I had originally been planning to take this and turn it into a podcast, but I’m still having trouble finding the time to do that sort of thing, and with this post already mostly written up I decided to finish and post it. It touches on a lot of stuff I’ve been blogging and tweeting about of late.
One thing that’s been on my mind a lot about tabletop RPGs is that there is a set of assumptions deeply ingrained into how people typically approach the hobby. For the most part these are things that are harmless in and of themselves, and in fact making their opposites the norm would be a terrible idea. However, I think the way people are so attached to them, so willing to assume that they’re absolutely necessary, is harmful to the hobby. All of this comes with the caveat that I’m in part reacting to people on RPG forums, and that’s an environment where a small number of very loud people can create the impression that their view is more widespread than it actually is.
You Don’t Need to Explain Stuff
There’s a ton of stuff in RPGs that’s left unsaid, and which people expect to be left unsaid. At the furthest extreme you have games with rules for character creation, skill checks, and combat, and pretty much nothing else. Compare that to a game like Polaris where the text outlines a very clear set of procedures of play, or games like Mouse Guard or Apocalypse World that function more traditionally but explain the designers’ best practices much more clearly. In the Japanese TRPG scene, where publishers know they can’t count on the “oral tradition” of gaming, they developed replays to better communicate how a game session flows, and for a lot of people Fiasco is vastly more comprehensible because Jason put a replay in the book.
I think of the things I’m going to bring up here this is going to be one of the hardest to properly address, because it’s difficult to step back and think about this sort of thing. It’s very ingrained in gamer culture that there are some things we expect everyone to just sort of muddle through, and at times the Forge’s exhortation to stop and examine what goes on at the gaming table has been met with out-and-out hostility. Some people have also reacted badly to how Apocalypse World so clearly lays out the canon method of being a GM/MC in it. (Though in AW’s case we are talking about one of the few games that includes a chapter on how to radically hack it.) To the extent that that’s simply based on how Vincent happened to phrase it, personally I’m aiming to use more accommodating language in my own games (“This is what I think is the best way to run Magical Burst, but of course you can do whatever works for you.”), but personally I just can’t find fault in a game giving clear advice on its own best practices.
This is also one of the areas where RPGs definitely lose out to the better board games and video games. A typical tabletop RPG dumps an awful lot of options and parts on the table and expects you to more or less figure them out before you really start playing. RPGs that have any kind of incremental teaching approach (again, Joel Shempert’s thing about “fluency play”) are very hard to come by. Even a small amount of gradation can go a long way towards making a game accessible.
Continue reading The Assumptions