If we want roleplaying to become an important form of art, we must have Great Games. Therefore, we must build up a community that allows designers to shape themselves into Great Artists. One necessary element of such a community is a culture of criticism.
'Criticism', here, should be understood in both its popular senses. We need, firstly, a culture in which people honestly appraise the qualities of the games that are created, and honestly and realisticly judge the merits and demerits of these games. Right now, we do not have such a culture, as I will argue below.
We need, secondly, a culture in which there are RPG critics - in the sense that there are literary critics: people who can understand games and write thoughtful reviews about them. Not reviews of the kind that are published on RPGnet, with their simplistic point-based ratings; but the kind of reviews that assume you have already read and played the game, and now wish to understand it better. Reviews of this kind are written today, but only rarely. However, I will focus on the first kind of criticism in this post, leaving this second kind of criticism for later.
We do not have a culture of criticism yet. This is only to be expected; the scene is too young. But it is time to start working on one, because we have moved to a new stage in the evolution of the medium: a stage of proliferation.
For the past few years, every completed, playtested indie RPG written by someone with a modest amount of skill and originality was something to be thankful for. There were so few of them that they were all welcomed enthusiastically. This was good and proper. But now, and I believe this summer can be pointed to as a watershed, the number of new indie RPGs conforming to these modest requirements has risen beyond the number of RPGs that anyone can be expected to play - or even buy and read. A critical mass has been reached; and now it is time to start being critical. We have to be able to look at a game and say: nice try, but no cigar.
Do me a favour, and look around on Story Games or the AP section of The Forge. (Or any other place where a lot of indie RPG people get together.) Look at what people say about games. Try to find people who say: "This game is not very good." about any recent, published indie game. This is going to be hard.
On the contrary, the word you are most likely to find is 'awesome'. Every game appears to be awesome.
I will let you in on a secret: right now, in the year 2006, there are no awesome roleplaying games. There are fine roleplaying games. There are, perhaps, even a few good roleplaying games, though it may be too early to say. But there are no roleplaying games that you should be in awe of. There is no roleplaying equivalent of Crime and Punishment, of Citizen Kane, of the Art of Fugue, of In Memoriam. Of course not; the art form is too young.
But if there are no awesome roleplaying games, do not tell me that there are. Tell me that a game is fun, but is lacking in this or that respect. Tell me that a game is good. Tell me that some designer is promising. But don't tell me about every game you had fun with that it is awesome. If you do, you will not have the words to describe a true work of genius. (I would like to say at this point that the adjective 'fucking' is not going to help you. Nothing is 'fucking awesome', though some people may be fucking awesomely.)
Some people will object that the indie scene is too small for a community of criticism to come into existence. If all games are made by people you know at least vaguely, and will continue to meet on the internet, you will be inclined to say merely positive things about their work.
This objection doesn't convince me. Here is a truth: you are not doing your friends a favour by telling them their work is better than it actually is. Quite the contrary, you are stifling their further growth. I want to see merciless criticism - in a spirit of friendship. This is possible. It is, quite likely, necessary.
Remember: all the games we currently have are mere shadows of what the form can be.
Next time: on growing up and genre games.