical proof.
In a lot of its incarnations (I’m not sure about the rules-bloaty versions), it is a very accommodating game. Like every other game, it does not suit everyone; but unlike a lot of more mechanically specific games, it suits a lot of people. For instance, I’ve played a lot of games that emphasize creating fiction together. Those games have given me much joy and made me feel other things as well, but they really need a focused group effort to work well. On the other hand, D&D is a lot less picky. Whether you like to focus on your character’s inner workings, interpersonal drama, exploration, tactics, or whatever, chances are that a friendly table can accommodate it all.
Sure, it does not happen all the time, but that’s actually a bonus. Not everyone has the energy to be fully present at the table anyway — especially us more introverted types. Sometimes it’s fun to sit back and just perceive what other people do. Let them have their fun for a sec.
And from what I’ve heard, people are having a crapton of fun with D&D and its variants. They draw pictures of their characters, write poetry of their adventures, create worlds, write fiction (and become successful authors), find like-minded people on the internet, et cetera. I know I can’t say that from some of the fancier games I’ve played. People invest a lot in continued adventures and campaigns.
Sure, one might say — you can do that with miniature games as well. At least some of it.
Here’s the theoretical bit.
Since Aki also mentioned Apocalypse World, I’ll take its cue for what I see roleplaying games as. I will not offer a very specific formal definition, as I’m somewhat wary of them (hi! A semi-Hegelian Zen Buddhist here!), but I want to speak about the things that roleplaying games revolve around.
Conversation. I’ve written about it before. And it’s what Apocalypse World is also based on. Roleplaying is a conversation, and the roleplaying *game* is the non-human guiding element of the conversation. The game rules, the fictional world, we as the players and the GM/DM — each of those establish elements into the conversation and mediate it.
We say we play in Forgotten Realms. That rules out a lot of stuff: spaceships, laser guns, the United States of America ruled by a mendacious belligerent clown. Probably. I don’t know Forgotten Realms that well. But it is a guide post, and if we want to deviate from it, the mature thing to do is discuss about it. Or the GM/DM says beforehand that it’s their take on the FR and it can deviate from canon.
Then, we establish limits as the group. “All races and character classes are open to you.” That is a guide as to what kind of characters everyone can make — yes, it’s a “everything you see in the book is good” sort of non-limitation, but it’s a definition nonetheless.
“We start in this huge city that only accepts humans as citizens.” That says something about the world already. Players can ask about it. The GM/DM can invent new stuff into it. Everything that is said will become fact — in other words, it will become a limitation to what we regard as possible in the game.
Those fictional limitations also necessarily affect the more quantifiable game mechanics themselves. Most roleplaying games are open to house rules and rulings on the fly. Unlike miniature war games or board games and CHESS that clearly delineate with their rules the only possibities within the game, the mechanical rules of roleplaying games always interact with the fiction, the imagination, the conversation. If there are no rules for jumping in miniature war games, then there’s no jumping. By contrast, if you need to jump in D&D, there are some things to consider, and a lot of them are fictional. What have we established about gravity here? The effect of spells? The amount of armor you’re wearing? What would you think that the enemy feels right now, prone, bedazzled by the action around him? What’s the ground like here? All those affect the difficulty level of the jump — or the GM/DM can rule that it’s an automatical success.
Those are also rules. The “informal” rules. And unlike some other games, D&D probably doesn’t formalize them in such a manner. For some people and some games, these sorts of practices are the core of roleplaying games. It’s what separates RPGs in their freedom from a lot of other games.
Rather than restrict roleplaying games and people playing by an arbitrary definition bordering on a delusional a priori, we should reconsider the definition of a game based on how people actually play games. (Just to be a namedropper for a while: less Plato, more late Wittgenstein.)
forward fucking slash rant