My hate-on for big swords

OK, I’m going back to the topic from last month, which I chose and choose to frame in personal terms: I don’t like the kind of fantasy modern fantasy adventure roleplaying games like D&D and Exalted seem to offer nowadays. This being a personal opinion does not, of course, preclude looking for reasons and values behind the opinion.

I’ll be discussing the differences between roleplaying game fantasies here. I recommend some brief history of fantasy literature as a starter, mainly because it makes it easier to distinguish my point here. Some key ideas to take from such study:

  • “High fantasy” vs. “low fantasy” as some kind of a power-level thing (that is, something where you argue about how many magic swords the setting presents per kilometer squared) is a RPG-specific phenomenon that is hardly relevant for literature, where “high” means romantized depiction and “low” means realism or pessimism.
  • A central theme of fantasy literature, and the reason for the quaint milieu, is an interest in pre-modern societies. In fantasy literature the society in question is often ahistorical, but the basic conceits are the same, regardless. Specifically important are concepts such as heroism, social injustice and civilization are all rooted in this – this is important, as urban fantasy can’t be distinguished from the classical style without the distinction.
  • Fantasy literature developed in separate strains in Europe and the US during the first half of last century. Knowing the detailed differences between fairy tale fantasy, pulp fantasy, sword & sorcery and so on is useful for figuring out what kind of fantasy roleplaying is doing at any given point in time.

Now, onwards to my own topic:

Different kinds of roleplaying fantasy

For practical purposes, I want to distinguish between different operative meanings of the concept of “fantasy” in roleplaying. Specifically:

  1. The common umbrella understanding of “fantasy” in roleplaying is inextricably connected to fantasy literature: fantasy adventure games are games that emulate and have a resemblance to fantasy novels. There are wizards and dragons in it, in other words. Or at least barbarian warriors going at it with giant snakes; the pertinent point is literary genre heritage, not specific memes.
  2. Another understanding of the concept is that “fantasy” is positive empowerment. This is an every-day meaning of the word, but it’s also deeply relevant to fantasy roleplaying because many roleplayers have, especially these days, conflated the two meanings: to play a fantasy game means to play a game that allows the players some harmless entertainment where they get to be heroic, beautiful, powerful or whatever they desire.
  3. Yet another understanding is that “fantasy” is a literary sub-category of “speculative fiction”, wherein a given speculative reality depiction falls into “scifi” if it has spaceships or cyborgs and “fantasy” if it doesn’t, except if it’s set on earth, in which case it’s either “alternate history” or “urban fantasy”. (OK, in reality it’s a bit more complex than that. Not pertinent.) This differs quite a bit from the first definition up there, for even if every post-tolkienist fantasy writer is also a writer of speculative fiction, not nearly everything that is “fantastic” in the sense of being set in an imaginary world is fantasy in the sense of being a literary descendant of romanticism, fairy tales, pulp fantasy and whatever else you might consider the forebearers of modern fantasy literature.
  4. It is notable that the original meaning of fantasy, “something that is not real, but rather, imagined”, is not at all pertinent for fantasy roleplaying. The origins of fantasy literature are very much in the process of inserting made-up things into everyday reality, but that’s not the case in roleplaying. So even if this meaning is the oldest and most generic of them all, it’s a red herring for analysing roleplaying.

The above differentiations are important for figuring out what I like and what I don’t; I don’t exactly like anything and everything that gets called “fantasy”. My first instict when we’re speaking of fantasy adventure roleplaying is that we’re going to do some adventuring in a traditional fantasy setting – the kind that emphasizes and reflects our view of the historical past in the same manner that fantasy literature does. The problem in a nutshell is that modern roleplaying fantasy has floated into a world of its own that often enough really is “fantastic” by definitions 2-4, above.

