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.


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