Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Can RPGs Be Cheery?

I went to an exhibition of the work of Fine Art degree students today. The art school in question being one of the highest-ranking in the country, the art on show was so high-brow it was above the hairline. Lots of videos and projectors, lots of experimentation with sound, lots of installations, lots of meaningless mumbo-jumbo written on pamphlets, essentially no painting.

As is often the case with contemporary art I left the exhibition feeling as though the art on show had been deliberately designed to be ugly, confusing, alienating, narcissistic and bleak; I always seem to leave the gallery after seeing a contemporary art exhibition feeling a bit worse than I did when I went in.

Why is this? I have no problem with conceptual art per se. The main problem is that the concepts on offer just aren't very uplifting or thoughtful. If there's a discernible message it always seems to be designed to chide and chastise you ("Isn't it terrible, viewer, that you are such an unconscious racist/misogynist/capitalist?"), and if there isn't then generally speaking it's all just very miserable - loud repetitive noises, low-quality crackly videos which are really difficult to follow, voice-overs which you can't quite hear properly, images of weird things in dark rooms, confessional stuff of the TMI variety. You typically walk out (this being in the UK) thinking, "Well, at least I didn't have to pay for that - except through my tax bill!"

It's easy to lower the mood and more difficult to raise it. And attempts to raise it are condemned to walk the finest of razor-sharp knife-edges, forever in danger of tipping over into the twee and irritating or the boring. Being unironically uplifting without being irritating or boring is seriously difficult - maybe the most difficult of all creative endeavours.

You see this problem with RPGs. It's easy to do bleak. (Name an OSR setting which isn't.) It's much harder to do cheerful. Almost all the examples of attempts at cheeriness that I can think of are either irritatingly twee (Blue Rose) or just not very interesting (Dragonlance, which mixes in plenty of twee also). A possible exception exists in the form of the BECMI sets. Their tone is reasonably earnest about representing an uplifting vision of heroic fantasy, and I think they manage overall not to be too twee (at least not enough to be irritating) while being pretty relentlessly fun.

Is it possible or even desirable for RPGs to be cheery? Usually, whatever the content or tone of the game, everybody has a good laugh during a session anyway. Still, the question remains - can having a positive, uplifting feel be made to work?

70 comments:

  1. I think so. I think the trick is to emphasize the sense of adventure and wonder. Play cowboys and indians without digressing into a meditation on white guilt, manifest destiny, or the plight of the indigenous peoples. Leave the irony in its box and try to unlock a sense of fun.

    There were a couple instances in my consumption of pop culture were I was struck with a sense of innocent thrills & spills and excitement and what I called "stuff happening".

    One was reading Hergé's Tintin story "The Black Island" which involved clues and chases and jumping trains and a gorilla guarding a keep on a remote Scottish island. No heavier agenda to it than telling a ripping yarn.

    Another time was watching collections of old Hanna Barbera cartoons, which were crudely drawn and barely written but full of novelty and action. Who cares why there's a giant octopus attacking. Get out your magic club and smack it, Mightor!

    I think that feeling can be injected into a game. Maybe we're too jaded as consumers of culture these days. It's that obnoxious urge to appear adult and sophisticated, even when you're sitting around a table bouncing dice and pretending to be an elf. Take what you're doing seriously, because play is important, but don't take it so *seriously*. Who the hell are we trying to impress?

    One setting that I think fits the bill is Eric Jensen's "Wampus Country" which is Mark Twain meets Weird Tales meets Adventure Time, in my reading of it. If he ever came out with a sourcebook I would snap it up in an instant.

    Finally, on the topic of modern art my reaction to what I've seen, from gallery showings in NYC to the Carnegie International is "I've seen this in art school." and I've been out of art school for over 20 years. There's not a lot new being said in that context, and craft seems to definitely be a thing of the past. (Actually, craft has stayed where it's always been: commercial art. Half assed handling of your medium is the mark of the true artiste, apparently...)

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    1. I think in an RPG session it's typically thrills and spills and stuff happening. It's the source material that tends not to match the output.

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    2. Yeah. It's the job of the world builder to set the head space, but I think that in both RPG's and comics said world builders and writers tend to have missed the point of the medium. Where's the joy? What happened to escapism? Why do they think edgy is the only thing that can sell?

      Then again I'm not a good potential customer 'cos I have about as much use for campaign sourcebooks as a beholder has for tap shoes.

      And it is funny how as "serious" a game tries to be it almost always devolves into goofing around and cracking jokes with your friends around the table, unless all the players are committed to immersion.

