Wednesday, March 9, 2022

On The Spectrum of Hobbies that Use TTRPGs, and Finding Yours

I don't think that there is one single tabletop role-playing game hobby. The more I look at the culture around these games the more I'm convinced that there are actually seven or eight hobbies that all use the same tools. Just as you can use paint to paint miniatures, paint houses, paint landscapes, or paint portraits.

A lot of the toxicity of online role-playing communities comes from the fact that people have very different expectations about the game and therefore what makes a good game, what makes a bad game, and what even, to some degree, makes a toxic or abusive game.

I think this is complicated by the fact that there are a lot of people who have a vested interest in having their hobby have ownership over "role playing games" as a whole. There is some money in this. And an opportunity to promote your ideological agenda, if that gets you off.

I find one of the most ridiculous things about the discourse around TTRPGs is that we treat it as a zero-sum game while squabbling over games that are, 90% of the time, anything but. You think that we would learn to reflect the medium of the game in the culture around it.

It seems reasonable to me that we need to develop some method of communicating which way we want to use our role-playing games, and what we want our group to entail.

To a degree we blunder into the right groups through the culture we build up around specific games. If you are going to be playing Apocalypse World, you can be fairly assured that the players around you are choosing their game deliberately, and are interested in telling a very very specific story of class warfare, and they are going to want a low-powered GM and a lot of player control beyond simple in-game player character agency.

Likewise, if you are playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, you are likely going to find a group of people who enjoy a game that is heavy on combat. If they also list what modules they're going to play, you can have an idea of what kind of games going to be run m. A group that is still playing Princes of the Apocalypse is going to be a very different group from one that wants to run Strixhaven.

Certainly, advertising your fandom of Critical Role, you have stated preference for a certain style of play that is heavy on play-acting and story.

Similarly, groups with established worlds and characters advertising for a DM show a priority for treating characters as sacred expression of self.

An OSR group is likely to treat their campaign more like a game and see characters as disposable playing pieces. The specific game played might well tell a lot about the game content: a campaign using Lamentations of the Flame Princess is going to feel very different than one written for Bastionland, which will be very different than a game of Knave.

But while we can use specific games, (sub-) cultural tropes, and the language of genres to communicate what we are looking for, it really isn't sufficient to help people:

A. Find the right group.

B. Understand which hobby they are engaging in to find games and content that suit them.

C. Keep any one group from taking ownership of role-playing games and the discourse around them.

D. Understand the different audiences for games and build bespoke content for specific audiences.

E. Reduce signal-to-noise when looking looking for news and social media  connections.

Of course actually developing a vocabulary that would give ask the tools we need to deliberately help people categorize the kind of games they want to run and the kind of games they want to play based on the huge differences in style can be tricky. I really enjoyed The Six Cultures of Play blog entry I recently linked by Retired Adventurer, but I don't think it's sufficient, although it might make an excellent starting point

Any attempt to deliberately develop such a project is also pretty much guaranteed to meet heavy resistance. Partly because each subgroup currently wants to control the discourse, and partly some of the game philosophy on which certain games, like early storygames are built almost preclude the idea of collaboration with people who care for other styles of gaming.

Not that I think that resistance should stop us from trying, maybe, but it definitely is an effort that ought to be collaborative with people coming from multiple sub-hobbies with open minds. 

So how do we set out to find the right audience, playgroups, and content in the meantime?

I want to start by suggesting that GM's work hard to describe the experience they want to offer.  Listing books, games, and movies that will inspire your campaign will help. As will offering not just your house rules but your reason for incorporating them. I also suggest very strongly that we could benefit from finding a way to create short descriptions of our gaming philosophy to share when we are writing up primers or invitations.

I will share a section of my recent Xen Campaign Guide as an example:

Principles of Xen

When playing in Xen, I will guide my campaign by a series of principles of play that I will hold to as we play:

Rulings Over Rules

Using logic, reason, fairness and dramatic flare is more enjoyable than adhering to a complex system. I will endeavor to make what a player describes possible using as few, simple, and consistent rules as possible.

Play the World Over the System

It's more important that we play a game in Xen than playing a game of vanilla Swords & Wizardry. Where something makes sense for Xen but doesn't work in S&W, consistency with Xen takes priority.

Genres Are Meant to be Broken

The lines between Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Sword & Sorcery, Mystery, & Western are a contrivance that took root in the 1980s, and were blurred where they existed at all for the pulp creators that shaped modern TTRPGs. Trying to decide what fits and doesn't will be decided on what makes sense for Xen.

When In Doubt, Go With What Builds an Energy

I want this campaign to be fun, exciting, cool, and pulpy. I will always endeavor to make action awesome and empower my players to do the same.

The PCs are Heroic, but Not Superheroes

Combat is a last resort, and often lethal, victory is never a guarantee, and there are no chosen ones or plot armor. PCs can die and be replaced frequently.

The PCs are Competent and Self-Possessed

PCs are better than average people. If most people can accomplish something, the PCs definitely can do it without need of special mechanics and rolls. Dice are for resolving difficult and dangerous tasks. The GM only gets to dictate PC actions when mind control and madness come into play.

Magic is Weird, Dangerous and Unpredictable

Magic is not bound to a strict set of laws, it does strange and unpredictable things. Spells and magic items are the simplest and most predictable thing about magic, and even they don't always work as predicted.

Chaos Adds Fairness

Random encounters, NPC Reaction Rolls, and Morale checks add surprise even for the GM, can change the course of the game, and add unexpected twists. I will use these whenever it makes sense and weave it into the narrative.

The World Moves Without the PCs

Once I have multiple campaigns rolling in Xen, I will use strict time tracking to determine when events in one game influence another. I will use event tables from the Rules Cyclopedia to help me decide what is going on across the empire. There will be copious downtime between adventures to help campaigns stay synchronous. This might lead to you occasionally running secondary characters while others catch up. It also means that the campaign won't wait for the players to act on hooks

I feel like I have to add a little more, especially about my emphasis on creative problem solving. Thankfully for most GMs writing this would be a one-time affair that could be copy/pasted.

It is an imperfect solution, but it might be a first step in the process of developing a toolset to communicate which of the many hobbies that use TTRPGs that you practice.

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