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D&D General Story Now, Skilled Play, and Elephants

The aim of disambiguating "skilled play" (quotes, per Snarf's thread) from skilled play (no quotes).

Isn't it just readily inferable once you've played the games in question though?

The goal of a Mouse Guard unit (in Mouse Guard curiously enough) when delivering the mail through a harrowing wood to a neighboring village is going to be fundamentally different (in theme, in systemitization, and in the skillful deployment of moves to achieve the goal) is going to be fundamentally different than Pawns/Murderhobos trying to avoid needless, resource-ablating encounters so they can minimize risk and maximize treasure: encumbrance: time relationships.

I absolutely agree with the goal of disambiguation. But I feel like the "ambiguation" (is that even a word?) is the actual problem to be honest with you. It should be fundamentally obvious that skillful play in one game is going to be different than skillful play in another game. Further still, it should be obvious that the same game that imposes/engenders/incentivizes thematic constraint is absolutely different than skilled play in the same type of game (with similar taxonomical relationships of conflicts and premise at the highest level of the hierarchy) that imposes/engenders no thematic constraint, and/or actually disincentivizes it (!), within the scope of the same sort of play!
 

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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Isn't it just readily inferable once you've played the games in question though?

The goal of a Mouse Guard unit (in Mouse Guard curiously enough) when delivering the mail through a harrowing wood to a neighboring village is going to be fundamentally different (in theme, in systemitization, and in the skillful deployment of moves to achieve the goal) is going to be fundamentally different than Pawns/Murderhobos trying to avoid needless, resource-ablating encounters so they can minimize risk and maximize treasure: encumbrance: time relationships.

I absolutely agree with the goal of disambiguation. But I feel like the "ambiguation" (is that even a word?) is the actual problem to be honest with you. It should be fundamentally obvious that skillful play in one game is going to be different than skillful play in another game. Further still, it should be obvious that the same game that imposes/engenders/incentivizes thematic constraint is absolutely different than skilled play in the same type of game (with similar taxonomical relationships of conflicts and premise at the highest level of the hierarchy) that imposes/engenders no thematic constraint, and/or actually disincentivizes it (!), within the scope of the same sort of play!
Would you agree though, that what counts as "skilled play" in a given game might differ on a per player cohort basis?
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
The aim of disambiguating "skilled play" (quotes, per Snarf's thread) from skilled play (no quotes).

In fairness to myself, I have never liked the term, and only used it (with full caveats) because it is in wide currency. I thought it would be interesting to look at the ways in which that early mode of play still influences certain conversations in 5e, but that's not what happened.

Given my general dislike for the jargon threads, I would only say that-
"Skilled play" (in the defined term sense) has a specific meaning that is about a modality of play.
However, you can skillfully play in all sorts of way, and the way that player does that will depend upon both the game and upon their particular modality of play- a player who is emphasizing RPing in D&D 5e (for example) will play skillfully in a manner differently than a player who is emphasizing optimization and combat- and, of course, modalities of play are often on a continuum.
 

Would you agree though, that what counts as "skilled play" in a given game might differ on a per player cohort basis?

I think Dungeons and Beavers culture has made talking about TTRPGs fundamentally more difficult than it should be.

Players don’t just get to pick whatever the hell they want any game to be about just because Dungeons and Beavers culture said way back “you know what…today the game is going to be about baking cakes and wedding prep and laundry sorting!” And a sort of Calvinballing approach to all play (of anything) amplified this.

There is a specific strain of play that does this (as above). It’s beloved and has considerable market share. Yes, in that particular strain of play there is no such thing as an actual systemitized premise of play and no such thing as goals that interact with that systemitized premise and the attendant Win Condition for that goal.

But outside of that particular Dungeons and Beavers (and maybe married to Calvinball) strain of play, there is an enormous swath of play that is independent of the sort of “player cohort” predilections you’re speaking of.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
There is a fundamental divide in the way we see games. I do not see games as tools or collections of mechanics to do what we wish with. For me the power of all games and sports is the Magic Circle, the shared purpose we take on as players when we play a game. For a short period of time we give up our usual social roles and take on the ones the game or sport provides.
Something that has provoked argument in game studies is that players often play a given game in different ways. This takes two forms. In one form, the players all on surface join the same game, but each with different ideas of how they will play (including different ideas of what is permissible). One of the more marked cases is the player who participates without knowing the rules.

