Friday, September 29, 2006

The Ideology of Conflict

[This post is very long, but I consider it one of the most important ones I made in this blog. Perhaps the most important one.]


Introduction: The ubiquity of conflict


It is by now standard for a game in the tradition of the Forge to be about conflicts and their resolutions. Whether you play Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, My Life with Master or The Shadow of Yesterday, the idea is that the GM and the player take opposite sides of a fictional conflict, then resolve it. In Polaris, the structure is no different: the Heart and the Mistaken have free play until they wish different things to happen, at which point challenge, conflict and resolution occur. Universalis is driven by the conflicting wishes of the players; 1001 Nights is about the players trying to be the one who realises his Ambition/Freedom first, in a setting where jealousy only exacerbates this conflict of interest; in Shooting the Moon the two Suitors are trying to get the prize and stop the other from getting it.

But really, this is nothing new. Dungeons and Dragons, from the very start, was about conflict: a conflict of the players against the dungeon, or against other groups in a tournament. Why does a player of Vampire desire all the cool powers his vampire can get? Because it makes the character more powerful in the fiction, and thus more likely to prevail in the bitter conflicts that characterise undead society. (The whole setting is built around conflict, with all its hierarchy, its clans, its division between the Camarilla and the... uh... whatever it is that is opposed to the Camarilla.)

The result of this ubiquity of conflict is that most roleplaying games lead to conflict-driven stories. In most roleplaying, the drama comes from opposed wills (either those of the characters or those of the players, and generally both at the same time) clashing, and either dominating or succumbing.

As a conscious design choice, there is nothing wrong with this. But as a given which is not reflected upon, it betrays an ideology of conflict: an idea that the world is in fact driven by conflict, an idea that our lives are to be understood as fights of our will against opposing wills/forces. One doesn't have to be a Marxist or a feminist to have a feeling that this is a very capitalist or a very male conception of the world. (Never mind that Marxism is also an ideology of conflict.) It is certainly not the only possible conception!


Stories without conflicts

You may feel that a conflict-based view of life is perhaps optional, but that it is nevertheless necessary for interesting stories. I found this idea in the comments to a post by Adam Dray in which he talks about stimulating non-conflict scenes. Someone asks "Is conflict yet another sacred cow?", and the answer is:
If it's a sacred cow, then it's one that goes all the way back Gilgamesh. Conflict is central to most narrative as we understand it.
But, as a matter of fact, this is not true. There are vast, and I mean vast, numbers of stories which are not conflict-driven at all. I will give you a few examples.

First, meet my favourite Dutch author, Nescio. I don't know if his stories have been translated into English, but if they have, go and read them. He really only wrote four short stories, so it doesn't take a lot of time, but they are works of genius.

However, they are not about conflicts. The protagonists are young, idealistic men, who are planning to do something worthwhile with their lives, and not to become trapped in the trappings of a standard, bourgeois life. You know, from the very start, that they are going to fail. In fact, they know that they are going to fail, even if they don't want to admit it. They make plans, but never do anything. They go out into the countryside to watch the sunrise - a moment of beauty in a melancholy and resigned (gelaten, gelassen; 'resigned' doesn't translate perfectly) life. And never, ever, do they come in conflict with each other or with other people; never, ever is the reader wondering 'who will win this conflict?'. But these stories work, and I would love to see a roleplaying game which creates the same atmosphere.

Second, let us consider Kafka's Das Schloss (The Castle), which is about K trying, for unclear reasons, to reach a castle. Is there perhaps a conflict between K, who wishes to get into the castle, and someone or something else, who does not wish him to get into the castle. No - one of the novel's most intriguing aspects is that even though nobody and nothing is actually opposed to K, he is nevertheless unable to make any progress towards his goal. What makes the novel so haunting is precisely that K never gets to a conflict, that the conflict always recedes, that any attempt to attack the barriers that oppose him turns out to be an attack against nothing. K has no chance of success not because the forces opposing him are too strong and he is bound to lose the conflict, but because there will never be a conflict.

