Monday, April 6, 2020

Innovation in RPG-Land (Part 1?)

Alright, let's talk games. I've been carrying this post with me for some time now. However, it's a difficult one to tackle (as you would assume, reading the headline), and it took me a while to get to the point where I could sit down and write this. As always, this is very situational, or momentary, as I'll explore where I stand on the topic as I write this, so it is what it is right now ... Here we go:

This is how it starts, people. For real. [source]
Origin Story (of a post)
DISCLAIMER: I will critique some thoughts I heard on a podcast. I know we are talking opinion here. To a degree. I think they address some intreresting questions in that talk and I like Mark a lot. Doesn't mean I can't disagree and put my argument forward as best as possible. No hard feelings. Keep on fighting the good fight, as they say. Thought I'd put that up front.
So I saw this talk about value with Cavin DeJordy, Mark Abrams and Cameron Corniuk. It's an interesting talk about how to provide value in the hobby, so feel free to see or listen to the whole thing (here). At one point, though, they segue into the question why we just can't reduce all our efforts to ONE game (or at least the established) and be done with that part to create content about that with a unified gamer base to address (Mark starts the topic here).

And I get it. If you only have one game or a couple of games, you have a broad base of consumers to address and the pie is big enough for everyone to get a piece (in theory). However, I had to pause right there and stare at the monitor for a bit. To be entirely fair, Mark brushes on what kind of games should still be written, and he is quite clear about what games shouldn't be written any more, but it doesn't take long for them to agree that anything imaginable is already done, and we don't need the redundancy produced by all those designers out there. I definitely do not agree with that.

For one, they seem to say that system doesn't matter. You can play a game about pirates with D&D just as easily as with 7th Sea is the argument they are making. It completely misses the point that we would be talking about two VERY DIFFERENT playing experiences, and that is no trivial distinction. Honestly, I get frustrated by stuff like this*.

I also get frustrated by people saying they always play the same game, even with different sets of rules, because it only proofs one thing: they didn't care to learn the intricacies of the games to begin with (not saying it is the case in this talk, but it reminded me of that bullshit as well).

Okay, okay, I'll chill. I'll focus. Again, it's a segue in an otherwise enjoyable talk, and if nothing else, it made me think and share my thoughts, so there you go: more value. We also have to consider who we see talking here. It's a performer, a content producer and a guy with a marketing background, and they argue that they need something to riff off of. Fair enough.

It is not their place, however, to state that what already exists, is enough. Them saying that it's already enough disqualifies them right there. If thinking like that would prevail, we would have no progress at all and we'd have a fight in some cave somewhere in the wilderness right now ...

They also neglect that the only way to learn this craft (analogue game design), is by actually doing it and learning from opinions out there ... Well, a bit more than that. There's some crossover with theatre, media and language theory, for instance, and computer game design did some of the work. However, we are a far stretch from getting something like a widely acknowledged university treatment. So, what else are people going to do if they aim to learn writing games? It also needs saturation to allow innovation ... but more on that further down below.

Long story short, what's missing in that discussion is an innovator, someone who explores the outer rims of what is conceivable and pushes that boundary everyone else is comfortable with. You know those people. It's the ones that will tell you what kind of fringe topic they are dedicated to and what they are working towards. 'Artist' might be another good term for that.

I barely fit that bill most days, but I dare to think that I have an idea or two what innovation is and where it comes from and where our hobby is at in that regard. Or rather, I'm willing to give it a shot to talk about all that.

There you have it, an origin story. Just took me a couple of weeks to finally sit down and write that damn post (might end up making that a series, actually ... as usual, there's a lot to talk about).

Innovation, wtf's that supposed to be?

Definition-time. I'd say innovation is the process of pushing the boundaries of the accepted towards something conceivably better. Depending on your approach to the topic, you'll find different definitions and foci. It'll touch on subjects like ingenuity, inventions, creativity, art, chaos and design and the different philosophical, economical and psychological interpretations of said subjects.

Innovation be like ... [source]
Doing just some preliminary research will show you quite fast that this is a bottomless barrel, so I need to set some borders in this regard. A special focus, if you will. Since we are talking games here, it's a good idea to take a close look at design philosophies like this one, for instance.