      I saw this effect in person when a friend tried to run a Cthulu game as a featurette for a weekly after work game group I was in. The desired atmosphere of bleak horror dissolved under an onslaught of funny voices and running gags.

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  2. Rey's BREAK!! feels pretty darn cheery from what I've seen.

    And I'm not familiar with Dragonlance at all but don't the books also have a bunch of edgy dark shit in them?

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    1. They do, that's true. But the tone is very upbeat I think. Maybe that mismatch is why they don't really seem to work.

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    2. I haven't read them since I was in high school, but I recall the first book was a fun novelized D&D romp and then the rest of the series got all dark and drama-y and sure as heck wasn't as lively a read. I got well sick of Raistlin and his character arc.

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    3. The Legends are much darker in subject matter than the Chronicles, but still with a lot of humour mixed in. It's a weird series of books.

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  3. I am not sure how to response to this, but being me it is impossible for me not to.

    D&D is bleak? Is it? I suppose. I don't think of it as such, but when you say all the OSR is, are you referring to the original source material as well? I honestly can't tell them apart.

    I don't do bleak. No interest in it. My players play the good guys, and if the good guys simply can not win...why play?

    What a one note story we are forced to tell. This is why Call of Cthulhu does nothing for me. Before we start the game, let me just say you all lose, always. Good, not that that's out of the way we can get to a game where we matter...

    I tend to run Superheroes, and not Iron Age, deconstructed drivel, but real comic book Superheroes in spandex, and domino masks. It's very positive, and uplifting. Is it twee? Perhaps. I wouldn't know. I don't see it that way.

    Other games I run a lot include Star Trek, Star Wars, Mekton, Teenagers from Outer Space, Toon, and the occasional folkloric fantasy.

    I am currently working on a Pokemon RPG. Twee I guess? Again, I wouldn't know.

    On the subject I would say relax, turn a light on, paint in bright colors, and if you find yourself in a dreary game...stop playing it.

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    1. Superheroes is very twee to me, which is why I've just never been able to enjoy anything superhero related. It's my kryptonite.

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    2. What I was trying to say is that not only can a RPG be cheery, I personally see many of them as cheery, or at the very least positive, by default.

      The broody, grimdark stuff - ugh - enough already. It appealed to the angsty teenager in me, but that person has evolved, matured, and learned to appreciate happiness.

      The definition of twee is something excessively or affectedly quaint, pretty, or sentimental. OK, but the observer determines whether it's excessive, or not yes?

      I (for example) do not find Superheroes excessively sentimental, but rather just the right amount of sentimental needed to make me smile while playing.

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    3. Sure - I mean all this stuff is subjective, obviously. Maybe for superheroes "twee" is the wrong word. "Corny" is more fitting. I was just never able to accept it even as a child - why does Superman dress like that? Why does he not solve famines in Africa rather than dicking about in New York the whole time? etc. Even as a kid it just didn't make sense to me. But some people clearly love it!

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  4. Mindjammer is one stand-out example. A high tech SF universe in which PCs are sent out to help other humans less fortunate than themselves. It struck me as being pretty unique in presenting a positive vision of the future.

    There are a bunch of recent games aimed at kids which are trying really hard to be cheery and positive. No Thank You Evil! is I think the biggest of them, it's the only one I can remember the name of just now. They all look horrendous to me though, with any challenge or drama drained out of them in the name of freedom and fun.

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    1. I'll check out Mindjammer, thanks.

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  5. There's an emphasis on bloody struggle defining the OSR. You can explore alright, but only the way a virgin explores an abandoned Summer Camp, under the shadow of ruthless slaughter. I don't agree that Cowboys and Indians can't be fun unless you are performing carefree genocide. Dances with Wolves is a fun movie, he's not White-guilting by actually enjoying the company of his neighbor's and joining their community. The idea that bloody struggle is essentially grimdark produces the mistake. To me it seems, integrity and optimism in principled action, and by saying that I mean the limits of player performing his role ethically and have a light sense of humor while doing it is seen as dense and naïve. Something that only stupid or base people do. Inside all of us is a clove smoking teenager whose gleefully looking to perform thrilling transgressions. As adults we want a platform in or older ages to act out the transgressions of old men; usually pessimistic ruthlessness while unaware/uninterested in the consequences of our choices. The grimdark setting let's you do that because all the colors are obscured with cheap obcenities. It's the same to me as killing the natives because they are savages justified by the proof that savages are native to the frontier. The circular logic can plug in grim and dark for native and savagery it's pretty much the same. This is completely wrong of course and most campaigns can't sustain the bullshit of these environments unsupported by a couple of bad dice rolls killing your character before you role-play too hard and hit a wall.

