The Right Tool For The Job
Wednesday, July 06, 2005The ranting continues.
Let's say you're a writer on Firefly. You work with the other writers in a collaborative, creative environment to break a story. Something to do with Inara's dark secret and Kaylee's past and how both of them grew up too fast.
The writers use certain tools to collaborate and contribute ideas and criticize each other and do all that business of creating an episode of Firefly.
Now it's our turn, as RPG players, to pick up the Firefly RPG and create a new story. What tools do we get? Do we get anything even remotely like what the writers were using for their creative, collaborative endeavor? No. Instead, we determine things like how strong Jayne is, on a scale of 3-18. And how many hull points Serenity has. And how many days travel it is from Persephone to Cheyenne. And how much "damage" an Alliance stunner does. And, gods preserve us, what River's "carrying capacity" is.
The writers didn't need any of that crap to create new Firefly material. And yet, RPG books are full of it. Filled to bursting. It's obsession over the trappings of the thing rather than the thing itself.
But why do gamers get such crappy tools? Because they are, in fact, very good tools -- for a totally different job. See, if you are playing a tabletop wargame then it matters (probably a lot) how strong a character is. And how far they can run in six seconds. And how much stuff they can carry and for how long. These things (and many other details) need to be quantified so they can be measured against each other to determine victory and defeat in the wargame.
If it's desirable for Mal and Inara to have an arm-wrestling match, and for us, as players to focus on using our resources and ratings and randomizers to determine the outcome of this match, then yes, the trappings of a typical RPG will serve us well. Same goes for a space battle or seduction or haggling over spare parts.
If however, what we want as players is something totally different from a wargame -- something with the same focus as the TV show, for example -- then these tools are worthless to us. This is generally considered a radical notion among gamers. Some kind of namby-pamby "indie" nonsense with no bearing on the "real" hobby.
Think about that for a second. The notion that some players perfer not to use the tools of a wargame to create collaborative, critical stories together -- this notion is seen as radical. Even though a room full of people at Mutant Enemy go through a functional collaborative creative process every week -- and create the tales of adventure, suspense, and action that we LOVE -- all without the benefit of Simon's wisdom score or Zoe's armor rating. The idea of using a wargame to create great stories would confuse the hell out of them. Why on earth would you want to do that?
Up is down. Black is white.
Don't misunderstand me. Wargames are fun. Wargames with some roleplaying thrown in are even more fun. I love 'em. And brother, if that's what you want to do, you are in hog heaven. There are eighty bajillion games out there made just for you. I like Savage Worlds, myself. And D&D3E is pretty fun too.
But what if you want something else? What then? First, expect the RPG community at large to call you names and shun you. They figured out what "roleplaying" was long ago, and don't you dare try to tell them different. Second, you don't have many games to choose from. Because everyone already has this roleplaying thing all figured out remember? People have Dexterity scores. That's just the way it is.
The truth is, no one thought about it at first. The wargaming box grew large enough to include everything. People marketed and sold games supposedly based on romance novels in which characters had a number to show how many times they could be hit with hammer before they died. And another number to show how good they were at picking locks. You know... like in most romance novels.
Recently, though, people decided to try something else. Something besides wargaming with roleplaying added on, even though that was plenty of fun. It started slowly with a few lone nuts, and finally snowballed into a kind of movement. A ragged bunch of folks who decided that roleplaying wasn't just wargaming with roleplaying added on. It was something else, too. And each person had a different idea of that that something else might be, and they started making new games and us gamers started getting brand new tools.
So now, we can actually decide what kind of job we want to do, as a gamer. And then look in our toolshed and grab the right one. Or, if it's not there, we can start making it ourselves.
Which brings me back to the Firefly example. What do we do, if we don't want to wargame and roleplay on top of it? Matt Wilson has an answer. He wrote a clever little game called Primetime Adventures. It actually takes that functional creative process that the Firefly writers use, and turns it into a fun activity you can have with your friends over a few evenings. And you know what? If you follow the steps in the game text, you can create some pretty nifty stories of drama, adventure, and relationships -- kinda like those wiley Mutant Enemy folks.
A lot of people say this isn't "really" roleplaying. And that's fine by me. They can have their thing. What matters to me is that my toolshed is starting to get full. I look in there, and I get all kinds of ideas for jobs I want to do, plus a few jobs that need some new tools made. And on it goes.
Thank you Ron, Clinton, James, Jonathan, Robin, Paul, Vincent, and the Matts.