Wednesday, 11 March 2020

On RPG Hobbyists and the Didactic Mode

The latest Bundle of Holding campaign is for Blue Rose. I am not one of those people who has anything against Blue Rose in particular. I am actually totally on board with the idea of a fantasy RPG which is about being the good guys - and I will quite happily admit that I have a real soft spot for romantic fantasy and for the artistic style of Blue Rose range:


I mean, I like sinister cats and weird uncanny-valley-inhabiting androgynous fae beings and creepy butterflies and flowers. I am all about those things.

I also completely understand the appeal of:

“[A] style and a point of view that’s generally positive, hopeful, and cooperative: good people can make a difference, true love can and does win in the end, we can make the world better, people of good conscience can work together (and even disagree) but still coexist peacefully, and, ultimately, there is good in the world and it’s something worth fighting for. That romance often includes interpersonal relationships, from boon comrades to passionate love, and such things are both the reasons why characters take action and the rewards they receive for their efforts." [from an interview with the Lead Designer, here.]

But where I part ways with projects like Blue Rose is the didacticism. It's the idea that it isn't sufficient to just create a product that takes inspiration from romantic fantasy literature or that is inclusive; one also has to teach people something:

"I think it’s remarkable that, in this day and age, even mature adult gamers won’t blink at games and stories that model the most terrible forms of violence, but become sheepish and embarrassed by stories modeling love and friendship and family, especially when tabletop roleplaying is such a social activity. While Blue Rose will most likely (we’re still in the design phase) have some game mechanics to support those relationships, my best advice to gamers is to balance a regard for everyone’s comfort level at the game table with a willingness to perhaps reach beyond that comfort zone for something that can be a powerful story element that has been missing from games aimed at telling legendary or mythological stories: the notion that love and connection are powers as great, if not greater, than any magic, any battle-prowess, or any cunning scheme." [from the same interview] 
In other words, it's not enough to just have fun playing a game - the players have to "reach beyond their comfort zone" and, the implication goes, learn something about the importance of love, connection, and so on and so forth through play.

Why is it that RPG designers feel that they have to do this - to prove that what they are doing is about more than just playing a game? That there has to be a didactic element to what they're creating? What is wrong with it just being for fun?

I wonder if it is the vestiges of that protestant work ethic, with its strong roots in the Puritanism that found its roots in the New World, which feels as though there is something base in enjoyment for its own sake, and insists that fun can only be fun if there is an element of work or self-betterment involved? Or is it just a manfestation of the insecurity of somebody of an artistic bent who frets that they are not doing something more important? Either way, it lends Blue Rose the unfortunate air of the closing sequence in a 1980s children's cartoon series, a Thundercats or a Dungeons and Dragons or a Defenders of the Earth - yes, didn't we all have fun fighting the baddies and setting off lots of explosions, but more importantly, didn't we also learn something about friendship? Cue millions of children throughout the land rolling their eyes and switching channel to ITV; the creators of Blue Rose might want to ask themselves if that is the mood they really want to capture with the product they've invested so much time and creative effort in.

30 comments:

  1. They probably feel the same way about art in general. Or maybe they're (secularized) christians.

    ReplyDelete
  2. It's a defense. One only has to get lectured (by parents, teachers, local priest, friends' moms, whatever) so many times about "wasting your life" before one simply opens the conversation with it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Maybe. Although I am generally a fan of worrying about wasting one's life. That's a good motivator.

      Delete
    2. Indeed, I've done my fair share!

      Delete
  3. I don't see it. It doesn't read to me like they want to teach the player something about real life (like a cartoon end segment), but about fantasy. Broadening the players' scope of the kind of entertainment a roleplaying game can provide.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fair enough, but it seems like a wider point to me.

      Delete
    2. I mean, seems like drastically different impulses to me. Basically all RPGs I run-- hell, basically all fiction I'm involved with in any capacity-- is driven by the impulse to expand SOMEBODY'S horizons. I wanna show that, hey, fantasy can exist in bold, unique flavors way outside the Forgotten Realms or Tolkien. Or that scummy, n'er-do-well characters mechanically motivated through gold-for-XP can be just as fun to play as your tabaxi swashbuckler-warlock whatever. Or hey, maybe just that "a FAT GHOST GIRAFFE could be GENUINELY SCARY, y'all ever even CONSIDERED how SCARY a FAT GHOST GIRAFFE could be?" but that's still the same impulse at heart, I feel. broadening a player's horizons.

      Trying to teach them moralistic lessons is something else entirely and one I have very little stomach for-- and also one I don't quite see Blue Rose committing. the passage you cited doesn't insist that players embrace the power of loves into their lives, it simply suggests that players take a notion they're already aware of (love conquers all, blah blah blah) and use it to a greater extent at the table. It's the same way that Dogs in the Vineyard has the players consider the merits of playing homophobic bigot characters without actually (necessarily) promoting bigotry, or OSR D&D and the lifestyle of one of those characters, et cetera et cetera.

      Delete
    3. I suppose I don't see those things as drastically different impulses - I think they are fairly strongly connected. "Expanding horizons" of players typically has a hidden moral content/import even when the person doing the expanding is insisting it's just so the players can have more/different fun.