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  6. Yeah RPGs can be cheery. Just don't focus on thievery and killing as the main activies and it likely isnkt too difficult.

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  7. It all goes back to the curse of believing that tragedy is the higher art over comedy.

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    1. The roots of that are deep but I think it is probably true if you use a more strict definition of tragedy than just bumming everybody out. Bumming everybody out is very easy - true tragedy is supposed to provide a sense of catharsis and release too, and that's the hardest thing to get right of all. That's the reason why Shakespeare's really great plays are the (good) tragedies - the comedies are pretty throwaway ultimately.

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  8. Did you ever look at that podcast (ggnore it's called) where they did like a 12-part let's play of Deep Carbon Observatory? I only listened to the first couple so far but I think it's a good example of how it's actually really difficult to keep a bleak atmosphere going at a gaming table at all--people are going to be cracking jokes and being silly and you can't really stop them. I think one reason for all the grimness/cynicism in a lot of OSR material is because you just sort of know that most groups aren't going to be treating it reverentially (or even seriously) much at all.

    I think a big part of the reason you don't see a lot of RPG settings with an optimistic outlook (examples would be Star Trek or Lord of the Rings or most superhero settings I guess) is, like you say, it's at a basic level easier to be "dark" than to write something that defends faith (in god, the future, human nature, whatever) but doesn't feel smarmy or vicar-ish. Just like it's a lot easier to stage a pathetic (in every sense) tableau than to write a really good joke. On the other hannnd as far as RPGs go I really think a big part of it is that an uplifting feeling will (or SHOULD) come from the players succeeding in play--take DCO as an example: yeah it's a grim tale but you can still save a lot of children, stick it to some pretty bad dudes, etc. And most groups are certainly not going to let a po-faced atmosphere take over at the table.

    But there is also something in what you say in that there's a real desire to encapsulate that feeling of like, "whatever happens, the Shire is still there and you saved it" without either A) codifying it into restrictive genre-enforcing rules or B) creating a sardine-crackers setting that will leave the imaginative bored in their chairs.

    I'm actually writing a really long post that's (sort of) about this on my blog, bizarrely enough, but the idea of a game session having a 'tone' is really hard for me to talk about clearly for some reason.

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    1. I think the reason for that is that the tone of most game sessions is how you describe it - cracking jokes and being silly mixed in with moments of focus and seriousness. You never really get a consistent tone, do you?

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    2. In my experience the tone tends to be at least somewhat more consistent (and more serious!) in more cheery games than in more grimdark ones. The irreverent clowning seems to be at least partly defense mechanism against bleakness.

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  9. Can RPGs be cheery? What a weird question; of course they can. Many RPGs are potentially downright joyful - first into my head are Paranoia, Gamma World, and BESM.

    If you're more into storytelling-type RPGs, there are Fiasco and anything by Ben Robbins.

    In the Micro-RPG vein, there's the Actual Cannibal Shia Labeouf and the Cat RPG.

    And of course many others that I don't have readily accessible in my brain or have never even heard of. Not to mention the fact that almost any RPG can be cheery if the setting/players' mood are conducive. If you find a given game non-cheery, a lot of that is down to choices made by the people at the table. The game is what you make of it, whether the tone is gleeful, heroic, playful, somber, desperate, Shakespearean-tragic, or grotesque.

    To be honest, this tone issue is one of my biggest peeves with certain elements of the OSR scene - this overdone grunge aesthetic, as if it fantasy adventure gaming just couldn't be cool or fun without half the setting being fungus encrusted in blood-blisters and pustules and the other half being sentient psychic time-traveling rusty iron spikes that want to kill you personally.

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    1. I hate to be picky about this but I think some of those things are not actually RPGs as I would define them...

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    2. That's a bit of a shame, but - unless you're interested in getting into a discussion about definitions, which I'd probably be up for - it's also immaterial. It's like if we were talking about whether vegetables can be sweet and I cited tomatoes and bell peppers, sweet corn and yams. Even if some of those didn't fit your definition of "vegetable," the remainder still answer the question affirmatively.

      More important in my mind is the question of whether we're talking about RPG mechanical systems, implied/built-in settings, and/or plain old standalone published settings.

