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.


  1. "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."

    You lost me right there... I'm sorry, I'm being purposely snarky.

    I think there's a very important thing that needs to be grasped here---RPG's ARE NOT, and NEVER WILL BE art... ACTUAL PLAY is art. I hate it when people say things like "there's no RPG equivalent of Citizen Kane". The art aspect of RPG's is what's created in play, not what you read on paper.

    There's a skill aspect to RPGs. You need to be good at it to get great or "awesome" art. I've been part of a few damn good sessions, though I still need to practice to reach that point consistently. No matter how good a game is designed, when put in the hands of a bad player who doesn't understand it, and you'll get a bad session. The vice versa is also true.

    I also disagree some of your other comments, but they're secondary to the above idea.

  2. Tim,

    I don't really want to get into a big argument on Victor's blog, but I think you're wrong about him being wrong. :)

    I basically think that there are two entirely separate things that can be judged artistically (which, for me, means aesthetically) in roleplaying: 1) As you point out, play itself is often aesthetic. We can totally talk about actual play in critical and artistic terms. 2) The procedures of play, the game mechanics. Look at a game like go or chess. Aren't those, in some sense, amazingly artistic?

    While I don't think a culture of criticism will permit us to do much on a grand scale with regard to the first thing, I think we can do an awful lot with the second.


  3. Tim,

    Roleplaying is a performing art, just like music, theater, and dance. In other performing arts there isn't just the performance, you have the piece being performed: A song in music, the play in theater, the choreography in dance.

    Those are works of art in itself. Shakespeare's Hamlet was meant to be performed, but the play's still an important piece of art in itself.

    I think a RPG is the equivalent of that.

  4. Hi Tim,

    We partly agree. In this post, I stressed the importance of having Great Games. But we also need an audience able to play them to full effect, and we need to think about shaping such an audience. The play that results from such an audience can, in its turn, be art. So, yes, there is an artistic aspect to actual play, and we should try to improve our community in that respect.

    But there is no reason to claim that only actual play sessions are works of art. As Jasper points out, the fact that a performance of Hamlet can be a work of art does not prove that Hamlet itself, the text, is not a work of art. It most assuredly is.

    But I think the argument can be sharpened. (It is not, after all, clear that an RPG-text stands to its AP sessions as the text of a play stands to its performance.)

    I can imagine a roleplaying game that consistently generates (1) crappy stories crappily narrated, and (2) the most intense, insight-generating social processes within the game group that you have ever experienced. (You have seen these processes, in great books and movies; but you have not experienced them before.)

    The AP-session of this game would not be great art. But the game itself would be great art.


    PS. Thomas: my blog is meant for you to get into big arguments! ;)

  5. There's so much stuff coming out now that I would have called awesome (or amazing, or ground-breaking) just three years ago - and it's changing the way I look at games. The standards are way, way higher, and the sheer body of available techniques is huge.

    It's like with 3D computer graphics. In the beginning, it was _so_ cool to see spinning cubes. Then some serious ray-tracing started, and there was all this stuff with transparent surfaces, shiny glass etc. And all of a sudden - it's just not good enough if it doesn't look completely life-like.

  6. > If we want roleplaying to become an important form of art, we must have Great Games.

    That's a pretty big if. It's a fine premise, but I think it's worthwhile to keep in mind that there's a number of people who don't care at all whether roleplaying every becomes "an important form of art", as well as people who think that would be the worst thing that could possibly happen to it.

    You're also pretty dodgy about clarifying what a Great Game actually is, which makes it hard to pin down what it is you're trying to say.

    > One necessary element of such a community is a culture of criticism.

    This is a fine assumption as such, but you still have a long ways to go if you're trying to prove this. But if you just want to assume it's true, that's fine too.

    > There is no roleplaying equivalent [...] of Citizen Kane [...]. Of course not; the art form is too young.

    I'm not so sure about that -- it depends a lot on how you want to define RPGs, which is such a notorious tarpit that I don't blame anyone for wanting to avoid it. Suffice it to say that, by some definitions, RPGs have been around longer than motion pictures.

  7. Now look at it from a different angle:

    If we want roleplaying to be FUN, we sure do need good games and criticism would help, however, we must certainly still be able to see it as what it is: a nice, perhaps favourite pasttime.

    Please don't forget this, or you won't be able anymore to play as anyone but the anonymous reviewer at the end of a scientific article.

    Sometimes it's good to be critical, I agree, but don't take it too seriously, or soon you won't be able anymore to enjoy a game that's not one of the most sophisticated ones currently available.


    On the other hand: you're right that calling everything "awesome" is rather pointless.

  8. Victor,

    That has to be about the most cogent plea for criticism I've ever heard. Here, here!

    However, I believe you under-inform your audience. In the fact that they are the most important critic.

    In order to evolve what you are asking for, the main element has to be the audience. The audience becomes choosy and then you wind up with reviewers. The reviewers compare notes which begin critical theory, which leads to critics. Academics turn critical theory into a culture of criticism that also reviews its own theories and criticisms.