The differences between old-style fantasy adventure and new style

Now we’re getting to the core of this business. Here’s how I see new-style fantasy adventure:

  • The setting is a nice pseudo-medieval world that conveniently lacks any of the challenging and difficult features such fantasy worlds have traditionally included. As D&D GM’s guidelines pretty clearly have it (this was in 3.5 GM’s guide, part the deux, unless I’m fantasizing it), the game world should be egalitarian, clean and uncontroversial, as those features distract from adventuring. Personally, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I learned that D&D fantasy characters apparently use magic flashlights in the next edition to see in the dark, to coin a rather mundane example from my recent reading. Apparently lanterns are somehow contrary to the style of the fiction now.
  • Player characters are the protagonists of their own epic movie by right. Players need to have the right to choose who and what their characters are, and nothing permanently bad should ever happen to the characters. The players should be encouraged to make their characters distinctive and cool by inventing a suitably personal shtick and playing to it. (I’m going by the rules and play advice of D&D, Exalted and most other modern fantasy games here.)
  • The GM is mandated to build epic storylines that thrust the player characters into a pretty strained combination of monty haul dungeoneering and high drama. (Exalted dungeon adventures are especially hilarious in this regard.) Failure is really not an option here, either.
  • The package is sold with offensively shallow aesthetics that emphasize cinematic notions of cool action adventure that resembles superhero comics more than anything I’d recognize as fantasy literature. Exploitation of the female figure is just a small part of this, the whole visual milieu of modern fantasy games seems ridiculous to me with its exaggerated weaponry, weird coiffures, constant hammering of violent action… it really, truly has little in common with the kind of fantasy games I’m used to appreciating.

These features taken together paint the picture of a game that I’m not very interested in playing. They emphasize wish-fulfilment fantasy in lieu of literary memes and promote a model of play where player satisfaction is derived from pandering gratification and ensured success, not any kind of real interaction between the players. To hone the point, here are some features of old-style fantasy roleplaying worlds that I think are pretty fun, but also rather contradictory with the new games:

  • A repeating theme of fantasy gaming in my youth was exploration of primitive lifestyle. It was important to us that our adventurers lived in this slightly romantical milieu of the past where people got around on horseback, slept under the stars next to a campfire, battled with trolls and argued with evil barons or whatever. In other words, the memes of fantasy literature were important in that kind of fantasy gaming, which is actively undermined by the stylistical choices made in these new games. The specific kind of literary fantasy is a pretty moot point (I might as well write of dark and dirty cities, traitorous thieves and corrupt officials, which is another sub-type of classic RPG fantasy imagery) when the game setting is actively built to faciliate disjointed power-up fantasy with little literary depth.
  • The constrained character interaction with setting and setting-derived challenge was and is a central part of how I like to engage with the fantasy setting. I like that my character may fail and has to act within the rules of the setting to succeed in his life. I like that the setting might influence who and what my character is. The new fantasy gaming rules-sets are without fail arrayed against this value-set in allowing and assuming character identity to flow from mechanical choices made prior to play in character optimization sessions.
  • Fantasy adventure never was about unconstrained violence and stringed-together martial encounters for me, which is a huge part of why D&D always seemed a bit off to me. My own fantasy campaigns have usually been equal parts social encounters, travel and action scenes, but the latter have rarely been the kind of set-piece battles D&D advocates – the opposition might be too strong or weak compared to player characters for that, for example, or there might not even be any particular opposition to slay.

The hasty reader might conclude that I’m just bitching about D&D as compared to Runequest, especially considering that my own early fantasy gaming experiences were with the latter. But I don’t truly think myself that early D&D is nearly as aggravating as the modern stuff, either – it’s idiosyncratic and truly its own subgenre what with all the dungeoneering and weird monsters, but it’s also down to earth, restrained and intricate. Even AD&D 2nd edition, which was the first version I read and played, is actually nothing like the 3rd edition magic item extravaganza. (Of course, the setting sourcebooks are another matter entirely, but the Player’s Handbook and GM’s guide read like a normal fantasy adventure game instead of a single-minded magical commando operation sourcebook like the 3rd edition, for all its good points, does.)