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    3. Implied settings and published settings, probably. I would question whether Gamma World or Paranoia were cheery - they seem at best to be comical or farcical, no? The other things you cite feel to me to more like story games, although I've not played BESM (I am not the world's biggest anime fan). That said, the Japanese are quite bad at being ironic or sarcastic, which is why you get a lot of earnest feel-good cultural products coming from there.

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    4. And we seem to be back on the question of definitions. Maybe it's because you're British and I'm American - ? - but I tend to file "comic" and "farcical" under "cheery." In fact, I'd describe Paranoia as "gleeful," even. Like playing the original Spelunky, it's a chance to let your character die repeatedly, sometimes in truly hilarious ways, without any of the punishment or inconvenience of a normal fail state.

      At the same time, one could argue in the opposite direction: almost no RPGs are "cheery," because even the most adventure-focused "major key" setting (I think today's post is a really interesting and useful way of framing the question, actually) tend to feature lots and lots of murder. It may be fun murder from the player perspective, but realistically speaking it would still take a toll on any character who wasn't a psychopath.

      Let me tweak your comment about Japan: they don't have a lot of sarcasm the way we do, but in my experience they do have plenty of other forms of irony. (Also consider the way several honorific forms of address, such as omae and kisama morphed over the years into rough or even deliberately insulting speech.)

      I would rather chalk up your perceived difference in cultural products to a series of other factors.

      First, at the most local level, it seems likely that you personally tend to experience more "ironic" or "dark" cultural products. I'm guessing you lived through and remember the "grim and gritty" phase nerd culture went through, but not so much the hyper-feel-good Mickey Mouse Club era that my parents saw as children... or, for that matter, more recent products like the Avatar: The Last Airbender show.

      Second, as I suggested above, I feel that we've recently gone through a phase - probably still are in a lot of ways - in the West in which being sincere and upbeat just weren't in style. Utopianism after WWII was followed by disillusionment, for one thing. The Right's desire to terrify a populace with boogeymen and the Left's deconstruction of popular dominant-culture heroic myths may be involved as well. Looking at the rises and falls of the last century or so, I'm unwilling to essentialize some sort of Ryuutama/LotFP divide and pin it on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

      Finally, if we must ascribe the difference to broad generalizations about the Anglosphere versus Japan, I'd rather blame the different weights placed on individual versus group decision-making. Western, especially American, idealization of the lone wolf almost demands a departure from earnest feel-goodery, at least on a broad scale. If the community feels good, then the deeper truth seen by the heroic individual is forced into a darker, deconstructive stance.

      (That said, let me circle around and point out that Japan is home to plenty of examples of dark, ironic deconstruction. Cf. Evangelion vs. the preceding mecha shows, or Madoka Magica vs. the magical-girl genre.)

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  10. Ryuutama comes to mind. Journey, wonder. Bad things can still happen but overall the world is a place worth exploring.

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    1. +1 on Ryuutama. It's like a Miyazaki movie injection. I've seen a million weird or crazy things in other rpgs, but the system and the setting still manage to pull a sense of childlike wonder and discovery.

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    2. I've heard a lot about it and will get it at some point.

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    3. I too +1 Ryuutama. I also recommend Golden Sky Stories, and Meikyuu (Make You) Kingdom.

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  11. It's entirely possible, especially once you start looking further afield. In Japan, there's a genre of Tabletop RPGs (called Table Talk over there) called Honobono ("Heartwarming").

    Referred to as Pastoral RPGs in the west, the two big ones (that actually have English translations) are Golden Sky Stories (childlike spirits helping a small town. Themes are community, cooperation, and the transition from youth to adulthood) and Ryuutama (Hex Crawl: The RPG. A Fantasy RPG that focuses more on what happens between points A and B than actually getting to B).

    There's a few others of note, and some that fall outside the Honobono genre but still feel fairly cheerful (like Meikyuu Kingdom. The entire world is a giant dungeon. Make your kingdom! Very gamey in a good way). I'd highly suggest giving Ryuutama a read at least.

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    1. The problem with a lot of that Japanese heartwarming aesthetic is that frankly I find a lot of it really anaemic. There is a trend in modern Japanese pop culture towards what the Japanese refer to as "herbivore man" style activities - there's a fine line between being fun and uplifting and just being, well, a bit wet. I have heard really good things about Ryuutama though.