    Design theorists cannot simply become critics or determine criteria unless they first acknowledge that they are seeking to understand the bulk of audience and what they like. Basing critical theory on some kind of 'objective' of perfection, not grounded in real sales and real popularity, is pointless.

    The 'indie community' which Edwards is fond of identifying as the Forge IS far too small. However the orphaned theorists from the Forge are beginning the proliferation you mention. There are also forums like rpgcreate that go way back.

    And I very much agree otherwise, we may be poised in the shadow of coming greatness. Thank you for the wake-up call.

    Fang Langford

    p.s. Critiques lead to critics. In early art classes, teacher differentiate between the 'awesome' response and rigorous criticism by introducing the idea of Critiques. Perhaps we could begin there.

  9. (Victor, it seems I'm going to take you up on your offer...)


    I agree with most of what you say, but I consider this statement to be too extreme:

    Design theorists cannot simply become critics or determine criteria unless they first acknowledge that they are seeking to understand the bulk of audience and what they like. Basing critical theory on some kind of 'objective' of perfection, not grounded in real sales and real popularity, is pointless.

    While I do agree that populist models of criticism are important, even vital, for any culture of criticism, I don't believe that non-populist models are useless.

    I do think that any model of criticism must be purposeful, but the suggestion that the only valid purpose is explaining popularity or comercial success strikes me as dangerously limiting.

    Of course it's possible (probable?) that you agree and that I've misread you, but I did want to highlight this because I believe it to be important.


  10. @ Roger

    Certainly, "if we want RPGs to become art" is a big if. But let's say that it's an if that, on this blog, is a premise. I do not have a problem with people who want RPGs to be simply relaxing entertainment; and I don't think there needs to be any tension between these two aims. Some books are art; some are relaxing entertainment. The same could - and already does - hold for RPGs.

    I don't think it's fair to ask me to clarify what a Great Game is. What is a Great Piece of Music? I can point you to some of them, but I would be at a loss to say anything about them that is both generally applicable and enlightening. With RPGs, I can't even point you to examples; how much more difficult must it be to say anything about what would make a piece great!

    @ Lilith

    Are you Eva?

    I doubt whether being a critic is really as dangerous as you make it out to be. Over the years, I have grown to be much more critical with regard to fiction than I used to be. The effect is that I now have a lot of meta-thoughts while reading a book; but this doesn't lessen my overall enjoyment. Or, rather, it has lessened my enjoyment of some books (for example, those by Robert Jordan), while enabling me to enjoy other, better books (for example, those of M. John Harrison). I consider this a gain, not a loss.

    Why would RPGs be any different, in this respect?

    I an mot, by the way, very happy with the word 'fun' you think you need to emphasise. I used to have fun reading Jordan. Now I have fun reading Harrison. More fun? Perhaps not. Perhaps I even have less fun. But the experience is more rewarding.

    @ Fang

    The relationship between popularity and quality is surely more subtle than you suggest in your post? In art, inaccessibility always arouses my suspicion (is Finnegan's Wake really a great work? and what about Stockhausen's Light cycle of operas?); but impopularity is not always a sign of lack of quality, nor is popularity always a sign of quality. I don't suppose we disagree on this point?

    Could you tell me what you mean with 'Critique'?

  11. (stepping away from the Scylla of 'What is art?')

    You have a good point about the function of criticism in the development of rpg's. I'll admit, I have probably been prone to some of that myself when posting a review--but I would suggest that there is a distinction to be made about venues here. RPG.net is not going to be the London Review of Books--it's marketing in a more 'pure' form.

    I'll suggest, too, that we need more broadly is a productive concept of criticism. Not simply a 'this is what is bad' and 'this is what is good.' We need a criticism that looks at a game as a moment in the progress of the genre--that looks at what the game could also be, but is not. A criticism that positions a game in a past and a future.

  12. I agree with that completely, Ian.

  13. Sorry about derailing your post. While I do believe there are fundamental differences between RPGs and film/literature/plays, and I believe we must recognize and embrace those differences if we hope to develop the "art" of role-playing, I will leave that aside for the moment.

    Anyway, I will say I disagree with you that a culture of critism doesn't exist. Maybe it doesn't in the mainstream RPG scene, but in the indie scene it certainly does. Maybe my perception is off because I'm personal friends with Ron Edwards, but talk with Ron, Vincent, Matt Snyder or Wilson, Paul Czege, Ralph Mazza, or Mike Holmes or Miller (among many others) and then tell me a culture of criticism doesn't exist. Maybe these guys aren't writing "reviews", but they think hard about games, and will go in depth about why they think games work or don't work. I've had many of these types of discussion with these people both online and in person at Cons.

    I also disagree that awesome games don't exist. Sorcerer and TRoS may look "old-fashioned" compared the Roach, but they are damn, damn fine games. Are Chuck Berry or Elvis merely "good" musicians because their form of rock and roll is less developed than Radiohead or U2? Hell no. They're just different. Their music may be simpler, but that doesn't mean it's any less artful.

    It's the same with RPGs. The style of RPGs will continue to develop, but that says nothing about the quality of the work.