Language is another strong contender, or rather, how we tell stories effectively. The design of roleplaying games always aims to manipulate language with rules and behavioural patterns to achieve specific psychological effects, so I'd like to add a psychological perspective to this. Several, actually. To give you an idea where I see a connection , I'd point your attention towards the Big Five personality traits model, and especially the implications of the trait 'Openness to Experience'.

There also is a spiritual aspect to this (which the psychological touches on, for instance via Jung's idea of the Collective Unconscious). Since I did some reading into Daoism and Zen, I'd focus on that for now. I have talked about how DMing (for me at least) has a lot to do with the principles of wu wei (to name but one example), but there's also a lot to say about how mastering a craft will open a person up to the possibilities of a craft (like you'd learn in all Zen disciplines). In that sense, I'd argue that if a craft is adjacent to innovation, following said principles would lead to innovative results on the way to enlightenment ...

The Collective Unconscious and the mind. [source]
In summary I'd say, that innovation in rpg land has a craft aspect (the game design), a personality aspect (the creativity, intelligence and ingenuity the designer can muster) and a spiritual aspect (the goal to permeate a craft towards mastery and enlightenment). The further down you are those roads, the more you'll be perceived as a designer, as an artist even (if someone cares enough to take a look).

There's one last dimension to this that I believe to be absolutely crucial: attempts on innovation will fail more often than succeed. It is a process or thrust of not one but all individuals of the social sphere that makes a hobby (or the part you interact with) and all of it is trial and error.

The exchange of ideas, and even getting it wrong, helps creating the necessary surroundings to create. Innovation isn't possible without it, and although we clever monkeys are able to do some of that by playing with ourselves, it's all the little impulses we can get that really help innovation along. It's the saturation I was talking about above.

The true measure of innovation, however, is undeniably success. It's just important to stress the elements that are necessary to not only innovate, but innovate successfully. There's lots of other factors that play into it and they all are necessary to form the basis for allowing an innovative process.

Other than that rpg designers aren't really restricted by the/a market, as there isn't much of a market to begin with. The few attempts of "manufactured" or "guided" innovation we see the Wizards of that Coast and the like trying their hands on, are weak at best (I'd consider them failures ... maybe I can get into that a bit later on).

This medium (rpg) being as new as it is, it is still a bit wild west out there and while we can already see some waves of innovation in the last decades, the next big wave seems to take its time. But more on that in the next chapter. For now, that's what we are working with.

The Innovation of Roleplaying Games (short history)

The best example for successful innovation is that first game that started it all and how it came to be. D&D was such a huge success, it made its creators figures of history, if not rich (although there was plenty of that). The only reason (I'd wager) that TSR wasn't a success story, is maybe found in the idea that innovators are great at creating, but not so great at conserving and keeping a business afloat. It's different mind sets, and nothing you switch between easily**. Most Start Ups will fail because of that.

Funny story, partly true ... [source]
Anyway, they kicked something off, and while TSR wasn't necessarily a success as a business, the idea of the game they created went, for lack of a better word, viral in the war gaming community. People all over the place took the ball and started writing their own games. A couple of the big ones (like GURPS and Call of Cthulhu) are still around, others had a huge impact on that SECOND WAVE OF INNOVATION (mainly Prince Valiant and Over the Edge, there sure are others).

What's the second wave, you ask? I'd say it was Vampire: the Masquerade, for the simple reason that it hit a nerve in the Zeitgeist of the 90s and switched what roleplaying was about from an outer exploration to a more intimate form of exploration (Vampires, the monster in us, that kind of jazz). That little change of perspective fueled by some actually innovative approach to the game design (storyteller driven, a more literary approach) open the hobby up to a whole lot of new people and games. 

The third wave, while we are at it, was more a technological innovation: it was the rise of desktop publishing and internet communities. It allowed for a whole different kind of saturation, with impulses coming from all over the place: The Forge, to name an early one, D&D forums went strong and started the retroclone movement, the OSR should be named here as well, in it's early phase a number of highly prolific bloggers. To an extent, it gave the hobby back to the public, which, again, led to some growth.

