Games Blog

Reviews, thoughts and options from the word of paper-and-pencil roleplaying games.

Story Games vs. Traditional RPGs: An Analogy

I think this analogy makes sense, at least to people from Cricket playing countries.

Story games are the equivalent to limited overs one-day Cricket compared with traditional RPG’s long form of the game.

A game of Cricket in the long form takes place over the course of several days, five in the case of international games, three or four for domestic games. Connoisseurs of the game will always maintain it’s the higher form, where the story unfolds across multiple days. It’s true that some games do peter out into dull draws when neither side can press an advantage, but the best games ebb and flow with occasional dramatic reversals. Games like the 1981 Test Match at Headlingly where England came back from a seemingly hopeless position to beat Australia after heroic performances from Ian Botham and Bob Willis have passed into legend.

The one-day game, in contrast, cuts to the chase. It’s all over in a single day, appealing to a wider audience who doesn’t have the attention span to follow a single match over multiple days. It trades drama for spectacle, and tends to produce more exciting close finishes. But it also tends to result in far more cookie-cutter games, especially the ones that don’t end in close run chases. There is no one-day equivalent of that 1981 Headingly Test.

Like all analogies, it’s not an exact one, but does illuminate some strengths and weaknesses of two different forms of a similar thing. There are, I think, some definite parallels.

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Inappropriate Content?

Yet another big controversy has erupted in the tabletop RPG world after One Book Shelf (which owns the downloads sites RPGNow and DriveThruRPG) pulled a provocatively-titled small-press game suppliment its virtual shelves following a Twitter campaign.

It’s opened a massive can of worms.

One Book Shelf have now announced a new policy for reporting offensive content. The precise details are vague at the moment, but there are suggestions that there’s going to be “report as offensive” button which will cause automatic suspension of the reported product pending review. Some game publishers, most notably James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and The RPG Pundit have raised very serious concerns over how this might work in practice, and have threatened to pull all their products from the site should a single one of their titles be suspended under this new system. They express a strong concern that their own products may well be targetted.

It’s near to impossible to tell whether their fears are justified or not.

I would certainly advocate no suspension of any product without human intervention under any circumstances, because such a process would be far too vulnerable to abuse. The ugly “PunditGate” saga remains a faultline in the community a year on, and the past behaviour of some of the personalities involved more or less guarantees bad things will happen unless active steps are taken to prevent it.

At least some of these people have an overtly authoritarian agenda combined with axes to grind against specific game designers and publishers, and can’t be trusted not to misuse any “report as offensive” button to pursue long-running personal feuds, or to report anything that fails absurdly strict purity tests. The “everything is problematic” crowd have very broad definitions of racism and sexism, and there is a very loud faction of them with the RPG community. Give them the power to disappear publications they don’t like, and it will have a chilling effect on the hobby as a whole.

In the world of self-publishing there are all sorts of issues of quality control and gatekeeping. If a line needs to be drawn somewhere over what content is beyond the pale, it matters who gets to draw than line. Twitter mobs with torches and pitchforks don’t always make the best judges. But are ill-conceived  technical solutions which could cause as many problems as they solve any better? It’s really a social problem.

I don’t want an RPG hobby that’s awash with overtly racist and misogynistic games. But I don’t want an RPG hobby where are small but vocal minority have the power to veto on what anyone else can publish.

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D&D is Cultural Appropriation?

A British gamer travels to America for the first time, and speaks of the way finally “gets” the tropes behind Dungeons and Dragons.

Yes, yes. I have long been aware of the ‘borderlands’ theme of American history. A history of explorers, of pioneers, of the ‘civilizing’ mission (winning the West) which was conducted peicemeal as much as imperial. And, of course, the American West provides us with some archetypal examples of murder-hobos. So, yes, a ripe historical analogue for D&D PCs, if we can get past the racism and genocide. But hey, just chuck in Orcs and we can all sleep easily, no?

But I didn’t fly over Arizona and find myself struck by the history. No. At least not directly. No, I flew over the desert and found myself struck by the quite awe-inspiring scale that pervades the USA. The USA – and the Americas in general – has a scale about it that is quite unlike that of Europe, and Britain especially. I don’t just mean its continental vastness, nor the buildings, people, or even the military-industrial-prison complex. As I flew into Phoenix I passed over canyon-laced desert that resembled, to European eyes, the landscape of an alien planet. I didn’t need to know much history to immediately wonder what the first Europeans had thought as they crossed this landscape with their pack-mules laden with equipment, accompanied by their hirelings. And the heat! The heat! It was so hot that I remarked that if it is ever that hot in Wales then your house is on fire.

In Florida there was a different kind of heat. A wet, swampy, (once) malarial heat, in a flat marshy landscape prowled by man-eating alligators. To get some breeze you get to the coast, and escape down a chain of islands a hundred miles long tipped by a wrecker ‘city’ – the richest per capita in the USA at one point – precariously clinging to an island made up of the skeletons of weird sea creatures, just waiting to be swept away by hurricanes (or pirates).

