What’s in a name?

John Kim’s LJ has been home to a raging debate/discussion about “traditional” and “nontraditional” RPGs, along with some clashing personalities here and there. The Forge has put a lot of energy into defining itself as being a community that explores and transcends traditional roleplaying games. One of the things the comments on this post bring to light is that the notion of what constitutes a traditional RPG is pretty poorly defined.

Of course, if RPG.net is any indication, there are a lot of terms for which roleplayers have fuzzy and/or divergent ideas about what they mean. I distinctly remember a thread that turned into a raging debate over what constituted a “splatbook.” The term comes from how White Wolf had Clanbooks, Tradition Books, Tribe Books, etc. for their various lines, so people got into the habit of calling them “*books online, and then the * got pronounced as “splat.” But people couldn’t agree on whether or not (for example) the class-specific D&D books constituted splatbooks. I think this is partly because the RPG hobby is small and decentralized, and even the very basic bits of terminology that everyone can pretty much agree on vary, particularly among the big players, for no good reason. If you look carefully, D&D is an “Adventure Game,” and Vampire is a “Storytelling Game.” (Mark Rein-Hagen was trying to make a point with the “storytelling” stuff, even if WW has since tried very hard to distance itself from its early pretentionsness, just as the indie games that call dice rolling processes “Conflict Resolution” are doing it for a purpose).

Anyway, one point that was raised was that traditional RPGs have a certain kind of power structure between the participants. There’s some definite variability — no two groups play the same way of course, and the GM can ultimately do whatever he wants — but in general a game like D&D does more to moderate interaction through game mechanics. Character advancement, for example, is a detailed and complex matter, and moreover something a player with the knowhow can do independent of the DM. It’s quite a contrast to, say, Fudge’s subjective character advancement, not to mention Dogs In The Vineyard. I’ve been playing with a group that consists mostly of friends I’ve known for over a decade, so I’m not having to take chances playing with strangers, and thus not feeling any need for the added moderation.

With our current campaign, I’m starting to think that doing the superhero genre properly requires a certain amount of trust, because the characters are defined in large part by their powers, yet it’s a part of the genre that circumstances can remove, alter, or otherwise fuck with anyone’s powers from time to time.

The inevitable problem with definitions is that when you create a definition from the thing in front of you it works fine, but then when you try to use the definition to decide whether or not something falls within the area of your shiny new term there winds up being a lot of quibbling, especially with regard to stuff on the egdes. A lot of Forge games are based around altering the power structure of the game — shifting narrative control in mechanically interesting ways and such — but at a certain point (say with a game like Capes that does away with the GM entirely) you wind up with people questioning whether what you’ve created is really an RPG. For that matter “nontraditional” and “indie” aren’t the same thing (and for that matter, “indie” and “Forge” aren’t the same thing either). John Wick’s Cat and Enemy Gods have an unusual take on what kinds of characters and situations you roleplay, but the game mechanics aren’t anything unfamiliar. Mostly your cat or epic hero is rolling six-sided dice and counting successes, and the GM is the GM like usual.

This is turning out to be longer and more rambling than I intended, but that’s okay.

Really, the main thing I like about the indie RPG scene is that it’s done a lot to bust wide open what’s considered appropriate genres and whatnot for an RPG. Ten years ago, if someone told you there’d be a brilliant RPG about mormon cowboy inquisitors, you’d probably have called them crazy. And now he have DitV, Cat, The Moutain Witch, Dead Inside, Breaking The Ice, and so on. Of course, White Wolf was started with a similar breaking down of walls in mind; you don’t have to kill the monsters, you can be one (and not quite in the Flying Buffalo Games’ Monsters! Monsters! sense), whether for deep roleplaying or simply a new breed of power fantasy.

I am so not going to comment on the social aspect of this traditional/nontraditional divide, mainly because it involves extensive wankery on both sides.

So, I’ll revisit that “I am 3d6” post from a while back. I’ve been playing New Super Mario Bros. on the DS, and looking at previews of Super Paper Mario, and realizing just how incredibly cool the Psychotronic Mario Brothers thing that dyjoots posted to RPGnet really is. I was in one of the castles in NSMB, and it occured to me that Bowser has the power to force his Koopa Troopers to serve him even after death, and for that matter he’s recruited rogue mushrooms, living bullets, and ghosts to his side, in addition to having statues of himself that shoot laser beams (in SMB3) in his main castle. I also noticed something that would only happen in a video game when Mario died from being caught between the scenery and the edge of the auto-scrolling screen. So the list of one-shots and mini-campaigns I want to run now goes:

  1. octaNe
  2. The Mountain Witch
  3. Halo: The Covenant War
  4. octaNe (Psychotronic Mario Brothers)

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