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    2. Meikyuu Kingdom and Golden Sky Stories are much closer to the "herbivore" aesthetic clusters than Ryuutama, which I think is very much its own thing. The silliest part of Ryuutama is probably the monsters, which remind me of Dragon Quest (there are "normal" monsters, but also eggs with arms and legs, moai and "nekogoblins") , but the rest of the game is surprisingly versatile and thematically very open-ended (something I think it shares with older editions of D&D).

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    3. Presumably there's nothing to stop you creating your own monsters?

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    4. Not at all, and the stat blocks are pretty simple:
      http://imgur.com/a/RFw42

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  12. Are you talking specifically about RPGs with roughly D&D-ish assumptions? Because there are other genres which are 'cheery by default', for example Ghostbusters or Star Wars.

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    1. Don't you think even Star Wars has been quite "grimdarked" over the years, though?

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    2. I'm talking about proper Star Wars!

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    3. Like what? The Empire Strikes Back?

      It's a wonderful movie in many ways, but really not something you'd call cheery. Star Wars is fun, but has never been lighthearted.

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    4. The Emte Stikes back was awfully dark. A planet full of people getting murdered and Luke's Aunt and Uncle being turned into burnt jerky wasn't very cheerful either.

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  13. I think I've played exactly one session that might be described as cheery without being twee. I've played plenty that have been comical and plenty that have been cartoonish, but I think only one that was cheery.

    The game was In a Wicked Age, so all important characters were PCs, mostly created just for that episode. Whatever story the game was going to have would primarily come from PC vs. PC conflict. We'd been playing for maybe 6-8 episodes, so far. What happened, though, was that the PCs desires and motivations just didn't conflict with each other all that much. Instead of fights and seductions and sorceries, etc., the conflicts in that session were mostly resolved just by negotiation and compromise. I don't remember the fictional details all that well - this was years ago - but I think the story of that episode ended up being about the headman of that village scheduling his funeral for before he died, to make sure it would go perfectly.

    So, I would describe that one session as cheery. However, it was also somewhat boring. The game was designed for much more direct conflict, and none of us were expecting to get what our characters wanted that easily. One player, the GM's brother, was in fact so bored by it that he got seriously angry at the GM for running the game wrong.

    Personally, I thought that episode was weird, but on later reflection I didn't think the episode was broken - I think that if it hadn't been for the real world interpersonal conflict between the GM and his brother, it would have been a nice change of pace from the melodrama typical of that In a Wicked Age campaign.

    This was not a game that was designed to be cheerful, though. It seems to me your question isn't "Can an RPG be cheerful?" but "Can an RPG be made to be cheerful, either by game design or GM planning?" For that, I don't know. I've seen and read plenty of RPGs that seem to pursue a cheerful tone - off the top of my head: Chuubo's Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine, Maid: the RPG, Clover. But the only one of those I've actually played is Maid, and it was cartoonish or farcical, not cheery.

    It occurs to me, that to be trying to be cheery without being farcical may be the other side of the coin from trying to achieve pathos without bathos. If so, I doubt cheeriness is any harder to achieve than pathos, but simply less often pursued.

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    1. It's important to be careful about terminology, I suppose. Cartoonish and farcical is really easy - just as easy as being dark and bleak I think. It's being uplifting without being either of those things which is the tough part.

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    2. I would define pathos as the feeling you get when you identify with a character, and their problems and struggles feel like real problems and struggles to you. Bathos is when you overshoot pathos, intentionally or unintentionally, and the problems and struggles of a fictional character are just fantastic imagery, without reality (or humorous imagery, or titillating, or...). Bathos is easy, pathos is not. Grimdark is a flavor of bathos, and I think what you're describing as dark and bleak is too.

      If cartoonish and farcical is analogous to bathos, and cheery is analogous to pathos, perhaps cheeriness could be thought of as identifying with a character and having their joys and triumphs feel real. When you say "cheery," I do think of what people call honobono, which I have never experienced in an RPG. For honobono, I think perhaps that it is specifically _small_ joys and triumphs that must feel real. Is the epic triumph of good over evil really cheery, even if it feels real?

      I'm not sure that pathos or this concept of cheeriness are possible in setting material. Before you actually play an RPG, you do not have characters with whom to identify, and any problems and struggles described in setting material are only potential problems and struggles. If the setting material includes fictional characters, with stories and problems and struggles set out in text, these are rarely the characters one will actually play - so the experience of pathos or cheeriness while reading the text does not guarantee the experience of pathos or cheeriness in actual play.

