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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Video Killed The Radio Star

Monday's A Paladin In Citadel lamented the lack of humor in later editions. Ages ago, Zak at Playing D&D With Porn Stars posted about ironic distance in D&D. Which leads to my belief that immersion killed role-playing.

OK, maybe that's extreme. Honestly, although I prefer occasional in-character commentary to long in-character speeches and I never did some of the things I've read about like holding your hand up to your forehead in the shape of an "O" to signify that you're speaking out-of-character, I don't really care if people play that way. Sure, when someone brings up the "ROLLplaying versus ROLEplaying" canard, I want to say something about "roll-the-dice versus roll-my-eyes". But that's just a play-style difference.

But to a certain extent, the "ROLEplayers" helped destroy the hobby. A group of people who enjoyed acting insisted that RPGs were about acting. And, in much the same way, another group of people who enjoyed writing and creativity insisted that RPGs were about storytelling and/or world-building. And another group of people who enjoyed tactical combat challenges insisted that RPGs were about tactical combat.

Now, I could go with my own preference for puzzle-solving and insist that RPGs are about strategic challenges or something like that. But then I'd be making the same mistake, wouldn't I? Because the problem with all these points of view is that their extreme seriousness and fanaticism tends to destroy the ironic distance that Zak was talking about, that the humorous cartoons in the 1e books reinforced, that shows up in jokes around the table.

I remember once a friend deciding to reinterpret "common tongue" in the sense of "vulgar" and saying, "I try to communicate with the goblin using a series of grunts and rude hand-gestures." It became a joke around our table for a while. Another friend tried to describe looting a corpse as "I rustle through his personals," and that became another joke. This happens at almost every table, but (rarely) in game books or introductory sessions or conversations with non-gaming friends, where we tend to take on a deadly seriousness and a fanaticism for our one true play-style.

All those things -- immersion, puzzle-solving, combat, tactical challenge, storytelling, world-building, simulation -- can be a part of play, if we enjoy them. But none -- NONE -- are the definition of "role-playing game". An RPG is really just people making up stuff and enjoying the interaction required to make that fictional stuff happen.

Periodically, someone posts a "what can we do to get new players?" or
"how can we build the hobby?" lament. I'm skeptical that any of the suggestions will really work, because they are always written from the viewpoint of expanding a specific game and a specific play-style, which usually means cannibalizing other gaming groups or getting ex-players to play again. There's very little growth in the hobby, in my opinion, because the average person takes a much less serious attitude towards playing games than do the true believers.

Normal people don't want to "immerse", but they're OK with talking about what a thief would do if he fell in a pit. Normal people don't want to tell stories or build worlds, but they're fine with BSing with friends. This means that normal people won't play RPGs the way typical gamers play them, but might be fine playing RPGs with porn stars, or squatters, or any other group that doesn't take it all so serious.

P.S.: Note that I'm talking about growth of the RPG fan base, not RPG company profits. As Jim over at LoTFP noted yesterday, people are still making money, and probably will continue to do so for a while. There's obviously a non-zero quantity of potential immersion fanatics, strategy fanatics, tactical fanatics, simulation fanatics, and storytelling fanatics out there. The hobby can sustain itself. But I don't think it can grow, or at least I don't think the fanatics can help it grow.


  1. Excellent post! This is how I feel about the matter.

  2. This is spot on. I've noticed a trend amongst the bloggers who are recruiting new players (and by that, I mean people who have never played before, not ex-players or players of other games). The trend seems to be that the recruits are friends first before becoming players. In that way, the group that forms is already familiar with each other's quirks and foibles. If by some chance, a new player finds that he/she likes the immersion or acting or puzzle solving or whatever, so much the better but it's not the sine qua non of being a gamer. Gamers game. Actors act.

    I sometimes think that it would be very interesting if somehow long-time gamers could see the hobby as others see it. Perhaps established groups might be a little more welcoming and less cliquey if they did realise just how unimportant their rituals and seriousness are to anyone else.

  3. To counter your claim of no new players. The Austin D&D Meetup has several youngins (too young to be ex-players returning. But perhaps we are cannibalizing them, from computer games and miniature games, I'm fine with that.) The majority are play at one of the 3 4ed tables. But at least one "kid" has played at the 1st/2ed/we're not sure what to call it table.

    My personal friend is in his 30's and started playing RPG's for the first time a couple years ago.

    The twelve hour B2 Marathon I ran last weekend had a younger fellow, 21ish.

    Redbox's and other people who play games accessible to kids (i.e. in game stores) report similar young and new peoples gaming.

  4. @Norman: Of course there are new players. But is there growth? In other words, more new players than lost players?

    Still, I hope the kids you're bringing in are "normals", as I called them above, rather than "proto-immersionists", "proto-tacticians", "proto-strategists", or "proto-storytellers".