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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Mustard Over Ketchup

I want to follow up on my previous post on mustard vs. ketchup varieties and how they relate to RPG.

I prefer mustard to ketchup, both as a condiment and as an analogy to RPGs.

There are, quite definitely, tastes in roleplaying. People on RPG forums wouldn’t argue about the exact same topics every 4 to 6 months and reach an impasse unless there are features of RPGs that people simply cannot agree on, not because of stubbornness, but because they have incompatible preferences.

So I do not agree with Ozymandias, who says, “where it comes to taste, there is no right answer. Where it comes to gaming, there is.” Even if we restrict the domain of “gaming” to just the Class and Level Exploration Fantasy (CLEF) genre that D&D dominates and ignore other RPGs and other kinds of games, it’s very clear that one size does not fit all. Perhaps in a very limited sense, you could say there is only one answer: for example, if a game says that characters advance a level when they earn 2,000 experience points, but there are no rules governing experience point awards, then very clearly the game designer has done something wrong. But within a single setting, experience points could be replaced with advancement rolls and it would work fine, so long as that matched the players’ tastes.

WotC clearly thinks that Class and Level Exploration Fantasy RPGs are more like ketchup than mustard. That is, they believe they cab fine-tune one product’s ingredients (mechanics) and get 70-80% of the market, rather than tuning two to four products to capture specific tastes, which would add up to less than 70%.

I, on the other hand, believe D&D/CLEF RPGs are more like mustard. By this, I mean that they capture about 50-60% of the CLEF RPG market by creating a single balanced product, but could capture more of the market if they had two or three products that split along the taste boundaries. I have some ideas about what the distinct tastes are, and which tastes could be catered to with a few tweaks to a base game, and which require a distinct system.

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  1. "So I do not agree with Ozymandias, who says, 'where it comes to taste, there is no right answer. Where it comes to gaming, there is.'"

    Wait what? Ozy are you for real? Is there a context for this?

    Totally interested in the follow-up to this one.

  2. There is context, but to explain it would require a book. Or several. Still, I will try...

    I don't completely disagree with Talysman, nor do I completely agree: it's difficult to say. I know the article he references. I understood its point as: ketchup (as we know it today) is near-perfectly blended such that it hits all the five tastes. Thus it appeals to the broadest possible market (something around 80-90% of consumers). Mustard is not like ketchup; it never has been. That's why we have so many types of mustard today.

    Talysman asks: "is D&D mustard, or ketchup?" But he provides no clarification. Is he talking about just the core mechanics? Or is there something deeper here?

    The obvious answer is mustard: D&D's rules are customizable. We can have any number of variations (and indeed, we do) and each of them works just fine for the people who use them. It's entirely a matter of personal taste whether you use 3rd Edition or Pathfinder; or whether you include encumbrance rules or not; or whether you use static experience goals or a variable mechanic for advancement. In that sense, D&D is like mustard - it's all about personal preference.

    But there's more to D&D than the mechanical rules. There's also the social rules. Or the rules of presentation (or public speaking). Or the rules of storytelling. Should you use a scripted adventure or should you let the players wing it? Is that issue a matter of personal taste? I'm convinced that there are right answers to these questions. When the DM wants to create tension, what's the best way to do it? When the DM wants to generate despair, or loathing for an NPC, or a relaxing environment, or an energetic one... what is the best way to do this? It's not entirely a matter of personal preference. If it were, motivational speakers wouldn't have a job.

    There are some elements of RPGs that are subject to personal preference, such that there is no right or wrong answer. There are some, however, that are not; they have a right answer and we should be discussing how to learn that answer so that we can play a better game.

    (And my comment about the sense of taste having no right answer is based on an individual assessment. On a greater level - the level where large corporations conduct metadata analysis - there is a right answer, which is usually the one that yields the best influence over the largest share of the market.)

  3. I dunno. I think it remains to be seen how modular the DMG is-- they might cast a slightly wider net than expected.