In the tabletop RPG community people think that skimping on the world is okay, because the fans can fill it in – everyone has a D&D campaign world, right? It’s also easy to believe that nobody really wants the infodumps in CRPGs because it’s not at the center of the play experience. This is the reverse of the truth. In the post-fanfic world where the greatest trend in user-driven RPGs is based on IP canon freeform, people who represent the progressive edge of the audience want the world more – they’ve demonstrated that they can create stories with its guidance.
That’s Malcolm Sheppard over at mobunited.com, waxing a bit ranty about how “Story is So Over.” Frankly, the idea of using themes isn’t exactly new, but I doubt that’s what he’s really getting at. Working from context is pretty much what Mr. Maliszewski’s doing in his Dwimmermount campaign. Creating style is exactly what Raggi’s doing, only in miniature, since he doesn’t work in worlds so much as in more intimate locales.
I’ll be the first to agree that the kids love their popular IPs, but existing IPs don’t do much for us (or Margaret Weis Productions would be on the tip of everyone’s tongues instead of the cause for double-takes and “hey, isn’t she that writer from the ‘80s?”). I rather get the feeling that people glom on to IP for their play because it deals with themes they’re interested in. Produce a game that reinforces those themes, and you have a popular game, or, at least, as popular as the IP will allow.
(I’ll fully admit at this point that I may be overthinking things. It’s entirely possible people just want to be quidditch-champion for a day.)
But theme and its complimentary attributes of context and coherent style (which allow conflict and interaction to be meaningful) are difficult to pull off. Mr. Sheppard admits as much. Which leaves us locked in something of a catch-22; either the game holds the players’ hands and walks them through rituals that reinforce the theme (but strongly limit what can be done with your game and seems to be the tack taken by Vincent Baker in games like In a Wicked Age and Dogs in the Vineyard) or you run the risk of having the game run off the rails into new thematic territory that, while supported by the game, isn’t really what the setting is about. (Frankly, I’m not certain how much that second thing is a bad thing, but…) I do think a strong grasp of your themes on the part of the players and GM can overcome Tékumel-shock syndrome; if everyone groks your themes, and all flows from those themes, players can interact with the setting in ways that feel natural. But communicating themes and how they can be used isn’t easy to do.
Mr. Sheppard ponders whether the RPG industry needs to fire the fans. That seems to be putting the cart before the horse, honestly. The industry still hasn’t come up with a compelling vision of the future. Most of what we see appears to be exactly what we’ve had, but with more rules and some electronic gadgets to help us overcome the burden of those rules. To follow Mr. Sheppard’s lead, the industry first needs to identify some compelling themes, develop ways to communicate those themes to players and GMs, and then give them flexible tools that will allow them to explore those themes. And that’s such a hard-right turn that I think the industry is simply incapable of making it; the competencies that they’ve been cultivating are simply not geared towards those sorts of activities. It’s likely that I’m completely misunderstanding what Mr. Sheppard has to say, but it seems to me his vision would be better served by the fans first firing the industry.
Art by Valentine Cameron Prinsep, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, and William Michael Harnett.