Friday, 25 April 2014

Maggie May Pt. II

It seems that my point in yesterday's post was misinterpreted - or, perhaps, I didn't communicate it very effectively (although frankly I think that's impossible to believe!). This lead us into a thicket of discussion, here and on G+, about RPGs versus computer games. That wasn't my intention. So I'll have a stab at further elaboration.

I prefer playing RPGs to playing computer games. They're better for a whole host of reasons we don't need to detail here - because, let's face it, if you're reading this blog you probably don't need a huge amount of convincing of that. On the other hand, for certain purposes, computer games are superior: it would not be humanly possible to run Football Manager as an RPG, for instance. You need a computer, with its massive memory capacity and its processing power, to run a simulation of that complexity.

But be that as it may, RPGs are not particularly successful in being a tool to achieve fun for most people. When people want to enjoy themselves in some pastime or distract themselves from boredom they typically want the path of least resistance to that goal. This is what I meant when I said that people are generally instrumentalist in their view of games: they want fun and they want the quickest and easiest way to get that fun. The format doesn't matter, in other words - it's the outcome. Maximum fun for least effort. Downloading a game off Steam is easier than mapping a dungeon and getting 4 people round to play through it with you. Crucially, it may not be quite as much fun in the long term (actually, it almost certainly won't be), but the fun to effort ratio is much more palatable. 

The same is true of other analogues. People want the path of least resistance to the music they like. The format doesn't really matter - they want the outcome of having music they like readily available. So mp3s on an iPod, or Spotify, are better than vinyl if you don't care about the format by which you're hearing your music. The same is true of books versus TV, beach holidays versus mountain climbing, etc.

Now, clearly this is only true for many people much of the time - it's never true for all people all the time. Lots of people prefer books to TV, hiking to sunbathing, vinyl to mp3s, letters to email, writing longhand to typing, and RPGs to video games. That can still be true while, in aggregate, the instrumentalist approach prevails.

For me, as somebody who prefers books to TV, hiking to sunbathing, and RPGs to video games, the format is important. I like the fact that RPGs are social, creative, and constantly create unexpected outcomes. And I also like the other elements of the format that I think are crucial - mapping, drawing things with pencils, fiddling with numbers, rolling dice otherwise randomising results. But in general the rest of the world doesn't feel that way. 

To that extent, I think I agree with Mike Mearls. But where I part company is on the solution: I don't expect the world to change, and I think that trying to force RPGs to ape video games is exceedingly foolish and pointless. I don't mind that RPGs are a niche within a niche within a niche. Though I expect I would think differently if I was employed by Wizards of the Coast to design the next edition of D&D. 


  1. Well, I disagree again, but _differently,_ so that's something.

    I do think tabletop games should borrow from video games. They should also borrow from card games, board games, and live-action games. (The last of these is a common goal for me.) They should try new things all the time. Now, I don't really think the next published edition of D&D should be a direct adaptation of a video game; that _is_ a waste of time. Tabletop games should have a serious discussion about what they do better than any other medium, and figure out how to sell that to more people.

    The thing is, people _do_ want a rich, episodic narrative; we're in a golden age of TV dramas, and those TV dramas are outrageously successful in finding their audience. People also want a rich puzzle-solving experience, whether that puzzle is through a lens of tactics, numbers, or words (the runaway success of the mobile gaming market is, if not data, anecdata). A meaningful percentage of players in MMOs look for a character-driven roleplay experience there. People want to put themselves into that experience (Disney makes a mint off of this idea, in a format aping Larry Niven's _Dream Park)._ People haven't stopped enjoying sitting around shooting the breeze with their friends. Tabletop gaming is the logical intersection of all of these drives; all that is missing is something actually telling fans of all of these different activities that they _can_ combine them into a weird and wonderful whole.

    1. I tend to think that the problem is that a rich episodic narrative is provided more easily in the form of TV dramas, and puzzles and tactics are provided more easily through video games, and character-driven roleplay is provided more easily through MMOs. RPGs may be better (I am convinced that's true), but clearly people are preferring other options, and I think the reason is the fun to effort ratio which I mentioned in the post. Otherwise they'd be playing D&D rather than watching Breaking Bad or whatever, wouldn't they? D&D would never have lost its popularity and would only have grown.

    2. I think people preferring other activities to RPGs one:

      -is hard to measure because (unlike watching TV and LIKE hiking) it's hard to measure how many people are PLAYING (as opposed to buying) games.

      -is distorted because the RPG business had so little money in it even in its heyday that many really obvious really good ways to deliver the product in a useful way to people are still ignored.

      Like, TO THIS DAY you'll get top-end RPG products with random tables that say:

      Roll d4!

      2-something else
      3-roll a d6 on this subtable with 20 different options
      4-roll a d6 on this other subtable with 20 different options

      …instead of just "Roll a d100".

      That example isn't a big thing and it isn't something that would scare off someone all by itself but the fact that, in 2014 people STILL make rookie mistakes like that shows how little money is in the system.

      RPGs are not, commercially, ever going to be as popular as video games but they are also, commercially, not putting their best foot forward and never have.

      You still have people laying out the highest-end products that have never GMed a game.

      You still have a process at the highest-end companies where the writer NEVER rewrites after talking to the graphic designer.

