Ben Lehman (benlehman) wrote,
Ben Lehman

Thinking about RPGs

When I wrote Polaris, in the back of it, in the influences section, there were three games which no one outside of a very small group of people had heard about before, or since: Vidi Aquam, Threshold, and the Great Game.

These were campaigns run in my college gaming group. My college gaming group had a history and a tradition of inventing new systems, from scratch, to run their one game. It also had a bunch of other traditions (metaphysical stripteases, for instance), but those are perhaps beside the point.

These were creations that were intensely aware of their own audience, and did not reach beyond them. They were what they were, which was a means for a GM / designer to express his creative vision and for the players/participants to experience and channel that vision to the audience, which was the rest of the gaming group as a whole.

I've been thinking about this because I've been thinking more about design, and what I'm doing it for, and why, and audience. What Chris is writing about here, to some extent, as well as some other stuff. Story Games has been going through an orgy of design-for-forum-status which, as always, I find aesthetically abominable, but it does make one think about these things.

Also making me think is that I have become isolated from a lot of the previous people I depended on for creative support. I used to have a pretty wide group of people I drew on for support, but many of them (Clinton, TonyLB) have totally disappeared, and others (Emily) have moved on to doing other things which I can't fault them for but are of little interest to me particularly. The deplorable cultus around the more fauxmous people (Ron, Vincent), has gotten extra-deplorable of late, so deplorable that I really have a hard time dealing with it enough to communicate with them. I have many game design friends in Seattle but I have a hard time talking about my problems with them, for some reason.

But I think ultimately it comes down, for me, to a crisis of audience. Polaris was a necessary game, speaking to people like me who needed that game, and its relationship to Amber and Nobilis (and, as it turns out, Ars Magica? Who knew.) It is awesome and great and it has spawned an excellent sub-game. I'm proud of it. Bliss Stage, likewise, knows what it's audience is, and has found it more or less. But I don't really have a pressing sense of audience, a pressing need for the creation to occur, and so basically my design is long and fiddly and doesn't work. The two short games I've written recently (XSl and Clover) are written for specific people, which is a nice trick, but I don't know if the muse-model is sustainable in the long run in terms of role-playing game design, which demands a community (not a "community" in the incredibly crappy way that people talk about the "Forge community" or the "Story Games community" but just a group of people that plays games together.)

Here's another part, also about audience: When I wrote Polaris I could write to gamers as a whole, because I didn't really have a sense of gamers as a whole, and so I could project my own experiences onto that. When I wrote Bliss Stage, I could go "here, here's role-playing! It's fun!" and that was great. Now I feel an intense sense of doubt about that. There's enough problems with gaming as a whole (the racism, particularly, but also the way that, due to the cell-structure of RPGs, this sort of unfounded prejudice is extra-hard to root out) that I feel uncomfortable even introducing people to it, although it is fun, because it has such serious problems. I don't want to say to my non-gaming friends "here's gaming, it's cool!" because while it is, I know I'm inviting them into a socially toxic environment. So that's a strong demotivator as well.

Ultimately, the question here is: "So what?" I can get creative fulfillment out of doing other things as well, like fiction writing or even academic writing. If there's no immediate audience for a game design, then why design a game? A crisis of audience needn't be a crisis of life.

Still bugs me, though.
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