I'll come back to the dice next week, but it's Friday, so I'll swap it up a little.
Malcolm Sheppard had a good post about next generation RPGs and the role of technology. I don't agree with it all, but it's an interesting read, and it came up when I was thinking about something that is almost the polar opposite, but which (as often happens with opposites) reflects on some of the same issues.
I was wondering to myself what the ideal game would be to play at Starbucks. It's a very specific criteria, so let me elaborate on it. Obviously, you could play any game you like at Starbucks, there are tables and everything, but all of the books and papers and other material that accompanies most games would seem powerfully out of place. The aesthetic of the place (to say nothing of noise and space concerns) calls for a certain sparseness rather than the scatter of papers and the clatter of dice.
Certainly, you could just use a minimalistic game, like Risus or PDQ. Since you wouldn't need a rulebook, and character sheets can be as small as an index card, you can get by with very little in the way of supplies. That works, sure, but I found myself wondering if it could go a little deeper. Pencil, paper and dice are well and good, but what can we do without them? What can we do with something purely tactile?
The answer is "A lot", but it depends on the group. I've got many years of the Amber DRPG under my belt, enough so that I'm very comfortable with going diceless with a heavy dose of GM fiat. Within that sort of framework, you could build a powerful and dynamic game with little more than a deck of cards.
This lead to a bunch of design thoughts, some of which might see the light of day eventually, but it also called into question how I was thinking about games. I was focusing on the social element, and also on certain ideas of play that are intensely portable. That portability provides an interesting point of comparison for me between games as we think of them and more established games, like chess. Not in terms of how they're played, but in terms of our production model.
Consider chess's entry point. The rules are a little complex, but can be learned well enough that no rulebook is kept on hand. You can get all the supplies you need for a buck, but you can just as easily get those same supplies for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. The game exists as an idea, and the industry and play surrounds and supports that idea.
In contrast, RPGs have something of a vicious ecosystem, where there is an idea, but lots of people are looking to carve off their own piece and lay claim to it. There are precious few products that exist to support the idea as a whole (mostly a handful of GMing advice books).
This is not a criticism - Chess is a single game, albeit one with a rich history, and there's no reason to expect any RPG to occupy a similar niche at this point in time. But I think this gets very interesting when you think about some of Malcolm's points, and look at the progress of technology. Technology is going to change RPGS, possibly quite drastically, but that leaves bare the question of what technology can't or won't change.
This really seems to cast bare the division in games about the role of the GM. A lot of games move to minimize the role, usually in response to abuses at the hands of bad GMs in the past. Others do it to take work off the GM's hands. One way or another, these rules are the ones that I suspect will take most strongly to automation, and at that point it will be impossible not to start talking and thinking about the actual art of GMing.
This is an uncomfortable topic. Bring up the point that a good GM can make a crappy game fun, and watch how quickly the howling begins. Talk about GMs taking ownership of the rules and bending them to suit their table, and prepare for offended looks. Gamers, as a sub-tribe of geeks, have a strong egalitarian streak, and we're not always comfortable with the idea that some GMs are better than others and that keeps us from talking about why that is so, and what influences it besides natural talent.
It's a conversation that I think people have always had personally, but it dies on the Internet. But as technology marches on, there may be no way to escape it.
I'm pretty psyched for that.
1- On some primal, emotional level I would love to play an RPG someday where i can get the same pure joy out of handling well crafted components that you can get from a well made chess set or dominoes.
2 - In the abstract at least. Our GMs are obviously excellent, and we all have stories of crappy GMs we've dealt with.
3 - Before we get there, we'll probably have a movement where setting design is as exalted as system design currently is. It will focus on how setting design can organically drive play, and it will take many lessons from MMOs.