“Time and changes in the condition and [it] may require occasional and corresponding modifications.” –Gary Gygax
If you don’t know who Gary Gygax is, he is one of the original creators of Dungeons and Dragons, the pen and paper, sword and sorcery, Cheetos and Mountain dew fueled roleplaying game that has been around for almost half a century. It set the standard for RPG games, both in text and video game form, and it all starts and ends with the D&D Rulebook. It is the tome where all adventures, characters, and worlds begin and end. It is the Bible of the D&D adventures, and it has gone through a lot of revisions. We are on D&D’s 5th Edition as of 2012, and still going, and that makes sense. As the game and its fan base have grown over the decades so has the need for substantial rule and gameplay editions aimed at making the game more enjoyable, more user-friendly, and just more fair for all the players involved… but here is the kick: That above quote is mis-attributed. Gary Gygax never said that, but Thomas Jefferson did, and he was talking about the US Constitution.
Amending the Dragon
Jefferson’s quote goes as follows -and we think it is worth reading in full: Each generation is as independent as the one preceding, as that was of all which had gone before. It has then, like them, a right to choose for itself the form of government it believes most promotive of its own happiness; consequently, to accommodate to the circumstances in which it finds itself that received from its predecessors; and it is for the peace and good of mankind that a solemn opportunity of doing this every 19 or 20 years should be provided by the constitution, so that it may be handed on with periodical repairs from generation to generation to the end of time, if anything human can so long endure.
Despite what you may think of old Tommy J, he was still a Level 20 Constitutional Scholar. He helped write it and he believed firmly that the Constitution should be a living document. He believed that the American people had the right to revisit our founding document every two decades, which also makes sense. The Constitution is basically the D&D Rulebook of government. Sure there are plenty of other sourcebooks that accompany it -The Senate Master’s Guide, the Tax Collector’s Handbook, The Judiciary, and The Forgotten Realms Adventures- but in the end it all stems from this one source. It lays out the basic framework of our government, and to date, there are only 27 amendments, the last of which was created in 1992, and addressed Congressional salary. For comparison, Dungeons and Dragons was in its 2nd edition at that time. That means that the last Constitutional Amendment was made three D&D editions ago…
We have seen more movement on the rules governing D20 dice rolling than we have seen on the rules governing… well governing. Now, some people will argue that is because the founders wanted it that way. After all, in order to properly run a country -much like properly running an adventuring party of five unruly friends with questionable moral compasses- you need a stable set of rules. You don’t want to be changing the basic governing principles every five years to suite the latest needs or crazes. That is why the Congress passes laws. Those laws are meant to be the changing rules that deal with the every day minutia of life, liberty, and the pursuit of the +2 Magic Goblet of Happiness. We understand that, but what happens when the rulebook does not account for all the ways in which the game can be broken?
The Power Players
Any experienced D&D player knows that there are some exploits and multi-class combinations which they can use to make their characters almost uber powerful. Typically these people are called Power-Gamers. They are the ones that figure our how to make characters that deal massive amounts of damage to other creatures, thus giving the GM a headache every time he tries to set up a level-appropriate challenges for the adventuring party. Power-gamers are the people who pour over the rulebook looking for exploits and loopholes, and there are a few. After all, it is a massive game with a lot of varying rules and abilities. That is why one of the reasons why D&D revises their editions is to try and reduce the instances of exploitation that can be used to create unbalanced characters and unfairly tip the game in their direction.
So why would the laws of the United States be any different? After all, people have discovered a fair amount of meta-exploits they can use to power-game the legal system. Issues such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, when executive nominations should be brought to a vote, congressional and judicial term limits, campaign finance, legislative proposal procedures, voting rules, and more are not covered in the Constitution. Thus, these vital rules have been left open to debate by various state legislators, congresses, and judicial courts. We agree that the Constitution should not be a document that is changed with every passing political fad or cultural trend, but it does need to be a rulebook that enshrines how to fairly and accurately create those laws, which are meant to deal with those issues. Right now there is a lot that is left open to interpretation and house rules.
House Rules are basically the verbal agreements that players of D&D make with each other on how to use certain mechanics or improve upon parts of game play that make sense for the group of people at the moment. It is a fine way for friends to find play styles that best suit their own individual tastes and come to an understanding of the social norms that dictate how things should be done. For the government, there are a lot of these “house rules.” For instance a house rule for the Senate may be that senators trade votes on issues, or the sanctity of good-faith debates. However, the problem with these norms is that they can easily be broken with no consequences other than a tsk, tsk from your fellow players. In a D&D group that could mean bad feelings and group chaos, but in the halls of Congress that could mean outright governmental dysfunction. That is why we need to start relying on our Constitution to enshrine some of the more sensible ideas as hard rules.
We have done this in the past. The most prominent example is when the 32nd Level President, Franklin Roosevelt, stuck around in office for more than two terms. Up until that point Presidential term limits had only been a norm. The two term limit started back when the original GM, George Washington set the house rule in 1797. FDR, however, decided that he would just keep going, and there was really no way to stop him. So in 1951, Congress ratified the 22nd Amendment which officially limited the President to two terms in office. It was a good idea, and revising or even just adding several new amendments could really help a lot of the more intuitive norms of our government become unbreakable rules. As we have found out over the past two-years social norms are not strong enough to stop some players from ignoring them. Even worse, confusing rules -or often times unclear grammar and spelling- can embolden these players to do things that the original framers of the rulebook never intended.
