Wednesday, March 24, 2010

And Now a Word From the Counter-Revolution

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 T├ękumel-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.

24 comments:

Melan said...

WRT point two:

First, by the article's standards, RPGs would never have been created in the first place, since the kind of cultural know-how he demands from designers was just not there. The games were designed by oddballs with oddball literary tastes, in fact without much of a formal liberal arts higher education (M.A.R. Barker excepted), and they were adherents of a hobby that was, to put it mildly, for slide rule wonks.

Then there is this constant urge to "save gaming" - save for whom, if the problem is us? Sometimes you have to destroy gamers to save them? (And why not start with Malcolm Sheppard, but that's a cheap shot.) I mean, "the current, counterproductive fan base"? Who talks like that? Not people in it for the hobby.

Basically, his general problem is that other gamers don't subscribe to his politics (namely, left wing radicalism if this matters), aesthetics, and views on gaming. Has always been, going all the way back to early 2000s RPGNet and probably USENET.

Herb said...

The greatest irony in his "fire the fans" post is this:

the desire to wring respectability from high school English story structures is an Old Person thing too

Talk about telling.

The hobby is broke so fire the fans and get the new kids to play. The unspoken cool before kids in that sentence haunts the entire article.

Yes, being liberal arts blind really is a problem. Lacking culture-focused critical thinking skills also make lots of gamers patsies for the next dubious promo scheme or press release, but that’s another essay.

That reads like a purple prose version of "we're not like you geeks". It's arguably the current equivalent of "We're about story, not killing things" from the Vampire days.

Not to mention I'd love to know when Mr. Sheppard last:

1. Hosted a radio show
2. Was routinely published in an arts publication
3. Was considered the go to person on any arts or creative topic by any co-worker or friend.
4. Had a job that involved being a designer in a non-engineering sense.

Because I know plenty of the gamers he wants to fire who can claim at least one and most several of those bullet points.

Going to his "story is over" the first is an exercise in theme much of the time. The second doesn't happen without you having the critical thinking skills in the cultural arena he says we lack. The third indicates the ability to use those skills to translate material for those who lack them. It also indicates the recognition by those people you can. The final indicates you get liberal arts and soft skills in a way that people are willing to pay for.

Maybe Mr. Sheppard has such bona fides, but his assumption the rest of us don't is telling.

Herb said...

One final point:

A couple of years back, I had a client who wanted early adopters from roleplaying communities. We got the word our, attracted participants and things moved along. After a few months, the client wanted them gone. He didn’t want them wrecking his venture by being unfriendly and unwilling to participate in good faith, and he was willing to lose their business to look for growth elsewhere.

Yes, it has happened elsewhere...pretty much in anything that has a fandom or similar concept of "in" and "out". Jesus freaks run people out of churches who genuinely are seeking what the church teaches. Hard core leftists with radical ideas on redistributing wealth have run off a generation whose parents embraced and built the social welfare net. Radical libertarians who can't prioritize reforming the same social welfare net over legalizing kitty porn marginalize the Libertarian Party. Star Trek fans have ruined the property in many was beyond redemption no matter how well J. J. Abrams does.

Zachary The First said...

I stopped worrying about fans awhile back. It's about sharing with friends. What the remaining RPG publishing companies do worries me a whole lot less than it used to.

That's the difference between looking at a hobby and looking at an industry.

faustusnotes said...

seems like a misreading of the article to me. His "general problem" is not that gamers don't share his politics but that the TRPG world is disappearing and he doesn't want that to happen. He doesn't want to "save gaming" because it doesn't work the way he likes; he wants to "save gaming" because it's disappearing as a hobby (in his opinion) and changing the way it works might be necessary to reverse this decline.

Herb particularly seems to misread it. His comment about high school english being an old person thing is aimed at world of darkness fans. His comment about lacking liberal arts education is not saying "you aren't like me," it's saying that if you don't have skills in analysing cultural movements, you can fail to understand new movements in younger age groups, because you aren't part of them.

Also, Sheppard appears to meet 3 of the Herb's 4 criteria, and point 1 is just a version of point 2 anyway.

I think he has a lot of good points about the decline in popularity of the hobby, and much as some people might not like to admit it, it's people in the industry who're trying to find ways of reversing the decline. Zachary's comment is a classic example of what Shepphard says about how a decline


is good for many of these guys, since it provides breathing room to perfect nostalgic approaches to gaming instead of having to catch up with something more recent.


and it's precisely the teenage rock fan view that working in the industry makes you a sell-out that leads to this (awfully-phrased) "fire the fans" dilemma.

Robert Fisher said...

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 you’ll end up with a game I might like to run as a one-shot but probably never will.

I’m already doing my best to ensure players aren’t “thinking in mechanics” about the mundane kinds of things we have mechanics for. The last thing I want is for them to start thinking in mechanics at the thematic level as well.