      Delete
  4. I shall say this against the dichotomy: Taking real pleasure in things you really, unironically like (assuming they aren't morally wrong) is almost always a bettering and learning experience. Perhaps a better goal for Blue Rose is to make a game that allows pleasure in things that are morally good. This is, I suppose, still "didactic", but it is at least more "Learning to take pleasure in good, by taking pleasure in good" rather than "Learning about good, because we tell you about good".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Taking real pleasure in things you really, unironically like (assuming they aren't morally wrong) is almost always a bettering and learning experience.

      Do you think so? I expect it is true of many things, but definitely not all. I take pleasure in watching football, but I'm not sure it makes me a better person or acts as a learning experience. Cricket, on the other hand...

      Delete
    2. At the least, you are becoming more present by enjoying something like that, or perhaps learning how to like things unironically (which I consider somewhat good, and beneficial to the psyche). However, in my experience, I "enjoy" things far more than I Enjoy them. I'll "enjoy" a video game, or browsing various media, but really I'm at least angry at the video game, or disassociating on media. I really don't think I would categorize that as real enjoyment. I'll make no assumptions about you, but I see people screaming at football more often than what I consider Enjoying.
      Whether you define enjoyment in the same way is outside my control, I suppose, but I believe this holds water for the given definition.

      Delete
    3. I half agree with you but I also half think that you are falling prey to the protestant need for even simple enjoyment to have a "bettering" quality lest it be somehow wasteful or sinful.

      Delete
  5. I think there's nothing wrong with just having fun while playing the game and I didn't see that quote claiming otherwise. But I think it's awesome that RPGs can have an educational aspect as well (like sports and other social activities) and I don't see why designers shouldn't embrace this. And "the notion that love and connection are powers as great, if not greater, than any magic, any battle-prowess, or any cunning scheme" shouldn't be anything new for anyone who ever read the Lord of the Rings.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I also think RPGs can have an educational aspect, but I much prefer that to arise by accident than design.

      I also agree that the quotes don't claim there's something wrong with just having fun. BUt they seem to suggest that having fun ought to be enhanced with something 'bettering'.

      Delete
  6. They should just play Against The Wicked City.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I agree with Joel. I'm not sure you're getting your "the implication goes" from.

    How does the paragraph you quote imply that the players are supposed to be learning something about life, as opposed to just encouraging them to try a different, and potentially fun, play dynamic?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would refer you to my reply above to Captain Crowbar.

      Delete
  8. "What is wrong with it just being for fun?"

    Nothing at all. Is there anything wrong with it NOT just being for fun? Maybe they're both OK? Are you worried that "educational" RPGs will push the "fun" ones out of the market? Isn't it perfectly OK for someone to make a game that just isn't your thing?

    I'll admit, it's not my thing, either, but I don't object to it in any way. You seem to be going a step past that.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm not objecting to its existence; I'm just explaining why I'm not a fan.

      Delete
  9. My biggest surprise reading the rules was that it was just a bog standard d20 game. Didn't find anything there to care much about one way or the other, very very bland.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The new version uses Green Ronin's own system, which is different. I have a copy of it and might do a review.

      Delete
    2. Did not know that. Might be worth a look.

      Delete
  10. I'm torn about this. I tend to agree that constant murderhoboism in RPGs eventually tends to a kind of bland sameness. So it's not necessarily about moral didacticism -- it can actually be about genuine enjoyment in finding a way to play out a story that resonates with themes we like and care about (like "love is important" or whatever).

    That being said, it is very difficult to design a game system that specifically enables this sort of thing. Attempts to do so often undermine the very themes they're trying to highlight -- just look at all those video games with "morality" systems, where every "altruistic" act is actually transformed into a pragmatic, self-serving bid at building up your "good guy points" which you can cash in for cool prizes. It brings to mind all of those studies of altruistic behavior, like blood donation, that show that offering to pay someone for something they previously gave away out of altruism actually makes them LESS likely to do it, contra the dogma of neoclassical economics -- gift economies, dignity, honor, etc.

    Some of the "serious games" guys have at least done a pretty good job building games that highlight certain humanistic themes, but those themes are usually darker ones that are about power, which lend themselves to "gamification". My Life With Master is a pretty good game about abusive relationships and how they morally degrade the person being abused. Not sure how you make a game about love and altruism other than with a super open-ended storygame system, in which case, sure, LARP it up all you want, the rules neither help nor hinder you.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have wondered about tinkering with the XP system to make D&D more of a "good guys" sort of game, but ultimately I just think that has to come from the players and the DM. If they want to make that kind of game work, it will. The rules won't really help.

      Delete
  11. I don't know if you've read Albions Seed (I haven't but the fragments I know about have been fascinating), but this bit on the culture of Massachusetts and the origins of Yankeedom is fascinating to me

    http://homepage.eircom.net/~odyssey/Quotes/History/Albions_Seed.html#1

    The morality of RPG gaming seems really similar to Yankeedom, or at least an evolved strand of it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had not heard of that book - I've ordered it.

      Delete
  12. I find I agree. I'd rather not games or the people that make them try to impress their morality on me. Games are fake. Games are fun. I particularly dislike the simpering tone of: "You don't blink at ultraviolence, but you balk at friendship and romance? So barbaric!" Violence is fun. Friendship can be fun too, but neither is right or wrong in a game. if your game is better at delivering a certain tone just tell us about the tone. Tell us what your game does, don't lecture us about the merits of what it does. If this has as much didactic power as you claim it will, then it shouldn't need your careful introduction.

    ReplyDelete