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    3. Well, I'm not sure whether what I'm talking about has to be the epic triumph of good over evil or honobono. I think there is an excluded third option which would be something along the lines of, say, the Redwall books? There is conflict and bad things are out there but fundamentally the outlook is an optimistic one?

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    4. It's been a very long time since I read the Redwall books. As I remember them, they had a pretty typical fantasy good triumphs over evil structure - but the evil was less cosmic in scope than Tolkien for example. There was usually a specific villain, who was a rat or ferret or something, who threatened a specific place with violence? I think in the first book it was a rat who had an army of rats who rode around in a human-sized cart? So this rat is a violent existential threat to the abbey, and furthermore he's a rat (and therefore naturally evil, like an orc). I don't remember his motivations being explored, which is one of the reasons I describe him as evil. In addition, there's a hero (Martin?) with a destiny to defeat him. So, to me that feels like epic triumph of good over evil, but the stakes are relatively small - a microcosmic abbey, not the whole world.

      However, besides scale, I think that Redwall differs from most good vs. evil fantasy in one really important way - it has a focus on the daily lives and work of the people who live in and around the abbey. I remember that part even less well, but I believe that focus is as strong as the focus on the fight against the rats.

      Honobono seems to be a focus on daily lives and work, to the exclusion of anything else. So, maybe to do something like Redwall, try for both?

      Optimism seems to me to be a third thing, or perhaps something related to both. It's either that the overarching conflict is a foregone conclusion - it will turn out well for the side the audience (or players of an RPG) cares about, or it's that small conflicts will, in general, turn out well more often than they turn out poorly.

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    5. (I hope you don't mind that I've split this into multiple comments)

      To me, for an RPG, optimism and a focus on daily lives and work seem to be mechanical concerns. Either they need to be built into the written rules, or they need to be built into the unwritten assumptions of the players.

      You might be interested in Circle of Hands - it's certainly not cheery, and in fact it's grimdark. However, it's also fundamentally optimistic, and it has a focus on daily life and work. There's a vaguely baltic iron age land, that has been ravaged by a war between alien cosmic forces. There's little in the way of political unity, individual communities try to be self-sufficient but often fail. A status system ripe for abuse is built into the fabric of society. Life is nasty brutish and short. But, there's an order of knights, or perhaps thegns is a better word, who are fighting for a newly-formed, just and egalitarian kingdom, independent of the alien cosmic forces. The PCs play those knights. The game has the assumption that, ultimately, the kingdom will win its war. That's not what the game's about - it's about the smaller stories, as the PCs come into small communities and try to help them solve their problems in a way that makes things better. It's possible to do that, though difficult - the PCs are total badasses, capable of accomplishing quite a lot, but the problems these communities face usually involve irreconcilable conflicts of interest between the people who live in them, and no obvious villains.

      There's also a focus on daily lives and work in Circle of Hands. In this society, hospitality assumes that a traveler comes into a town, does work for the community according to their status, and in exchange is provided food, shelter, etc. until they move on. This applies even to the knights, so an episode begins with the PCs coming into town, and working alongside its people to get to know them and what problems and conflicts their facing. Over the course of the episode it switches focus to those conflicts, and their uncertain resolution.

      Here are the main differences I see in tone and theme between Circle of Hands and Redwall: Circle of Hands is grimdark - it's expression of violence and of evil magic is explicit, extreme, and disgusting. Redwall's expression of violence is veiled (if I remember it correctly) - the worst happens offscreen, or is only an implied threat that might happen. In Circle of Hands there are no designated villains, no one you can point to and say "if that guy were dead, all our problems would be solved." In Redwall, there usually is such a villain.

      I have very little interest in games where the main conflict comes from an obvious villain. I prefer conflict to come from multiple characters with difficult to reconcile interests, and good reasons for wanting or needing what they want or need. So, there's a difficult choice or moral ambiguity any time a PC takes a side. I'm certain that this moral ambiguity is not mutually exclusive with optimism, but it might be mutually exclusive with cheeriness.

