Roleplaying, complexity and mainstream appeal

NaBloPoMo November 2012This was meant to be Monday’s blog post, but I’ve had a really busy week – and ended up making this blog somewhat longer than I’d originally intended. Oops! Looks like I’ll be writing two a day for the next few days to catch up.

My colleagues-cum-friends Emily and John are also doing NaBloPoMo this year. Yesterday, both of them wrote about their experience of roleplaying and story games and so today I thought I’d respond to some of the points they make. You can read their articles here and here respectively (John has actually written a follow up, but I’ve deliberately not read it yet as I wanted to get this article finished).

(As an aside, it is noteworthy that up until now I’ve rarely mentioned my interest in RPGs on this blog, even going so far as to set up a separate Tumblr to write about it. I’ve often wondered why, given that I’m quite happy to write about my other geeky obsessions here. Perhaps it’s because, at its best, roleplaying is the most intimate thing you can do with a group of people with your clothes on – and like all forms of intimacy it feels deeply personal. That, and the whole devil worship, sad sack thing – basically it’s all Tom Hanks’ fault.)

John and Emily have widely differing experiences of RPGs. John has been a hardcore gamer for 10 years, playing several different games on a weekly basis. He’s also deeply involved in the LARP scene. Emily’s first experience of RPGs was just over a year ago. Aside from an abortive game I ran using the Savage Worlds system and the Slaine background (and another game currently in limbo which I started organising but haven’t actually started), her gaming experience is currently limited to Fiasco.

My experience is different again. I’ve pretty much literally been playing RPGs since before John was born. I know this because the Warlock of Firetop Mountain celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year and John is turning 30 at the end of this month. As a teenager I played a lot of games and even helped to set up a gaming club. I got out of the habit at university but began again when I returned to London in 1998 and kept it up when I moved to Leeds in 2000-2. Since returning to London in 2004, I’ve had the odd game here and there, but the last year or so has been the most intensive period of roleplaying for a decade – which is pretty much the whole time John has been playing.

So it was that when I got excited that Mark Rein·Hagen, the creator of two of John’s favourite games Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse, had not only reemerged after years of disappearance but was actually promoting a new game on Kickstarter, John was unimpressed because Rein·Hagen was some remote figure who had little to do with the game he had got into. Similarly, while I feel that the relaunch of Vampire, now resubtitled The Requiem, was a welcome, get back to basics, step, for John it represented trashing the game he knew and loved.

I differ from both John and Emily in one other significant respect in that while their gaming experience has mostly been (in Emily’s case exclusively) as players, my gaming experience has predominantly been as a referee/games master/storyteller (all games have different terms for the role but in layman’s terms this is the person who moderates and facilitates the game and plays all the secondary, non-player characters).

The difference in experience between GM and player is tremendous. John tells me he has tried being a GM in the past but didn’t enjoy it. I by contrast have tended to be a GM not simply because I tended to be the only one willing to do it, but because if I’m honest, I got a kick out of it and it suited my temperament better. At its best, it is a real blast running a game in which the players are all deeply committed and essentially wallowing in a sandpit of your creation. I’ve seen a lot of writing about the games master as world builder and as a player, but one of the enjoyable aspects of the role I find is as spectator, suppressing your ego while watching the players perform in front of you and jerk on cue when you pull the strings (I feel a maniacal laugh should be inserted here).

I don’t mind admitting that one of the things I’ve noticed since I started playing Fiasco (which I won’t go into detail about here but you can read my previous article about it here) is that I tend to play more passive characters, happy to leave the dramatic heavy lifting to others. In that respect, I’ve been lucky to find a group of players who are more than happy to do so, but it is a bad habit I need to get myself out of.

This all neatly segues into the the debate over “traditional” RPGs and indie story games. Of course, if this was 20 years ago, John’s preferred mode of gaming would be regarded as pretty radical and cutting edge (I certainly remember the waves Vampire made when it first came out), but by traditional I mean a game which has a pretty meaty ruleset which focuses on detailed statistics defining each character and how well they can “do” things (I believe the vogue term is “crunchy”), an expansive and ever growing list of sourcebooks (or “fluff”), and, of course, a games master to keep it all in check. Not all “indie” games do away with the game master but typically they have a much simpler ruleset, a focus on story and relationships and encourage much greater collaboration between the players in terms of world building – in preference over big chunky sourcebooks which basically tell you how the world works.

