RPGs as Missed Connections

Posted by on Mar 11, 2012 in Design, Fan Culture, RPGs, Writing | 8 Comments

I want to write a missed-connection piece for those beautiful RPGs that have passed me on the train or gone unmet at the coffeehouse.

Different kinds of game texts connect with different kinds of audiences. Naturally an audience may tend to prefer and admire the text that connects with them over those that don’t. Can we manage the nuance and understanding that appreciates that games that might miss us, as individuals or an audience, might successfully connect with some other audience?

That is, games that capture an audience other than you or I might not be badly written or unsuccessfully designed or whatever else. Can’t we find ways to parse and understand texts that missed us without disparaging texts and audiences that have found each other?

As I meet more and more gamers, I discover an audience wider than that served by any one text—and audiences that presume the books they connect with are doing it “right” and the others are doing it “badly.” This is precisely as narrow-minded as the perspective of the books that missed their chance to connect with this audience. This is sort of a shame, but it is no big deal. We write from where we stand. We’ll make mistakes. We’ll gather some readers on this try and others with the next. At least we’re here together; does it matter which road we took coming in?

The RPG audience deserves a variety of texts, writing styles, and voices. A necessary consequence of that diversity shall be that not all texts shall connect with all audiences on every try. That is not a value judgment. It just is.

Let us not disparage an RPG just because it was not written in our argot, even if it was written in our language.


  1. J. Walton
    March 13, 2012

    Sure, Will. But also: RPGs are a young medium and we’re still learning how best to transmit them to other people. It’s unquestionably true that RPG design and writing is improving; not consistently and sometimes back-and-forth (as one generation misses or forgets lessons learned by the previous one), but still improving. Saying “let’s appreciate every game” is great, but we can still recognize growth and improvement, yeah?

  2. Will Hindmarch
    March 13, 2012

    Here’s my sarcastic hyperbole response, because this is Internet: No. If it’s not contained in the paragraphs above, it is not allowed. This post is my full and final thought on this subject now and forever.

    Now here’s an honest response: If all you got from the above is “let’s appreciate every game,” that’s problematic. Yes, I’m talking about appreciation but I’m not saying we should each of us like every game. We write from where we stand. I’d like it if more people stood near me but you all make your own decisions and we need people all over the landscape to understand the place, but I’m not going to argue that others should argue their positions because they don’t need the encouragement the way that nuance does.

    You say it is “unquestionably true that RPG design and writing is improving,” and I agree insofar as I believe a broad array of diverse RPGs is an improvement over a narrower band of games on offer. However, that’s a lateral improvement, an expansion, rather than an unquestionably true improvement in, say, quality. It may be an improvement in quality case by case but even then it is not—is seldom—unquestionable. None of us are as objective as we think we are. None of us.

    Is impressionism an improvement on 17th-century Dutch realist paintings or is it a beneficial expansion of style and form allowing for a widening appreciation of painting as a medium? Can’t we simultaneously like impressionism and the Dutch masters? Do we have to rank them? Really?

    If one didn’t like the old works but one is a fan of the new works, great! But it is narrow-minded and poor criticism to say that everything before the stuff you liked must be inferior because it came before or you didn’t like it. Sure, we each should speak from our own positions and, no, we don’t each have to declare this prologue in context to every opinion. I mentioned it because I was moved to do so. It sometimes feels like we conflate applicability with quality, and that’s maybe inevitable, but that’s where I was writing from—a place frustrated with the conflation.

    Listen, I get that all art is political (sic), and so staking out ideological turf can be important for pushing the stones across the fields to the building site. Others have that covered. But when I feel like I live alone in the scrubland between two beautiful cities with a sad rivalry, and I realize that I can only visit them both and never be a proper citizen of either, I write. My fault is probably pressing “publish,” I admit.

    So: Sure, J. But “growth and improvement” may not be objectively measurable from inside the movement. (The implication that a medium stops learning how to communicate as it gets older strikes me as questionable, too, but whatever.) And we have plenty of people writing about what they see as improvements or better than other things—that area’s well covered. Y’all go on ranking things and saying what’s better than what based on which audience it reached. I’m just wishing we could add more appreciation, more understanding to the mix. I’m not calling for the subtraction of other positions to make room for it because it’s thankfully not necessary and it’d never happen, anyway. Haters gonna hate. Champions gonna champion. And we are all of us both, I guess.

  3. J. Walton
    March 13, 2012

    I don’t really disagree with any of that, Will. I’m not an embodiment of the indie games community and I kinda dislike being called “y’all” or being assumed to agree with or stand for a particular strawman. I’m just this one dude, right? I have my own opinions about stuff and I’m not here to argue for a particular side.

    Comparing roleplaying to Dutch painting is a bit unfair, I think. Roleplaying draws on older traditions but the contemporary medium emerged in the late 1970s, yeah? We’re a lot more like video games, as a young medium, than we are like painting. In all honesty, the great masterworks of the medium may not have been written yet. People still perform early opera, for example, but most of what gets performed was created 100+ years after the establishement of the medium. What games will people play in 100 years?

    I agree that solipsitically clinging to the games that we happen to like (or that work for us) and assuming that they exemplify the pinnicle of design is a bit ridiculous. That certainly happens.

