23 July, 2010

Old School vs New

My first foray into the world of serious freelancing has been just as much an eye-opener as when I first opened up The Forge and Story Games.

For years I had been working away on game designs in a amateur fashion, throwing together the stuff that I thought was cool, and then wondering why other people just didn't seem to get it. A part of that might be my Aspergers, but another part is simply the fact that different people think different things are cool.

I hadn't consciously considered the notion of what ties a game together, and how it can be used to produce a specific experience within the minds of the players. Sure , I'd been home brewing systems that didn't seem to do what I wanted, and I picked elements from different games until I found a nice set of mechanisms that told the stories I liked to reveal to my players, but I still had no idea why certain people didn't like this style of gaming.

People may argue the validity of the GNS theory, but it went a long way to helping me understand the motivations of players and the ways in which a game can facilitate certain experiences or hinder others.

I could see players within my group who thrived on Gamist reward cycles, intensely competitive to the point of being obnoxious (then saying "but it's only a game"), focusing on specific broken combos within a system (then saying "but there's nothing in the rules that stops me doing this"), and ignoring the story that others might be following for the chance to gain a bit more power over the commune.

I could see the players who thrived on "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" reward cycles as well.

It's a simplistic analogy, and a lot of players will vary between two of the cycles (though they tend to gravitate to one cycle primarily), but it really gave me some better insight into how games might have failed in the past, why certain players will simply never get along, and how games can be manipulated to promote one cycle agenda or another.

It was amazing to see that a lot of people had thought about this stuff in far more depth than I had, and it was a great touchstone to begin my own investigations into the topic of Roleplaying Theory.

I thought that maybe the world had changed, and my own designs had been left behind. So I rushed to catch up with them.

In the meantime, I've been struggling to pay bills, gradually getting out of debt, and progressing through a string of jobs that always lead me into the same social problems (one person doesn't like me, I don't notice the subtle signs of social manipulation around me until it's too late...and by the time I see the writing on the wall, I've been set up to be fired....again). So I haven't spent much time going in roleplaying stores (or comic stores...or any other kind of store where my money is spent on the pleasures of entertainment rather than the economics of daily survival).

I've been in an insular bubble, hearing about how Warhammer 3rd Edition has been influenced by Indie Game design principles, and how D&D 4th edition has finally admitted that it's simply a game about combat encounters and has thus transformed itself into a streamlined (but still relatively crunchy) combat system...I'm hearing about new games that are trying to push the envelop even further.

I'm trying to develop games that cater to a niche market within a niche market, not really looking at the wider picture.

But recent weeks have forced me to reassess my perspectives.

There are a lot of people getting on fine without new-fangled design principles. They are still playing the hit-and-miss game of offering the public things that they think are cool...still using the traditional GM-Player model, because that's what they;ve been doing for years and that's what they think roleplaying is all about.

Some are still going the old route of the kitchen sink (How do you tell someone who's never flicked through a RIFTS book that they are basically just creating a RIFTS heartbreaker?), some are tagging along with the old Fighter/Thief/Mage/Cleric party split (even if they are calling things by different names and trying to show a bit of originality in their flavour text and basic mechanisms).

But it seems that the old school is still firmly entrenched in the majority of the roleplaying field. People simply expect there to be a GM who will guide them through a story, it's almost like they expect their character concepts to be ignored in the face of the GMs plot. They think this is all a part of the game, and since they don't know about the developments in RPG theory, they neither know of better ways tp play, nor do they want to...it's worked relatively well for a over a generation (40 years), why change now?

How do you evangelise to people who complain that the RPG market is shrinking, but they don't want to examine the reasons why? They just throw their hands up in the air and blame the dominance of computer roleplaying, without accepting the fact that the GM-Player split is hardly any better as an entertainment model. Then they clamber for what's left of a "shrinking" traditional RPG pie.

Here's where the problem with my theory lies...

These guys are making money with their old school products. Many of the Indie designers I know aren't.

The old school games like Pathfinder, D&D 4th Edition, and the numerous other products with a supplement treadmill are getting exposure in retail stores because the retailers see the opportunity for add on sales...it's good business sense. They look at a short indie game and wonder if it's worth the effort of filling up shelf space with a product that might move one or two units per financial quarter (if it's lucky), when the big guns might sell one or two core-books per week (and at least as many supplements).

This all leaves me with a dilemma.

How do we get the innovation of the new, with the stability and business potential of the old?

How do we push the roleplaying market in new directions to capture a segments of other markets (cosplayers, comic readers, fantasy fiction readers, fanfic writers)? A lot of these groups know of roleplaying; cosplayers and fanfic writers often consider their hobbies to be "roleplaying", but many wouldn't know how to play a game of D&D if they were forced to sit down at a table with a bunch of others. It's a frustration.

The new school seems to be spending so much time ignoring it's roots that they aren't transitioning the existing roleplayers to new formats. While the old school is falling back on complacent business models that are gradually being lost to a fast-food/instant-karma generation who prefer the work to be done for them through computers.

But even this doesn't completely explain how a juggernaut like Games Workshop continues to dominate the sister industry of role-playing, the miniatures gaming market. They seem to do this by recycling the same stuff over and over, just with enough tweaks to make sure that players need to keep buying the new rulebooks and supplements to remain competitive within the game. And to make things worse, they don't open source things like WotC did with recent versions of D&D, they hold a very tight reign on their products but their market share seems to continually be growing (or maybe they've just become very adept at expanding a market that might otherwise have been shrinking).

It's a lot to think about, and I'm only part of the way toward unravelling potential answers.
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