Fiasco takes it about as far as it goes, having as it does just two statistics for players to keep track of (the number of black and white dice they have been rewarded respectively), no GM, and a mechanism that assumes you will create a whole new setting – and pretty much wreck it – in each game. There are no ongoing, 10 year Fiasco campaigns whereas for most traditional games that is regarded as all but the default – something which I’ll come onto.

John and Emily are split across this divide. John’s view of Fiasco et al is that “I like them as an occasional thing, but they’re not something I’d want to do every week… they’re more about creating an overall story that’s interesting, rather than individual character’s influence on the story/world.” Emily, by contrast, writes about her experience of Fiasco and trad roleplaying thus: “Taking out the gamemasters and limiting the number of scenes is a real advantage… My first impressions of role play games was that they requires hours of commitment, character development where learning how to fight required homework… Appealing to my somewhat scatty attention span, the great thing about Fiasco is its length and flexibility… The game doesn’t go the way you expect or is tricky to bringing the different story threads. But like any good game [it] has replayability and the scope to build on of what you’ve learnt.”

On balance, my own position is probably closer to Emily’s than John’s. I really could play Fiasco every week – the only problem being I wouldn’t be able to fit in any other gaming. I’ve never had a bad Fiasco experience. As Emily said, adding the special zombies add on to the parliament playset didn’t work especially well, but everyone still seemed to enjoy themselves. On the other hand, our previous Fiasco game was sublime. Using the Camp Death playset, which draws its inspiration from slasher films such as Friday the 13th and Halloween, the game we played was a wonderful blend of homage and inverted tropes, in which the slasher was also the scream queen and the real villains were just as colourful. We managed to hit all the right beats in all the right places – it wasn’t just a fun game, it was a film I fervently want to see (to only a slightly lesser extent my first Fiasco experience was also pretty awesome, and you can read about it here).

In short, Fiasco has completely opened my eyes to the possibilities of story gaming in a way I didn’t think was possible. The Fiasco games I’ve played are the first where the rules have served the story rather than the other way round.

But I wouldn’t want to go too far and claim that our Fiasco experience is somehow superior to John’s Exalted one. I truly envy John and his years of rich gaming experiences. It’s something I’ve hankered for myself for many years but never quite managed to find it – probably because I’ve tended to insist on being a GM, despite a lack of application, rather than a player in someone else’s game. And I couldn’t do it now, again because the level of commitment it would involve would have to come at the expense of other interests.

Equally, despite my love of Fiasco, it has it’s limitations. The mechanism is such that it only really tells one type of story: the type of story that ends in, well, a fiasco (to put it politely). I love Coen Brothers films, but that doesn’t mean I would want to watch them exclusively. So, is there a happy medium between Fiasco and more traditional gaming? Something which allows for more collaborative play, simpler rules and a focus on story but which also encourages greater depth than the frankly superficial Fiasco?

The short answer is I don’t know, but am optimistic. The next on my list of games I am determined to encourage, cajole and if need be bludgeon my friends into playing is Monsterhearts. Unlike Fiasco, this game has a somewhat more specific setting – teenage horror both figuratively and literally. Inspired by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and films like Ginger Snaps, Jennifer’s Body and (pfft) the Twilight Saga, the players each play a teenager with supernatural powers, be it a werewolf, vampire, ghost or something more obscure.

Intriguingly (at least for me), the game very much has a queer agenda. Straight characters are encouraged to go gay, male characters are encouraged to explore their femininity, dominant characters are encouraged to go sub… this is a game about exploring sexual identities – as we all do as teenagers.

