Monday, May 19, 2008

The Only Constant is Change

"I was recently reminded," writes Clay Shirky, "of some reading I did in college, way back in the last century, by a British historian arguing that the critical technology, for the early phase of the industrial revolution, was gin."

Go read the rest. It's heady stuff.

No, seriously. It's long, but it's worth your time. That's the world you're going to have to live in.

That's the world we are living in now.

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.

Let that roll around in your head a moment. A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. There is, fundamentally, something flawed, broken, with purely passive entertainment.

Me, I love me some passive entertainment. Movies, opera, books, even a bit of TV. But really, how passive am I? I write reviews. I steal, er, I mean borrow ideas for my own stories and my games.

One of the excuses we mollify ourselves with for the failure of RPGs to maintain that wonderful, heady momentum of the '70s is the assumption that most people simply prefer passive entertainment. People would much rather stay home and watch TV while sprawled upon the couch, absorbing their entertainment rather than creating it themselves.

But what if that's a load of horsehockey? What if it is true, but also a generational thing, something that is ebbing like a receding tide? What if new generations start demanding more from their entertainment?

Yeah, I know, everybody knows that passive entertainment is more popular than active entertainment. Sorry, I just cringe when I hear that phrase. Here's the deal: I live in Austin, TX. We had, at one time, more bookstores and more restaurants per capita than anywhere else in the USA. We have the best movie theaters on the continent. And you know what? We still have swimming pools. The soccer fields are still full every Saturday morning. We still have billiards halls and bowling alleys and stores where kids play Magic and Warhammer and collectible miniatures games.

At one time, everybody knew that TV would destroy radio, that the VCR would be the death of movie theaters, and that you couldn't pay kids to read books thicker than 100 pages. Just like everybody knows you can't pay the mortgage if you give away your primary product for free. And this in spite of TV doing just that for half-a-century now.

Our RPG hobby is "blessed" with armies of arm-chair experts who will gleefully explain to you how and why things are they way they are. Most of them don't have MBAs, degrees in sociology, or any hard data to back up their assertions.

Guess what: I'm one of 'em. So take what follows with a big ol' block of salt.

Actually, this very next part, you don't have to take my word for it, because if you've been following the Old School Reformation, you've probably seen just about everybody comment on it in one way or another.

Nobody who first encounters RPGs has the foggiest idea how to play these games.

We've seen post after post in blogs and chat boards where someone says something along the lines of, "Yeah, we laid the map of the Caves of Chaos out on the table and tried to move around it like it was a Monopoly board." We stumble around and eventually invent ways to play these games. Some of us find ways that work and we keep playing. What about the folks who don't keep playing? Was it because RPGs really aren't for them?

Or was it because they never really figured out how to play them?

Look at what's going on in the RPG blogosphere. "I used to hate race-as-class," you read, "but look at this cool thing I can do with it now!" Levels, Vancian magic, hit points, alignment, it's all coming under scrutiny and people are, after more than three decades, finally figuring out how these games were intended to be played. Old Geezer makes a post over at and everyone has one of those, "oh, that's why it works that way," moment. Think about all the games you played without hirelings or naval combat or strongholds or grappling because those rules seemed more than a little arcane and not worth your effort. Think about all the games you played where the monsters just sat in their rooms and didn't react to the invasion of the PCs because the DM never got around to reading pp. 104-105 of the DMG. Think about all the silly and wrong things the folks at WotC keep saying about how older versions of D&D were played.

Maybe the reason these games never really caught on is because most folks never played them properly. Maybe they got trapped in patterns that undercut their fun, or maybe they never really thought about what they enjoyed and what they didn't, or maybe they just got stuck with a poor GM or poor players or both. Maybe they never felt they'd received permission to play the way they really wanted to.

There are new tides coming. "Half of all new college graduates now believe that self-employment is more secure than a full-time job." Screens that ship without mice are broken. A new generation that embraced fantasy and books and computers while young is growing up. And the grognards are rediscovering the games it turns out we never really knew.

Yep, interesting times...

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