Thursday, January 5, 2023

RPGs as Art: On Sincerity in Art

"Don't do fashionable science." — Max Delbrück

A mantra for 2023.

Wandering around the lonely corners of the internet in this foul year of our Lord two-thousand twenty-three, there's a repeated piece of advice that feels intensely counter-intuitive to me. Whenever someone is thinking about writing something for publication — often on one of the OneBookShelf community content sites like DM's Guild, Storyteller's Vault, or Statosphere — the most common piece of feedback I see is to write something that the author thinks will be popular. Or I see people soliciting their slice of the community for ideas, putting up a poll or open thread about what sort of thing the community wants to see next.

It doesn't surprise me that lots of those projects never materialize.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I can say that I am way more likely to finish something if I'm passionate about it, and I'm more likely to be passionate about it if it was more-or-less my idea. My idea is a relative concept — it might be a collaboration or even someone else's skeleton that I sketched out — but the key is that it's something that lit my brain on fire and I had to put it somewhere. If I produce it for public consumption, I'd rather produce a weird piece of art beloved by ten people (and perhaps hated by a hundred more) than a milquetoast piece of art that is passively enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of people and then abandoned when the media cycle changes.

(In fact, the most melancholy version of the crowdsourced art trend is seeing someone abandon a passion project because they arbitrarily decided no one was interested in it. I still dream about the guy who was thinking about doing a Statosphere supplement about archery. Archery hasn't appeared in my modern horror games, but if someone is passionate about it, I want to see what they do with it.)

On the consumption side of things, the RPG products I enjoy and get the most use out of are things I never knew I wanted in the first place. Of the Unknown Armies offerings on Statosphere, everyone talks about big, ambitious products like American Dreams or GOAD or RITE, but I've gotten the most direct use out of Three Miles of Bad Road. (I'm not even running a car-centric campaign!) I haven't had a chance to slot The Sun King's Palace into a fantasy campaign yet, but I'm definitely going to do so. I keep returning to it, tasting it in my dreams. I certainly didn't ask for a d100 horror sci-fi game, but Mothership continues to beckon me. (And there's a sentence or two in the beginning of A Pound of Flesh that features some of the best game advice I've ever read.)

All this to say: everyone has a story in them that only they can tell, in a medium of their choosing. Even if it's a lousy story, clumsily told, it will resonate with someone. Make your weird, idiosyncratic art and you will find like-minded people to play with you. Don't try to make the art you think people want to see, and don't try to make art because the topic is trendy. If you find yourself rushing to make something so you can release it while it's still topical, you've already lost.

So when you're staring down the gun barrel of your next RPG project and you don't quite know what to do, don't turn to focus-testing to tell you what to do. Brainstorm, try stuff, put your weird art out into the world. Consider this your permission to get real fuckin' weird with it.

(And astute observers will note that this applies to all art, not just role-playing games. I've watched a lot of mediocre film and television over the past month, things that were clearly focus-tested to death or tried to have Important Things To Say™ rather than honest things to say. Tell a story only you can tell.)

The Obligatory Addendum

Since the above screed largely talks about the individual (-ish) process of making art, let's talk about the uniquely collaborative activity of role-playing games themselves. (As I say repeatedly, RPGs are what happen at the table, and the rest is but smoke.) Even though the above post addresses the individual artist, it also applies to the group as a whole. If you're a Game Master, don't ignore your group's good ideas because they don't jibe with The Very Important Story You Have To Tell™. If you're a fellow player, don't ignore your other players' ideas because they don't fit your conception of this collaborative exercise.

The RPG table is going to be weird, messy, and collaborative. Your job is to enable that collaboration and have fun. (Please don't forget that games are supposed to be fun.) Everyone's favorite moments in a role-playing game are invariably when everything is chaotic and in total freefall. Lean into that, otherwise you could be writing a novel.

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