      You STILL have people making maps which spread information that could all fit on the map spread out over 26 pages.

      You STILL have people hiring people who probably play bards to illustrate the books.

      You STILL have books 3 times as thick as they need to be because it's half fan fiction.

      You STILL have supplement books twice as tall and wide as they need to be because instead of going "What's comfortable at the table" they're thinking "What looks buyable on a toy shelf?"

      Basically: if people found RPGs too time-consuming, at least 30% of that is that the RPG business hasn't ever seen presenting what it _can_ do in a tight, quick, reasonable package. They developed practices to sell to a certain audience in the 80s and kept it.

      Those practices are GREAT at intriguing people and making people buy things the first time. They're terrible at making people stick with them.

      If they want to retain people and then grow the hobby by word of mouth, they need to start building RPG products to last, not sizzle ---and they've never tried that.

      So writing off the hobby's current level of popularity as inevitable is assuming they couldn't have done a better job retaining all those people who played in school and they SO could've. They so totally could've.

    3. Maybe all that is true, but you will never make an RPG product that will compete with an instantly playable computer game on the measure of convenience. And you'll probably lost something good about RPGs, which is having an obsessive DM working hard on his game in his spare time. Zero-prep stuff like Fiasco or the Mountain Witch or whatever can be really enjoyable, but they're not the same as a proper campaign when it genuinely sings.

    4. I think we're not disagreeing about anything at this point.

  2. Every time I play a computer game - and I play a fair few - I am reminded that in almost all computer games the consequence of character/avatar failure is player punishment - having to replay a section, not getting to see anything new, etc*. The player's play is frustrated. Table top role playing games can do terrible things to the characters, but, at their best, in an ongoing campaign, the players simply get more play from this.

    *This was brough home to me, again, when I was playing Assassin's Creed Black Flag. I repeatedly failed in a mission to catch this 'sage' fella. But I realised that I didn't want a second chance. What I wanted was to 'enjoy' the consequences of my failure in this supposed 'sandbox'. But all I got was the option to repeat the same frustrating wall jumping again and again until I fluked the right result.

    1. Yes, I absolutely agree. But we are relatively unusual in wanting that.

    2. That said, again, I think it depends on the game. You can fail a lot in Football Manager. And the consequences of failure are interesting and can be explored, though obviously not to the extent they can in a tabletop game. There are other games where that is true, and there'll be more.

    3. I actually think that RPGs are *the* format for entertainment that embraces failure - and I'm only half joking. Failure in fiction (TV, prose, film, whatever) is deliberate - a narrative success. Failure in video games is either the same sort of thing - a pre-plotted narrative - or is usually play frustrating. But how many of us have played D&D (or WFRP) where we have lurched from one poor choice to the next, from one missed roll to another, with our characters suffering the consequences and the players enjoying the act of play.

  3. I very much agree with your last paragraph noisms about not aping video games being really good, and likewise Zak's explanation of all the ways that RPGs have just not adapted, updated, or improved their implementation since back in the day. I think these two things are related: RPG makers simply do not create good products because instead of giving you an aid that you would actually use at the table, they create shitty versions of other mediums. So they fill their books with bad fanfic like a shitty version of the fantasy novel. I don't need that from an RPG because I already have better fiction to inspire the theme (ugh "lore") of playing. And they create these stupid supplements filled with character options and official rulings, which is really just video game BS. How are more "rules" aiding me and my players have a better time playing a game involving sitting around the table and talking? Don't we already have DMs and player's imagination for this stuff? It's just such a missed opportunity on the part of these companies to put out really useful gaming aids, adventure ideas, and other things that will help with the game we're actually playing. It's like film directors who try to mimic the stage or something.

  4. >That can still be true while, in aggregate, the instrumentalist approach prevails.<

    Your point is lost behind irrelevant sweeping generalisations, each of which separately raises its own objection in the interest of clarity. Typical arts student. ;)

  5. Does Kent think people read stuff he types?

  6. @noisms: Interestingly that's the point that Mike Mearls has raised in a recent PAX interview. Apparently they (WotC) are going to streamline the next edition of D&D so that it can compete with instant gratification media (that is, they are going to re-discover the wheel. I hope it's at least round.) Plus, D&D as a brand should be "spread" over different media.

    1. Thanks, Antonio, but actually these two posts were written in direct response to what Mike Mearls was saying! ;) I think it's crazy to try to compete with instant gratification media. But I'm not the guy in charge...

  7. Well, here's how I see it. They tried to ape videogames with 4E, failed and now they're throwing that idea in the trash. I don't think they're trying to ape videogames at all with 5E. Their goal is to promote D&D as a brand, not as an edition. There will be D&D videogames, smartphone apps, boardgames, novels, toys, cardgames, I think they're trying to get the movie rights back etc. They are pushing the D&D brand into the other media. For them it's not about playing 5E. It's about reading a D&D comic on your ipad on your 20 minute train ride to work.

    As for "instant gratification", it's about making the game itself lean and fast again. Making a character in 5 minutes as opposed to 30. Giving the DM tools to create or improvise an adventure on the fly instead of slaving away for a week. Y'know...what OSR has been doing, what indies have been doing etc. Making it more accessible and simpler to pick up.