Campfires

Posted by on Mar 28, 2008 in Books, Conventions, Musing, RPGs | 3 Comments

I recently finished reading Scott McCloud‘s Making Comics. McCloud also wrote Understanding Comics, which, if you haven’t read it, which pop culture have you been living in, exactly?

Near the end of Making Comics, in his chapter about having and developing a personal creative style, he includes an essay proposing that there are basically four animating philosophies to which comic creators subscribe.

According to McCloud…

Classicists are craftsmen, drawing and writing for love of the beauty they can create though skill with pen and word, and out of devotion to a tradition of excellence.

Animists are storytellers, putting the emotional content of the story itself above the pure aesthetics of what appears on the page. It’s more important to them that the story affect the reader than that it be suitable for framing.

Formalists are mad scientists, interested in stretching the boundaries of what’s possible in comics, experimenting for the sake of experimentation, out of love for the medium itself.

Iconoclasts are true-believers, seeking to relate comics to the everyday and to express truths about the human condition in their pages.

This strikes me as useful to gaming in both of the primary ways that gaming can be a creative medium: in designing games and running roleplaying games.

Classicist game designers assemble intricate mechanics to create new examples of existing game types. The fantasy heartbreakers are their output, but so are highly evolved games like Ticket to Ride and the recent and (we must presume) future editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Classicist game masters are looking to create the formally perfect dungeon and run it according to the rules, but in a way that expresses the possibilities inherent in the game rather than to lawyer the thing to death. They throw out the rules where necessary, but mainly because the rulebook said it was a wise thing to do.

Animist game designers create funky, warty games with real meat inside. The Ameritrash movement lives here, and probably most of White Wolf’s RPG output over the years. (Although one imagines that there is now or was once an iconoclast standing on his desk at the White Wolf offices, shouting at anyone who came near.)

Animist game masters have the greatest tendency to find their rulebooks obnoxious impediments to their fun, and to the group’s. They ignore the rules because they stand in the way of the story. They wing it, ready to change everything at a moment’s notice because it feels right, and makes the story more organic.

Formalist game designers are looking to break the molds of genre and type (card game, board game, etc.) because of their deep and abiding love for games and game playing. The adventure board games that mix in character-based “roleplaying” started in this camp, the impulse that gave birth to Magic: the Gathering certainly did, and this was what I was trying to do with Pieces of Eight, as well.

Formalist game masters create strange and innovative roleplaying experiences that sometimes work out, and other time crash and burn spectacularly. Interactive RPGs and LARPs probably sprang from the fevered brains of these game masters, and this is where you’ll see weirdnesses like locked-room (in the Agatha Christie sense) dungeon crawls and campaigns based on the idea that every character is a monk.

Iconoclast game designers seem few and far between. Theirs is the impluse that made Raph Koster write (in his A Theory of Fun for Game Design), “We should fix the fact that the average cartoon does a better job at portraying the human condition than our games do.” It leads to educational games, and agenda games. It may be at odds with what makes games fun. (But they’d say, “What the hell use is fun?”)

Iconoclast game masters worry that killing kobolds sends the wrong message or otherwise exposes the classic dungeon crawl as a moral abyss. Their greatest games can truly inspire; their worst are puppet shows.

In an interesting aside in his chapter notes, McCloud writes about how these four tribes are “visible…on the web and on the convention floor.”

“New artists walk into the crowd,” he writes, “meet others like themselves and gradually start hanging out with the artists that share their values, the ones who “get it” when they start talking about the things that are the most important to them.”

Do the people you hang out with at conventions and the people whose work you’re drawn to on the web share your perspectives? And is that a good thing, or are we pissing away massive opportunities to grow and learn by refusing to hear the other sides’ arguments?

In the main text of his essay, as well as in the chapter notes that expound his ideas further, it’s clear that McCloud has had second (and third, and fourth) thoughts about the desiribility of classifying the creative impulse, fearing that factionalism has the potential to hurt more than understanding has the potential to help.

As a counter, he presents the compelling metaphor of these four groupings as gatherings around four campfires on an otherwise desolate beach. He proposes that each artist moves between different fires over the course of a career (or even a convention!). A given creator might make money near one, derive intellectual stimulation near another, and give something back to the community at a third.

McCloud uses the word “cluster.” As gamers, we’re probably required to use the word “guild.”

Anyway, the point for him isn’t to categorize people, but to give them a tool to understand their own motivations, and to make it ok for different motivations to co-exist in the same human. I think that’s a critical point, because there’s no question at all that I have sympathies in more than one quadrant, and I think that most right-thinking people who live in both space and time will be the same way.

I leave you with two questions, which shall perhaps expand into their own posts in the future, and to which I don’t have ready answers:

1. Are the quadrants you identify with as a game designer and as a game master different?

2. How — if at all — do the definitions of the GNS model map to these divisions of motivation?

Go!

3 Comments

  1. Will Hindmarch
    March 28, 2008

    “…the point … isn’t to categorize people, but to give them a tool to understand their own motivations, and to make it ok for different motivations to co-exist in the same human.”

    Hallelujah and amen.

    Typically, I make a point of trying to get out and visit different campfires (or “guilds”) when I’m at a convention. I am so without confidence about me presence next to any one campfire that I must move to check what’s happening at the others, in case I find that I’ll feel more like I belong at some other one. My designs, to date, reflect this restlessness, when I look back at them. Damnation City, for example, doesn’t know what the hell it wants to be, for better or worse.

    Reply
  2. John Arcadian
    March 28, 2008

    “it’s clear that McCloud has had second (and third, and fourth) thoughts about the desiribility of classifying the creative impulse”

    I can definitely agree with that sentiment. Any kind of classification, by the nature of classification, is incomplete and limiting. As pointed out, the classifications ” give them a tool to understand their own motivations” ,and that is a good thing. Often a person sets off on a path and only comes to find out why they chose that path once they have travelled a significant way down it.

    I think most games first spring from a moment of “I can do this better”, or “Wouldn’t it be neat if”. As the design evolves from its germination,it takes on more mature themes and developments, classifying itself into one or more of the categories listed here.

    Categorizing yourself is hard, but I think I might have to consider myself a formalist when engaging in design, as I’m usually trying to break some mold of how people do game. However, I concede more than a touch of the classicist. There is a certain beauty in the established themes, at least in the way that they are easily digestible to the audience. The purpose of the game being designed is going to be key factor in molding myself as a designer. There is always a fluxuation between all camps and categories, especially when I see something nifty in another genre or form of media that makes me think I should be focusing more in that direction.

    Reply
  3. Lee Moyer
    April 2, 2008

    No question whatever that I’m primarily an Animist when I run or design a game, but primarily a Classicist when it comes to illustrating them.

    Interesting.

    Reply

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