For me personally the objectives, reward systems, and principles of play are the primary components of design. Changing those without changing mechanics is a much bigger deal than changing mechanics without changing the underlying principles.
I feel like the example of griefing in MMOs might represent a challenge to that. Perforce - as it is enforced programmatically - the players are playing the same mechanics. Their objectives, rewards and principles of play diverge. What do you think?
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Players don’t just get to pick whatever the hell they want any game to be about just because Dungeons and Beavers culture said way back “you know what…today the game is going to be about baking cakes and wedding prep and laundry sorting!” And a sort of Calvinballing approach to all play (of anything) amplified this.

There is a specific strain of play that does this (as above). It’s beloved and has considerable market share. Yes, in that particular strain of play there is no such thing as an actual systemitized premise of play and no such thing as goals that interact with that systemitized premise and the attendant Win Condition for that goal.

But outside of that particular Dungeons and Beavers (and maybe married to Calvinball) strain of play, there is an enormous swath of play that is independent of the sort of “player cohort” predilections you’re speaking of.
I don't have a settled position on this. One challenge is that players vary within cohorts as well as across them. The cheater is a notorious example. My current view on games is to think about them as tools. Just as most people know the use of a hammer, and will use it to drive in nails, it is possible to use a hammer in other ways. A hammer might come with instructions for use, and that will help produce conformity (without guaranteeing it).

Unfortunately, RPGs are rather more fuzzy than hammers. Whereas the properties of matter offer a graspable object that persists in its form whatever we think of it - for hammers - with games players have a role in determining properties. A great example is "Opponent loses next turn" (the original text of Time Walk) which some players grasped and enacted as instant victory.

Thus I feel that where "skilled play" might do work, is with regard to how players embracing it might conform their play. It then operates at the layer of techniques or principles, where it informs a predisposition as to how to grasp what the game rules entail, and how they should be used. Including what might happen outside the scope of the written game rules.
 

I feel like the example of griefing in MMOs might represent a challenge to that. Perforce - as it is enforced programmatically - the players are playing the same mechanics. Their objectives, rewards and principles of play diverge. What do you think?

Griefing is the same thing as Dungeons and Beavers.

It’s subversive.

Humans having the capacity to be subversive (and willfully destructive) is a statement about the unique operating system of a subset of people (when it comes to Griefing…a vanishingly small subset). It is no more a statement about gameplay broadly than putting a person with no legs behind the wheel of a car is a statement about the ability of cars to (a) travel forward at all and (b) dramatically differentiate the driving experience based on the integration of systems.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Griefing is the same thing as Dungeons and Beavers.

It’s subversive.

Humans having the capacity to be subversive (and willfully destructive) is a statement about the unique operating system of a subset of people (when it comes to Griefing…a vanishingly small subset). It is no more a statement about gameplay broadly than putting a person with no legs behind the wheel of a car is a statement about the ability of cars to (a) travel forward at all and (b) dramatically differentiate the driving experience based on the integration of systems.
What I am seeing increasingly with younger players is a willingness to make the game serve them. They don't take the goals laid out by game designers as carven in stone. I believe that will be the pattern for the future.

We have strong-minded people on these boards who are able to put forward their informed preferences very confidently. Asserting a preference or belief won't make it true for all players. I don't seek that kind of understanding of games. I seek an inclusive understanding, that gives consideration to how each player chooses to play... not how I expect them to play. In almost every session of play that I observe, I see differences in understanding of what they are doing between the players. Most manage these differences to successfully fulfil the social contract - stay within the magic circle - yet these differences are palpably present.
 

I don't have a settled position on this.

I don’t see how this squares with your lines of inquiry across the multiple threads involved here (nor what you’ve written below).