G. Benedicto said...

"the desire to wring respectability from high school English story structures is an Old Person thing too"

Oh, please. Double points for being pretentious and ageist at the same time.

faustusnotes said...

Benedicto, I think that was intended as a piss-take of the ageism and pretentiousness inherent in story-based gaming.

But Sheppard's prose is thick and his font thicker, so I could be misreading.

G. Benedicto said...

Ah, right you are, FN.

Herb said...

@faustusnotes: His comment about high school english being an old person thing is aimed at world of darkness fans.

Actually, the context make it appear aimed at the indie rpg movement, but the exact target is neither here nor there.

My disregard for Mr. Shepard's point is in part based upon my knowledge of his products, three of which I own and actually enjoy. However, comparing what her produces and what he writes leads me to believe he's talking out of his ass.

His "Aeternal Legends" is a modern fantasy RPG which he heavily promoted last year before GenCon. If I had to summarize it in two words they would be "Vampire heartbreaker". Which is fine. I genuinely like the RPG and would love to run it. But, in my reading, he does no more to achieve the goals he is expounding that any of the White Wolf line does. The only one I'd say he does at all is "Establishing core themes and motifs" and no better than many games out there. The fact that the one supplement I'm aware of is basically "cool combat crunch" isn't good supporting evidence either.

Herb said...

Part 2:

The other two products are the ones he mentions here and that I reviewed here. You'll notice for all his talk of new ground and theme and such what he wrote for OSRIC was two crunch supplement. One was very interesting and worth the money. The other was a house rule common as early as 1980 and codified by Hackmaster.

"His comment about lacking liberal arts education is not saying "you aren't like me," it's saying that if you don't have skills in analysing cultural movements, you can fail to understand new movements in younger age groups, because you aren't part of them.

If his products showed some evidence (and remember, AL is apparently his flagship product based on his own advertising) I might buy this. Given his flagship is along the lines, as I said, of a "Vampire heartbreaker" (well, Changeling: the Dreaming actually, but you get the idea) I think this passage from his article is nearly a Freudian slip:

Yes, being liberal arts blind really is a problem. Lacking culture-focused critical thinking skills also make lots of gamers patsies for the next dubious promo scheme or press release, but that’s another essay.

As far as I am concerned Shepard is telling us what he is doing. If you are "firing your fans" because it keeps you from bringing in new people to your business your first goal is not the hobby but your profits. There is nothing wrong with a company taking steps to make profits. That is the point of the company. But telling me "you're doing it wrong" because I'm hurting your profits and I need to change so you make money is unpersuasive.

But let's look at his example of what having an awareness of style means:

Literary fiction long ago came to the conclusion that this is easy and a bogus thing to feel artsy about, and switched focus to style and characterization. That’s why Margaret Atwood can write Oryx and Crake even though you, the SF nerd, have read about post-apocalyptic biotechnology before. Stylistic innovation is a tough road, however, and often distrusted. There won’t be a magic realist Star Wars novel any time soon, folks.

Do you really, honestly, want to tell me that the future of RPGs is engaging the core readership of Margret Atwood novels? The Blind Assassin is a brilliant sci-fi novel in the New Wave tradition even if it isn't marketed that way. Cat's Eye is an insightful novel of identity and everyone knows the Handmaid's Tale through the movie and thus misses one of the best novels I've read on socialization and our acquiescence to it. But I doubt most people who have read them (or her others) are the kind RPGs appeal to although some of the indie games Shepard denounces might.

Nor are these novels all about style. In fact, his obsession with style is as shallow as what he complains about. Style is not the point of Atwood but a tool to do what writers do and that is tell stories.

Herb said...

Last part (sorry Trollsmyth)...

My conclusion on Shepard is he is the ineffectual or cowardly version of Ron Edwards (you can pick which). Ron has strong opinions, says wacky shit, and claims to know what is wrong with the hobby and how to fix it.

And you know what, his designs put his money where is mouth is and that, more than any blog or rant, is what matters. Sorcerer, Trollbabe, and especially his new Berlin game (the name escapes me) embody what he claims to be the right way. They may not be perfect and they may not work like he says but at least he is trying to build what he says games need.

I have read Shepard's writings and I own some of his games. I'm convinced the former are a mix of marketing hype, puffery, and trying to be cool because of the product he actually produces.

When he generates a game that hits more than one of his bullet points I'll re-evaluate.

faustusnotes said...

good points Herb, I haven't played his game so I can't disagree with any of them, and if you're right about the contrast between his games and his rhetoric then his only two comebacks could be "I failed" or "I made what the industry wanted".

Alternatively the ideal theory of game creation and the reality could be different.

Your last point, though, I think misreads him again:

Do you really, honestly, want to tell me that the future of RPGs is engaging the core readership of Margret Atwood novels?

