|He trusted them|
RPG books: what are they good for? The question has recently been raised multiple times; by Joseph Manola in a blog post, by noisms in a response to that blog post, and in several increasingly irate blog comments by Kent. Whether they were meant that way or not, all of these posts challenge a central notion of this blog – that role-playing publications should be rooted in actual play, and be designed very specifically with actual play in mind. My common challenge to the readers is “Do you even play?” (I am looking at you guys – this means YOU, Kent!), and I mean it – I have been beating this drum for more than a decade. Their challenge, on the other hand, is “Is your stuff even played?”, and whether it is a general or a specific ‘you’, they are right.
A lot of RPG books, play-oriented or not, are never used in play – at least not the way they are published. While I play regularly, I mostly run my own stuff, and use premade modules for one-offs and the occasional mini-campaign. I review modules with an emphasis on playability, but I sure don’t play most of them. I preach homebrewing and the DIY gospel, and yet I publish stuff for others (which they don’t play). Hoisted by my own petard! And right at the point when I’d venture out into the wild to publish a fanzine!
Nevertheless, while these fine people make good points (not just in describing the reality of the RPG scene, but also in describing how books are “mined” for inspiration, or used for vicarious entertainment), I do not believe I am in the wrong. Instead, I want to return to a slogan pioneered by T. Foster – “Creativity aid, not creativity replacement” – and another one by Mythmere – “Imagine the hell out of it!” Of course, they were restating and refining a point originally made by Bob Bledsaw all the way back: “All within are merely inspiration for the active and pontifical judges of the guild. Please alter, illuminate, expand, modify, extrapolate, interpolate, shrink, and further manipulate all contained to suit the tenor of your campaign.”
These mottoes articulate something about the flexibility of good game materials. Every game table creates a distinct, individual experience, something completely contrary to the carefully designed and professionally produced, but homogenised mass entertainment of our age. Even if we are creating the same kind of tales, every group of us creates them slightly differently. This variety and human element can be a liability with bad players (which is why some games erroneously try to safeguard us from bad game experiences through limiting rules), but it is one of the big things about RPGs in good company. No professional design can replace the magical unpredictability of co-creation, even if awkward and imperfect. It cannot be reliably bottled and replicated. Worse, trying to accurately reconstruct a spontaneously unfolding campaign will result in a structure that is at once rigid (because it doesn’t admit group tampering) and fragile (because the wrong move can shatter it); one that lacks the temporal dimension of a gradually forming campaign, as well as its evolutionary quality. This is the reason early TSR didn’t believe in the idea of packaged modules (and renowned module author Rob Kuntz still doesn’t) until Wee Warriors and Judges Guild broke the ice.
And yet good RPG supplements undoubtedly exist. They are the ones which lead to memorable adventures, great campaigns, and the kind of war stories you remember even after the campaign has been over and the group has long dissolved. It is about the supplements which spur your creativity and engage with your imagination. The random hook that hijacks the campaign. Doing things differently from the written text is not a bug, it is a feature. Repurposing a supplement and doing an extensive reimagination is a sign of respect, not disrespect. Of course, good game books also have to be particular. They need to bring something interesting to the table that wouldn’t occur to the GM – a new frame of thinking, an aesthetic which was previously missing from the campaign, encounters slightly outside the group’s comfort zone. The best of them combine the two aspects: “Wow! I haven’t thought of that!” and then: “Now what if I added penguins?”
|Tomes of ancient wisdom or unwieldy junk?|
Spurring creativity is tricky. It is a fine line to walk, somewhere between a complete blank slate that tells nothing and gives you nothing concrete (the proverbial pad of white paper you can scribble anything on), and a dense structure which provides all the details for you, but takes over and gives you a novel where you and your group are both reduced to passive observers. This is, precisely, where structure and form matter. There are many ways of being inspired – people are inspired by fluff books, written game reports and all kinds of odd things (I have mostly sworn off fantasy and get my ideas from a steady diet of nonfiction and the daily news) – but where actual table use is concerned, there is existing good practice and there is a whole lot of bad practice. For the latter, you only need to look at the output of the larger PF and 5e publishers – they may pass as interesting bog reading, but put them on the table, and they are a bloated, lumbering mess full of encounters which read well but play terribly. For the former, there are some well-tested standards (like the good old location key or the relationship map), and some promising experiments (like hypertexting or the layout thingamajigs a bunch of people are into), and while the rest can be fairly good for inspiration and ideas, they are not directly suitable for running a game. It is no accident old-schoolers running their own campaigns value good information design and an expressive terseness: this is an approach which works, and works very well.
And here is where the old-school scene (or movement, or whatever) comes in. Our primary mission is not to produce interesting bog reading – although it is a possible side-effect. Our mission is to cultivate a certain idea of playing and running games, to disseminate its practices, to inspire others and be inspired. It is a creative community built on the exchange of ideas; that is, it is centred on discussion. All the publishing that grew up around it is secondary, and if it fell into pieces today, we would still be here tomorrow. (This is also why I see clear dangers in the OSR’s move from a DIY-oriented landscape to a much more consumption-oriented one.) The blog posts, forum threads, shared practice and, yes, supplements are part of that conversation, even if they are not immediately put to use. The goal is to let us improve our own games (which can mean different things for different people), and share our ideas with others so they might improve their own. This is our call to arms.
When it comes to actually publishing something, play-relevant, properly playtested supplements are key, because they spread the ideas of good gaming, and they have stood the test of table use. It works in the reverse direction, too: bad RPG books encourage dull play, inhibit creativity, and reduce us to passive consumers. Publishers can get away with it and even thrive for a while, but it will create a moribund gameing scene which will stagnate and eventually wither away (case in point, much of the Hungarian gaming scene). It matters to those of us who play! We should have safeguards against that happening. First and foremost, we should play, because that’s where the core of the hobby is. Second, we should discuss play: this is where a lot of things from forums to blogs to G+ come in. Third, we should support play: and support it with useable, well-thought-out, accessible materials, which do not fill in all the blanks, but support others in running their campaigns or trying interesting one-shots. Fourth, there is no fourth point. That’s all we need.
Have old-school products served their purpose in reintroducing a certain idea of playing and designing RPGs, and exploring the directions they can be taken? In a sense, yes. There is not much to be gained from another Swords & Wizardry, and perhaps not much more from a new restatement of Keep on the Borderlands (unless it is done in a particularly insightful way by someone who really gets it!), even if they will continue to inspire newer and newer home games across generations and editions. But – as it is evident from the state of gaming discourse beyond our small thought bubble, and from the quality of even many ostensible old-school products – there is still much to be done in doing interesting new things with our ideas, and spreading them through well-written and useful products which help, not replace or obstruct.
Finally, another point: sometimes good ideas have to be reiterated to remind us and let us refocus on what matters to us, or for the sake of new people. And this brings us back to the raison d’être of – no, not game products this time – old-school gaming itself.