I understanding that you’re toggling on and off a framing of your thoughts as “curious rumination” with possible “devil’s advocacy” with “actual assertion.” The reality is, that collection of toggling is going to land squarely on privileging (if not outright asserting) “there can be no functional orthodoxy in play” and/or “all brands of deviant interaction with games inherently reveal games as interpretable/malleable medium/social constructs (rather than revealing something inherent to the individual operating systems performing the deviant interactions).”
One challenge is that players vary within cohorts as well as across them. The cheater is a notorious example. My current view on games is to think about them as tools. Just as most people know the use of a hammer, and will use it to drive in nails, it is possible to use a hammer in other ways. A hammer might come with instructions for use, and that will help produce conformity (without guaranteeing it).

Unfortunately, RPGs are rather more fuzzy than hammers. Whereas the properties of matter offer a graspable object that persists in its form whatever we think of it - for hammers - with games players have a role in determining properties. A great example is "Opponent loses next turn" (the original text of Time Walk) which some players grasped and enacted as instant victory.

Thus I feel that where "skilled play" might do work, is with regard to how players embracing it might conform their play. It then operates at the layer of techniques or principles, where it informs a predisposition as to how to grasp what the game rules entail, and how they should be used. Including what might happen outside the scope of the written game rules.
 

Campbell

Legend
It's obviously possible for us to play a loosely defined game without a shared purpose. I think doing so reduces the social value of games which to provide spaces where we can freely develop skills or practice different social roles in a context that is somewhat removed from our normal social divisions. When play games in an environment where we have to socially negotiate with others existing social norms tend to take precedence and the freedom to really play is incredibly diminished.

For functional play I don't think that shared purpose needs to come from the game text, but it needs to be there or we don't have a Magic Circle. Instead we have dysfunctional play. Obviously there will never be a perfect match here, but in my experience the more of a shared purpose there is the better play is. Without a shared purpose there is no mastery. We are not valuing each other's play and contributions. It's a mess in my opinion.
 
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What I am seeing increasingly with younger players is a willingness to make the game serve them. They don't take the goals laid out by game designers as carven in stone. I believe that will be the pattern for the future.

We have strong-minded people on these boards who are able to put forward their informed preferences very confidently. Asserting a preference or belief won't make it true for all players. I don't seek that kind of understanding of games. I seek an inclusive understanding, that gives consideration to how each player chooses to play... not how I expect them to play. In almost every session of play that I observe, I see differences in understanding of what they are doing between the players. Most manage these differences to successfully fulfil the social contract - stay within the magic circle - yet these differences are palpably present.

I would invite you to branch out and experience more forms of structured play.

I think what you’re experiencing (and therefore extrapolating from) is a dearth of structured, disciplined play (and the merits thereof) and a saturation of unstructured, sort of “FFA pick your agenda” play.

Across a large population of Brazilian Jiujitsu sparring sessions (basically “games”) you won’t see this kind of deviance. Same goes for ball sports. Same goes for racing. For most boardgames. And for a healthy cross-section of TTRPGs (I’ve never experienced the “Dungeons and Beavers” phenomenon in Dogs in the Vineyard, Mouse Guard, Blades in the Dark and a dozen or more other games…and this is GMing over 150 players in these games for over 5000 hours of play…never seen it…not once).
 

For functional play I don't think that shared purpose needs to come from the game text, but it needs to be there or we don't have a Magic Circle. Instead we have dysfunctional play. Obviously there will never be a perfect match here, but in my experience the more of a shared purpose there is the better play is. Without a shared purpose there is no mastery. We are not valuing each other's play and contributions. It's a mess in my opinion.

Another way to look at it (besides “mess”) might be to compare it to a group of people at sea.

In one scenario, you have a sinking vessel with a collective of folks, structured bailing and rowing in the same direction toward port.

In another scenario, you have several sinking vessels, folks sorting out their sequencing of bailing and rowing (or if to bail and/or row at all) and deciding on various directions to row.

Both of those experiences may be awesome. But they’re very different (and not just in one way).
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Supporter
Another way to look at it (besides “mess”) might be to compare it to a group of people at sea.

In one scenario, you have a sinking vessel with a collective of folks, structured bailing and rowing in the same direction toward port.

In another scenario, you have several sinking vessels, folks sorting out their sequencing of bailing and rowing (or if to bail and/or row at all) and deciding on various directions to row.

