Friday, February 14, 2020

RPGs Aren't Art

Last year, I made the assertion that RPGs are a unique artform, something that requires a specialized language to describe.

But perhaps solely looking at RPGs as art is also the wrong idea.

I operate in a lot of indie gaming spaces because that's roughly where I started and because those games are fun. (All games are fun, you cowards!) At their best, these spaces are a showcase for new and innovative games, or an interesting place to discuss game design. At their worst (which, since this is the internet, is much of the time), they're a place to bash other people's design, invoking the dreaded badwrongfun and decrying certain games as "not real roleplaying games, like we play." (Make no mistake, though: if I were in more forums centered around traditional sorts of RPGs, I'm sure I would see someone's terrible discourse about "imagine wanting to play regular people" or "who wants to play a game about feelings?" or whatever. I just notice the bad indie RPG discourse because that's where I am.)

The timestamp tells me I downloaded this in 2006. Your argument is not original or interesting.
And the real shame is that we could still have interesting conversations about the failings of RPGs, but we don't. Using D&D as an example (because that's often the target), we could have interesting conversations about the domination of corporate art in a folk art scene, or how popularity breeds homogeneity, or even have an in-depth discussion about how rules and writing reflect the state of play at the table. But instead, we rehash the same, tired complaints about how people who try to do something creative with D&D or use it to emulate certain storytelling tropes are doing it wrong, how other games do it better, and how the state of the industry would just be so much better if other games had an equal shot.

(Completely ignoring that our hipster asses would be hollering about Apocalypse World or GUMSHOE or Noumenon if those games were the top of the heap. Popularity breeds contempt while somehow also disrupting critical thought on both sides of an issue.)

But these arguments somehow completely ignore the fact that RPGs aren't just art; they're also tools. We've already briefly delved into RPGs as their own artform, but it's just as relevant to recall that the overwhelming majority RPGs are also game engines designed to model certain situations and then give the player group the tools necessary to overcome those situations. Comparing different RPG systems is like comparing different computer languages: while different languages are better at performing different sorts of tasks, some people just like programming in specific languages based on their ease of use, flexibility, ubiquity, or whatever other criteria meets their needs. (This ignores the fact that people also appreciate art for a host of personal reasons that they often cannot articulate, and also ignores the fact that some people use tools because of the simple fact that they learned how to use them. Why do you speak in your native language all the time? Or if you don't, why do you speak the language of the prevailing culture in which you live? I ought not to presume etiquette on this wretched internet of ours, but you wouldn't go up to someone and say, "Japanese is more poetic than English, so why are you trying to write poetry in English? It's so much easier to create new words in German, so why are you attempting to make new lexicon in English? Imagine trying to talk about snow and the coastline without speaking Tlingit.")

It's useful to remember that people gravitate to certain games for various reasons, including:
  • Cost. While many indie games are low-cost or free, don't forget that D&D (as an example) is technically free and also ubiquitous enough to be easily pirated from The Trove or other sources. If you're building stuff, you probably started stocking your workbench with Craftsman tools (or the local equivalent) because of the price rather than the quality.
  • Availability. People shop where they shop, so they're going to get what they find. Your local game store isn't going to have every game, and if you don't know about OneBookShelf or the thriving indie scene on itch.io, you're not going to look there. You might assume that people can easily research any RPG on the internet, but remember that assuming good Boolean search techniques or even steady internet access is sometimes a tall order.
  • Ease of Use. An RPG that is dense (either in mechanics or setting) is probably going to have less of a fanbase than one that is easier to understand. Although even some particularly complex RPGs can be made accessible through...
  • Ubiquity. Not only are you going to pick something readily-available, a starting gamer is going to pick something with a burgeoning community and with a lot of information available. Unknown Armies only has a handful of Actual Plays, and you have to hunt for them. (Shameless Plug: That's why the Unknown Armies Fan Club has an Actual Play thread.) On the other hand, I can think of at least four D&D Actual Play streams/podcasts without heading to Google to confirm. And the fact that gamers are often taught the rules by someone else rather than reading them means the bigger games tend to get passed down from gaming group to gaming group.
  • Support. Have you heard nerds crowing about how their favorite game is no longer making new material? Since the game police don't confiscate your out-of-print books, it's clear people like playing games with lots of content, and with the promise of new content to come. If you want to make a thriving game, support your local gaming community with new material!
I've seen people's social media feeds blasted into oblivion when they suggest the "play more RPGs" argument comes from a place or privilege, but they're not entirely wrong. Access doesn't just mean cost or complexity, and while there might be a system out there that does the thing they want better, they might not know about it, or might not have the resources to understand it, or might not have the time to learn a second RPG even if it's technically "easier."

Every RPG has its high points and low points, a complex alchemy of factors that determines whether or not it's right for you and your group. Don't let some social media chump who doesn't know the needs of your table tell you you're playing RPGs wrong just because they don't like what you're doing. How you use your tools is your business.

Never forget: Once a game enters your house, it's yours, and you can do whatever you want with it. The idea that art or tools are somehow sacred and must be used as intended is a false claim. Have fun however you want.

Basically how I live my life.
I'm going to leave you with one last thought, one that is (admittedly) quite selfish. I know the desire to see your favorite RPG succeed comes from a good place, and in this capitalist cyberpunk hellscape of ours, you want to see your favorite content creators get paid so they can make more of that content you love. (And also, you know, so they can live.) But think about what you're asking when you want your personal game to lead the pack. Do you really want every two-bit weirdo with a handful of dice to invade your local fandom? Do you want all the grognards invading the Ryuutama community, trying to bend a light game about cozy journeys into a wargame simulator? Do you want every person unironically playing FATAL and laughing about sexual assault playing Bluebeard's Bride? Do you want a group of munchkin Vampire: The Masquerade players trying to cultivate a cube of Physical Attributes and combat Disciplines coming to your careful, investigative Fear Itself open table at the next convention?

Of course you don't.

You don't want these people at your table anyway, so why are you trying to hard to dissuade everyone from having their own fun? Every genre has a mainstream, and the MCU people aren't necessarily going to like Mulholland Drive or Sorry to Bother You just as the core Call of Duty audience isn't guaranteed to enjoy Braid or Gone Home.

Don't worry about selling to them. There are over seven billion people on the planet, and you have an audience somewhere. Target the weirdos you want to encourage in the world and the rest is but smoke.

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