Monday, August 31, 2009

Beware the Gorgnard

There's a grognard in all of us, or at least the seed of one. "Grognard" comes from the French grogner, which means "to grumble." Originally it referred to old guard soldiers in Napoleon's army, and now it's used to refer to old guard gamers that are generally, well, grumblers. (Sometimes it may refer to wargamers in general, but that's not what I'm talking about here. You guys are great ... if a little obsessed with tape measures.)

If you've played games for any length of time, you've probably run into a grognard at least once. They're characterized by griping about how good things used to be and how poor they are now. There's a nearly tangible cloud of cynicism about them. Conversation is mined with sarcasm and bitterness. The Internet has served a vast breeding ground for the grognard.

While the lack of perspective is a bit silly, the grognard isn't particularly harmful in isolation. But the grognard is poisonous to gaming with others. Between the dismissive attitude and the emphasis placed exclusively on "winning," the grognard can easily torpedo an otherwise excellent game (either digital or tabletop).

In digital games, the grognard is the person screaming through their headset about where to go and what to do. Rather that encourage exploration of a suite of abilities, they point to the optimal configuration and mock any deviations. In tabletop games, they're the person that sees the tentacled monster and instead of recoiling in horror, they declare with great boredom, "It's a mind flayer. You two have the best Will defenses, get up front."

This contrast became especially pronounced for me when a friend of mind started playing D&D for the very first time. He played with some of his own friends and with my weekly group a bit as well. Having never played a tabletop RPG of any sort, they came into 4E fresh. The interaction with the rules wasn't particularly noticeable (although how quickly they picked it up was a bit of a testament to 4E), but their attitude at the table was night to day compared to some folks I've played with.

The grognard wants to "win." They have a seen-it-before attitude that reduces nearly every moment of interaction to its most ludic qualities. They tend to be unnecessarily paranoid and suspicious to the point of absurdity. Metagaming is very likely. There is no sense of wonder and little excitement.

My friend new to the game was excited, scared, curious, etc. at all the right moments. It was honestly quite refresh and I think it inspired the rest of us to get a little more invested. I actually think my current group is pretty good at staving off the grognard-ness, but previous assemblages most certainly have not been. I ended up talking to some of the veteran players about the fresh eyes they were seeing the experience though and I think we were all a little envious.

There's a little bit of grognard in nearly all of us, but I think we should do everything we can to silence it. Try to approach the games we play, digital or tabletop, with a fresh eye and attempt at being excited. When experiencing feelings of sameness, and this is definitely something that can be observed about 2009's digital games, perhaps it's time to look elsewhere. I've actually been pretty content with '09 being a bit quieter, as I've had great opportunity to experience fantastic indie games, older games I missed on the first go. And I've been genuinely surprised by a few things that might have been passed by at another time.

I play games because I love them and I imagine most of you do as well. I try to approach new gaming experiences with as few biases and preconceptions as possible. Hell, I might even try to be excited. If disappointed, I'll accept that such is occasionally inevitable and try to find something more rewarding.

Rather that succumb to cynicism and dismissiveness, I know I'll be looking for other ways to deal with those grognard feelings and I challenge you to do the same. Those that play games and talk about games with you will certainly thank you for it.

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Blogger Graham said...

I find this very challenging to achieve (not being a grumbler, that is) and I find it very... odd when I achieve it. Like right now, for example: I'm playing Shadow Complex. Even though I knew from the moment I saw the first trailer that I would have a laundry list of things to complain about, I was, inexplicably, able to talk about it excitedly. I don't think it was any inherent quality of the game, I think it just caught me at the right moment and in the right frame of mind.

This happens to me every now and then. Then, where Shadow Complex has been exceedingly lucky, is I've had a weird bored apathy the past couple days, which is while I've mostly been playing it. This has kind of made me too lazy to complain. So rather than grumbling, I've just been playing through the game and enjoying it.

And it's upsetting me. Because I'm enjoying this game so much, and I don't even really like it. I don't want to like it. I wish I had been able to recieve, say, Bioshock like this, or Fallout 2 when I replayed it, or Space Rangers 2 -- all games I wanted to love! But no, I had to pick every nit those games had. Bah.

August 31, 2009 at 9:59 AM  
Blogger JPLC said...

Although the gorgnard is a very powerful force, yes, I agree that we should fight it wholeheartedly, tooth and nail. Hope and imagination are what drive things forward, and to forget that is to make a grave error. For example, looking at a game purely to win is to forget childhood, and that must never be forgot. At least in my opinion.

August 31, 2009 at 10:57 AM  
Blogger Iroquois Pliskin said...

ha! I don't think of myself as a grognard by habit or inclination, but on our last podcast I probably was a bit dour about the state of video games in '09.

Here's two ways I'm guilty, I suppose: though I don't think everything was better in the old days (especially from a *design* standpoint they are like 1000x better today), I am honestly floored by the way that today's games lag behind their predecessors in certain areas. Take Planescape:Torment. It is an ugly, ungainly thing to control. But when it comes to creating a richly fleshed-out cast of characters and a genuinely compelling storyline I think it puts today's best efforts to shame. For serious. it was 1999, people.

second, the only reason I feel some dissapointment about the games I've played this year (god knows I haven't played all of 'em) is because the games of the last few years have set such insanely high standards. (I'm thinking braid and Bioshock in particular but you could insert others that are equally impressive) We should be building on these games and surpassing them, instead of trying to create the next iteration in the amusing-but-ultimately-stale bang bang genre exercise.

September 1, 2009 at 12:23 AM  
Blogger Erik said...

We don't use tape measures, we use yard sticks. :P

September 1, 2009 at 3:08 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Graham Sometimes it's hard to turn it on and off, eh? I've definitely had that experience before too and it's mystifying.

@JPLC Glad we're on the same page =) Now to work on the rest of the internet.

@Iroquois This post was something I'd been thinking about for a while (and was mostly inspired by my friend coming into tabletop RPGs fresh), this definitely wasn't inspired by "Monsieur Pliskin, Le Grand Grogard." You're one of the most erudite and conscientious gamer that I know.

I don't think your dourness is particularly out of place either. It is unfortunately that instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, most stuff seems content to play at their feet.

I think we're going to see some of those more substantive titles soon enough though. In the mean time, exploit that lull! You've got Deus Ex loaded up, so savour it. The deluge will come again, I'm sure.

@Wordsmythe Tape measures too new-fangledy, eh? ;)

September 1, 2009 at 9:01 AM  
Blogger Erik said...


A good grognard always eschews the ability to retract!

September 1, 2009 at 9:04 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Wordsmythe HAHAHA! Well played sir, well played.

September 1, 2009 at 10:10 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

September 2, 2009 at 9:26 PM  
Blogger Jorge Albor said...

"Don't metagame noob" has become a tabletop mantra for my group. It's not as easy to avoid Gorgnard-ness in videogames though. Particularly when potentially great games are always just around the corner, or in the past. But then again, I'm consistently impressed, even in 2009.

September 2, 2009 at 10:19 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

Lest I give the wrong impression, I'm not a metagamer and, if anything, I'm probably less oriented towards winning than my character usually is. I'd more like to fail in interesting ways.

But: Everything new is a slow march downward since Ultima 7.

September 3, 2009 at 3:21 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Rohit There's lots of gems out there that, for whatever reason, people may have passed by on the first go.

@Jorge My current group in amazing, but in the past, I've definitely wished for a metagame flyswatter. Someone gets out of line, *whack*! Repeat as necessary.

September 7, 2009 at 12:29 PM  

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