Third, moving to English literature, what is the conflict in Conrad's Heart of Darkness? Is the book ever about whether or not the protagonist will find Kurz? Surely it is not. It is a story of experience, but not of conflict. What is the conflict in Nabokov's Pale Fire? That story is driven by the painful unfolding of Kimbote's egotism, but not by any events whatsoever. What conflict is the dramatic heart of Harrison's Signs of Life, a story the protagonist of which lives as if he is never really involved in what he is doing?

There is, then, a whole realm of stories which are not driven by conflicts. Can we play them with roleplaying games?


Non-conflict RPGs

Yes, we can, and there are already several roleplaying games out there that achieve this to some degree. I will talk about Bacchanal, Breaking the Ice, Shades and De Profundis. There are probably others. But they are a small minority, and there is a lot of room to explore.

Bacchanal

Strictly speaking, Bacchanal is conflict-driven: the overall story-arc of each character is formed by the resolution of a conflict between the Accuser (who wishes to kill the protagonist) and the protagonist (who wishes to escape Puetoli). What is interesting, though, is that for each player there is only one conflict in the entire game; play does emphatically not proceed on a conflict-to-conflict basis. Although the rolls do in the end resolve the conflict, most of them push the player not towards resolution, but towards exploring sexuality and decadence.

Breaking the Ice

Emily's game is not conflict-driven, neither on the level of the players nor on that of the characters. In all the games I played, both players wanted the characters to succeed (and I consider this necessary for playing a good game of BtI); and obviously the very fact that they are dating shows that the characters want, at heart, to have a successful romance. There are neither conflicts between the players nor between the characters, and there is therefore no conflict-to-conflict structure of play and no conflict resolution.

This is obviously utterly appropriate for a game which is about being vulnerable and coming closer together through being vulnerable. Emily's portrayal of love (at least in this game) is opposed to the ideology of conflict.

"But surely there is a conflict between the players and ..." No. I will answer that objection in the next section.

Shades

My game has no resolution system whatsoever. If the players have a disagreement about the fiction, there is simply no way that one of the players can make his wishes prevail against those of the other. But, on the contrary, you can let the wishes of the other prevail against your own - and this is the only way to ever complete the game. (I should note that speaking of 'wishes' may even be going to far in the direction of conflict.)

But, someone will object, if any game is conflict-driven, it is Shades: after all, isn't one of the objectives of play to establish a deep and dramatic conflict between the characters? Yes. But it is not the object of play to resolve this conflict. It has already been resolved in advance, and everyone has lost. The dramatic power of the stories comes not from resolving the conflict, but from dissolving it: the question is whether the shades can come to see their conflict as something that they can leave in the past, that they can outgrow, that they can transcend towards a new harmony. Shades is a direct attack on the ideology of conflict.

De Profundis

The letter-based game of Lovecraftian horror is not bases on conflicts either. You write each other letters detailing creepy events that have affected you, trying to weave elements of the others' tales into your own. Perhaps you die, perhaps you do not. The whole idea is to entertain others, create a convincing fiction and creep yourself out.

This is utterly appropriate for a Lovecraftian game. The characters of Lovecraft (whom, by the way, I consider a pretty bad writer) never act; like those of Clark Ashton Smith, they only experience. Such experiential characters cannot possibly be a party in a conflict.


Conflict and Resistance

Someone will object that play without conflicts falls flat. If you can just tell whatever you like, whenever you like, play is without energy and there will be a general lack of fun.

This is true in so far as a successful game needs a form of Resistance. Every story is teleological: the beginning points towards an end, where it may or may not be clear which possible end will be the actual end. Something has to stop you from just skipping from the beginning to the end. Something has to ensure that the game must go through the intermediary event, must actually tell a story. This something is what I will call the Resistance.

Conflict is a form of Resistance. If there are characters with opposing wills and the power to try and make their wills reality, there will be Resistance to each possible ending. Play can then consist of playing out conflict after conflict, until one of the will emerges as victorious; or, as happens more often, until one character gets what he wanted, having paid a heavy price for it that makes us wonder whether it was worth it.

But there are other forms of Resistance. In Breaking the Ice, it is, fictionally, the difficulty of showing yourself to another person, of breaking down the walls that protect you from harm; and the possibility of incompatibility. Mechanically, it is the Resistance of the dice against the wishes of the players. But this Resistance is not a conflict. There are no opposed wills. There are no winners and no losers.