Arguably, this spawned a fourth wave, as a very strong scene evolved around one specific (and innovative) approach to game design. It's something that originated in the Forge, as far as I'm aware, and has it's strongest contender with the Powered by the Apocalypse games. The goal of those games is not so much immersion through exploration as it is about projection. Players are encouraged to bring their experiences to the table and share them with the other players while the games themselves step back and provide just background noise (I talked about the difference in a post, please go here for an in-depth exploration of that difference).

It is debatable if we experience a new wave right now (or the beginning of it?), as WotC enforces and encourages restricted innovative growth through commercialisation of all aspects of the hobby to achieve higher customer dependancy. It spawns a somewhat money-driven sub-culture to the hobby that consists of entertainers playing for an audience, DMs for hire and a heavily restricted  scene that publishes third party material. It goes hand in hand with the assimilation of the NERD into mainstream culture.

The whole fucking problem in one picture ... [source]

 I'd argue that we don't see an actual wave here, but it puts the pressure of commercialisation on the established and that might lead to some SUCCESSFUL innovative responses (we are not there yet, though). If I where to make a guess, it'll go away from rules-light and makes games complex again, just to make entry and participation a little bit more difficult. It seems like the natural response to protect the hobby at it's core (but that might be wishful thinking).

And that's it for Part 1?

This is a new one: I'm actually not sure if I said it all, or if there's more to say about this topic. I could go into that definition a little bit more, I could take a closer look at the difference between achieving saturation and producing innovation and having success with innovation. I could even take a stab at how to handle successful innovation? Not sure.

What I definitely haven't done yet is giving an assessment of where we are at in our hobby. At least not in detail.

For now, however, I'd leave it at what is written here. Spoiler alert: I don't think that we are done exploring in this new form of media. Not by a long shot. The difficulty is in growing it all into an innovative direction. It needs to be accepted as an art form on so many levels, maybe it needs to a sport, too. It also needs to be distinguished from other forms of entertainment, it needs a proper academical treatment, also on so many levels (studying game design, doing research on the benefits of gaming ... there is some, but the list goes on).

We'll see if I can come up with another part and make this a series. To a degree I'll let this depend on the feedback I'll get on this post. So what do you guys think? Did I miss something? Is my assessment in aspects wrong? Please share your thoughts.

Also, you can now read on with Part 2 and Part 3 ...

* ... and, just as an aside, there is only one way to add value to an endeavour: know your craft, share your knowledge and grow. Anyway, I digress.

** So, incidentally, running a business will restrict innovation, unless you find a place for it, which makes Hasbro (or Disney, or ... end of list) no good environment for the growth of our hobby, as the growth they'd like to innovate in is customer dependancy (which actually contradicts the original spirit of D&D quite a bit and keeps harming the hobby, although more and more people seem to flock towards it).


  1. I think that new organisational tools borrowed from Board Game advances may be the next wave of RPG stuffs: Resource trackers, condition/state indicators, etc.

    1. I totally agree! (and thank you for sharing your thoughts here as well ...) As I wrote on MeWe: board game and computer game design are huge areas ripe for innovation in rpgs ... There really was some growth in the last couple of decades.

  2. It's a bit of a Catch-22 now isn't it?
    To keep things fresh and interesting you have to innovate, but as soon as your ideas gain enough traction to support a business it gets sliced off at the roots, cast in amber and encouraged change as little as possible to continue riding that success. Ultimately, success leads to stagnation.
    Why can't we be happy with just one game? There are a lot of reasons. Some games do somethings better than others, etc. But I think that what a lot of it boils down to is that people want cultural landmarks that they can call their own. TTRPGs often feel like something you build as you play it at the table. You and your friends can claim that it is - YOUR GAME - it doesn't belong to the people who are ten years older than you or ten years younger than you or even people the same age who are just different from you. No, it is your game, even though technically it isn't.
    It's a bit like being a teenager in love and claiming Journey's "Open Arms" to be your song. There are millions of people doing the exact same thing but to each couple it rings true. They hear the song and they thing of the times and they remember they once existed.
    Yeah. Something like that :-)
    Good Post!

    1. Thanks, man! Love the analogy about songs and lovers. It's a great way to describe that relationship between gamers and their games.

