I haven’t written anything on this blog recently. Mostly I blame Twitter, but perhaps not for the reason you’d think. Twitter is a much bigger pond that the circles I used to frequent on Google Plus. It has an active but disparate RPG scene. Being exposed to it has been eye-opening. So many clever people talking about RPGs and RPG theory in such depth and with such nuance. It has also been slightly demoralising.
(Sorry, this blog post could get a bit rambly.)
To use a metaphor about the Dunning–Kruger effect (a metaphor I also learned on Twitter), since running this blog I have been high up the slopes of Mount Stupid. Now I feel like I have just tobogganned down it and crashed into the Valley of Despair.
In short, I have finally learned enough about roleplaying games to know that I know nothing.
Part of the problem with this discovery is that there doesn’t seem to be an obvious fix. Roleplaying games might be decades old but they are still, relatively speaking, a new genre. There is plenty of RPG theory out there, but almost nothing that people can agree on (and even less regarding RPG criticism).
K Lam (@ladylakira) recently referred to RPG design as a folk art (the whole thread is pretty great, fyi). I guess I’m content with that situation for now, but as the genre matures I feel there will eventually be some sort of agreed framework. Agreed being the important word. I’m aware that such frameworks exist and have existed for many years, but even now an RPG theorist can use some terminology and be completely incomprehensible to an RPG theorist with a different background. And neither of them has a reasonable method of teaching new gamers what they’re talking about. Compare that to film, in which there may be hundreds of different schools of film theory but at least everyone more or less knows what you mean when you say mise-en-scène (or can find out easily).
To me, the first step would seem to be just trying to gather all of the different strands of RPG theory into a single place. There have been a few attempts at this. John Kim’s Styles of Roleplaying was an early attempt, although it’s out of date now. Emily Care Boss (@emilycare) has a couple of pages on her website that are more recent: the Theory Roundup (which provides context and detail, but only until 2014) and thoughts (which is up-to-date but only has links). Most recently that I know of, Blaine C. Martin (@esmereldapod) has set up a website called Artifacts of Play that gathers links to recent RPG theory, but after a promising start it seems to have lost steam.
None of these are complete. No individual could possibly hope to catelogue all of RPG theory. Both because there’s too much out there and because any individual is necessarily limited by their own circles and perspectives. And I know I’m missing other attempts by people to capture all the different RPG theory out there into a single place (please comment or message me if you know of any others).
Personally, I would like to see a public wiki where people can add all the different RPG theory and RPG design terminology they know and cross-refer it all to show the links and inspirations and crticisms. I’ve been tempted to do it myself but every time I think about it it’s like there’s a mountain looming up in front of me… or maybe behind me. As many problems as I have with the company, and as narrow as their focus seems to be these days, the best bet for maximum visibility and durability would be FANDOM. They even have some RPG wikis already, so it might fit. But then what do you call it? RPG Theory or RPG Design or RPG Design Theory? Would you separate tabletop games from LARPs from video games? And how much interest would there really be in an RPG theory wiki, anyway? The idea lives and dies depending on how many people get involved, and that means marketing, and that’s not a skill I have ever possessed…
That’s pretty much as far as I’ve ever got with the idea.
On a lighter note, I am still enjoying RPGs in my personal life. I’m running The Veil and playing in games of Masks, Dungeons & Dragons, and Unknown Armies, with upcoming games of Predation and another Dungeons & Dragons campaign. All a lot of fun and more exciting stuff to come.
So maybe nothing else I’ve written in this blog post even matters all that much. Maybe all I need to know about RPGs is that I like them, and that’s enough.