Monday, June 12, 2017

What makes RPGs successful?

Back from several days "vacation" in Chicago (I was actually a chaperone for my son's 8th grade field trip.  Vacation isn't probably the right word to describe it...) and I'm getting caught up on a lot of stuff (luckily, work seems to have been quiet while I was away).  I spent as much time as I could drowning out the sounds of dumb 8th graders all showing off for each other (especially when crammed into buses—which luckily were charter buses, not school buses) with my earbuds, exploring all kinds of music that I missed from about 15 years ago when the confluence of hard trance, acid and early hard style was all happening at the same time and more or less the same place in the Netherlands and Germany, especially.  This is the rave scene as it was starting to go just a little bit mainstream (as opposed to being a weird, counter-cultural drug scene) and on the verge of being rebranded as EDM to disassociate with the weird, counter-cultural drug scene.  Most of these DJs—or artists, although maybe it seems overly generous to call them that—are ones that I'd never heard of.  Anyway, that's neither here nor there, other than that I was occupied, sometimes enjoyably, sometimes not, with things other than updating my blog for the majority of last week. And listening to the "harder styles" as those three (and a few other related and very similar sounding styles) are called tends to get me pumped up, because they're kind of intense and angry sounding.  My internet exposure during this time was mostly reading alt-right news and commentary, so that tends to be also intense and angry. (Check out the Zman's "Boomercide" or Vox Day's re-posting and commentary on it; as well as the comments section to both.  Yikes!  But not wrong.)

But now I'm back down a bit, and I stumbled across some RPG philosophy by Bradford C. Walker, which I've synthesized and summarized and regurgitated after partially digesting it myself.  He's got some interesting ideas, and I don't think that I'm merely saying that because I obviously agree with him with regards to a lot of taste issues about RPGs (although I do.)  Let me quote a handful of short passages, with some commentary by me:
If most gamers want only a subset of what tabletop RPGs offer, then what do they offer to those truly interested in them- what does the audience actually want from the medium? To answer that, you have to know what the medium is and how it works. 
The tabletop RPG medium takes the tabletop wargame medium of the mid-20th century, with its reliance on referees to issue rulings to cover emergent concerns at the table, to its maximum creativity. This is not entirely by design; originally, this was just a means to take the popular variant known as Braunstein into other applications, but once the early campaigns broke containment by the commercial release of Dungeons & Dragons, the expansion of the form into the hands of people not of that Upper Midwest wargame scene revealed that this new medium is defined by its liminality. 
That's right, liminality. Because the medium sits at the point where it can easily slide to and from any specific activity that the characters could reasonably engage it, it sits beyond the scope of the focused games that do one specific gameplay form very well. This vital quality gets lost when mechanical complexity reaches critical mass. 
The ideal tabletop RPG, as a commercial product, is as it was in the beginning: a slim booklet, packaged as part of a set and put in a box. Why? Because, for normies, "game" means "think in a box with all necessary parts within". Normies are part of your audience, so give them what they expect to find. (Remember that Clarity thing.) 
The audience for tabletop RPGs want the liminality that defines the medium. That means that you can't focus too much on any one thing, aside from that which is so commonly done at the table that such specificity is required. Instead, you want your ruleset to give the Game Master enough information that he can just run his ass over to Infogalactic, TV Tropes, or whatever real-world info source he needs to consult (including sites like Wookiepedia) something and easily translate real-world language into something he can use to issue a ruling at the table. Embrace asymmetric rules knowledge; it adds to the quality of play experience. The GM needs to know; players don't. 
This is why the enduring appeal of the older editions exists, and why trying to make tabletop RPGs something that they are not is a reliable way to sink the business. (Yes, the supplement treadmill is an example of Doing It WRONG!) As the design[er] and publisher, your job is to make tools of creativity, put them in the hands of Game Masters, and let them make their own settings. You're the wholesaler, not the retailer; that's the GM's job. 
Lose the desire to focus and embrace the glory of liminality. Or stop selling tabletop RPGs.
His assumption that most gamers only want a subset of what RPGs offer is based on the observation that such subsets tend to be more popular than RPGs.  First-person-shooters, for example, or fantasy strategy games outsell D&D by orders of magnitude, and offer only a subset of the D&D experience and obviously evolve, in a way, out of D&D and the 70s/80s RPG scene; the combat part of it, for the most part, and they do so in a way that's been automated and improved an order of magnitude beyond what D&D could ever offer.  I'm a little iffy on this particular claim, although I think that a lot of that comes to definitions rather than analysis though; I wouldn't call someone who plays Call of Duty a gamer in the same sense that I'd call someone who plays D&D a gamer.  A CoD player isn't a D&D player who lapses because CoD does his favorite aspect of D&D better than D&D does; he's just a guy who has a different hobby altogether.  The assumption that without video games or CCGs or German board games, or whatever, these people would be playing D&D instead is questionable.  But the notion that going after people who play those things by offering them watered-down versions of what is already better at scratching their hobby itch than D&D will ever be being business-savvy stupid is not.

