A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the World of Darkness Documentary and I noted that while I was never able to get a game off the ground, I did buy pretty much all of the original World of Darkness titles. Given that one of the reasons for never successfully getting a game off the ground was my profound antipathy to the old Storyteller system, it is interesting that I persisted with buying the products.
One reason for continuing to hand over my money was that the World of Darkness games were all pretty to look at and pretty well-written at a time when neither of those things were particularly common in the RPG industry. Even if you never actually sat down to play a WoD title, you could still look at the art, read the introductory short-story, and generally explore the very clear thematic vibe that each game put out.
Another (not unrelated) reason was that reading the books would inspire you to not only create characters but also to imagine how those characters might evolve over time. You could imagine a Vampire rising through the ranks of the local Camarilla but you could also imagine playing a Werewolf or a Mage and reaching the point where you got access to very specific powers. You could imagine your character changing and the games you played changing with them. It is interesting how few options there are for marking the passage of time and allowing your gameplay to evolve alongside your characters.
Back in November, Thomas Manuel’s Indie RPG Newsletter opened with an interesting commentary on the concept of rules.
According to Manuel, the fact that we use the same word to describe the mechanical aspects of roleplaying games as we do the oppressive systems imposed upon us by real-world institutions might account for the existence of different sets of attitudes towards RPG mechanics.
As someone with a mind that tends to slide straight off of RPG rules and whose politics skew somewhat anarchistic, I would argue that the reason the same word is used for both classes of entities is that they are in fact describing the same class of thing. The only difference between the rules governing role-playing games and the rules governing bourgeois society is that playing an RPG requires active and deliberate consent while being part of a society requires only that you exist. If you were to show me a well-behaved and well-educated liberal who goes to the gym. I would show you someone who is in the business of optimising their character build using real-world system mastery.
This being said, the idea that really caught my attention comes towards the end of the editorial:
Maybe rules for storygames are more like settings or adventures for the OSR. A good adventure or setting is praised for it makes explicit and specific (and what it doesn’t). They’re praised for their modularity (and hackability). Nobody thinks of adventures as restrictions. It might not be a perfect analogy but there’s something there I think!
Many things changed during my absence from the hobby. In fact, so many things changed in the 10-15 years I spent away from RPGs that I am almost tempted to say that RPG culture has changed more in the last ten years than in the thirty years that preceded it. Take a gamer from the late 1970s and drop them into a game shop in the late 1990s and it would not take them all that long to adapt. Take a gamer from the 1990s and drop them into the hobby today and I seem to spend my time reeling from one conceptual stumbling block to another.
One of the biggest differences between RPG culture now and RPG culture twenty years ago is that it is now possible to get paid to run games. It’s not just that this is now a socially acceptable thing to do, it’s also that there is an infrastructure and a set of norms governing how to present oneself, how to find customers, and how to build your reputation as a professional game-runner.
My first impression of this development was to be somewhat opposed to it… Every session I have ever run has been for friends, family, or fellow travellers and so the idea of getting paid to run games conjures images of people being invited to dinner and offering to pay for their meal. However, the more I thought about the phenomenon, the more I realised the wrong-headed and out-datedness of that first impression…
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.
It’s hard for snakes who eat their own tails to get a fair break nowadays…
The Ouroboros is a symbol that is said to date back to ancient Egypt but it also appears — spontaneously it would appear — in a number of other cultures scattered across the globe. Nowadays, we tend to view it as a representation of cannibalistic futility. Of something that tries to consume in order to stay alive only for that thing to wind up consuming itself. However, this is not the only way of interpreting the symbol.
While we tend to view the snake as a thing that consumes, it is important to remember that the snake is eternal and so its consumption must be (at some point) counter-balanced by creation. Carl Jung recognised this when he adopted Ouroboros as one of his archetypes:
The Ouroboros has been said to have a meaning of infinity or wholeness. In the age-old image of the Ouroboros lies the thought of devouring oneself and turning oneself into a circulatory process, for it was clear to the more astute alchemists that the prima materia of the art was man himself. The Ouroboros is a dramatic symbol for the integration and assimilation of the opposite, i.e. of the shadow. This ‘feed-back’ process is at the same time a symbol of immortality, since it is said of the Ouroboros that he slays himself and brings himself to life, fertilizes himself and gives birth to himself. He symbolizes the One, who proceeds from the clash of opposites.
People tend to reach for Ouroboros whenever they want to stress the absolute futility of discourse and the endless cycles of re-litigation and re-iteration that comprise cultural debate. This is particularly true whenever you think about discourse relating to things like horror or RPGs: What is the point of endlessly rehashing old arguments? You’re never going to convince anyone or anything!
This may be true, but what if cyclical discourse arrising from irreconcilable differences was productive? What if it was itself apart of the creative process? What if the act of creation is born of destruction?
It is not always obvious what a particular game is supposed to look and feel like in play. Even if we can work out how a game functions on a session-by-session basis there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to work out how to run a campaign. When it comes to Call of Cthulhu, the question of what campaign play is supposed to look like boils down to one single question:
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.