The characters have statistics and, significantly, the game is overseen by a GM (or rather “Master of Ceremonies”). But in all other respects it is closer in spirit to Fiasco than a traditional RPG. In favour of extensive preparation by the GM, the Monsterhearts rule book suggests the “MC” deliberately avoids preparing much in advance at all in favour of “staying feral” and letting the players take the lead. And while the rules system is rather more complex than Fiasco, it’s pretty simple as rules sets go – with the focus on social interaction rather than combat. For the Emily’s of this world who lack the patience to play ongoing open ended campaigns, this game is designed to tell an overall story over the course of around half a dozen sessions – a fairly happy compromise. Further “seasons” are possible after that, but they provide a useful point for both jumping off and getting on board – and indeed finishing to move onto other things.

With Monsterhearts, the game master facilitates the players’ game; all too often with traditional RPGs, it’s the other way around. A growing number of indie games have adopted a similar approach (I’m also keen to try Mortal Coil and Monsterhearts itself is based on Apocalypse World). The question is, can you get rid of the GM altogether? Joe Prince certainly thinks so, and argues the case in this article on Geek Native. Personally, I think that’s a step too far. There is certainly a place for GM-less games like Fiasco and I suspect designers have many more amazing and ingenious GM-less to come up with. But in terms of building a larger, cohesive narrative over several sessions of play, I’m yet to be convinced you can get rid of the role altogether.

The real issue is not whether GM-less games are better or not but that traditional RPGs tend to encourage a type of GM which only a tiny minority can ever hope to aspire to. My RPG experience, and I’m sure I’m far from unique, is this: I started gaming at 8 with a game called Runequest. I didn’t really understand the rules or what GMing entailed, made it up as I went along and had a blast. As I got older I realised we were playing the game wrong and discovered others. I spent the next decade collecting games, playing by the rules and trying to get back to that original, rawly creative experience – but while I had some great times, that magic was lost. My mistake was to think that if I played by the rules, I’d find that magic. In fact the rules were stopping me.

Most RPG rule books like to emphasise how hard it is to GM and how much preparation you’ll have to do. This not only puts most people off, it encourages a very narrow view of how you can play the game. And while most RPG publishers are pretty amateur in terms of outlook (if not income), the simple fact of the matter is that if they encourage that style of play, they’re encouraging a model which puts pressure on wannabe GMs to buy every sourcebook and handbook they can get their hands on. So it is the RPG “industry” survives, but the cost is that the hobby remains niche and impenetrable for the vast majority of people.

How about, instead of making preparation heavy games the norm, RPG publishers focus on developing their own gateway games where the rules are simple and the role of player and GM is as interchangeable as possible? Then, if people want to take it further, one option would be to move onto more complicated modes of play? To be fair on some of the bigger publishers, there is now a focus on producing simple introductory games. The introductory 4th edition rulebook of Dungeons and Dragons is written like a Fighting Fantasy game book in which you learn the rules as you play (and the book comes in a box which closely resembles the classic “red box” Basic Dungeons and Dragons set which my generation grew up with). Even then however, the publishers steer you pretty ruthlessly towards a style of play in which the GM does all the heavy lifting and has all the control.

There’s nothing really to stop people from playing D&D et al in a more collaborative manner, but that would challenge convention and – perhaps more significantly – encourage people to simply make it up as they go along rather than use endless sourcebooks as a crutch.

You can’t blame the publishers for keeping the hobby in its ghetto entirely though however. In my experience, there are few people more reactionary and conservative than gamers. One of my friends told me that when he tried more collaborative approaches in the past, he got complaints from players accusing him of “attempting to get them to do his job for him”. And there are parallels with the comics industry as well, which is stuffed with people who are determined to ensure that the medium is confused with a genre (superheroes) to as great an extent as possible.

I can’t help but feel that this is all holding the RPG industry back though and, again as with comics, preventing it from connecting with a latent mainstream audience that would lap up some of the material on offer if only it knew it existed. I also suspect the industry at large is missing the zeitgeist here; in the 21st century we seem to be inexorably shifting towards a blurring between medium producer and consumer, whether it is via blogs, YouTube and social media (I should acknowledge at this point that major RPG publishers do now regularly experiment with more extensive, collaborative playtesting and open source, but only within their existing base rather than attempting to reach out more widely).

My suspicion is that there are a lot of people out there who would get a lot out of roleplaying, who simply aren’t aware of the breadth of different types of games out there. Somehow, the gaming industry needs to do more to connect with those people.

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