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    6. I've been reading through a lot of Kevin Crawford's setting and adventure creation rules/advice lately (so that I can play a solo Yoon-Suin game - I'm one and a half adventures in, I'll write up more details about it sometime soon). In his advice, I've found it irritating that he encourages the GM to create designated villains. For example, there's the rogues' gallery of domain-level bad guys he talks about in An Echo Resounding. More relevant for what I'm actually playing is the structure of solo urban adventures in Scarlet Heroes - they have a designated Target and Antagonist, and it's assumed the PC will take the side of the Target against the Antagonist. In a Scarlet Heroes solo urban adventure, as written, you can't help a thief steal something, you can only protect someone from thieves. This built-in moral assumption seems really weird to me, given that the genre is sword and sorcery, a hero can belong to the Thief class, and the prototypical D&D adventure consists of going down into a dungeon to loot it. I'm going to have to change these rules for myself, but it seems relevant to what you're talking about with optimism in Redwall - I think Kevin Crawford's games might be cheery in the way you mean it, if you create adventures by the book.

      I think the difference between Kevin Crawford's optimism and the kind of optimism I actually like is this: for Kevin Crawford, there's an obvious thing to do to make the world a better place, and a PC can probably do it. For the kind of optimism I like, it's possible to make the world a better place, and a PC has the power to do it, but it's not obvious which way will be best. I don't know if both of these kinds of optimism are cheery for you, or only the first. Or maybe I'm totally misunderstanding you and it's neither.

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    7. I don't so much think that "cheeriness" has to do with the potential for heroism or making the world a better place (although it could be). And I agree with you on the subject of villains.

      I think cheeriness as I mean it is really a product of tone and philosophy more than anything else. Perhaps a better example than Redwall is actually The Hobbit. The Hobbit (at least as originally presented) is not about saving the world and there isn't much about it that's dark - Gollum was originally just lonely. While there are some scenes of peril and so on, the overall tenor of the book is uplifting; it's very much written in a major key.

      Most OSR-type settings seem to me to owe more to HP Lovecraft than anything else. Not in subject matter, per se, but in what I guess you could say are the conceptual roots: cold uncaring universe, everything ultimately pointless, etc.

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  14. A lot of the old-school settings are on the darker side as a reaction to the blandness of modern D&D. Dark is seen as more authentic, more true to the hobby's sword&sorcery roots, more "there". It may also be a product of the era we live in - like in that art exhibit, cynicism and visions of corruption and decline rule our imagination. From the old school settings, The Phoenix Barony is a deliberately cheery and heroic place - you may want to look into it (it is free).

    I am happy this topic has come up because I have had similar thoughts for a few years. My games have been and will probably always be morally ambiguous, but for a while, I have been experimenting with worlds that aren't relentlessly corrupt. Helvéczia has been my attempt to do 17th century historical fantasy in a way that's not grim-and-gritty, and doesn't revel in atrocity or the whole shitfarmer aesthetic. Not to say it doesn't have its share of corrupt assholes and dark romantic imagery (it is mainly based on picaresque stories and local legends), but it presents a world where goodness and hope are real, and they can triumph if people do the right thing. How to do good and what is good are of course moral dilemmas which remain at the forefront - but it is a game where giving quarter to your enemies is the norm instead of the exception.

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    1. I'll have a look at The Phoenix Barony - thanks.

      The idea that S&S is dark and cynical is widespread but pretty wrong, I think. It's true of some S&S but by no means all - Burroughs, for instance, didn't have a bleak bone in his body.

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    2. ==it is a game where giving quarter to your enemies is the norm instead of the exception.

      You can play with those ideas when you ditch alignment.

      ==

      When roleplay is about righting 'wrongs' then the onus is on the DM to create 'wrongs' which get the (now adult) players' juices pulsing. With the escalation of invention in violence and torture on film any wrong we can imagine has become a cliche and the obvious reaction is to disturb the genre with a sense of mockery which is not really comedy.

      I think cheerfulness in rpgs arises from heroism but to satisfy the adult player the villains need be more human and less evil than they were when we were younger, which is the opposite direction films and tv have taken, requiring subtlety in the writing. The more I read LotR and The Worm Ouroboros the more I believe Boromir and Corund are the most noble characters.

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    3. I think that's probably true. Although there is also a kind of heroism in a bleak Lovecraftian universe, I suppose: the defiance of trying to do good despite the fact that existence itself is pointless/evil.

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    4. Kent: there is that, too. Once, transgression may have felt like an irreverent breath of fresh air. Now that the Tarantino aesthetic is everywhere, it is mostly just tiresome. It is also frequently used as a cop-out instead of saying something interesting.

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    5. There are plenty of Sword & Sorcery purists who have a very narrow idea of what is TRUE Sword & Sorcery. Which tends to be a darker version of Conan and barely anything else. Kane is deep dark and I love his stories, but they are really more an outlier than the norm.

