One man's unplayable game, another man's source of endless fun

What makes a good game good, and a bad game bad? If you’ve ever frequented any of the big RPG forums, you know that gamers can be vicious in their criticism of games that don’t meet their personal standards. This rather mundane observation sprang to mind today as I was reading Grognardia‘s post on Monte Cook’s new “Dungeonaday” venture.

The Dungeonaday project is interesting, as is James Maliszewski’s insightful-as-always commentary on it. (Seriously, that’s a blog that should be on your daily reading list.) But I did a full stop (actually, I let loose with a bemused “hah!”) when I read this sentence from the post:

[Monte Cook] was, after all, the writer of the execrable Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil.

The "execrable" game itself.Why did that strike me as funny? Because I think I’ve run Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil more than any other adventure campaign in my gaming career—at least three or four different times, for a different gaming group each time. And I loved it each time, as did my players. So hearing somebody describe it as “execrable” is just amusing; I’m sure they have a perfectly good reason for disliking it, but for such a horrifically bad product, it’s provided me with a heck of a lot of entertainment!

I have not read a formal review of Return, so for all I know I’m alone in my opinion that it’s a really fun D&D campaign. And I’m not criticizing James for his judgment at all; I have my own list of games and sourcebooks I think are terrible that somebody out there absolutely loves. There is no product or work of art in the world that isn’t loved by some and hated by others. But I think the adage “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure” holds particularly true in the gaming hobby, where creativity and enthusiasm can redeem even the most poorly written, badly designed game product.

This is one reason I tread more carefully with game reviews than I do with movie or book reviews. There’s not much I can do to make The Phantom Menace an excellent movie. But it’s a rare gaming product, however mediocre it might be, that can’t be turned into something fun if you’re willing to put in the effort.

There are a lot of game materials I’ve had a great time with that are often roundly (and in some cases accurately) condemned when they come up in online discussions and reviews:

  • No online discussion of Decipher’s Lord of the Rings RPG is complete without people chiming in to remind us that its combat system is “horribly broken” and “unplayable”—a fact my game group somehow managed not to notice during our entirely enjoyable adventures with that game.
  • TSR’s early Dragonlance modules for AD&D are legendary for committing the cardinal sin of gaming: railroading. Ask a veteran gamer and you’ll hear how those awful modules force players down predetermined paths, leeching all the fun out of the gaming experience. And yet that didn’t stop my young self from having a great time with them (they were among my earliest introductions to D&D, as it happens).
  • Rolemaster‘s supposed glut of charts is often said to make the game painful at best and unplayable at worst. But my high-school self ran that game for years without being troubled by its alleged unplayability.
  • Iron Crown’s Middle-Earth Roleplaying is generally considered to be quite unsuited for roleplaying in Middle Earth. But as with Rolemaster, I ran it for years and somehow failed to notice this supposedly game-damning problem.

(I often suspect that Rifts players can relate to this; I can think of few games that are criticized quite so much as it is, and for generally compelling reasons; but it makes me perversely happy to think that people are having fun with Rifts anyway.)

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t critique games, or even declare them Bad if we think they merit the condemnation. And hey, many of the games above actually are flawed, some of them in serious ways; in many cases the critics are dead-on with their judgments. Those Dragonlance modules really are railroady. Rolemaster really does have way too many charts. The combat system in Decipher’s LotR really does have serious problems. For all I know, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil really does have some terrible feature that makes it bad.

But I’ll never cease to be amazed at how much fun you can have with a “terrible” game. And if you’re having that much fun with it… how terrible can it really be?

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