In Shades, the Resistance is the difficulty of getting on the same page with your fellow players and the difficulty of shaping the loose fragments you start with into a coherent story. The game does everything to make this Resistance strong, but it also gives you the tools to overcome it.

In De Profundis, the Resistance is mostly your own habit of taking everything for granted, of not seeing the possible mysteries behind everyday occurrences. The game is designed to make you look at the world around you with other eyes.

In the work of Nescio, the Resistance is the difference between dream and reality, between the beauty we crave and the world we inhabit. In the work of Kafka, the Resistance is the very impossibility of fighting to achieve your aims.

(But is 'overcoming Resistance' not just a kind of Conflict? Does not the very logic of the story, its teleology, incorporate the idea of Conflict? We could only say that by widening the meaning of the word 'Conflict' so much that it would no longer designate what we used to designate with it. Let us adopt two different terms for Resistance and Conflict, which is a form of Resistance.)


Designing without Conflicts

There are many types of Resistance, but only Conflict has been explored thoroughly in roleplaying games. Or rather, perhaps some other types have also been explored - in which case I would love to hear about them, and perhaps the LARP and freeform people are the ones to teach us here - but most remain unexplored and often even unrecognised.

Consider this.

I have heard it say that Vampire is a game that allows you to explore existential dread. Obviously, it is not; and no conflict-based game could be. What we dread is freedom, but not because we are afraid of making the wrong choice. What we dread is the very fact that we have to make choices; that our being-as-possibility must at every instant of time turn into a being-as-determinate. I chose to become a philosopher, at the same time choosing not to be, say, a forester. Dread is provoked not by the fact that I am afraid that I have made the wrong choice; not by a naive belief that forestry is more fun than philosophy (as if maximising fun were the meaning of life!). Dread is provoked by the disappearance into nothingness of the possibility of becoming a forester. I can no longer become a forester, or at least I can no longer become a forester before my 24th. We shed possibilities all the time. At the instant of our death, we are no longer possibilities, we are no longer free: we are determined.

This is an extremely powerful theme. How could it be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A woman asks a man to marry her, but he doesn't know whether he loves her. He goes through the motions, but whether they are caused by real love or whether he merely acts as if they are caused by real love isn't clear to him. He has no idea how to answer the question, but constantly agonises over it.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?

Consider this.

A man and a woman once loved each other, but with old age a certain tiredness has come into their relationship. They both long for the passion of yore, but do not know how to bring it back. Perhaps, they wonder, perhaps they have to learn to be content with companionship instead of love.

How could this be explored in a roleplaying game?


You will be able to multiply these examples. The key point is this. I am growing tired of people solving moral conflicts with a gun, of wars and fights, of antagonists, of struggles between knights and demons. I want more games which do not conceptualise life as a conflict. So - how are we going to make them?

Conflict and Task Resolution

I am going to write a post called The Ideology of Conflict, and planned this discussion of conflict resolution and task resolution as an aside in it. But I believe its length warrants making a special post out of it, so here you are. The thesis I will defend is this: Conflict Resolution and Task Resolution are useless as analytic terms.

I suggest you take a few minutes to reread Vincent Baker's old post on these two types of resolution. A small quote:

Which is important to the resolution rules: opening the safe, or getting the dirt? That's how you tell whether it's task resolution or conflict resolution.

Task resolution is succeed/fail. Conflict resolution is win/lose. You can succeed but lose, fail but win.


The distinction between CR and TR has been important, historically, because it made people rethink the way roleplaying games worked. But we are now in a position to see clearly that CR and TR are, in fact, identical. There is no difference between the two. As analytic tools, they are useless.

Distinguishing TR and CR went like this. First, you ask what the character is attempting to do. This is the task. Then, you ask why the character is trying to do that; or, almost equivalently, why the player is trying to have the character succeed at the task. This is the stake of the conflict.

Then we define: TR is about resolving the What. CR is about resolving the Why.

So, TR and CR are different precisely in so far as we can distinguish between a What and a Why, between an action and the goal of that action. But when we think about this some more, we will see that this distinction breaks down completely.