Wherefrom started my estrangement

I was not particularly bothered by the 3rd edition D&D, actually. The original publications for that are pretty restrained and even classical in places. Sourcebooks for the game are more annoying, but even those pale next to Exalted, which was so awful that I first bitched about it for a week, then played a short campaign of it, then read a dozen sourcebooks as they came out just out of morbid curiousity and frustration. (We’re talking roughly 2001-2003 here, up to the Sidereals splatbook or so.) As I said at the beginning of my last post, I got a strong flashback to all this from reading 4th edition preview materials – a kind of realization that actually, all fantasy gaming publication nowadays seems to be pretty exaltified.

(I should write about Exalted and Harry Potter at some point, my thinking at the time is pretty funny stuff. I suspect that my friends were actually worried with me when everything I read around that time came back with me ranting in rage about talentless fascist crypto-elitists controlling our fantasy literature. Luckily I resolved this at some point by stopping reading all those books that just made me angry.)

I should note that I have nothing in particular against wuxia, anime, superheroes or any other genre of literature. My annoyance here is not so much about that, but about the lame and superficial way modern designers seem to be taking in replacing classical fantasy with whatever it is they’re doing. It’s really not even wuxia, anime or superheroes, those things all have rhyme and reason I fail to see in the stylistical movement that controls mainstream RPG literature.

It’s also, of course, pertinent to note here that while D&D and other commercially pointed RPG publication is going wherever it is going, there is, of course, lots of alternative material out there for all kinds of tastes. I’ve been sorely tempted for a while by the Green Ronin Thieves’ World Gift Set at Amazon, for example: I haven’t familiarized myself much at all with the alternative d20 stuff that came out in droves a couple of years ago, so looking into that might be interesting. Thieves’ World was a pulpy sword & sorcery anthology series in the beginning of the ’80s; I have some rather high opinions about it and it’s pretty much everything that those modern fantasy RPGs are not, so a d20 game built from that might prove entertaining one way or another.

The strange part

The strange part here is that while I seem to have no sympathy at all for the 4th edition D&D aesthetics, the actual rules system should by rights be something rather original and coherent. Everything I’ve read so far seems like it’ll be a quite fun game as long as you engage it within its own context. I just can’t make my mind go with the flow as regards the visual imagery and fantasy worlds used with the rules – they’re all constantly hammering childish and superficial details that leave me little choice but to disconnect from the cheesy setting stuff altogether, considering the game as a pure tactical exercise and not an adventure game at all.

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20 Responses to “My hate-on for big swords”

  1. Linnaeus Says:

    I think the real turning point for D&D was the success of Ed Greenwood’s articles for Dragon magazine, which led more or less directly to the publication of the first Forgotten Realms setting. It broke more or less completely from the sword and sorcery roots that had dominated, if only in mutated form, up until then.

    As for 4e, I’m kind of looking forward to it, but not because of any ties it may have to fantasy literature (except, maybe, the subgenre of D&D-influenced “literature” that started to appear, I would argue, with the Shannara novels). It is all of the things that you say, but it also making nods at making the non-combat and levelling parts of the system interesting and useful. This opening up of possibilities might make a proper action-adventure tale possible, as compared to more or less monotonous string of monster combats that have dominated the system up until now.

    My largest concern is the way that the powers appearing in the previews are all attacks, as near as I can tell. While I applaud the goal of making all characters fun in combat, I hope they don’t use that as an argument for taking away all powers that do not involve an attack. That would make combats too “monochromatic”. “Ooo…I attack….now I attack…now the bad guys attack…” etc.

  2. Joshua Crowe Says:

    The answer to your problem is “Burning Wheel” run to the Internet and start looking.

    D&D is about Action Adventure because it is an action adventure game. You kill monsters and take their stuff.