  3. This is going to be a collection of random thoughts - I warned you :P

    First of all, I'm definitely no innovator (or maybe innovations at my table are happening at a glacially slow rate and it's just not even noticeable) - even though I sometimes do play "new school" games, I have a very good idea of what I personally want from tabletop roleplaying. At the same time, I can't stay with a single game. Even though the gameplay is largely the same (or at least the philosophy behind it), I often switch games to scratch a different itch (WFRP vs. B/X D&D vs. Mythras or whatever).

    I don't think the commercialisation of RPGs is necessarily a bad thing, but paid GMing and streaming leave me absolutely cold (I guess I'm just not in the targeted demographic). In meatspace, I don't even really feel liberated that I can talk about gaming with others, because I'm fairly introverted anyways, and I'd talk about gaming on the internet no matter what anyways).

    Speaking of board games, I agree with Timeshadows - the next wave is likely to be influenced by board games (I think the slowly increasing popularity of solo games will help with that).

    As for the possible resurgence of crunchy games, the 2d20 engine of Modiphius seems fairly popular (but I give you that maybe aside from PF 2E and D&D 5E, most other flagship games are fairly light).

    What good do you think proper academic treatment would do to TTRPGs? (I'm genuinely curious.)

    1. Thanks for sharing those thoughts!

      I think we can be all of it more or less at one point or another or to one degree or another. It's all a sprectrum, isn't it? I think if you have an interest in exploring that event horizon of innovation, you lean yourself in that direction yourself. It is a mindset, of sorts. And it all has its place and function, I suppose.

      I'm really on the fence, sa far as commercialisation goes. You know I dabble in publishing, and of course that always comes with a (low) expectation of success, even financially. Still a different game for me compared to the big ones, and yet another totally different games compared to the entertainment industry (that also tries to shape the narrative how those games are supposed to be, which I definitely don't like). But as I say in the post: this kind of pressure will force a reaction, and I'm curious to see what that will be.

      Yeah, board games and computer games is where it's at :)

      It's only partly the kind of crunch I'm talking about. Seeing how broken PF still is, I think there's still lots of room for development and innovation.

      Almost all of the humanities have potential venues to explore. Language studies about story structures and story telling, anthropology about the cultural impact, media theory (if we can agree that rpg is, indeed, a new form of medium) about how it cosntitutes a medium and what that means. Psychology could be in there about the therapeutic use of games like that (there's already been some fantastic work done on this, actually),education could highly benefit from some research in that direction. And then there is the arts! In France you can study to become a comic book artist and look what that did to the french comic book scene. It's marvelous and beautiful! Some of this is already possible for computer game design, actually (which is a billion dollar industry, so it's a no-brainer, but still). Those are just from the top of my head. There is so much potential :)

  4. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful look at this concept. I am "new" to the current RPG scene, having been off in the corner playing miniatures games for the past 20+ years. I have to say I am blown away by the amount of innovative content available online, and dismayed by the number of really smart bloggers who were writing intensely about the concepts of fantasy gaming and then...just. stopped.
    Looking at the scene now, I do see a lot of innovation, mostly coming from the far fringes, where people are not satisfied with the existing formats and are willing to do something about it. Lots in Horror, Weird, and Niche-fantasy.
    I agree that the WotC model of gatekeeping is stifling creativity, and so is the "anti-gatekeeper" community that seems to be pushing for every genre and every setting to include every permutation of Identity Group (except of course, for the groups "They" disapprove of).
    In any case, looking forward to seeing where this all goes!

    1. Thanks, Stephen! Man, I couldn't even start imagining what the hobby looks to a person right now after a 20 year time gap. Especially since the whole DIY scene exploded in the early 2000s. Also way more drama ... And I agree, we lost a lot of great bloggers, mostly (or so I believe) because of Google deplatforming everyone without clout. In the beginning, if your stuff was good, it could spread, no mater how many followers you had. That stopped over night, but g+ still soldiered along and helped aggregating traffic ... After they killed that as well, blogs went into obscurity and I think it disheartened many bloggers.
      I think there is a new wave of innovationse coming, and I'm looking forward to it. It'll be new weird (or something like it) and I think things will get more comnplex and fringe :)

      Part 2 is out there now, I think I have 2 more of this in me (at least one about innovation during the game and one about obscure (?) sources for rpg design). We'll see :) Thank you for your interest!


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