      Even Conan was never as dark as many people make him.It's important that the "gigantic sorrows" are named right next to "gigantic mirth". And as the big man famously describes himself: “I live, I burn with life, I love, I slay, and I am content.”

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  15. Is that the new Kent filter? Never mind the double post, then.

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    1. Essentially yes. I don't mind any kind of comment really, but he was taking the piss a bit. If he wants to post sensible comments it's fine.

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  16. I think, for me, big themes are “having a positive attitude in the face of adversity” and “good triumphs over evil”. So my settings might come across as bleak, but that’s to set up the PCs to be a force of good and cheeriness. (Though I suppose there are also always NPCs designed to model the good & cheery end of the spectrum too.)

    Are Toon & Risus twee?

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    1. Maybe not twee, but I think humour is something different again. (I despise Toon for what it's worth, but love Risus.)

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  17. i favour this kind of setting. pelinore is the premier example. it's not an rpg by your standards but the World of Near setting from Shadow of Yesterday is worth using for d&d. The whole game was designed to balance optimism with sadness. romanticism with barbarism.

    the problem from my perspective is one of misery tourism. d&d people tend to be well-off and well-off people (like your modern art consumers) tend to go in for that sort of stuff. it reminds me of dirty/kmart realism in literature or kitchen sink realism in film. a bit hopeless.

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    1. I have a Pelinore PDF somewhere. I'll have to dig it out.

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  18. I'm running a semi-west marches pointcrawl at the moment where the players have a roster of a dozen settings (magical mountain tibet (thanks Yoon-suin!), Sahara Mali, Insectoid Jungle (thanks Yoon-suin!)) and they can elect to go to any one of them and explore a randomly-generated pointcrawl with unique loot, culture, monsters, and discoveries.

    The players are all quite light-hearted and cheery about everything, but crucially I have modelled the entire game off the game Renowned Explorers on Steam, in which you play a group of explorers going to various locales and exploring a randomly generated pointcrawl... etc.

    What I took from that game, beyond the theme, is that the BBEG wasn't evil, it was just the top explorer who was a bit of an arrogant bully. The players (both in the game and in our rpg) are motivated not to save the world from horror or avenge themselves upon a tyrant, but rather to best a rather more civilian type of evil - the rich bully - by trying their hardest and beating him at his own game : exploring the world and finding cool loot.

    The whole game (and rpg) has an element of cheery determination and I think it's one of the happiest games I've ever played

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    1. Sounds great. I will avoid getting Renowned Explorers because I think that could end up being a massive drain on my time if I downloaded it...

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  19. The fact that you ask the question is your answer. The games that are, you dismiss as "twee", pretty much the opposite of "This is what I want out of my games". Can they be? Sure. But everyone is so desperately trying to not be twee that they aren't.

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  20. I find D&D with a clear division between Good and Evil (or Law and Chaos if you prefer), a quite cheery RPG. Sure, there is monsters, and problems, and evil priests, and even this evil empire, but the day-to-day activities of the heroes consist of chopping problems to pieces and gain loot and progress in the process.
    Sure, there is a death so now and then, but the PC is either raised (hurray!) or you start the joyful activity of rolling up a new character opening another multitude of possibilities.

    And if your RPG is not cheery enough, there is always Soma.

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  21. I am not a native speaker, but "cheerful" does not seem like a word that I could see working for fantasy adventure games. Cheerful seems to be conflicting with conflict, and without adversity and tension you can't have good adventures that include gold and blood.
    There certainly can be adventures that have a positive outlook of good being dominant and the heroes making a real difference, and you can have tough conflicts in settings that are otherwise pleasant to live in.
    My own platonic ideal for adventures is Indiana Jones. There's great danger, evil villains, lots of pain (of which most will get better soon), and a whole lot of excitement and fun.

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    1. Indiana Jones is definitely cheery. There is a difference between "cheery" and "cheerful". Cheerful is merry or happy. Cheery is giving of good cheer. There is a perhaps subtle distinction there I think.

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  22. Good point about BECMI. I think the setting of 'Threshold' (in the Expert set) was a *little* bit twee, though...but everything else (like the Gazetteers) hit the balance nicely.

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  23. While I won't dispute your overall point, Beyond the Wall comes immediately to mind as an OSR counterexample.

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  24. BECMI & Mystara indeed have a pretty positive tone that only lapses into tweeness occasionally. It's by far the favourite setting of my son, who's now 9.

    Of OSR stuff, I think the Basic Fantasy RPG material comes closest to BECMI's positive tone.

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