    My question for you would be “are you judging all of fantasy based on D&D and exalted?” Some of the most cutting edge work in fantasy is coming from the RPG market.

    To name a few: Burning Wheel (regular, under a serpent sun and the blossoms are falling), Savage worlds (Pirates of the Spanish Main, Solomon Kane, Rippers etc), Dark Heresy, Cthulhutech, Gumeshoe (Fear itself, Essoterrorists, and Call of Cthuluhu), In a Wicked Age, Sorcerer of Zo, Spirit of the century, Cats, and the list goes on.

  3. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Quite so, Linnaeus, that’s the kind of expectational pattern that haunts me as well. The combat focus annoys me especially in that combat truly is the least interesting part of fantasy adventure for me – and I mean pretty much any and all styles of it, really. When I played D&D in long term at the beginning of the decade, the focal challenges were strategic in nature, not tactical: it was about collecting information, judging situations correctly, using skills to manipulate the environment to avoid combat and so on.

    Joshua: thanks for reading! Burning Wheel is a nice game which I recommend to anybody who cares to manage the crunch. It’s also very much the opposite of modern D&D when it comes to issues like character empowerment, violence, sexual exploitation and other features of the new style fantasy I’m complaining about here.

    The rest of your list is also full of great games, a veritable proof that the indies are approaching the cultural zeitgeist in a rather different manner from the larger publishers. The reasons for this might be pretty interesting – part might be in the production costs of doing really slick and cheesy geek fantasy, but perhaps target audiences matter as well: most indie designers seem to be targeting their work for a considerably more mature audience, while the big publishers try for as young people as feasible.

    So I guess my answer to you is that I definitely am not judging all fantasy gaming based on D&D and Exalted. I’m only judging the annoying plastic violence cheesecake that WotC and subsidiary publishers are peddling nowadays.

  4. Joshua Crowe Says:

    Something that I noticed during an online discussion a few days ago is the pricing of WotC books.

    MSRP of the Basic 4ed Books $104

    Comparable other Books:
    Dark Heresy $50
    Pirates of the Spanish Main $40
    Cthulutech $50
    Rifts $36
    Hero System $50
    Gurps $85
    Burning wheel $25
    Mutants and Masterminds $40

    The MSRP is generally twice as much (except for Gurps) and to be fair it comes with slightly more creatures and equipment, but add one sourcebook and you are comparable there as well.

    At the Mass Market prices that only WotC can get, you (the consumer) are overpaying for content, unless you think D&D is twice as good.

  5. NiTessine Says:

    I kinda like Exalted, actually. It’s so over the top that it’s hard to take any of it seriously, and if you squint and look at it just so, the general impracticality of armour and gear makes a sort of sense. Even the huge swords are explained, which, in my mind, makes it more or less okay.

    The cover of Savant and Sorceror is still stupid, though.

    Also, as far as high-powered fantasy games go, it’s a lot better than high-level D&D.

    As for 4E… yeah. Did you know WotC’s Standards of Content specifically say “WotC will not use sex to sell”?

    I don’t even consider fourth edition Dungeons & Dragons anymore. It’s gone too far from its roots, shed too much of what makes the game cool, fun, and interesting. Too much of this is done simply for the sake of change, and justified with faulty logic and statements with questionable factual value. They’re marketing it to the WoW crowd and taking the old fans for granted.

    I can’t see anything good coming out of this.

    The cheesecake is strongly present in World of Warcraft, too. An armour set that looks like a Merkava tank on a male character consists of knee-length boots, a g-string and bra on a female. It’s just one of the many reasons I never, ever create a female character in that game (the biggest reason being the mouth-breathers who’d ask for cybersex).

    Meanwhile, Pathfinder is looking better than ever. Incidentally, according to a friend of mine, Head Publisher Erik Mona stated on the Paizo boards that he also hates this style of fantasy art and most of the gratuitous nudity will be cut from the final version. I’d provide a link, but he didn’t give one and I hate navigating their boards.