The character attempts to open the safe. Why does the character attempt to open the safe? In order to get the dirt on the villain. Ah - so in attempting to open the safe, the character is attempting to get the dirt on the villain. Why does the character attempt to get the dirt on the villain? Because he wishes to blackmail the villain. Ah - so in attempting to get the dirt on the villain, the character is attempting to blackmail the villain. Why does the character attempt to blackmail the villain? Because he wants the villain to release the character's little sister, whom the villain has kidnapped. Ah - so in attempting to blackmail the villain, the character is attempting to free his sister. Why...

You will see the point by now. The structure of task and conflict is not that of a simple duality, but that of an infinite regress. Every action (the What) points towards a larger goal (the Why) which gives the action its value. But this goal immediately furnishes a new description for the action, thus becoming a What. This What points to a new Why. And so forth.

When do we have Task Resolution, and when do we have Conflict Resolution? It would be completely arbitrary to say that the task is opening the safe, and the conflict is getting the dirt on the villain. We could just as well say that the task is to get the dirt on the villain, and the conflict is to free the character's sister. We could just as well say that the task is to make a set of complicated movements with the characters left hand, and the conflict is to open the safe. There is no natural division.


But what if we state the whole thing on the level of the player, instead of the level of the character? (This obviously does not help, since the logic of the situation stays the same; but we will discuss it in order to make things clearer.) TR is about things the player does not care about except in so far as they point to something else; CR is about things the player cares about for themselves. The player doesn't care whether he opens the safe or not, but he does care about whether he gets the dirt on the villain or not.

The counterargument stays just the same. Perhaps it is true that the player only cares about the action (the task, the What) because it is a means to a goal (the Why). But this goal can itself be seen as a What, which points to a further Why. The player does not care about getting the dirt on the villain, he cares about freeing his sister. He does not care about freeing his sister, he cares about being able to think of his character as some who looks after those he loves. And so on, and so forth. The only way to stop the infinite regress is to postulate at some point the "Final Care" of the player. But then the only possible conflict would be whether the player gets his Final Care or not, and at that point the fullness of his caring would reveal itself as total emptiness.

Anything valued points beyond itself, to a value. But that value, being valued, also points beyond itself; and so on. The character of value is transcendence.


So far for a philosophical backing; let's return to game design. If, as I maintain, there is no difference between task resolution and conflist resolution; if any example can only be about choosing a different level of concerns as the one on which resolution takes place; then what was the use of the distinction?

The distinction between TR and CR made people aware that there are different levels of concern on which resolution can take place. This led people to reconsider the level they were using, and finding out that often, it was not the most satisfactory level. It allowed us to see that small physical actions were not always the best level.

That is all. It was enough. It was great. But now we can put those two terms to rest, because the distinction they tried to mark does not exist.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Shock:, gender, and "What was sie thinking?"

I am currently reading Shock: social science fiction, by Joshua Newman. I quote the book:

Shock: uses genderless personal pronouns when the gender of a person - a character or a player - is unknown or irrelevant. In these cases, Shock: doesn't use "he", "his", "him", "himself", "she", "her", "herself" or "hers", using the pronouns favored by many contemporary gender theorists: "sie" "hir" "hirself", and "hirs". If this makes you uncomfortable, that's what a Shock is. If they don't, you'll feel right at home playing.
It doesn't make me uncomfortable, but it does make for uncomfortable reading. Let's leave aside the question whether these gender neutral pronouns serve any worthy puprose, either in this game text or in general. What I want to say is something concerning this contemporary gender theorist: What on earth was sie thinking when sie decided that the German female pronoun "sie" was a spiffy choice for a gender-neutral English pronoun? How can anyone be supposed to read a text wherein this obviously non-English word appears and not have associations with the German word for "she"?

Yes... but does this Gamist clockwork tick?

I do not know whether I read this somewhere or thought it up myself, but I consider The Shadow of Yesterday to be a Narrativist game containing a Gamist clockwork that makes it run. Consider: you have all these cool skills and secrets, and you want to get more and better ones. The way to do this is to get XP. The way to get XP is to hit and resolve your Keys. Hitting and resolving your Keys is almost guaranteed to generate a good thematic story. See? Never mind my liberal use of the GNS terms here.

Last week, I finished a satisfying game of The Shadow of Yesterday with Jasper Polane. During the six or so sessions of this game, I noticed the following phenomenon: in the first sessions I really wanted to increase my skills, and actively worked towards my Keys for that reason; but as the game progressed, my interest in getting Advances dwindled, and in the end I was only hitting the keys because that fitted into my story.

