My Changing Attitude to Non-Traditional RPGs

One of the big lessons I took from my return to regular gaming under Lockdown was the need to re-examine old ideas. As I have said before, I returned to gaming convinced that I was a pretty good GM but I soon realised that my perceived competence was more a result of unchanging habit and unquestioned bluster than real skill.

One of the ideas I wanted to re-examine – Particularly in the wake of my experiences playing Dewey’s Ten Candles – was my resistance to the idea of non-traditional RPGs. By “non-traditional RPGs”, I mean the kinds of games developed by the designers who used to post to the Forge message board as well as the people who would then go on to operate under such rubrics as ‘indie’ or ‘story’ games.

I am aware that this describes a hell of a lot of games and covers a hell of a lot of ludic territory and so a more accurate description of the kinds of game I tended to ignore would be games that challenge the power structures of traditional gaming tables by deconstructing the role of the Game Master by re-distributing narrative responsibilities more equally throughout the group.

For ages, I refused to engage with this type of game. Then I returned to gaming and decided to give them a go. Not for the first time in my life, I wound up feeling a sense of profound shame and sadness over my own pig-headed stupidity.

Non-traditional RPGs are a vast amount of fun and I can see myself playing more and more of them in the future. However, now that the scales have fallen from my eyes and I have realised the error of my ways, I think it might be worth trying to understand where the resistance may have been coming from. As a result, I have tried to boil my fears down to a series of slogans or maxims that stuck around in my head for far too long.

Sit perfectly still… only I get to be an auteur’

I have never had any desire to try my hand at writing fiction but I recognise that what drew me to running RPGs is similar to what pushes other people to take up writing. I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to explore themes, I wanted to build worlds, and I did not want to surrender my creative agency or share any of the authorial powers vested in the figure of the traditional GM.

To make matters worse, one of the ways in which non-traditional RPGs deconstruct the role of the GM is by doing away with the need for pre-game preparation and focusing all creative energies on the session itself.

Given that our lives have become ever-more dominated by attention economics, a lot of non-traditional game designers have used the lack of prep time as a selling point for their games. However, I have never been one to see prep time as any kind of chore… one of the chief pleasures of gaming has always been coming up with a load of weird stuff in your free time and then sharing it with your friends once you sit down at the gaming table. For me, ‘no prep time’ is a bit like that story about the first generation of Betty Crocker cakes. I want to put time into coming up with stuff for my friends… I do it because I enjoy the process and I enjoy making them laugh, cry, groan, or try to flip the table. I want to break my own eggs.

I wanted to make my own cake. I still do, but I also recognise that there’s fun to be had throwing a load of ingredients into a bowl with your friends.

‘Focused Games are Shallow Games.’

One of the Forge’s animating principles was the need to address the issue of games with incoherent creative agendas.

This issue stems from the now pretty much universally accepted idea that different people enjoy different things about RPGs and that forcing people to do things they don’t enjoy can result in the kind of social tension that can spoil an evening’s play and eventually destroy a gaming group. One of the ways in which non-traditional games address this problem is by aiming to produce games with unambiguous creative agendas. The idea being that you can eliminate tensions by making it clear exactly what game it is you’re supposed to be playing. So if your group don’t enjoy a particular style of play then don’t choose to play that style of game.

While I can see how this might work in theory, in practice I think this approach does nothing but replace in-game tensions with out-game tensions about which style of game the group should play. I also think that while stylistic ambiguity can be toxic, it can also be productive. Indeed, a single Call of Cthulhu campaign can explore any number of different themes and having thematically-agnostic rules means that any number of different themes, ideas, and motifs can emerge organically in play.

I also feel that designing a set of rules around a specific set of themes means not only shackling the group to those themes, but also moving thematic engagement out of the metaphorical or sub-textual realm and into the mechanical one. As a result, RPGs no longer resemble films and books in which you read about stuff happening and realise that actually the whole story was about depression. Suddenly, you’re rolling depression dice to see if they explode and I am not sure how that constitutes meaningful thematic engagement let alone an improvement on the traditional model.

I understand the idea that ‘system matters’ and can appreciate the artistry involved in creating games with rules designed to explore specific sets of themes in quite a focused manner but for me, themes are the kinds of things that should emerge organically through play.

Rules are not the same as system. System can be understood as a combination of rules, pre-existing in-group social dynamics, and creative decisions made at the table during play. It seems to me that a lot of non-traditional RPGs try to deal with the problems associated with inconsistent playing styles or incoherent systems by focusing on rules at the extent of system.

Games that are more focused and coherent tend to strike me as less rich because they take the group’s power to choose their own themes (a power that can and often does result in incoherent creative agendas) and reduces it down to a simple act of consumption: Shall we play this game or that game?

Focused games are shallow games because they are only ever capable of exploring one set of themes whereas more unfocused and ‘incoherent’ games can not only cover different themes but also allows groups to discover their own themes over time.

‘Campaigns over One-shots.’

I see the basic unit of RPG gaming as the multi-session campaign rather than the single session. If I decide to run a game, my plan is always to sit down for three, five, ten, or fifteen sessions. I can understand running a single session of a game to either demonstrate the rules or because you started a campaign and never got round to playing that particular game again but I always find learning new rules to be something of a chore and learning a new set of rules for the sake of a single session strikes me as a rather poor use of time. Obviously, a lot of non-traditional RPGs use similar contexts and there’s nothing preventing you from returning to the same game for several sessions, but a lot of non-traditional RPGs seem to be designed with single sessions in mind and that makes them feel a lot less interesting to me both as a traditional and a non-traditional gamer.