Both of those experiences may be awesome. But they’re very different (and not just in one way).
Albeit it is a game, and no one is in rl drowning. Do you see what I mean?
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Albeit it is a game, and no one is in rl drowning. Do you see what I mean?
I do not, because you seem to have missed MBL's point altogether, so I'm not sure where you're at.

My difficulty in discussing this topic with you, in particular, is that you quite often make arguments that smear things together so that there's no effective difference and then challenge others to make their point in this flat and bland landscape of no real difference. Or, you claim that there are so many differences at the smallest scales that the average is just noise and so you can't pick anything out of it (really, this is the same argument from a different direction).

But then, you put forth arguments that add quotation marks to terms and claim these are special, but never articulate what at all is actually special about them, just that they must be -- usually because someone in a different thread said it.

Honestly, MBL's comment on Calvinball feel rather apt. Any time a point is made, and discussion seems to be advancing, all the sudden the rules change and we're in a different iteration of the same general obfuscation efforts.
 


Campbell

Legend
Here's the thing without a shared sense of purpose we only ever get to have solitary fun. There are all sorts of types of play that are only fun in the context of that shared purpose. For me personally character focused play and challenge oriented play firmly fit in that category. I'm not going to be able to invest myself deeply in either if the other people I play with are not on board. I need that shared commitment for it to be fun.

Likewise the D&D 5e game I'm a player in has become so much more fun since I have embraced that it's all about shared storytelling and light mechanical engagement. When I stopped trying to make the game something it was not and would never be it became so much more fun. I'm there for the GM's story now and I push lateral solutions way less. Play used to be a stressful experience. Now it's not stressful at all.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Well, this speaks to why I didn't want to go beyond game-as-artifact. Unless I write a wall of text, it is easy to mistake what is meant. First, to say house rules is not to denigrate. I just wanted to give insight as to what "exogenous rules" might refer to.

<snip>

This is to restate or exemplify the point, right? The written principles guide the player as to the use of the rest of the game. Those are endogenous. (Refer to Jarvinen and Huizinga by the way, for more on this idea.) You are not however refuting the existence of exogenous rules though, right? When you say - "I don't agree with this" - is it right to guess that you agree that there are exogenous principles and techniques, but want to stress that there are also endogenous ones.

<snip>

I feel the issue here comes down to my use of "house rules" being misleading or problematic for you. Let's not use it then: I have no special attachment to it. I would offer the exogenous / endogenous idea as helpful. And I do feel it is possible to say something about what written-rules-as-principles are doing compared with other written-rules. As outlined above.
If, by "exogenous", you mean the game designers didn't write them down (eg because they forgot to, or because they thought they were self-evident, or it didn't occur to them that anyone might try and play the game a different way), then sure. I think everyone agrees that OD&D and AD&D are not complete games as published - you can't play them as their designers conceived of them without bringing in some knowledge that the texts don't give you.

But there is another sense of "exogenous" which I don't think is apt here. For instance, in backgammon if your have a 6 and 1 as your opening roll then there is a best move. But that statement of principle is exogenous to the game-as-artefact in the sense that (i) it is not stated in the rules, is not implicit in the rules as stated, and is not entailed by the rules as stated, and (ii) you can play backgammon, and perhaps even win backgammon, without adhering to or even being aware of that principle. The principle is ultimately a probability-based generalisation that takes the rules as a given and assumes winning as a goal: if you get the chance to make this move (by rolling 6 and 1), and then do make it, you are more likely to win the game then if you use that 6 and 1 to make some other move. I can't speak as confidently about chess as backgammon, but I think principles that govern openings and development can probably be compared to the one I've described for backgammon.

It's an interesting feature of these, and many other, games that - having stated rules for them, including win conditions - these other principles emerge. Gygaxian skilled play gives rise to similar principles - for instance, there are more or less optimal gear load outs and spell load outs, and while some of these are going to be very context dependent some can be generalised with a reasonably high degree of stability (eg all else being equal, Sleep is a better spell to memorise than Affect Normal Fires).

But the principles and techniques that are necessary to actually be playing Gygaxian skilled play at all are not like this. They are presupposed by the game rules as stated, and in that fashion are entailed by those rules: the rules don't make sense, and won't support the win condition of the game - ie acquiring skill to earn XP and thereby demonstrate one's skill at play - unless understood in light of, and applied in accordance with, those principles and techniques.

