Friday, October 1, 2010


Sick days are good for video games and popcorn reading, and today I finally decided to take a swing at Riordan's Percy Jackson series. It is, so far, inoffensive and enjoyable and it absolutely makes me want to pull Nine Worlds and Scion off the shelf and shake them up a little. And that twigged me to something.

I'd never given it a lot of thought, but I had always associated my love of RPGs with being a reader. Sure, there were fantasy and sci fi movies out there which I watched and loved, even some TV, but books had always been the centerpiece of the sort of adventures and stories I imagined that I wanted to capture in play. For a long time I just assumed that was universal, but I am less and less certain of that assumption these days. Other media have simply gotten richer, partly as a result of multi media, but in large part from the growth of cable TV and the evolution of storytelling in TV programming.

I think it's safe to say that more people have seen the Lord of the Rings films than have ever read the books, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. The growth of anime in the states has opened the doors to deep, rich, fantastical stories of amazing depth. In short, I no longer have a problem imagining someone who might enter into the hobby with most of their imaginary touchpoints coming from something other than books.

Intellectually, this should delight me. Anything that grows the hobby is a good thing, right? But at the same time, I must quiet that voice inside myself which sounds a lot like my hardcore video game friends talking about HALO players. These are strangers; outsiders who are invading our space. Clearly they must be relegated to some sort of lesser status, condescended to, condemned and hopefully driven away so that we can go back to withering away.

So, yeah, I try to squash that instinct. And some days its made easier than others.

See, I can talk about a shift in media, but in some ways that's less telling than the inevitable shift in touchpoints over time. The books and movies that were most important to me are going to fall by the wayside, and as time goes on people find new touchpoints: Jordan, Martin, Rowling or whoever else - it always changes and that's a good thing, But it's hard. There is a temptation to treat the bibliography in the original DMG as some sort of holy writ. To think that the problems people see with our games or our play would be solved if they would simply read those books and internalize them the way we did. And it's easy to couch this desire in the noblest of terms, talking about respecting roots and acknowledging the giants who built these foundations of our play.

Except, that's kind of crap.

This is not literary criticism. This is a hobby where people take imaginary swords and kill imaginary monsters while sitting around a table with their friends. It does not demand that you read the right books or buy into the right logic. It demands that you revel in imagination, and that you carry worlds within you. It demands that you find joy in things that can never be.

That is, to my mind, pretty fantastic. There is no need for us to be less than that.


  1. That "hardcore" mentality kicks in a lot with gamers and most of the time it's as you said, an unconscious bias people aren't even aware of. But it happens with other media as well, especially music, in my experience (I liked this band before they became famous and you new fans came aboard!).

    It's an instinctive facet of our tribal instincts to find a group to belong to and then shun all others as outsiders. That us vs. them mindset is sadly overly prevalent in a hobby as small as ours. (See any edition wars as an example.)

  2. @Alex I think the part that worries me is that the hardcore mentality is already a very punishing filter when applied to gamers/not gamers. We're pretty fringe, so I'm not sure we can afford to layer on_another_ punishing filter in the form of bibliographies and Jargon.

  3. I certainly came into gaming at a time when books for the medium of choice (Conan, Elric, LOTR being perhaps the three biggest influences). These days, I tend to find TV has become the bigger inspiration for gaming, for a few reasons that come to mind.

    1. Story-driven TV has both episodes and larger season and show arcs. The "rhythm" seems closer to how games work at the table.

    2. TV usually involves multiple characters and give each plenty of story time, whereas books (and I'm broadly overgeneralizing here) tend towards a single protagonist.

    3. Sci-fi, fantasy, comics have "won" the battle for TV and movies -- that is, they've gone mainstream in ways that comics and many sci-fi books have never managed to do. Perhaps because of the "coolness" factor of say, being able to see Iron Man on screen.

    4. While I don't have much interest in reading non-genre fiction (e.g. generic police thrillers), I'm willing to put some time into TV shows in other genres, which then puts all those shows into the pea soup sitting in my brain -- occasionally fun campaign ideas result.

    Anyway, I'm not sure any of those are really strong points -- I'm not trying to argue that TV > books, or anything like that, more that TV is what helps my gaming chops more right now. :)

  4. That's a really cool thought. I know I didn't originally find my gaming inspiration from TV or movies, and I don't think I really got it from books either. I was always much more interested in sci fi than fantasy, but the group I gamed with were fantasy junkies. I actually think I took my inspiration, then, directly from the games, themselves. Which, I guess, is a kind of book!

    These days, though, I find myself looking for genre gestalt to hang my ideas on. In doing so, I range through a lot of TV and movies to find those threads (though books are often there, too). I think it's ultimately easier for me to explain the core of my idea when I can refer to more popular forms of entertainment, than a book that maybe only I have read.

  5. I'd also add that it is important to remember that RPGs aren't stories (or television series, or plays, or films) either. A lot of people like to treat them as such, which often causes problems.

    [You can use tricks from other media, but you also have to remember that our hobby is a distinct form of entertainment, and not all tricks work well.]

    The reverse is true. Games don't generally make good media (although people have gotten away with publishing metagame fiction). Do write good fiction based in a game universe you generally have to leave the game system behind. [Although this is not often the case; how many times have we "heard" dice rolling in the background of our favourite trashy game novel franchise.]

  6. For me, this snobbery was put to rest firmly when I ran a successful campaign using Primetime Adventures.

    For those who've never played it, Primetime Adventures has all the participants design, and then run, a character-based roleplaying game, where the campaign structure, character relationships, and tropes are explicitly, consciously, drawn from good television.

    And it *works*, it works like no other game I've ever tried. The common wealth of culture allows everyone to hit the game running, the tropes are well-known but powerful and flexible (that's why they keep showing up in the shows), and the stories and conflicts are engaging and compelling.

    The thing is, Primetime Adventures works so very well precisely because it doesn't try to capture books, or movies, or real life. It captures serialised, regular, audience-conscious, situation-and-character-dependent entertainment stories — which are an excellent fit for roleplaying games, as it turns out.

  7. I think RPGs went through something similar to this in the 90's with the birth of white wolf and the gothic horror RPGs. I remember a lot of complaining about the new emo kiddies coming into the genre.

    Every niche group has these spurts from time to time, and it essentially boils down to growing pains. Sure the people coming in may not have read the books you use, but that doesn't mean they won't blend in (or even that they won't like those books). In the process it hurts, but after everything returns to normal.

    As for the hardcore impulses...well, they're hard to control, but sometimes you just have to endure.

  8. Having recently been slightly abused by this bias, I really appreciate the post. I do my best to remember that the bias often exists on an unconscious level and goes way beyond gaming.


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