Monday, August 8, 2016

The Great RPG Transition

At Gen Con this year Critical Role, a web-show that features a talented group of voice actors playing Dungeons & Dragons, filled a 1,500 capacity auditorium. The enthusiastic crowd prompted Morrus over at EN World to discuss the effect celebrity players have on the role-playing game industry as a whole.

Without a doubt we are seeing the rise of celebrity players. For several years now we've been seeing people slowly becoming known for how they play role-playing games through podcasts, web shows, and the like; but in doing so we've also missed a critical aspect of what such things have been doing for us as a whole. Mike Mearls, Lead Designer of Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition, put it a little bit of an interesting spin on the whole thing:
". . . It’s interesting seeing reactions at GenCon to Critical Role’s show in Indy. Illustrates a big divide in how designers grok TRPGs these days (source). It’ll be great to see a higher level of awareness of how RPGs have transformed and what that means for their future (source
I believe that the rise of 3/3.5e and online discussion forums created a massive, fundamental shift in how RPGs were viewed and used (source). 3e, and then into 4e, D&D was very dense, rules heavy, complicated, and filled with character building options. That was the game (source). That spread to other RPGs, placing the baseline complexity of the typical RPG at the extreme upper end of what we saw in 80s/90s (source). At the same time, online discussion veered heavily towards character optimization and rules details. It was a culture of read and dissect (source).  
Both the indie and old school design movements rose in counter to this, focusing much more heavily on actual play at the table (source). However, the prevailing, forum-based online culture made it very hard to communicate meaningfully about actual play (source). That changed when streaming and actual play vids became accessible to the average DM. The culture of actual play had a platform (source).  
We can now meaningfully interact based on what we’re doing when we play, rather than talk about the stuff we do when we don’t play (source). This is HUGE because it shifts the design . . . [conversation] away from “How do we design for forum discussions?” to “How do we design for play?” (source
As game designers, we can actually watch how RPGs play and what rules and concepts facilitate the effects we’re looking to create (source).  
The tension between theoretical discussion vs actual play has always been a big part of RPG design (source). I believe at the table ruled for a very long time, swung hard to theory, and now back to table-driven design (source). Theory is useful, but it has to be used in service to actual, repeatable results in play. And I say this as someone who veered to theory (source).  
So in a series of 14 tweets, that’s why I see Critical Role at GenCon something that can be very good for the hobby and designers (source).  
Addendum: This ties into the huge success of 5e and the growth of RPGs – people can now learn by watching. The rulebook is not a barrier (source). We don’t learn sports like baseball or soccer by reading the rules – we watch and quickly learn how to play (source). The rulebook is a reference, like the NBA’s rulebook. Comes out only when absolutely needed. Barriers are now gone. Design accordingly . . . (source)"
By and large Mike knocks this one out of the park. D&D 3e and D&D 4e were both cumbersome in the sheer volume of rules, and rule variants, they presented - and that's spoken as someone who loves Third Edition - to the point where it became a challenge just to learn enough of the rules to begin play. Fifth Edition, and to a large extent most modern role-playing games, have moved in the opposite direction going towards a play centered focus where rules not only can be hand-waved when they get in the way of actual play but where it's actually encouraged by the designers to do so. After drowning in the sea of rules Third Edition dropped on us it's like a breath of fresh air.

More later.


  1. I had a brilliant comment but blogger wiped it out without warning (this has become a habit for blogger.

    So the truncated version of what I wanted to say is this:

    There's two sides to RPGs. Story oriented and tactically oriented. These two sides are equally valid forms of play, but they tend to be incompatible. This is because tactical play includes luck, and luck can lead to "bad story". RPGs as theater tends to lean towards Story-oriented play and light rules systems, or rules skimming, in order to keep the audience engaged. Perfectly understandable. But what is left out of the discussion is that the tactical mode of play is also of interest and that people who enjoy that style of game, and feel they are getting something of value out of it, aren't necessarily going to be all that interested in RPG as theater. Not trying to make a huge point about this, but as I read the post it occurred to me that tactical play doesn't fit into this equation all that easily and it made me wonder if it could, and if so how. Anyway, just some food for thought I suppose. Now I will go back to grumbling about blogger. grrrr... my original point was much better said. grrrrr...

    1. The RPG's origin is in war gaming, so it's not surprise that their have been complex rules for the "board game" side of it. RPGs as theater is something of a byproduct of the systems. You need a reason to go fight. Most rational beings will not put themselves in harm's way, so their has to be conflict or an irrational need for adventure to fuel your player's wandering. There's no real way to explain all this without so measure of history for the characters or groups invovled in these conflicts, and there is also a need to see those motivations unfold and evolve over time. When you're playing an RPG and only focusing on one character, their personality becomes more important than if they are just a figure on a Chainmail battlefield.

      Personally, my clients are entertained and engaged in the narrative and the role-play, but they're really there to optimize and steamroll through the combat part of the game whenever possible. RPGs can give a whole spectrum of experiences, and it is up to the Storyteller to figure out the mix their players really want. That's easy to say for me since my games are within an organized play program. There is a real goal and limits on time and scope. These dynamics can be much more complex in an unbound situation, whether it is a social experience or being used as a collaborative and creative platform.

  2. Randomization has a huge influence on most story games. The story arises from the randomization, rather than being hindered by it. Apocalypse World is a good example of this.

  3. There's something to be said for the Observer Effect here. For those who aren't aware, the Observer Effect is a very real scientific notion that the mere act of observing something has an effect on that thing. Every "Actual Play" podcast and video is going to differ from (non-scare-quoted) actual play due to player knowledge of the recording process. The effect may be small, it may be large, but it is there.

    Just as an example, it's clear from podcast like "The Adventure Zone" - one I enjoy very much - that their first goal is to entertain an invisible audience. Sometimes the players take action and specifically admit they are making suboptimal game choices for the sole purpose of adding to the entertainment factor for the watching crowd. I would imaging a 'live play' in front of an audience would see the exact same thing play out. A joke that gets a big laugh will be repeated, for example.

    Granted, you always have an audience. The players and GM are an audience for everything we do. But the addition of a larger audience? That will change things. At this point, I'd have to think about what sort of repercussions The Observer Effect might have for the local table if everyone thinks they need to to it like they saw it done on stage at GenCon.

    This is not meant to take anything away from the points made by our host or Mike Mearls. Just a cautionary warning to everyone to keep that little issue in the back of your mind when thinking about the subject.

  4. Sorry, my new phone's autocorrect seems to have English as its second language.

    I find it funny that no one is noticing it WotC that caused the rule glut in the first place. That was followed by people buying into it.

    The innovations of 5E are things the indie games have been doing for years, and some have house ruled for more than 25 (like yours truly). There is a saying among my friends and I that D&D is always on the cutting edge of the last decade. Like American music is the Middle East.

    Snark aside, I think what he's saying is intriguing, but I know I'm viewing it from an outsider's point of view. I am the proverbial extraterrestrial watching the Human called Mearls in my alien zoo.

    If he, or anyone, as a game designer is not seeing his theories work in actual play, A) his theories are wrong. That's basic analytical science. B) Why is he basing his games on theory instead of playing and running games and generating theory based on what he's observed in the wild. You don't imagine how apes act then go live with them because you think you understand them now. You observe them. You make theories on their behavior. You test those theories. If you're theories are incorrect, or incomplete you watch further, modify your theories, or make new ones and try again.

    At least that's my take. I'm not the target customer though, so I could be way off.


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