In case somebody cares: haven’t blogged during the last week due to being too busy playing. Lots of games and plenty to write about.
The actual topic, adventure gaming: sometimes multiple currents converge at once, insisting on a topic. After the last post, in which I touched upon traditionalism in roleplaying, I’ve been thinking a little bit about what such traditionalism means. I also played Descent to an unhealthy degree last week. Ended up discussing the topic in some length with Sami Koponen, and ultimately we also played a session of “primitive-D&D” in demonstration. So lots of traditionalism during last week.
To begin, what is “adventure gaming” in this context? I don’t mean a specific type of narrative computer game starting around the end of the ’80s; the word was used since the ’70s as a catch-all phrase for roleplaying games, boardgames that model roleplaying games (Heroquest, Talisman, that kind of thing), miniature tactical fantasy wargames and such. The important point is that the term was used in parallel with the term “roleplaying” (“role-playing”, rather, during that era), perhaps to make the very distinction I’m going to make here.
I myself had never given much attention to the concept of “adventure game” as something meaningful for roleplaying. My first encounter with the term as a weighty cultural statement came in Berlin in June of -06, where I met this funny German rpg enthusiast… well, I can’t remember his real name, but I think he goes by “Settembrini” in the ‘net. Anyway, Settembrini was very eloquent about his roleplaying preferences and about how the people at the Forge generally do not understand Adventure Gaming, relegating it to a somehow lesser position in the grand scheme of things. I never got an opportunity to figure out the main part of the message, though, as Settembrini mostly wanted to wrassle about GNS with Ron Edwards. (Ron’s visit to Berlin being the reason for our meeting in the first place.)
Anyway, the concept of “adventure gaming” is actually very useful in understanding the expectations people have for their roleplaying games, which I hope to demonstrate here. I’ve never seen any highly analytic takes on what the term exactly means, but I’m not above providing a definition myself to further express my idea here:
In an adventure game each player takes the role of a single adventurer. This party of adventurers then proceeds to take on an adventure, often provided by a separate gamemaster. The GM controls the setting, NPCs and backstory of the game while the rest of the players act solely through their characters.
Albeit simple, considering this concept as a separate cultural movement within roleplaying makes immense sense when one tries to understand the cultural history of roleplaying. Some observations:
- Dungeons & Dragons was and is an adventure game. The same holds true for any and all popular roleplaying games up until this decade.
- There are adventure games that are not roleplaying games. The aforementioned Descent: Journeys in the Dark is one modern example.
- However, there are also nowadays significant numbers of roleplaying games that are not adventure games. My own Zombies! At the Door! is one such example, and it’s not exactly unique in not having a gamemaster, not having adventurers and not even having adventures.
- Some roleplaying games can be played as adventure games and as something else. Two primary examples that pop to mind are Pendragon and HeroQuest (the Glorantha rpg, note). The concept of “adventure” gets rather frayed in both if the group is so inclined.
The primary question any roleplaying pundit should ask himself at this point is: how much of your cultural critique is actually predicated on the idea that roleplaying games and adventure games are one and the same? Often enough I witness folks making all kinds of false arguments or conclusions about roleplaying when their thinking would rather clearly be correct when applied to adventure games, solely. I suspect that much of the difficulty we have in communicating between “traditional” and “progressive” rpg designers stems from the assumptions engendered by the adventure game model. It does presume quite a bit, even if dozens of great roleplaying games fit quite comfortably within the definition.
What are the implications of an adventure game as compared to a general roleplaying game? Without going deeper into the whys and wherefores, some notes:
- Clinically speaking, the above definition of adventure gaming describes a given set of techniques for constraining and supporting the activity of game play in a roleplaying game. There is also a shared social understanding within the group that the fiction to be created will concern an adventure in the specific, not some other kind of narrative. That aside, one could have adventures without a GM or adventurers in a non-adventure story, for example. Mostly the reason we consider these separate concepts together at all is historical: the idea of adventure game, albeit unnamed for most of its history, is fundamental to roleplaying and has been proven most robust. Ideally we should garner some insight into why this is the case; why roleplaying has followed the successful, yet singular, model of D&D in this regard instead of exploding into a great variety of different approaches?
- Perhaps surprisingly, the decision to play an adventure game is pretty neutral in Creative Agenda terms: all GNS categories can certainly be implemented in adventure games. The adventure is a very alluring idea in itself, as a sandbox it allows all kinds of interaction and different focuses to take place.
- The main issue often focused on by all parties in a discussion (myself included) is the asymmetric power, preparation and initiative balance of the GM versus the rest of the players. The implications of having one player be responsible for so much cannot be over-emphasized, the technique cuts easily to all levels of play. Most significantly, there appears to be reason to consider the GM-player dichotomy as a social lynchpin for how roleplaying as a hobby constitutes locally: strong-willed alpha personalities keep together stable gaming groups with a slight siege mentality and plenty of internal lore and house rules. Perhaps having a GM is a successful design choice not because of in-game considerations, but because it encourages social structures that have proved sustainable.
- Considering an adventure in narrative terms, it is a very important realisation that adventures and stories are neither exhaustive sub-categories of each other. Much of what we see as the cultural history of roleplaying consists of people trying to fold various kinds of stories into adventures, or trying to interpret adventure transcripts as stories. Success is very varied.
What other kind of roleplaying games are there?
If we consider adventure gaming as a historical phenomenon that does not coincide with roleplaying by definition, it is natural to ask what is left outside its definition. The most obvious answer is that the kind of roleplaying games created at the Forge during the last couple of years definitely are not, for a great part, adventure games. Andy Kitkowski of Story Games started calling these games “story games” because they’re often more concerned about story than adventure or characters, say. Not all games in this category concern themselves with story, though, so I’m not 100% satisfied with calling this “new wave” in toto story games. Then again, it’s still too early to even try to define what, exactly, is particular and distinctive to this culture of game design; it seems that a lot of us favor focused design, defined gamey rules and not having a GM (yeah, super-vague, that one), but that’s still not saying much.
Setting that aside, another separate group of roleplaying games that quite clearly set aside the precepts of adventure gaming are the majority of modern larps hereabouts, as well as the tabletop gaming inspired by the same. I don’t think these have a proper name, but they’re generally recognizable by lots of realism, freeform mechanics and a concern for real-life depiction (as opposed to adventuring). These folks play a lot of adventures as well, but games like Tähti is a pretty good example of where they might be going: auteurist freeform realist drama, to stick some more labels. We’ll see how the culture develops.
The main point, however, is that there’s lots of interesting things going on beyond the adventure game paradigm, too. We tend to have rather acerbic fights on the Finnish forums about this, so it’d be nice if we could just accept the fact that not everybody needs to play roleplaying games the same way or for the same purposes as you or I do. This is especially the case when something like adventure gaming is considered: a nuanced, functional and culturally deep tradition, the understanding of which takes time and work. Scorning something like that in general is short-sighted at best. And I say this as somebody whose gaming for the last five years has been 95% something else than adventure games.