A secondary reason to create a revised rulebooks in the gaming world, is because humans are just not perfect, even after fifteen rounds of editing, and that is true of our founding document as well. We’re sorry to break this to you, but -grammatically speaking- the US Constitution is far from perfect and far from clear. For example, the 26th Amendment reads: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.” Grammatically, that makes very little sense. If you break that sentence down by its commas, it is literally saying that all United States Citizens are eighteen years or older… and by the way their right to vote cannot be denied or infringed. Also, that amendment is not some archaic piece of legislation from the horse and carriage days. It was ratified in 1971. Even worse is the ambiguous grammar and punctuation of the 2nd Amendment, but we have talked about that before, so we won’t go back into it. D&D and other roleplaying games are often forced to release errata to their preexisting rules. These are clarifications meant to clear up ambiguously worded rules or fix other problematic ideas that cannot wait for a new print edition. Jefferson and Madison cannot do that, mostly because they do not have wifi where they are. So, instead, we need to admit all we really have in the US Constitution is a good first edition, but it might be time to move out of beta…
Succeeding over a DC 1789
There is also another reason was have seen 5+ versions of the D&D Rulebook, and that is improvement. The first version of the game was “fine,” but we have played it and from experience we can tell you that it seems a bit lackluster, and the rules are definitely broken or nonsensical in some places. If you go back and play the first version after playing the iterations that have come after it, then it is very easy to see why the game needed to keep growing, and testing, and trying new ideas and mechanics before it became game that nerds in basements all over the world have fallen in love with. Yet, that did not happen all at once. No, continuing improving the game’s core rulebook has led to a better and robust game. Sure there have been some pitfalls along the way, *cough* version 4e *cough* but on the whole the process has produced better results than what we would have gotten if we had just strayed with version 1 for the past five decades. When Dungeons and Dragons was first launched in 1972 the game was new and innovative. Pen and paper RPGs were not as ubiquitous or time-tested as they are today.
Similarly, the US Constitution was unique when it was first created, and yes there was some beta testing by the Greeks, Romans, and Iroquois, but the US system was something fresh in the world. It would make sense that the first version might need some tweaking and revision as the years went on, and to its credit the document has been changed a bit since its original inception. After all, the founding fathers did believe that it should be a living document and did include a way to create amendments. Unfortunately, they made that process incredibly hard to accomplish. Currently, the only way to make an amendment is either by a two-thirds vote by the House and the Senate, or through a Constitutional Convention called for by two-thirds of the State legislatures. In our gridlocked and polarized times, both those two things are as likely as three Critical Rolls in a row. Basically, the document might as well be under a Flesh to Stone spell for all the progress it is going to make in our current political climate.
The unfortunate part is that our current political climate is exactly why we may need to make some revisions. Rules that would ensure a speedy nomination processes, a balanced budget, congressional term limits, judicial term limits, public financing for campaigns, better anti-corruption rules, a right to privacy for all citizens, fair and representative political districts, a federal right to vote -which we do not actually have at this moment-, and possibly even direct Presidential elections as opposed to the electoral college. Now, all of these are just suggestions, and are more or less covered -sometimes inadequately- by other laws, but enshrining them in our highest rulebook… err Constitution might go a long way to help re-balance this game which we call democracy.
Casting Magic Miscellaneous References
Now, you may think we are being ridiculous, comparing the US Constitution to one of the most successfully games ever created… Fine, that is your opinion, but using the principles of a game is not a crazy way to help craft policy or to create a better set of rules for governance. Ultimately that is exactly what the framers were doing. They were creating a set of rules by which they and everyone else would abide by when playing this game of American Democracy. Revising the Constitution could be a good way to remove the power from power-gamers, such a special interest groups and political parties. We could reset the rules so that everyone can have a fair and fun adventuring party as we set out to tackle the dungeons of global uncertainty, or drink ale together in the tavern of political discourse.
No game is ever perfect in its first version. Any game designer will tell you that no matter how you plan or what you do, there are always people out there who will figure out ways to get around rules or break the system for their benefit. Revising rulebooks and taking into account what works and what does not is a good way to correct some of those unforeseeable problems. It is the same for the Constitution. It should not be a static document, and yet the farther from its original creation we have come, the less and less we seem willing to change it… which is crazy.
The Constitution should be an evolving set of rules by which we can keep the intention of our original game designers alive. D&D also teaches us one more important thing that we need to remember. This game should not be about competition, but cooperation. We need rules that help us work together fairly, whether our goal is slaying a dragon or reducing our debt crisis, because at the end of the day we are all players on the same team and we are all friends.
Games give you a chance to excel, and if you’re playing in good company you don’t even mind if you lose because you had the enjoyment of the company during the course of the game -Thomas Jefferson… err Gary Gygax