The past few weeks have been kind of bizarre for me. D&D5E and the issues surrounding it have me feeling pretty much done with D&D for the time being. I may wind up playing it if my friends really want to, but as things stand I’m not going to spend any more money on it. When all is said and done if I decide I really want the dungeon fantasy genre there are literally dozens of options, to the point where the only unique thing D&D really has to offer is the words “Dungeons & Dragons” on the cover (and if you count different editions separately, there are about a dozen games with that distinction anyway). But of late I’m also just finding D&D’s mass of overdone cliches boring and stifling. I don’t want to be so negative about it, but it’s the truth that it’s really not doing it for me. On top of that, although the playtest of Magical Burst was informative, it was also exhausting, and left me with a great deal to think about, some of it much more fundamental than whether the witch’s Hex ability is overpowered.
After poking at about half a dozen different projects over the course of a week or so, I wound up starting pretty intensively brainstorming for Beyond Otaku Dreams. Of the games I’m trying to design it’s by far the most personal, and also the one that most eagerly embraces being a “story game.” My initial inspiration to take another look at it came from Epidiah Ravachol’s Swords Without Master, featured in Issue 3 of Worlds Without Master. SWM is a descendant of MonkeyDome, a simple game that’s fundamentally about rolling to see what tone the scene takes (Grim/Zany in MonkeyDome, Glum/Jovial in SWM). Traditional RPGs are highly concerned with whether PCs succeed or fail at things, sometimes to the point of not having rules for much else. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there’s a massive, mostly unexplored territory of games that don’t bother with it. Fiasco is easily the best-known such game, and the results are often exceptional. Designing such games is at once incredibly liberating and incredibly hard, and I think I didn’t respect that enough when I made the first version of Beyond Otaku Dreams that just totally faceplanted in playtesting.
I’ve been going through a slow process of trying to really break down what I want Beyond Otaku Dreams to do and how to achieve it. It’s hard for a lot of reasons. One is that I’m trying to make a more fantastical version of real life experiences, so there aren’t really any existing narratives that quite fit what I want to create. Another is that it’s in relatively unexplored territory in terms of design, for RPGs in general and me in particular. Put those together and through a lot of the process I’ve been feeling a lot like I’m trying to build a castle on air. That’s led me to reexamine some of the games I have on hand and explore others. Designing a more traditional RPG gives you a bunch of cliches and habits you can fall back on, and I think stepping away from them requires a great deal of care and originality. I like to think I can come up with nifty ideas at times, but I’m not a natural game design iconoclast, so an important part of the process has been looking at what other people have done with such games.
In particular, it got me to take a closer look at my copy of the Norwegian Style book, an anthology of short RPGs from the Norwegian Style blog. It’s a window onto a very different style of role-playing, like looking into one of the possible parallel universes where RPGs came about without D&D. Some have fantastical elements and some don’t, but all speak to the human condition in some way. Very few use much in the way of numbers, but many have little cards with words on them: character roles, events, scenes, etc. D&D grew out of certain kinds of wargames, and a huge portion of RPGs show that they grew out of D&D. That doesn’t make D&D or its descendants bad games, but despite them being numerous and popular, it does mean they represent a limited part of what the medium is capable of. There are an awful lot of things that can go into an RPG where the D&D approach basically amounts to handing you a blank page. (Want your character to be something more than a human fighter with these 7 numbers and a list of gear? Write something on this blank page.) The blank page offers freedom, but it also leaves you stranded with nothing to build on. Compared to that, the Norwegian Style games with their little cards catapult you into a rich character and situation. Other games deposit you at other points on the spectrum with varying degrees of success, and that’s one of the things I’m trying to navigate.
I came across Avery Mcdaldno’s blog post on Imaginary Funerals, which I think says something pretty profound about this hobby. Just like with anime fandom, whatever else it is, this thing we do is very human. That thread of thought met another coming the other way. I’m a huge fan of John Hodgman’s “Complete World Knowledge” trilogy, enough so that I went as far as to write my own book of fake trivia. The world he weaves, what Neil Gaiman called “Earth-Hodgman,” is often hilarious, but at times beautifully melancholy too. He’s said that that phase of his life is over, and he’s on to doing other things like the Judge John Hodgman podcast. One of the things that’s stuck with me is a particular turn of phrase. Towards the end of That Is All, he says that if it turns out Ragnarok doesn’t come, maybe some day he and the reader meet, and spend a moment enjoying being human together. I think “being human together” describes a lot of what I really want out of RPGs, especially right now. I can enjoy games that are more about problem-solving and tactics (and have done so extensively in the past), but I want more games that are more directly about the human condition, with or without genre fiction metaphors. I don’t care at all about what sells more or what’s more “sophisticated,” what is or isn’t “art.” I just want games that exist first and foremost to help create experiences that mean something to me, to bring me together with friends.
So, that’s about where I am right now. It’s a really weird place to be in, but also refreshing in a lot of ways.
Ben Lehman is of the opinion that the Norwegian Style games are more like a conscious attempt at making RPGs that are utterly unlike D&D, and in a hypothetical D&D-free world freeform fandom RP is more likely to have been the basis for RPGs. Either way at some point I really need to sit down and explore other forms of role-playing, including not only freeform but reading up on stuff like psychodrama.
Art is a term that has a way of becoming useless any time you so much as glance at an edge case anyway.