I do however, quite like the concept of liminality being the definition feature of table-top RPGs, and something that no other substitutions for the hobby can offer.  This has been expressed in other language before by other people, but I think Walker has come up with a succinct and to the point one-word explanation that gets to the heart of the matter with more clarity than most others who ramble instead about being able to "do anything," etc.  It's not just that you can "do anything" but it's also that the rules support you, and you move seamlessly from one game to another within the game without noticeable cracks or hard, jarring transitions—at least with a game that's well designed.

Walker further explores this concept specifically with regards to AD&D as it was first published.
While this D&D edition is the first to commit the sin of being books and not a boxed set, it is also the edition that many gamers would say is where the practical limit of ruleset complexity (and thus intellectual density) got discovered. Player-facing rules complexity is significant, but still not so heavy that it's a turnoff; the Game Master shoulders the bulk of the burden, one he can increase (and benefit players) simply by not using official character sheets. A pencil and a single-subject notebook is still more than enough. 
In play, players can still operate on natural language and the fundamental feedback loop of "What Do You Do?", leaving the rules to the GM. This does mean that the GM has to spend time with the tomes, doing homework until he masters the rules. So long as the GM isn't the punk-assed power-tripper too many of us were when we were kids (i.e. be a normal adult), this is fine and a lot of the later editions' measures to limit GMs is not necessary at all. Mech Piloting is not a viable strategy by default; trying to do that doesn't give the full reward that later editions do. 
While Greyhawk is mentioned, the rules don't specify a setting. They give you enough to imply one, but that is only implication. Instead, the Game Master gets told multiple times that setting decisions are his to make, and that he should bring those decisions forth to players when that information matters to their decision-making (and not just during play; if Dwarves are not in the campaign, players need to know at character generation. The tools to create verisimilitude are present, but it is on the GM to make it so. 
If the Original and Basic D&D editions erred on too little substance to make use of liminality, AD&D's 1st edition erred on too much. (As we've seen, you can code AD&D into a videogame- as several examples show.) However, contrary to informed expectation, the rules of AD&D1e are not so inter-dependent that they cannot be changed at all without disastrous consequence. 
It is by no means a perfect example, but it is an example of practical liminality that isn't destroyed. Damaged? Maybe. Destroyed? No. That came later.
I tend to disagree a little bit on where the line is: AD&D broke the liminality for me.  It could be, as Walker implies, that the mechanics were less at fault, and the poor writing and organization is to blame.  He points out that almost everyone he knew played AD&D "wrong" which is a common commentary; most people's AD&D was really a strange mash-up of B/X or some other Basic rule-set hybridized with AD&D.  Is this really because of poor organization, or poor mechanics?  I honestly don't have sufficient first hand experience to say with authority anymore, if I ever did—although it's been my opinion that goes back to my junior high days in the early to mid-80s that the rules were the problem. However, I don't own the rules, and have never read them all the way through beginning to end, nor do I remember them all that well now anyway.  My long-held belief might not be sustainable when subjected to the harsh light of actual data.

I do disagree with him that the OD&D and BD&D were too lacking in substance to utilize liminality.  Is he suggesting that all of the S&W retroclone games lack liminality then?  This isn't clear, because in another post, he suggests that successful game designers who expect to utilize the benefits of liminality, knowing who your real audience is, etc. will have a ruleset much like OD&D and BD&D.
Your ruleset must be as simple as Original or Basic D&D. This means that you must tell your audience that your game relies on the Game Master to issue rulings because your ruleset's mechanics [...] cover basic principles first, then only those specific subsets that every group must deal with. Everything else is left for the Game Master to specify when and how he desires. This means that you don't need to sell a setting, or that you need to have a hefty tome of uncoded videogame mechanics. (Note: This also means that your upper limit on mechanic design is "If this can be turned into a videogame, you've gone too far.")
So, exactly what he's calling for here isn't perfectly clear.  Is OD&D a good example, or isn't it? Well, whatever.  I don't need him to tell me what he thinks the perfect grade of simplicity is, honestly.  For my purposes, it's sufficient to agree with him that there's a spectrum.  If you fall below it, you fail to have a game that provides sufficient structure to be an RPG.  Many writers in their "what is a role-playing game" introductions do indeed make comparison to games like cowboys and injuns or cops and robbers, but they mean that only as a point of comparison.  If an RPG is too simple, it lacks sufficient structure to be an RPG in the way that gamers understand it and has to be called something else.  On the other end of the spectrum, games that are too complicated don't become "not RPGs"; they merely become badly designed RPGs.  d20, for example, is still an RPG.  But it's one that became bloated, lost a ton of support over the years, because it was poor at doing it's primary job.  It tried to hobble the GM in favor of generating a supposedly repeatable experience for the player that is somewhat GM-quality independent.  That is a pipe dream, of course, but that was the design intent.