It’s not medieval Europe, even a middle ages seen through a distorted American lens. Anything European is really little more than very superficial window-dressing. Dungeons and Dragons is the Wild West with swords instead of six-shooters. The complete absence of anything resembling social class, and the whole zero-to-hero character arc thing is a dead giveaway. It really does owe far more to Ayn Rand than to J.R.R.Tolkien.

This does put the social justice arguments about the game into context. The argument that D&D characters should be overwhelmingly white because historical accuracy is racist bollocks because D&D isn’t set in anything resembling medieval Europe. And to argue that a game that is based on medieval Europe and written by Europeans must reflect the demographics of 21st century North America because diversity is also bollocks, because such a game isn’t default D&D.

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Geeks, Mops and Sociopaths

Mop (Wikimedia Commons)There’s an interesting post by David Chapman about the life-cycle of subcultures. He identifies three types of people who enter a subculture at different stages. First there are the “Geeks”, the creators and hardcore supporters. The come “Mops”, the more casual supporters whose numbers are necessary for a scene to grow big enough to be economically viable. Finally there are the “Sociopaths”, who want to exploit everything for profit without caring about the subculture itself, taking a short-term slash-and-burn approach that destroys the thing in the process.

He sees the “mops” as something of double-edged sword:

Mops also dilute the culture. The New Thing, although attractive, is more intense and weird and complicated than mops would prefer. Their favorite songs are the ones that are least the New Thing, and more like other, popular things. Some creators oblige with less radical, friendlier, simpler creations.

Which makes me think of those who liked Mostly Autumn’s “Pocket Watch”.

Chapman doesn’t give any specific examples, but by implication references the underground music scenes of the 1980s and 1990s, many of which burned out relatively quickly. It nay be a generational thing, or it may be that he’s over-generalising, but I’m not seeing his theory playing out in every subculture I’ve been involved with over the years.

Let’s look at the underground progressive rock scene to start with. This has been stable for quite a few years, a few bands teetering on the edge of mainstream success, but many more merely satisfied to establish themselves a niche. Has the scene just been lucky enough to get just the right balance of Chapman’s Geeks and Mops for long term stability? Or is it that its roots in a genre much of the mainstream rejected as unfashionable a generation ago make it immune to Chapman’s Sociopaths? Or is it just that the age profile (much grey hair and many bald heads) means the Geeks and Mops and older and wiser, not interested in passing fads?

The tabletop RPG hobby has likewise been around for a long time. But fashions within the hobby rise and fall, and individual games with a long publishing history are the exception rather than the rule. Even then, though, the hobby itself is bigger than any one game. There do appear to be a few examples of Chapman’s theory playing out; the way the E Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons, ended up being forced out of his own company though political machinations does sound like an example of his Sociopaths in action. There are other examples I can think of too, but I’d rather not start naming individuals.

What about the railway enthusiast and model railway hobbies? That’s an odd case in that it started out as a fandom of a thing that was never an artistic or cultural movement but a mundane service industry that involved a lot of heavy engineering. It’s become three separate but frequently overlapping things. First there’s what amounts to the fandom of “real” railways based around travel and photography. Second there’s the whole railway preservation movement. Finally there’s the model railway hobby. But while there are many, many Geeks and Mops, it’s hard to identify obvious Sociopaths. Maybe they exist, but they just know a good long-term cash cow when they see one, so they’re actually relatively benign?

Ian Allen, the so-called “Father of Trainspotting” who died last week in his 90s was surely one of Chapman’s Geeks. Yet he founded not one but two successful businesses on the back of the hobby, a publishing house and a travel agency. On an even bigger scale, parts of the preservation movement have become significant elements of the tourist industry. Companies like the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railway operate as commercial businesses, and their steam-operated railways are important parts of the local economies. But I don’t think you can accuse their management of being motivated by anything other than a love of trains.

So ultimately I’m not sure whether David Chapman’s theory holds or not. I certainly don’t agree with him on the necessity of gatekeepers to preserve the purity of a subculture; that smacks too much of elitism, and gatekeeping is one of those things that can so easily turn toxic. This is especially true when you have what amounts to a turf war between competing subcultures over a disputed space; the whole Sad Puppies/Hugo thing, and the ongoing Gamergate culture war are prime examples.

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RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

PolyhedralsSome recent attempts by one or two outspoken and polarising game designers to rewrite history has brought up an old post from 2009 chronicling the rise and fall of RPG Theory.

In short, RPG theory is a load of cobblers.

It started out with a handful of uncontroversial truths. It’s true that specific game mechanics encouraging certain styles of play. And having setting and rule elements that reinforce one another tends to result in a better game; we can all name plenty of games that failed due to a mismatch between the game mechanics and the setting. And baroque cruft-ridden complexity in either rules or setting is not a good thing.

But Ron Edwards and The Forge took it way beyond that, building a massive pseudo-intellectual house of cards out of incomprehensible jargon and undisguised contempt both for the vast majority of successful games and the people who actually enjoyed playing them. They styled themselves as the RPG equivalent of the punk movement in music, overthrowing what they considered as the pompous and overblown games of the generation before. But it was a punk movement without the equivalent of any three minute bursts of stripped-down primal rock’n'roll, which was ultimately the only good thing about Punk. Imagine no “Anarchy in the UK”, but keeping Sounds’ infamous one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the iconoclastic bloviating of Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons. That was The Forge.