  6. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Good stuff, Jukka. I agree on each point, even on Exalted: I like many things about it as well, it’s an interesting setting. It’s the same thing with D&D or World of Warcraft as well, really: the objectionable content is mostly surface gloss and choices about how things are represented. Exalted could be and in the main rulebook largely is depicted to be more about mythic heroes in a sword & sorcery setting and less about glossy videogame paraphelia. It’s an unified front of glossy American mall-geek aesthetics that can be ignored if you want to. Still, it’s part of the package, and apparently should be taken as intstructive of what the publisher imagines his game to be.

    (Mall-geek: one of those little subliterate twerps who hang around at console game shops. The target audience of modern computer games and, by extension, roleplaying and other games. Apparently they have more money than I do or something.)

    That’s really my actual message in this series of postings, you can go read it on the last paragraph of the original message: I don’t know that my aesthetics are any better than anybody else’s, but I find it interesting how this, this… singular focus on things being cool and flashy (meaning, sexualized and hyperviolent in a colorful way) is starting to get to me after years of pop culture exposure to such a degree that I’m feeling little motivation to sample the 4th edition D&D at all. And I’m the kind of person who, generally speaking, likes all kinds of games, even if I’m a bit picky withing a given genre. The whole thing with magic wands instead of lanterns and spiky protrusions in armors and all societal roles determined in terms of damage output per round… it’s just so geeky that I don’t know how to handle it. So I was thinking, perhaps this surface-level aesthetic stuff is something that should be discussed more when we talk about different styles of gaming. And perhaps it’s a sign of the entertainment medium growing up that we have these different styles and expectations that people like me feel so strongly about as to choose our game content based on it.

    I’m going to write about the presentation of women in roleplaying games later this week; it’s a good topic of which much can be said, and it’s a big part of why this new-style fantasy isn’t working for me. The idea that I’d be attracted to a game because it has cheesecake on the cover speaks of such a different set of priorities that I’m rather at a loss of words (as can be seen from my rambling writing in these blog entries).

  7. Brand Robins Says:

    I always found it interesting that in almost every Exalted game I ever played the Solars ended up pulling a V for Vendetta, tearing down the system that had created them, and then destroying themselves because it was the only/best/easiest/whatever way to keep themselves from becoming the gods that had created the old system.

    As for your deeper points, I too find myself becoming annoyed with the emphasis on ultra-violence and narcissistic /objectified sexuality as the default for fantasy, and fantasy RPGs. Violence and sex are actually things I quite like, but the Clockwork Orange meets Victoria’s Secret takes the very elements that I like about those things and turns them inside out.

    I find it especially ironic that in some ways the package simply doesn’t fit the product. There is (in my experience) more sex and violence in Pendragon than in Exalted, but if you judged by the covers you’d never know.

  8. Ralph Says:

    I’m not sure if I completely follow. When I was a kid I wanted my fantasy roleplay to be historically accurate. For a home made 11th century medieval game I took “those who fight, those who pray, and those who work” and made character classes out of them. For a game set in pre Roman Gaul I spent hours at the library trying to research what a period village actually looked like, only to find that the buildings at the time were giant round wig-wam like structures…cool stuff.

    But I also read a lot of celtic and gaelic mythology…where heroes had spiky rainbow colored hair and performed absurd feats on par with anything anime has come up with…like jumping a chariot over a tree and running across rain drops, or killing 10,000 enemies single handedly, skewering 100 men with each thrust.

    That’s all period, thematic original historical mythical fantasy. Compared to that, games like Exalted seem pretty tame. I believe it was Ulysseus who had a bow that only he could draw, and someone I can’t remember had a sword it took 10 normal men to carry. And I’ve seen some honest to god swords in museums…not replicas, the real thing…not COMBAT swords mind you…ceremonial parade swords…but easily bigger than that sword in the picture you posted last week…an actual honest to god historical “weapon”.