Although this doesn't really hurt the game, it nevertheless cannot be the aim of the rules. Surely, advances are supposed to be enticing. But are they? Better skills may make your character succeed more often, but nothing in The Shadow of Yesterday appears to encourage aiming towards character success, instead of character failure - in this respect, it is unlike My Life with Master, where the growing hatred of the Master character really makes the player want their character to succeed. And then there is the question whether better skills actually do make your character succeed more often: given that there are no rules for the strengths of NPCs, nothing is stopping the GM from scaling the important NPCs of the story with the PC's skill levels.

So, I am thinking that this gamist engine is not ticking as it should. That may be due to something I am doing wrong, or it may be because you cannot power a game by an engine that taps into a different Creative Agenda than the game itself. What are your experiences with The Shadow of Yesterday, concerning this issue?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Full disclosure in RPGs and IF

In indie-RPGs, there has been a trend towards what I will call full disclosure. In traditional games, there is a knowledge asymmetry about the fictional world in that the GameMaster knows a lot more of what is going on and what is going to happen than the players do. In many recent games, the GM can be more open, or even completely open, about her knowledge; or her lack of knowledge. In InSpectres, for instance, I am always very sure to show my players how I roll an assignment on the assignment chart: this drives it home to them that I have nothing up my sleeve, and the the story is theirs as much as mine to tell. In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM's first task is to make sure that the players get to know all of what's going on in the town: she first discloses everything, and then the fireworks start going off.

This mode of play has advantages as well as disadvantages, but it is surely advantageous as far as we are trying to make the players real co-authors of the story. It is obviously difficult to contribute meaningfully to the story when you do not know everything which is relevant.

In interactive fiction, this step towards full disclosure has not been made. At least, I have never seen a game that tells its players up front what it is about, what meaningful choices the player can make and in what different ways the game can end.

Again, there are advantages and disadvantages to disclosure. But, again again, if we want the reader of the piece to become a real co-author, disclosure is good and proper.

I would really like to see experiments with full disclosure in interactive fiction.

[Shades] Lay-out

I was planning to give Shades a minimalist lay-out: perhaps just a picture on the front cover, and maybe only plain LaTeX-generated text on the inside. No bells, no whistles, just the content in an easily accessible form.

And then Jasper Polane has to screw it all up by telling me that I should lay-out the thing as a Victorian family album, where the actual play examples are yellowed photographs and handwritten memoirs. And he is so right. Alas, all the work this will mean...

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

[Stalin's Story] Rethinking the basics

Stalin's Story is a game I wrote for the Ronnies a while back, using the words "dragon" and "Soviet". Basically, it has two components: one component is an intricate, card-based storytelling game using Vladimir Propp's analysis of Russian fairy tales; the other is a social component allowing the players to explore the power relations of totalitarianism.

The result of grouping these two components together is something that is too complex. From now on, Stalin's Story will refer to the second, social component, without the intricate Proppian mechanics. How should this leaner Stalin's Story work?

First, it is of the essence that Stalin is chosen by chance, not by consent. When you start playing, everyone has the hope to be Stalin, but only one will be him. (Yes, this may remind the political philosophers among us of Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.) The person who is appointed Stalin, by dice or cards, should be obeyed by everyone; this text should definitely appear in the final version in some way:

Now, you may need to rearrange the furniture a bit. Stalin and his courtiers should be able to sit, while the actors need room to act out the fairy tale. Rearrangements of the furniture are made under the supervision of Stalin, but the other players do all the work. When the rearrangements have been made to Stalin’s satisfaction, he chooses a place to sit – preferably the most comfortable chair or couch – and tells the courtiers where they are to sit. (Which could as easily be on the floor as on an actual chair.)

Perhaps Stalin wants some other preparations to be taken, and it is expected that he orders the other players around and they do what he asks. Making tea, giving vodka to Stalin and the courtiers – or to Stalin alone –, turning off the music, turning on the music (I suggest Shostakovich), changing the illumination, are all good tasks. When Stalin is quite satisfied and all the courtiers have taken their designated seats, the game begins.