Now, it's not clear that Walker is completely correct here; certainly, he's expressing an opinion that is congruent with my own, that rules-heavy games are... suboptimal.  That too much campaign design throttles creativity in its sleep.  But lots of gamers disagree, and buy product based on the opposite paradigm.  The biggest names in the RPG market have almost always been fairly rules heavy games; 3e and above iterations of D&D, Pathfinder, Storyteller, etc. and brands like the World of Darkness, Forgotten Realms, etc. are synonymous with big sales (relative to the market, at least.)  His hypothesis, which I think qualifies as a just-so story, because I know of no way to really test it effectively, so it can never hope to advance to theory-stage, is that the real customer base for those types of games already are playing video games instead of RPGs because the part of the RPG that they liked best is done by some other medium better.  This means that there's no growth potential to be had in pursuing them, and actually only the promise of continued slipping into irrelevance.

If this hypothesis is true, shouldn't the OSR kind of be eating the lunch of D&D and Pathfinder, though?  Well, maybe—if they could somehow break through to reach growth potential targets (i.e. people who don't game today but would be interested in doing it if they could be successful marketed to), maybe they could.  This is the untested (and difficult to test) make or break aspect of his hypothesis that I wish we could know more about without it just being a speculative, just-so story.

That said—again, my tastes align almost perfectly with his with regard to his philosophical discussion, at least.  I prefer to be on the simpler end of the spectrum.  Simplicity is difficult to measure objectively—but I believe that the m20 chassis that I prefer is of comparable simplicity to OD&D or S&W White Box, but with more elegance (an oft-neglected aspect of game design that much of the OSR appears to see as unimportant.)  I like setting material, but "liminal" setting material, like the original Greyhawk Gazeteer, for instance, and I'll quote him one more time in a sec.  But I think he's on to something; this does nail the sweet spot at which RPGs offer something that their competitors and alternatives do not and they aren't trying to replicate (badly) something that's done better in another medium.  Now, whether a reasonable, stable and profitable market exists for that or not—well, I don't know.
This, folks, is a setting made to be liminal. You have plenty of summary information about climate, weather, nations and their cultures, countries and their politics, big organizations and their major concerns, and major figures (with class, level, and Alignment). You got some tables to spice up your campaigns therein, and some notes to guide your use of the setting, and that's it. You didn't get a plug-and-play product here; you got a parts kit and were expected to build it into a complete rifle on your own. 
This is before any Greyhawk novels. This is before the post-Gray Box Forgotten Realms, before Dragonlance, before Eberron, and all of the other settings (and revisions thereof) that increasingly spelled out what was there, who was there, and otherwise increased the density of information such that a canon arose and with it all that a canon calls forth: orthodoxy, and the slavish devotion to it that I sometimes call "Fandumb". 
That's fine for a writing bible, the sort used for franchise properties or television shows where having a single reference with authority given to it matters, but for a setting published for use with a tabletop RPG that means unforced errors of one sort or another. 
Liminality, in practical terms, means that you provide just enough material for your users to get going at building out their own interpretations for use at their tables. (Yes, this directly undermines the proto-MMORPG that is Organized Play campaigns, and that's a good thing.) Writers can think of this in terms of a prompt. Gamers can think in terms of a scenario premise. 
For a tabletop RPG setting, the boxed set for Greyhawk nailed it. So did the original boxed set for the Realms. After that, you ended up having to either learn how to avoid where it's too built up, or demolishing what's present to make room for what you want (and making more work for yourself). Liminality, therefore, is that frontier space where there's enough to go do your thing, but not so much that busybodies start nagging you about it; it's about implication, not canonization. Pulp, not Pink Slime. 
Because of this fact, I don't see a future for commercial settings anymore. Wikis do the same thing cheaper and easier with far superior convenience. What I see instead is a future for tools and tutorials to guide users in taking that just enough material and making their own fun from that.

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