To try and talk about Gygaxian skilled play while keeping those principles and techniques out of the discussion, and only talking about the content of the rulebooks, will be fruitless. The rulebooks are incomplete, in a way that the rules for chess and backgammon simply are not. (The comparison is like one between modern recipes, which are complete, and mediaeval or early modern recipes which say things like "Take a pig, butcher it and cook it." I don't know much about the history of recipes, but for game rules I assume that Hoyle is or is near the beginning of attempts to state rules completely. Gygax's attempts to write down the rules of his game are simply not up to Hoyle standards.)

In my previous post I said "I don't agree". I'll finish this post by saying that I'm not really sure of where you're trying to head. If the point is that Gygax's rules are incomplete, then I think that's true and very widely acknowledged (and very widely acknowledged now for decades - Ron Edwards wrote interesting stuff about that point 20-odd years ago, and can't have been the first). But if you are asserting that we can discuss what is written in Gygax's rulebooks, and from that alone get some insight into Gygaxian skilled play without having to have regard to the unstated but crucial and presupposed principles and techniques of play, then it's still the case that I don't agree.

If your point is neither of the above then I apologise for not having followed it.
 
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pemerton

Legend
Your example from Traveller is interesting. What I think we see over time is that groups of players form ideas about how they like to play. Eventually those are written into their rules.

The fact that happens tells us something about variance in grasping, enacting and upholding rules. If players all played those rules the same way, no one would ever need to write anything into the rulebook about it. BW etc must write principles into the rulebook because players come to the game with disparate exogenous rules.
I think you are somewhat reversing cause and effect here. Or at least neglecting the role of time and hence of development and learning.

Traveller is published in 1977 (I'm working from what I think is a second printing). Burning Wheel revised is published in 2005 (at least, that's the date on my third printing). Any attempt to compare the way the games state their rules, including principles and techniques, has to have regard to that fact.

In the early days of RPGing the rules were not complete. This is because (i) assumptions were made about the expectations that would be brought to the game, and/or (ii) the designers simply didn't notice all the rules they were using, and/or (iii) they didn't know how to reduce those rules to writing. And a further important (iv) was that there were received expectations about how to state the role of the referee (received from wargaming and from D&D).

Hence Traveller both (a) tells us that the role of the referee is to administer the rules for a consistent world, similar to a wargame or free kriegsspiel referee, and (b) tells us (in various somewhat elliptical ways) that the role of the referee is to provide interesting situations that will incite the players to action. Presumably Marc Miller didn't actually believe he was doing both these inconsistent things. But it seems he didn't know how to write down what he was doing. It may even be that he was embarrassed to say too much about the instigating role of the referee precisely because this would conflict with received understandings of how a wargame referee should behave. (Ron Edwards talks about a similar problem in some early self-consciously "story now" RPGs, like Prince Valiant, in this essay, under the somewhat unfortunate label of "the timid virgin".)

Looking at the rulebook that I've just taken out of my backgammon set, it has a diagram that tells us how to set up the game board, together with some explanatory text, and then it tells us "the object of the game" which is to move one's pieces around the board in the direction from one's opponent's inner table to one's own. It then sets out the detailed rules of play (ie for rolling, moving, hitting and bringing pieces back into play) before getting on to bearing off. It then tells us that a game is won when either players bears off all of his/her pieces first.

What is missing in Traveller is a statement of the overall goal of play (is it to imagine life in the Far Future? to experience exciting stories of the Far Future? - the game's subtitle is Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future, but it's not clear how well get to adventure if the referee is simply a neutral arbiter); and any explanation of how the game is to be set up (there are rules for PC gen, and there are rules for random encounters including random patron encounters, but there is nothing analogous to the "first session" rules in AW and DW, or the analogous rules for setting up the starting situation found in Baker's In A Wicked Age); and if we think of action resolution as the counterpart of moving, hitting and re-entering in backgammon, those rules are incomplete too (eg what is the referee expected to say happens next if a check fails - more generally, what is the place of failed checks in the context of Science Fiction Adventure in the Far Future?).