Obviously, I recognise that a lot of non-traditional RPGs do allow for campaign play and I also recognise that a lot of traditional RPGs are really quite bad at handling long-term play, but there are enough non-traditional RPGs that use single sessions as the default that I have often felt that they were simply not for me.

‘That Board game Feeling.’

Taken together, my second and third sets of reasons combine in my head to create a very specific impression. Namely that if a game a) draws the attention to a hyper-focused set of mechanics whilst b) tending to revolve around single-session game play, it results in an experience that is a lot closer to that of board games than that of a traditional RPG.

Obviously, this is not a criticism per se as board games are way more visible and accessible but I don’t enjoy board games and any gaming experience that remind me of board games is going to be a major turn-off for me personally.

I think that this is the point at which a lot of people start in with arguments about non-traditional RPGs not being RPGs at all. I must admit that I find these kinds of disputes both pointless and toxic. RPGs are a medium that is less than fifty years old and if abstract painting can still be painting then I’m pretty sure that you can have an RPG without a traditional GM. I have always thought that non-traditional RPGs were a form of RPG… they just were not a form of RPG that tended to interest me but then again, the same could be said of the D&D5 games that people play online with virtual battle-mats and I don’t think anyone is trying to argue that Roll20 isn’t about roleplaying.

Non-traditional RPG designers are bunch of Stupid Jerks.’

I used to think that the people who hung out on the Forge were a bunch of stupid jerks…

 Even before people like Ron Edwards were comparing playing Vampire to getting brain damage, the Forge adopted a very stand-offish and provocative tone towards the rest of the hobby. Aside from the fact that I didn’t enjoy being positioned as some kind of arch-reactionary because I didn’t want to play Dogs in the Vineyard, I felt that the Forge neither understood nor wanted to understand what I got out of gaming. For example, Edwards’ piece about Simulationism is a confused and squirrelly mess while Jared A. Sorenson argued that Simulationism simply did not exist as a coherent style of play. To be honest, I think that the Big Horseshoe theory may well lie at the root of my feeling that the Forge was a stupid jerky place full of stupid jerky people.

Decades later, my opinions on the Forge have softened. For starters, I now recognise that one way of creating a sense of community is by drawing a line in the sand that pulls some people closer and pushes others away. This process is pretty much universal across all human cultures but the language used in line-drawing is designed for in-group consumption. It’s not intended as insulting, it just comes across as snooty and alienating if you don’t happen to be a part of that group. Much of the social media discourse surrounding ‘context collapse’ is alluding to the fact that while forums and newsgroups were excellent places for creative line-drawing, social media platforms make it very difficult to construct new subjectivities because there’s no way of signalling the implied audience for your words.

Since returning to the hobby, I have also encountered people who are influenced by GNS but definitely do understand what Simulationist play is all about. Indeed, where Edwards’ piece about Simulationism is unreadable, unsympathetic, and lacking in the kind of central animating insights that usually inspire the writing of extended essays, Eero Tuovinen’s much more recent piece is full of empathy, understanding, and real insights into the kind of gaming experiences that have historically tended to interest me.

‘Fun is Less Important than Ego Integrity’

I think the mistake I made was confusing having an aesthetic preference with having an identity. Like all nerdy pursuits, people tend to talk about their interests as facets of their identity and it is really easy to move from having a clear preference to having that preference be some kind of truth about who you are. We can all try something different and maybe expand out tastes but change what we are? Well… that’s a whole lot harder.

I now recognise that RPGs can be different things that evoke different sets of emotions and illicit different kinds of experiences. I also recognise that a number of tools created to make non-traditional RPGs function could stand to be standardised in most traditional RPGs. In particular, I think games like Fiasco show how much fun you can have by putting a bit of effort into the connections between the player characters.  I also think that games like 10 Candles show how effective it can be to tell the group that they’re working towards a particular kind of emotional climax and then allowing them to play towards that particular goal.

I also recognise the need to call into question traditional forms of play and the unthinking habits they ossified into. As someone who has only recently returned to the hobby after a significant amount of time away, I recognise that everything is open to question and worth reconsidering. Nothing should be off the table and one of the best way to explore new ideas and possibilities is by making games that instantiate those ideas.

While all of the above is true, it’s really just a way of evading the fact that I made a judgement, became emotionally invested in the accuracy of said judgement, and then effectively closed my eyes and stuck my fingers in my ears, refusing to engage with anything that might cause me to call into question the validity of that original judgement.

One of my favourite riffs over the last couple of years has been to stress my absolute idiocy. This often causes the people who know me well to roll their eyes and remonstrate with me as I have quite a few letters after my name and spent a very long time being invested in the idea of being smart. Looking back over my life, I now realise that this was a grave strategic error that I made at the age of about 15. Up until 15, I could theoretically have gone either way: Either I could read a load of books, get a load of degrees, refine my thinking on a load of different topics, and take myself incredibly seriously. Or I could refuse to give a shit about anything, tell a load of dick jokes, and spend my life pursuing various sources of dumb pleasure. I now feel that while I chose the first option, I probably should have chosen the second as my commitment to cleverness all too often assumed the form of making these weird judgements, deploying loads of theories to justify them, and then effectively doing anything I could to avoid calling those judgements into question. I did that quite a lot throughout the early years of my adulthood and my attitude towards non-traditional games was definitely one symptom of a broader problem.

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