I have recently been reading Jon Peterson’s The Elusive Shift, a book about the early days of the RPG hobby and how RPGs became a sub-culture in their own right with their own ideas and values. I will almost certainly be posting a longer piece about the book at some point but I wanted to just jot down some ideas as they occur to me.
The Elusive Shift sifts through a load of fanzines and magazine editorials in order to re-construct the process by which RPG culture detached itself from war-gaming and became its own thing. While the book is pretty interesting all things considered, I was quite frustrated at Peterson’s reluctance to really engage with that process of cultural drift. To be fair, Peterson is not alone in this myopia, when we attach ourselves to institutions and sub-cultures we tend to internalise the narratives that said cultural institutions repeat about themselves. Regardless of whether or not these narratives are true, the fact that they are internal narratives constructed by members of the institution tends to result in narratives that treat cultural institutions as monolithic, coherent things that change according to internal forces but ultimately retain a degree of continuity.
As someone who has always drifted between sub-cultures without putting down roots, I tend to view institutions not as self-contained space station-like ecosystems, and more as pieces of driftwood that are carried around on ocean currents. A piece of driftwood floating around at the mouth of the Thames will contain different bugs, plants, and bacteria than that same piece of driftwood once ocean currents have transported it to the Bahamas or the Norwegian fjords. In other words, cultures don’t just change in response to internal pressure; they also change according to the environment that surrounds them. Like any organism, they adapt to stay alive. As a bug with a history of leaping between pieces of driftwood, I think that driftwood naturally moves around and that this process naturally causes some bugs to fall off and others to leap on. I realise that there’s nothing new about recognising the existence of different types of gamers, but if you look at the various ‘need taxonomies’ that the hobby has produced over the years, they rarely recognise that what people want out of an RPG session might be determined by how they heard about RPGs in the first place.
Back before ET, the RPG hobby could be viewed as a house that backed onto a piece of property owned by the war-gaming community. Most of the people who got into RPGs at the time, came from war-gaming bringing with them a set of expectations not only about games but also about how sub-cultures were supposed to operate. Given that the RPG hobby at the time was aligned with war-gaming, they found RPGs pretty damn hospitable.
This is why early RPGs looked like war-games and why RPG sessions tended to happen in clubs, feature ‘shot-callers’, and present themselves as challenges that different groups would test themselves against. Indeed, one of my favourite aspects of early RPG culture was the way that experienced DMs would not only design ‘their dungeon’ they would also take said dungeon on tour around different clubs. While some of these features may or may not be creeping back into RPG culture, they were mostly extinct by the time I entered the hobby in the 1990s.
By the time the 1990s happened, RPGs had mostly detached themselves from the war-gaming hobby. I’m not entirely sure why this happened but my Marxist instincts suggest that it might well have been following the money as RPG culture in those days tended to back onto the world of fantasy literature (which is not the same as the SFF community).
While that influence and cross-fertilisation was certainly present in the early days of the hobby, I think it intensified in the 1990s and really started to pick up steam around the time when White Wolf started positioning themselves alongside the various scenes that made up the world of alternative music including, most obviously, Goth and punk. White Wolf made it clear that their game owed more to the novels of Poppy Z. Brite than it did to Advanced Squad Leader and so they were able to suck in people who would not otherwise have taken an interest in RPGs. This is not to say that the RPG scene was Goth or even cool back in the 1990s, as I think that for every teenager brought into the fold by Sisters of Mercy quotes, twenty or so were probably brought in by Dragonlance and it certainly explains why TSR’s business model came to be dominated by novels and their relationship with book stores.
Regardless of which corner of book nerdery the hobby happened to be drawing from, I would argue that people who came to gaming in the 1990s had their experiences shaped by books more than games and that this had a lasting influence on the field including the relative importance of setting vs. system and that weird phase in the early 2000s when publishers started putting out books with meta-plot that people would buy and read instead of novels.
Fast forward to the present day and I think that the RPG scene has drifted into a different set of waters. A movement no doubt accelerated by the fact that Dungeons and Dragons is now controlled by a manufacturer of board-games. Looking at various forums and how people tend to play nowadays, I would argue that the RPG hobby backs onto MMORPGs more readily than it does the world of books.
Covid has undoubtedly accelerated this change but todays RPG groups seem less like pre-existing groups of friends and more like guilds in so far as they are banners of social convenience made up of relative strangers who met over the internet. Already resurgent in the age of D&D 3rd edition, playstyles are becoming more and more tactical in a way that requires significant technological support such as subscriptions to online rulebook repositories, subscriptions to online gaming environments, modifier tracking apps, and websites advising people on how to build the most tactically effective characters. All of these things are absolutely normal in the world of MMORPGs but were largely absent from the hobby as recently as ten years ago.
Not a particularly profound or well-developed thought, but I thought it might be worth writing it down before it slips away.