Then, the players actually have to do something. I don't know what, yet, but it should allow them to please or displease Stalin and each other.

Also, in order to heighten the possibility of power abuse, Stalin should be insecure. I am thinking of designating one of the players (in secret) as the Traitor, who has a gun hidden on his body, and - from some point in the game onwards - can try to shoot Stalin. Stalin's aim should be to prevent this from happening; all the other player's should aim at becoming either Stalin's right hand man, or the new dictator. The way in which this power struggle should be formalised needs some thinking over.

But the central idea must be this: during most of the game, Stalin has all the power, and this power is real: he can order players to be killed (that is, leave the game), and if he only knew who are for and who are against him, he could easily secure his own survival. But he does not know, and therefore remains, though powerful, insecure and a potential victim of paranoia.

[Shades] Surprise

Shades is a game for two or three players. I mean, it says so in the rules. And that is why I dimissed it as an option when Remko, Annette and Eva came over to my place last week.

Until I realised that those rules has been written by me, and that I had never tested the game with more than two players. So I thought "it's worth a try", and we played it with four. Now, the four of us are friends, in some cases very close friends; we played together many times before; and to a large extent we are on the same page when it comes to roleplaying. The circumstances, then, were optimal for a game of Shades - and lo and behold, to my surprise it went very well indeed.

(The tale turned out to be about a noble/rich family consisting of an elder, somewhat tyrannical brother; a younger, slightly mad brother; their sister, aged in between, vicious but insecure; and the sister's maid, who was also the lover of both brothers. Their struggles for power and love led them to cruelty, and finally, suicide. But, as shades, they finally understood each other's motives and weaknesses, made their peace, and died their final death.

As with every game of Shades I ever played, none of the characters received a name.

When the game ended, I put on Mozart's Requiem, and we sat in silence, holding hands, around the single candle left to burn, listening without a word to the work entire. When its last note died away, I blew out the last candle.)
Moral: don't ever believe you know your own game until you tried it out.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Improving us, the audience

In Musings and Mental Meanderings Thomas Robertson reminds us that games aren't the only texts that can impact play. We could also write texts about improving your gaming techniques, or write toolboxes that allow people to more or less put together their own game, and so forth. Some such books do exist; I believe you can buy books that tell you how to make a maximally effective fighter/wizard/whatever in D&D3E.

I can see the same happening in the indie scene: How to GM Dogs in the Vineyard, or Fear and Loathing: getting the most out of My Life with Master, or Twelve ways to structure Polaris. These books need not be tied to one single game, of course. Improve your description techniques, or or Ten simple games to build trust or the best-selling Relationship Maps that Kick Ass all seem definite possibilities.


We will return, in a roundabout way, to the theme of roleplaying as a form of art.


We take a detour over Ron Edward's band-metaphor of roleplaying. Roleplaying, he wrote, is like playing in a band. If you want to create art, not just have fun while fooling around, you will need to be dedicated to improving your skills both individually and as a group. (He goes on to liken the GM to the bass player. This is not important to our discussion.)

The metaphor is sound, but needs to be extended. A roleplaying group is not just a bunch of people who perform, it is also a bunch of people who are an audience. They 'perform' their 'actual play', while 'listening' to the 'game'. (A lot of scare quotes for a strained expression.)

In order to get the most out of the roleplaying game they are playing, they need to hone their performing skills. They are a good audience for the game, able to experience it as it was meant to and have an informed opinion about it, exactly in so far as their performing skills match the requirements of the game. It seems quite likely that there can be 'tough' games that require an experienced audience in order to be enjoyed and appreciated. (And this through no fault of the designer, but because of their intrinsic nature.) The Art of Fugue asks more of its audience than Nothing Else Matters does; the same with Mullholland Drive and Titanic. Roleplaying games need be no different.


Which ends our detour and brings us back to the topic of art, and the community needed to make roleplaying as a form of art possible. We don't just need great designers, who have been shaped in a critical culture; we also need an audience able to play and appreciate these great games when they are made. Will playing a lot of RPGs be enough to get the skills needed as an audience? Or will the kind of books we spoke about above be able to help us improve, as an audience? I wouldn't be surprised if the latter turned out to be the case.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A culture of criticism, part I

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.