    However, when people talk about games that push the medium forward, that take things that were vague or uncertain and make them clear for new/old audiences, I think they’re almost always correct. And that applies to Vampire and the OSR as much as Apocalypse World. I think talking about progress in game design is pretty different from championing a game you like, because you can concretely point to an area and say “this section here does X thing better / differently than I have ever encountered before.” Even though that’s a subjective assessment, based on personal experiences, it’s something concrete that can be discussed. And even if you don’t have the same experience or the text doesn’t work for you in the same way, you can still respect the experiences that others have had with it (which is partially what you’re trying to say here, right?).

  4. Will Hindmarch
    March 13, 2012

    “And even if you don’t have the same experience or the text doesn’t work for you in the same way, you can still respect the experiences that others have had with it (which is partially what you’re trying to say here, right?).” Yes. To which you replied with “Sure, Will.” which read to me as dismissive just as “y’all” read unpleasantly to you, I guess. I’m sorry if that grated.

  5. Will Hindmarch
    March 19, 2012

    Okay, so I picked two terrible examples for my analogy, I guess. I don’t think we can only compare art forms of similar ages to make substantive analogies, personally, but maybe I’m wrong.

    My aim was to pick two well respected but distinctive styles that are not improvements on each other but attempts to communicate in different ways—because that is analogous to what’s going on in RPG texts, in my opinion. It’s not so much that books are advancing as much as they’re diversifying, just as impressionism is not an advancement on realism, it’s a diversification. Games are learning lessons from earlier games… but they’re also missing a lot of potential lessons to be learned from earlier games. And that’s fine. Each game is a separate expression of goals and styles, not necessarily a step ahead or an improvement.

    So, yes, of course we can and should appreciate growth and improvement—I’m arguing for more appreciation, not less!—but can’t we learn from the works of our forebears without demeaning them? There’s a difference between “I think this game does it better,” and “That other game is worthless bleating from armchair bullshitters,” right? I’m just asking for more appreciation for the castles we tear down to get the stones for our roads. What I wrote was a response to several different incidents of people slagging on previous works as a means of celebrating what’s new. Struck me as callous and unnecessary, is all.

    Maybe that’s holding me back.

  6. J. Walton
    March 19, 2012

    No argument here, Will.

    Earlier this week in a thread on the OSR I posted:

    “Filtered through my indie games sensibilities, I’m most interested in the OSR as a set of modern attempts to play under-explained/documented and sometimes inconsistent pre-1985 dungeony game texts and modes of play (and their descendents) in a way that consistently generates an enjoyable experience, including making enjoyable a bunch of stuff that sounds really unfun from many modern gaming perspectives (instant char death, mapping and calling, 10-foot-poles, etc.). Instead of rejecting the things that seem weird about early games, I like that the OSR attempts to place them in a context where they make perfect sense. That way, they increase our appreciation for aspects of early RPG texts, even if nobody ever played them the way the OSR does.”

    “…As far as I can tell, both the recent indie games movement and the OSR originally came out of frustration with late-80s and 90s games and the sense that play was getting muddy, rules texts were getting increasingly vague or mysterious (all that talk about “creating stories,” with few concrete procedures), and the desire for styles of play that felt more consistent and grounded in repeatable procedures instead of unstructured improvisation and “magical GM” performances. While indie games folks moved in the direction of creating new types of games and experimenting with new styles of play, the OSR tackled the same problem by returning to older pre-“storytelling” RPGs and trying to rediscover what was good about those games. Just like in indie games, there’s some posturing that goes on about certain kinds of games being objectively better or “purer” than others, but at the core it’s just an attempt to have more fun and consistent play.”

    “…It’s notable that, just because the OSR and recent indie movement started as a reaction against late-80s and 90s games (or 00s D&D), that doesn’t mean there’s nothing awesome or valuable about those games. I mean, the 80s-90s were themselves a reaction against a lot of “stupid” stuff about early D&D (“meaningless” character death, 10-foot-poles, etc.). And, as Joe McDaldno has said, there will doubtlessly be a “Second Wave Renaissance” a few years from now, if it isn’t already happening. Apocalypse World is already kinda in that vein, with it’s non-OS sandbox-style play more reminiscent of Shadowrun and Vampire.

    All of which is to say: rethinking and reexamining older game texts or play styles that may or may not have initially made sense to you is just as valuable a way to broaden your understanding and appreciation or roleplaying as playing experimental or new stuff. And the OSR is contributing to that in a major way.”

  7. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    “Can’t we find ways to parse and understand texts that missed us without disparaging texts and audiences that have found each other?”

    I think here we have a question of objective analysis, in which case looking to film, literature, and other media can be useful.

    In most objective analysis, the general approach is to analyze what the work is trying to achieve – who is the intended audience and what is the message – and then seeing if the techniques used are successful in conveying the message to the audience.

    What changes with the medium is the techniques/tools used. Painting uses the building blocks of canvas+paint, a “core mechanic” of brushstrokes, and tools like colour, perspective, contrast.

    I think a similar approach can be used for videogames. But we must first build up a vocabulary and understanding of the medium.

  8. toaster_pimp
    April 2, 2012

    I guess what i’m trying to say is: yes, you can objectively analyze RPG games, just as you can objectively analyze a novel or a movie or a painting.


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