I don't think he's saying anything like this. He's just comparing the importance of style over world-building in modern science fiction, and arguing it can be just as important in TRPGs.

Herb said...

@faustusnotes: What's annoying/frustrating is Aeternal Legends meets Edwards's definition of a heartbreaker in the sense of something innovative buried in something conventional. Like the fantasy heartbreakers that gave us the term if he'd thrown off the creeping White Wolfism (as opposed to D&Dism) he could have had a real breakthrough.

The essential innovation here is the the conviction and sphere systems. While they seem similar to the archetype/demeanor system in WW games they do achieve his idea of theme. A core theme in AL self-belief. At a certain level you become aware and see the modern fantasy nature of our world. Conviction is driven by belief which is provided by spheres (or their dark alternative shells).

Using this he casts the epic fantasy quest as a self-discovery journey and the Dark Lord at the end is both universal and personal.

However, the rest of the game is classic WWism with kiths, I mean classes, opps, sorry clades and a ton of material on the hidden nature of the real world, how normals rationalize magic and drain the aware. All right out of Changeling.

Still, if you have an interest in modern fantasy or the idea of the internal journey and the external journey being parallels I really recommend it.

If Shepard turned it down to 7-8 from 11 and instead of saying "you do this" wrote "how I'm doing this in AL" he could probably get a lot of current fans onboard.

taichara said...

(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.)

Or a mobile suit pilot, or a crystal-bearer, or or or ...

Yes, you're overthinking things. Overgeneralizing also.

VBWyrde said...

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.

For me this was the salient point. I think there is a vision to be had of RPG-Future, but it is just not the direction the industry has been, or seems likely to go in. And that is RPG as a new art form. I see RPGs as a new kind of canvas. I think it 20 years from now, despite the profit-driven mistakes of the current industry leaders, there is going to evolve a wondrous world of Worlds that are going to be much like what film was in the early twentieth century. It's just that doing RPGs this way takes time and effort, and the tools are not quite ready for prime time yet. But they will be soon. And then I expect RPG as art-form to flourish.

trollsmyth said...

Taichara: Good to see you. :) And thanks for the words of wisdom and the attempt to keep me grounded. But, like Icarus, I must soar too high... It's too much fun. ;p

faustusnotes & Herb: But could we possibly take his ideas on style and wed them to the OSR world-as-emergent-creation-through-sandbox-play? If the group agrees on a style (or on a shifting wheel of compatible styles?) couldn't that be used to direct the creation of the world and it's themes?

Heck, isn't that, when you get down to it, what Maliszewski is doing? It certainly sounds a bit like what I'm doing, though without quite being aware enough of my style to really play with it much. Themes are something I've got a firmer grip on.

faustusnotes said...

inasmuch as I understand what he's saying, Trollsmyth, I reckon you can't apply his theories to sandbox gaming unless

a) the dm had gone to the effort to put a few themes and some stylistic content into the world and then
b) made all the random tables and associated sandboxy stuff complementary to those themes and then
c) was able to think on his/her feet fast enough to find ways to reconcile contradictions arising from the random encounters and/or the players' actions with the overall themes and style of the campaign world

I think maybe some of the bloggers are doing a) and b) (e.g. Monsters and Manuals with his Yoon Suin thingy), but I don't think it's easy or guaranteed to work even if a) and b) were done roughly right.

Also I suspect a lot of people who enjoy sandbox-style play like the contradictions and tensions between the world-as-written and the world they create in play, and such people may be inherently opposed to Sheppard's style of thinking.

I think Sheppard might be trying to say that it's all well and good for some fans to want to continue this way but it isn't growing the hobby. But I'd have thought that depends on the nature of the fans and he seems very down on TRPG-ers (for reasons I partly agree with, though I'm not down on TRPGers).

Tim Jensen said...

The key point that I get from Malcohm's post is that he believes the 'mainstream' RPG industry is destroying their own future market by putting profits before innovation. Although I'm not certain because he fails to name names and comes across as too vague, which is probably why he has generated so many comments there, here and elsewhere.

Herb said...

I think faustusnotes got the key points on applying it to sandbox application of Shepard's ideas. Certainly I agree with his requirements and that many people are doing the first two. In fact, I think doing the first two are one of the largest unifying things in the OSR: customizing game artifacts to match your game. In this case we're concentrating on customizing for theme, but you can for other objectives.

As for the in play implications and requirements it probably is hard. Also, I think people like the contrast. I'm not sure if that breaks things, though. A common element in post-modern art is, in fact, that self-conscious element. In fact, considering that I think Shepard may be behind the artist curve in that respect.

That said, I believe maintaining it in play is less an issue of skill and more an issue of everyone involved buying in. The classic example is the need for player buy in to make horror work.

This has gotten me wondering if it might not be worthwhile to look at various artistic schools, especially literary schools, and apply them how different groups play than traditional RPG categorization.

