Player Knowledge and the History of RPGs

First, two quotes to start us off:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” (paraphrased quote from Helmuth von Moltke the Elder, a man who was actually quite keen on extensive planning and who might be considered the great-grandfather of RPGs)

“The players are the enemy.” (the storyteller’s corollary to the first quote, promoted in old gaming literature and still embraced by some gamers today)

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I’ve often heard these quoted, seriously or jokingly, by my RPG playing friends.  The first one I agree with: opposition is a chaotic force, and will often ruin your most carefully laid plans.  The second one I only agree with insofar as players are an inherently chaotic force.  They are other people, and will often do the unexpected.  Unfortunately, the second quote is often interpreted literally.  Players are seen as the opposition and their characters are therefore meant to be outwitted, led by the nose, and then set upon while at a disadvantage.

Worryingly enough, I most often hear these quotes spoken seriously by my friends who have not yet run many games.  With a literal interpretation, where the hell do those two quotes lead us?  If the players are the enemy, it stands to reason that everything the storyteller does is in opposition to the players.  More to the point, it sets up a clearly antagonistic relationship between the players and the storyteller in which the two sides have no reason to cooperate with each other.  It’s like they’re not actually playing a game together.

If they are playing a game together, it’s more like a strategy wargame in which all details are included solely to “get” the players.  This is, of course, where the genre originated: the first games that we would recognize as RPGs grew out of wargames, as the logical result of a progression towards smaller and smaller unit sizes.  Eventually, each player had control of only one individual instead of many units, laying the foundation for the RPG genre that we know today.  The influence of modern gaming’s military history is still visible: the habits of secrets and hostile surprises that we have come to see as part and parcel of the RPG experience come from this background of wargaming.

But even as someone who enjoys wargames, I don’t always want to play a wargame when I sit down to play an RPG.  There’s an opportunity here to explore gaming without those holdouts baked in, and some game designers have been pushing in that direction for years.  Yet if we aren’t following in the habits of our wargaming ancestors, what do we do?

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