There is a scene in Apollo 13 which stays with me despite the rest of the movie having basically fallen out of my brain. This scene is the one which resonates with every engineer I’ve ever spoken with about it, and more than a few generally nerdy folks as well. There’s a point where the ground engineering crew needs to fix a problem up in space, so they need to find a solution that uses only the resources the astronauts have available to them. In the scene, the guy speaking to the engineers holds up a square pipe fitting and says “You need to make this fit…” then holding up a round pipe fitting, “… in this…” then he upends a box onto the table containing all the tools on board – things the astronauts have in their pockets and so on “…using this.”
If you are of a puzzle solving bent, this is the kind of moment you dream of, but may never experience. It’s not that there’s a shortage of problems to be solved, rather, it is the limitations (and in this case, the stakes) that are rare. If the challenge had been to fit the two things together, using any tools or resources available then it might have been an interesting distraction, but it would not have been compelling.
In the absence of life presenting us with these problems, a lot of people turn to games to scratch that itch, including roleplaying games. Often, when you speak to an “old school” player who pays attention to things like strict inventory lists and enjoys random encounter tables that might drop a dragon on your low level party, they often describe the game in these terms – problem solving, resource management, cleverness and so on. Characters need to survive and get things done with a limited set of resources, and the limits on the resources keep things interesting.
To put it more concretely, a player with a detailed inventory may look at it like the debris spilled on the table in Apollo 13. The challenge is whether they can solve the problems presented with those resources. If you put the same player in a game that uses a dramatic inventory system (such as, “you have everything you reasonably would have”) then they will get frustrated. Either they now have too many tools (in which case there is no challenge) or not enough (and more frustratingly, they don’t know what they don’t have).
It is easy to assume that any player looking for this experience in a game is going to be a forty-something year old neckbeard, clinging to his well loved white box D&D, but doing so is a bad idea. Partly because it’s a dick move, but more because this guy is going to show up in a lot more places than the dungeon. See, it’s not always about inventory. It might be about mechanics (powers and such), it might be about setting (NPCs, relationships and motives) or it might be about the players themselves (with clear rules about player rights, powers and responsibilities in play) but the behavior is the same.
The desire for clear frameworks (problems, scenes, stories) and discrete limits (inventory, conservation of characters, narrative rights) is a huge part of RPGs, and as much as we like to fight tooth and nail over the chrome, that underlying desire is a large part of what makes this one hobby. It’s not the only element, nor is it the sole lens through which to regard the hobby, but it’s maybe something to keep in mind the next time you roll your eyes at someone else’s play.
So am I saying that the guy with the four page inventory list and the dirty hippie indie guy with formalized language for scene framing are more similar in their anal retentiveness than they are different in their expression of it?
Damn skippy I am.
1 – One more way path leading back to my favorite broken record: Constraints breed creativity.