Robert Fisher said...

It seems to me that the vast majority of people playing these games—including the new blood—are pretty happy with what it is. Any compelling vision of the future will be spawning an offshoot rather than replacing what we have.

faustusnotes:
a) the dm had gone to the effort to put a few themes and some stylistic content into the world and then
b) made all the random tables and associated sandboxy stuff complementary to those themes and then
c) was able to think on his/her feet fast enough to find ways to reconcile contradictions arising from the random encounters and/or the players' actions with the overall themes and style of the campaign world


That’s exactly what sandboxing is about. This is exactly what I’ve seen sandboxing DMs doing for two decades.

faustusnotes said...

Herb, I think Sheppard might be trying to find experience from other artistic schools (hence his Atwood reference) in that article, but isn't doing it very strongly or coherently. He mentions the literary style of the last 50 years for the same reason.

Robert Fisher, if you replace "random encounter tables" and other sandbox-specific words with elements of any other style of DMing, it's probably the same. But the more randomness you introduce into your gaming, the greater the risk of incongruity and conflict, and the harder the DM and players have to work to keep things consistent in the form Sheppard suggests.

Whether your homebrew world is conceived through random, "organic" play or careful deliberation, getting the qualities Sheppard describes is hard. I think that's why he is advocating developing game systems which do this as well, because it makes the game more accessible to more people.

I see this as a natural advancement (in the sense of diversification) on earlier stages of the hobby, and A Good Thing, provided it doesn't entirely crowd out the alternatives. I think Sheppard sees the alternatives as a threat to growth of the hobby and is happy to crowd them out. I think he gives compelling reasons for this (though whether they're right or not I don't know).

Whether or not these new game systems are much of an advancement on the older ones is perhaps disputable. Are they that different? THe D&D world is very specific and themed, after all - gygaxian naturalism is surely an example of what Sheppard is talking about? I would argue D&D may be more consistently structured and themed, than, say, Rolemaster.

malcolm said...

There's too much to address point by point, but I want to make a few things clear:

1) This isn't really about the OSR specifically.

2) Aeternal Legends isn't my game. It's Stew Wilson's. I just publish it. He wrote most of it and owns it.

3) About AEL though, if I had my druthers I'd get a giant worldbook out if it. But I only plan on things that pay for themselves whenever other people are involved. Mutual ripoff moves are common in small press. I don't do anything with a partner unless the partner's gonna get paid.

4) Honestly, my OSRIC stuff is of spotty quality, with First Edition Feats and the class books being decent, and Heroic Abilities sucking. These were put together under some time pressure to meet the need (to get Aeternal Legends running, mostly). I haven't had the spare time to recompile and revise it, for which I apologize.

5) "Fire the fans" may sound evil, but I didn't make it up. Sorry.

6) I have been to goto guy for visual design and cultural/artistic elements. I write for a living, but roleplaying games isn't the only sector I work in. I just finished the the dozen blogs I manage for the month.

7) The "patsies" thing has to do with reactions to marketing. Many people do not seem to know how things are promoted and where publicity comes from. Cultural literacy is in short supply. You would not *believe* how tempting it is to keep professional marketing and promotion methods tucked away, but I mostly see my involvement in RPGs as a break from that. Plus, I've seen some people cross an ethical line I don't like.

8) I honestly don't care if the kids are "cool," Herb. They probably aren't. Cool is a saturated niche anyway. Team Edward and Team Jacob are very *uncool.*

9) My discussion of fanfic freeform RPs may overshadow the fact that many such games *no longer use* popular media, but are original creations.

10) What do those original creations do? Mostly build a world with splats in an built-in conflict according to an overarching plot. Too bad no old people are around to tell them that's dumb.

trollsmyth said...

malcolm: 9) My discussion of fanfic freeform RPs may overshadow the fact that many such games *no longer use* popular media, but are original creations.

10) What do those original creations do? Mostly build a world with splats in an built-in conflict according to an overarching plot. Too bad no old people are around to tell them that's dumb.


Both of these are news to me. My only (very limited) exposure to free form play showed me a giant slew of popular IP stuff and a tiny smattering of original (but highly generic) settings. This meant that the only possible hope for industry penetration was to sell the free-formers passive entertainments (novels, TV shows, movies, etc.) which the free-formers would then mine for roleplaying content. Beyond the possibility of selling a setting bible or roleplaying guide (maps of Hogwarts or Middle Earth glossaries and the like), there was little the free-formers would want, forget need. This, in effect, made them a virtually invisible market; so far as the RPG industry is concerned, they may as well not exist.

The use of original settings implies that the passive medias are no longer supplying the sorts of worlds the free-formers want, which would seem to indicate that there potentially is a market there. Is that what you're seeing? What sorts of worlds are these folks creating?