Saying that, I own and have played a few of the small-press games that came out of The Forge, and there were some enjoyable one-shot games of Inspectres and Primetime Adventures at Stabcons. But when you look at what actually happened in the game sessions the play experience wasn’t radically different from many a more traditional game. But none of these games really gave the impression they had the depth needed to sustain a satisfying long-term campaign, and more importantly none of them ever seemed to be much more that fifteen-minute wonders. Are there still people playing “Dogs in the Vineyard” in 2015?

A decade on it’s an open question as to the lasting influence of The Forge. Did Ron Edwards’ notoriety obscure more subtle influences on following generations of games? Or was The Forge largely irrelevant to people who make and play games rather than just talk about them on the internet? Certainly many have suggested the success of the fifth edition of Dungeons & Dragons was down to their purging of Forgeist taint that had allegedly ruined the fourth edition. I’m not entirely convinced of that one myself. But do other successful games like FATE or Cortex Plus rely some of the “narrativist” ideas, or did they just develop independently?

And who was responsible for killing off GURPS?

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It seems as though “Gamers are over” is the new “Rock is dead”. We’ve been hearing that rock is dead from people that have never liked rock in the first place, but rock has always refused to go away.

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Gamergate’s complaints about agenda-driven reviews make me wonder how on earth gamers would have reacted had the video game press been anything like as bad as the “mainstream” British music press has been for decades. Have there been reviews remotely equivalent to Dave McCulloch’s dismissive one-star review of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” in Sounds? Are there any gaming journalists as appallingly bad as Julie Burchill?

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#GamerGate – An Issue With Two Sides

This is an insightful piece in TechCrunch about the #GamerGate controversy

Two sides have emerged, which believe in completely different realities. If you are to listen to the extreme of one side, you will hear that gamers are reactionary right-wingers who excuse harassment. If you listen to the extreme of the other side, every critic of GamerGate is a brainwashed activist who thinks liking Hitman Absolution or GTAV makes you worse than Hitler.

Holding up the extremes of both sides is a great way to avoid dialogue. It’s politics – not, as Tadhg Kelly suggests, in the sense of liberals versus conservatives, but in the more fundamental sense of “my side” versus “your side.”

Though I don’t share the author’s libertarian politics, having seen these same culture wars play out across the tabletop RPG hobby and Science Fiction fandom over the past two or three years, it’s very difficult to disagree with anything he says.

This is an issue where I’m unwilling to take sides because I believe both sides are wrong, and both sides have embraced the mistaken idea that these culture wars are a zero-sum game.

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We The People: A game or a Poe?

It is very difficult to tell whether We the People Fight Tyranny Game is intended to be a serious board game, or whether the whole thing is an elaborate parody of the world view of the all-American wingnut.

It purports to be both a “fun game” and an educational tool about American history, liberry and tyranny.

This is a sample of one of the cards in the game, which gives a flavour:

Sockal Justice

That one card really does speak volumes.

The website is filled with boilerplate rightwing screeds, but gives very little away about the gameplay.  But it leaves the impression that the game is a cross between Trivial Pursuit and Monopoly, two of the very worst board games in all history.

So combne two games which put people off board games for life, then marinade the whole thing in heavy-handed ideological propaganda.

And you wonder why it looks like an elaborate parody.

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GamerGate vs Music Journalism

Gamergate still seems to show little sign of dying down, and forms part of the much larger cultural wars that have been raging across the tabletop RPG and SFF worlds over the past couple of years. As is usual for the internet, the loudest and most extreme voices are getting all the attention, and all nuance is lost.

I don’t really know much about the current state of video game journalism, so I don’t know quite how accurate the accusations and counter-accusations I’ve been seeing might be. But they do suggest there are parallels with the state of music journalism and criticism.

Good criticism is an important part of any artistic ecosystem. Critics certainly have a role in publicising and promoting great art. It should go without saying that constructive criticism plays a part in making good art better. And, whatever some fanboys might say, criticism does have a role in calling out bad art that’s undeserving of anyone’s time and money. There is much in the music world that is derivative, formulaic and clichéd. There is art that is tasteless and offensive for its own sake. And there is pretentious nonsense that is nowhere near as clever as it likes to think it is.

But as every music fan ought to know, there is as much bad criticism as there is bad music. There are reviews that seem little more than regurgitated press releases. There are unfairly negative reviews that fail to engage with what the artist is trying to do. There are reviews that have an obvious and unsubtle agenda shared by neither artist nor audience. And the cardinal sin of criticism is still reviewing the audience rather than the performance, usually accompanied by a sneer.

Does any of that sound familiar?

But ultimately both bad art and bad reviews have an absolute right to exist, and only become a problem when they start drowning out everything better. This has been a recurring problem in the music world, but has slowly faded away as the internet has eroded the powers of the old gatekeepers. Is it the same in the world of video games?

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