Thursday, April 8, 2010

A response to "Just Die"

First, Ron Edwards is to RPG design what Freud is to psychology- someone who's done an admirable job of raising the visibility and (in some ways) respectability of his chosen field, while doggedly insisting on theories that mix some basic, essential insights with a whole lot of bunk.

Second: Mr. Gillen, I don't disagree with most of what you've written. As an attempt to quell the "my sub-area of interest > yours" geek squabbling, it's an excellent piece (with a most noble goal). But your analysis of what a roleplaying games are strikes me as a tragic oversimplification, because it overlooks the one element of the experience that only a roleplaying game (in the literal sense) can have- an element that far too few game developers in any medium try to focus on (Ice Pick Lodge and Eric Chahi being two notable exceptions).

If I just want to roleplay, to participate in a narrative as a character that I or someone else invented, I can do that as a freeform exercise- no need for a bunch of rules and mechanics. If I just want to play a good game, there are board games and video games that offer better tactical challenges in a much more direct fashion. If I want that gameplay to include "rpg elements"- which is a label for the strategic gameplay of character advancement and optimization- then titles like Torchlight distill that far beyond what any pen and paper rpg has done. And if I want to "play" in the other sense- exploring and poking at a virtual world in a way that's not unlike a child playing with a toy- that doesn't have to involve stopping every few minutes to shoot at some wandering mutant, nor does it require that I be a character in some deep storyline.

So what's left, after you account for all of the above? Are rpgs just a combo platter, giving us smaller servings of those elements together in a single package? Or is there a chemistry between some of these ingredients that creates something new?

Screenwriter David Mamet tells us that good stories provide drama- the quest of a hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.

Game designer Raph Koster tells us that good games provide fun- the player's struggle to overcome interesting challenges, those things which prevent him from achieving a specific. . .sorry, is anyone else getting a sense of deja vu?

The unique power that's found in the experience of playing a roleplaying game is what happens when the game is the story. When the challenges a character faces and the ends they seek begin to overlap and merge with those of the player. It's not an easy feat to pull off, of course. Each medium is in a better position to leverage certain techniques to that end- video games can do more to make the challenges visceral, while tabletop games can allow players more of a hand in determining their character's goals (which reduces the work required to get them on board with the character's motives).

To steal a line from a drunken Jack Sparrow: That's what an rpg is, you know. It's not just a story, and your character, and the levels and the xp; that's what an rpg needs. Usually. But what an rpg is... what a role-playing game really is, is you living the story.


Adam J. Thaxton said...

This is a good response. When I read about GNS theory in the article I was a little annoyed; if you're going to write about tabletop RPGs in general, it does good to do your research, and to dig a little deeper than theories that are outdated by the community. To reverse it, one might as well be arguing about tabletop and computer RPGs by using examples such as The Dig versus something like Spirit of the Century.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I read this on RPS first, actually. And you wrote a good response, let me tell you that. Gillen did, in my opinion too, oversimplify more than is at all appropriate.