Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Roleplaying Evangelism -- The Kids Are Alright

I recently wrote a post responding to the "Dead Game" statement in Things We Think About Games. The post, and the original comment by Will or Jeff at Gameplaywright, discusses what it really means for a game to be dead and what it takes to keep a game alive. The short answer is that a game is alive as long as people are playing the game.

The longer answer is that games are truly alive as long as anyone is actively promoting participation in the play of the game. A game that is only played by one group during one play session a year isn't dead for that group, but it is dead for all intents and purposes. A game that is played by very few people, and has no support products (like A Penny for My Thoughts), but has Fred Hicks pounding the pavement in support of the game online, at conventions, and at friendly local game stores, is very much alive. Goblinoid Games purchase and promotion of Starships and Spacemen are keeping that game alive, even if it never sees the promised revised edition.

The whole "Old School Renaissance" movement is about keeping games alive and promoting older games/older styles of play to keep them alive. Some of what the OSR movement does is that it re-introduces gaming to players of a particular generation and gets those people to start gaming again. Some of what they do is bring new gamers into the hobby who are looking for less expensive, and more DIY, entries into the hobby. A lot of the advocates of OSR have particular ideas of what gaming means. These ideas reflect their tastes in the style of content as much as the style of narrative.

For someone like Ron Edwards, the creator of the excellent Sorcerer independent role playing game, the playing of role playing games is a kind of counter culture activity. For him the counter culture that saturated popular culture is a quintessential part of the D&D experience. In his essay "Naked Went the Gamer" in Fight On! #6, Edwards states that the SF/F culture that appealed to him "ran more underground, more enthused about bloodshed and pulp driven plots, and the associated science fiction was rebellious and rude as in Dangerous Visions." In particular, he was attracted to two aspects of the gaming hobby and the subculture it represented to him. These were the monstrous and the naked. I won't go into any real details here, you should read the essay yourself, but a brief synopsis of his point is the following. In the 70s, popular culture itself was a kind of counter culture that celebrated the monstrous and the naked. That the overall culture of the 70s and early 80s was such that nudity in role playing games, or in society in general, wasn't shocking. For him the gaming company's "flinched" when responding to the heightened cultural conservatism of the mid to late 80s. To quote:

D&D went Disney while GURPS shed Metagaming's zesty illustrations. Rolemaster, Rifts, and the Hero System were born eunuchoid and stayed that way. T&T and Tekumel remained marginal, and the latter's Book of Ebon Bindings vanished. Even the Arduin Trilogy, of all things, cleaned up its art. RuneQuest content floundered and was eventually scrubbed to nothing by Avalon Hill. Role-playing publishing became monster-ly and naked-ly cleansed, in as stunning a victory for the coalition of censors as anyone could have imagined.

Before I go on to criticize Edwards view of this as the ideal state of gaming, I would like to say the following. He is right in asserting that the gaming hobby, as a whole, shouldn't run away from doing "adult" themed products. No individual company should feel compelled to Disney-fy their content. I am with him when he argues that we should defend the works, like the dreaded D&D Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry from those who want to argue that its cover is exploitative and that the product encourages devil worship. Roleplaying products should not be written with the intent to "not offend." They should be written to appeal to an audience.

And here is where I differ from Ron in my gaming experience. I don't view the Jeff Dee and Bill Willingham illustrated D&D Basic Set as a watering down of other material. I see it as material directed at an entirely different audience. In this case, that audience was 11 year old me. The 70s weren't merely counter culture, porn chic, Disco, Punk, and Caligula. They were also a time of uncensored Richard Scarry, of Atari, and of Star Wars. The 80s weren't just an era of cultural conservatism and Moral Majority backlash. They were a time of the Atari 2600, Transformers, GI Joe, and -- yes -- the D&D Cartoon. They were a great time to be a child, not the least reason because TSR and other gaming companies began looking to children as a way to expand their business. I was one of those children and the games they presented to me, especially the Moldvay/Cook line of D&D products were like manna from heaven to my imagination. For the child who adores Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well as Edith Hamilton's Mythology, the "Basic/Expert" D&D products were ideal introductions to a hobby -- regardless of Ron's belief that these were "flinches." Not all young people like Karl Edward Wagner or Heavy Metal, some prefer Manly Wade Williams and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

These people need products too.

Edwards makes the logical mistake of associating all appeals to children in rpg content with flinching from facing criticism from cultural conservatives. Certainly, changing Devils and Demons to Baatezu and Tanar'ri in the 2nd Edition of the AD&D game was such a flinch -- and it has been properly ridiculed -- but Pacesetter's Universal Pictures Monsters inspired Chill is not, nor is Hero Games superhero game Champions. He also makes the Pauline Kael error of believing that all gamers share his opinion of whether the role playing hobby, and the old school, are quintessentially counter culture. That is hogwash. The role playing hobby is both culture and counter culture, it has room for all.

This is why it is so important that we older gamers, who play the old school games, support efforts to attract new -- and younger -- gamers into the hobby. Without them, the games will age with us and eventually die. No one will play them or know what they are. TSR began appealing to younger players almost immediately with games like Fantasy Forest and Dungeon!, the cartoon was a natural extension of these efforts -- as were the action figures.

Who is doing more to keep the hobby alive...Ron Edwards with his inspirational, but niche, independent rpgs, or Jeff Kinney author of Diary of a Wimpy Kid who includes a chapter where the title character starts playing a roleplaying game? WJWalton has a post over at "The Escapist" blog that provides a part of the answer. Gaming needs more people like Ron Edwards, but we need also need more people like Jeff Kinney.

I like Ron's work. I often find his ideas inspirational, but the story of a young kid wanting to play D&D with his dad warms my heart and gives me hope for the future. I would also like to add that the good folks at The Escapist have had role playing game defense literature on their website for quite some time.

It's a bad thing when gaming product self-censor, but it is a good thing when gaming products are written for young audiences. The Pokemon Jr! Adventure Game is one of the best introductory rpgs ever written, and one would have to work hard to make it counter culture.

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