The reason that Luke Crane's rulebook addresses these matters with a degree of thoroughness and consistency that is missing from Classic Traveller isn't that the need was any greater; but rather than (i) he was aware of the need, and (ii) had the benefit of 25+ years of thinking about what actually addressing them would look like. An important part of (ii) was the he could abandon the wargame inheritance of "neutral referee" without shame or awkwardness.
 

pemerton

Legend
Oh, for sure, there's a skill in telling stories. This isn't what's meant by skilled play, and, if you stop a moment and consider it, you might think that having the GM tell you a story well is not at all the same thing as playing a game. The GM can exhibit great skill at their storytelling, but this, necessarily, removes the ability of the players to make skilled play choices -- because the actual input to the GM decision making process is not the players' actions, but rather the GM's story.

Now, a GM can be quite skilled at set dressing and evocative description, but that doesn't go to outcomes, and so isn't really part of skilled play. Recall that skilled play is the leveraging of the system to achieve player goals within the scope of the game. "The GM tells me a good story" is none of this.
We're agreed on this.

No, and any such distinction is trying to create a special case where none exists. What skilled play means doesn't really change across games -- it's the leveraging of the system to achieve player goals within the scope of the game. What that looks like will, of course, be different in every game, because the system and scope of the game changes with each. There's no need to set aside OSR has having quoted skilled play, because saying skilled play in OSR does that already. The quotes just confuse issues and support a false idea of specialness.
I'm not a huge fan of the quotes as jargon - I don't mind them as scare quotes - but I do think that Gygaxian "skilled play" is a special case that there is benefit in recognising as a special case.

There are two reasons I think this.

(1) It has had such a big influence on the hobby - it cast such a shadow, especially but not only on D&D play - that I think we have to recognise that and start our analysis with an awareness of that.

To put the same point slightly differently: RPGs have inherited an obsession with geography, architecture, maps and the like; and have inherited assumptions about how combat should be resolved via a distinctive minigame in which fictional positioning plays perhaps a modest, even significant but never determinative role; and we can't understand the obsession and the assumption except by reference to how Gygaxian skilled play works, and the premises it rests on.

In thirty years time maybe this first reason of mine will have evaporated; but I just don't think it has yet. I just find myself in too many threads where discovering a secret door is taken to self-evidently be a different way of extrapolating the fiction from killing on Orc with a sword blow, hence warranting a completely different approach to framing and to action resolution.

(2) This second reason relates to the discussion @Manbearcat and I were having in the other thread, and picks up on your leveraging of the system to achieve player goals within the scope of the game.

I think that skilled play is primarily a matter of agenda - what are we all doing when we sit down to play this RPG - rather than actual moments of play. Thus I think it makes sense to say that my play of this "skilled play" game was unskilled - that's why I lost! And because of this, I think it makes sense to contrast RPGs in which players will lose if they don't play with skill (classic D&D is an example; so is my new favourite example, The Green Knight) and RPGs of which this is not true (Burning Wheel was my example in the other thread; others include Prince Valiant and Cthulhu Dark, neither of which actually has much room for leveraging the system in any event beyond declaring actions).

I can sit down to play Burning Wheel where my agenda is inhabiting my character and have a great time. The game will work. Checks will be framed and resolved. Some will be successes; some, perhaps more, will be failures. My character will be twisted and turned and perhaps tortured. This is the game doing the thing it's meant to do.

If I sit down to a game of classic D&D and try and play it like that, it will be a total disaster (unless the GM fudges and/or manipulates a lot of the fiction, in which case we're out of classic D&D and into DL/2nd ed AD&D territory).

*************************************************************

Now here's an interesting question that arises from my (2) and tries to step out of the shadow of my (1). What might RPGs where the agenda is and has to be "skilled play" look like, if they don't look like Gygaxian D&D? I don't know Gamma World to know how different, if at all, it is from Gygax. T&T is more random but in many respects is pretty similar.

The Green Knight is completely different. For me (and this is almost certainly a fact about me, not anything about the state of the RPG hobby) it's been a real eye-opener to see that a "skilled play" game can be so radically different from Gygaxian play, and also very different from something like Burning Wheel played from a (not essential, but possible) skilled play perspective.
 
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