  14. I think one reason for the lack of good criticism in the indie scene, where I think it would be more likely to happen (and unlike Tim, I don't really see it happening), is that we all sorta know each other and there's the danger of that stuff getting personal real fast.

    For example: There was a thread where I mentioned my annoyance with all the games with "shadow" in their title (TSoY, Conspiracy of Shadows, Shadows, Shadows in the Fog, etc.) and game titles that took the form "X of Y". Clinton got sorta pissed at me for a few weeks over that. We've since made up, but I can only imagine that kind of situation might arise regularly if we started being more honest and brutal about what we thought of each others games (if a fight could have come out of something so superficial and stupid).

    Indie roleplaying is largely a community that goes "Yes! You are awesome! Your ideas are awesome! Publish them and become one of us!" Which is great in many ways, because it encourages more indie games. But it's also problematic in other ways (frex: the "one of us" feeling of having a published game). One major one is the lack of real criticism. We are critical of PLAY often enough, but for actual games we are usually just: "Dude, you published that? Awesome!"

    That is certainly important, because, without it, people might never publish anything. But there's also the need to critically assess products once they've been praised and supported.

    - Jonathan Walton

  15. Have you looked at my gaming-related Underkoffler's Overviews? (The non-gaming ones are more "typical review" style, but I attempt to do some analysis in the game-related ones.)


    Just wondering if it fits your vision.


  16. Hi Chad,

    Nope, I didn't know them, but just read several. A useful resource, and part of what I have in mind. I would also like more explicit analysis; reviews informed by actual play experiences; and reviews that do not end with "you should buy this". But yes, the kind of overview yu give certainly has its rightful and important place in a culture of criticism.


  17. 2006 will go down as a watershed year for Indie-RPGs (creator owned RPGs). Going from $19k to $33k at the Forge booth is a significant jump. The proliferation of blogs this year has seen a significant jump. The numer of new games and new designers has seen a significant jump. Something is happening. It's big. And it started, really started, in 2006.



  18. Hey Thomas,

    Yeah we do agree; I coulda said that better. What I'm trying to offer is that any criticism bound completely on one or the other is useless. If you only criticize based on some ideal, with no attention paid to the opinions of others, then you doing so only for your own benefit. Likewise, if you work strictly from commenting on things that the lowest common denominator likes, your works are little more than an echo of common knowledge.

    But to come out and say that one (or more) of the most popular of all published games is 'broken' or 'do not work' is pure idealistic fallacy.

    Hi Victor,

    Of course you are right; the measure of quality is not equal to a game's popularity. But how well a game lasts should be, I think. One-hit-wonders may see a high popularity in their era, but I think any game which ultimately disappears from circulation is surely of mediocre quality at its acme.

    Like I've said above, I think it is foolish to say that a game which is popular over the long term is of low quality. Of this I think critics should take note. I see critiques as a combination of both populistic and idealistic comprehension.

    As far as critiquing goes, I found this in the American Heritage Dictionary:

    Usage Note: Critique has been used as a verb meaning “to review or discuss critically” since the 18th century, but lately this usage has gained much wider currency, in part because the verb criticize, once neutral between praise and censure, is now mainly used in a negative sense. But this use of critique is still regarded by many as pretentious jargon, although resistance appears to be weakening. In our 1997 ballot, 41 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the sentence As mock inquisitors grill him, top aides take notes and critique the answers with the President afterward. Ten years earlier, 69 percent disapproved of this same sentence. Resistance is still high when a person is critiqued: 60 percent of the Usage Panel rejects its use in the sentence Students are taught how to do a business plan and then are critiqued on it. Thus, it may be preferable to avoid this word. There is no exact synonym, but in most contexts one can usually substitute go over, review or analyze. Note, however, that critique is widely accepted as a noun in a neutral context; 86 percent of the Panel approved of its use in the sentence The committee gave the report a thorough critique and found it both informed and intelligent.

    And while I believe in its use in the neutral sense over criticize, in class there was more to it. The teacher was genuinely trying to get students to look past Jonathan's, "Your ideas are awesome" style of criticism. I believe he was looking also to overcome the negative connotation of 'being critical.' It is this way I'd greatly appreciate gaming's critics to go.

    I've most liked criticism which covers the good, then the bad and finally 'which wins.' Focusing only on good or only on bad, informs no one. I don't believe any game can be perfect nor perfectly bad. As an alternative, I present the saying I always give my children, "If you can't say anything nice, make it funny."

    Fang Langford

  19. I admit, my response was a lot like Timfire's.

    The aesthetic response has an immediacy that the sourcebook won't get to: it has to happen in play.

    How to make that happen in play is tricky business. In my youth, we had some remarkable effects come about through role-playing; but we had long jettisoned any rules. We just wung it.

    But this becomes a serious question: can art -- deep art -- be improvised? Role playing is almost a sport; an RPG is almost a contest.

    I'm not convinced that "art" is the right model to apply to role-playing; although to you greater point, certainly well thought out reviews would be benefitial.


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