    I guess I’m just not seeing the dividing line you’re seeing.

    Sure, we did our share of primitive “survive in a pretech world” sort of thing, but we also did the “take magic to its logical conclusion” thing. 1 ed AD&D had a continual light spell that illuminated an area better than any lantern and was permanent. No adventurer in any party we ever had used a lantern for light. They all had “continual light flashlights”…and given how common low level magic users were, such things should be fairly ubiquitous. So “sun rods” or whatever they’re called seem eminently sensible to me…far more thematically appropriate then pretending people would still use lanterns in a world with cheap continual light spells. And what king would build a castle with an army of stone masons when a few wizards with “Wall of Stone” spells could get the job done way faster.

    I don’t know…the only shift I’m seeing is that the fantasy art is no longer Fanzeta and Angus McBride but instead Manga and Anime. I’m not really a fan of that style of art, but that hardly seems like an inditement of current fantasy.

    And cheesecake on the cover is hardly a new phenomenon. I’ve got posters from way back in the early 80s that were cheesecake. I’ve got gaming books from the early 80s chock full of hot women. I’ve got fantasy paperback novels from the 70s with scantily clad wenches draped over huge muscular barbarians. I don’t take issue with you having a problem with that…but I do get a little curious as to how you can ascribe it to “new-style fantasy”…seems to me its been (for better or worse) part of fantasy for decades…one could possibly make a case going all the way back to the beginning…I mean I’ve read text from actual bestiaries from the 13th century where Unicorns were said to suckle at the breast of virgins…and rare is there a medieval artistic depiction of hell that isn’t chock full of nekked.

    I guess I’m having trouble seeing crazy stunts, crazy hair styles, crazy weapons, focus on killing over all else, or the objectification of women as being at all new. Its all been part of fantasy as long as I can remember, and part of the orginal myths and legends that inspired fantasy centuries before that.

    Heck, there’s nothing in any modern RPG that’s more sexualized, hyperviolent, and focused on being cool and flashy than Irish Myth.

  9. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Ralph: I guess the dividing line I’m seeing is pretty much about cultural respectability. Irish myth has mad props as far as I’m concerned, it’s not written in a calculated manner to tweak the perceptions of cool possessed by underage geeks. What can I say, I just view these works in a different light based on how things are expressed and in what context.

    As for the sexual angle, I wrote another post where I tried my best to clarify it. I don’t mind sexual stuff in rpgs, particularly, but what annoys me as audience is childish superficiality. So I guess it’s the good ol’ eroticism vs. pornography divide: if I like it, it’s appropriate, if I don’t, it’s not. I’m writing about my own preferences here and trying to explain them, not so much prescribing for others what they should be liking.

    Ultimately, modern fantasy rpgs seem increasingly childish to me, and that’s what I’m trying to grapple with in these long blog posts.

  10. Matt Says:

    In all honestly, I can’t really see static entertainment like fantasy novels as ever being more than tangentially relevant to interactive entertainment like roleplaying games.

    That said, there are definitely points I agree with, here. I think many of the issues cited have less to with the games themselves than the people playing them, but I’d certainly agree that the phenomena described aren’t in line with the kind of game I want to play. (Well, except for the magic flashlights, really. I ain’t all that interested in replicating medieval life.)

  11. Ralph Says:

    I don’t Eero, there’s a part of me that suspects very much that the Irish Myths were told in a manner precisely calculated to tweak the perception of cool of the story tellers audience.

    I’m not so sure that much of what we hold up and admire as being deep and culturally important in mythology isn’t just the veneer of respectability that seems to accrue to old things. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if when the myths were being related by oral tradition..that they weren’t essentially the pop culture schlock of their day…meaning fulfilling much the same role of getting a cheap rise out of the audience…probably to serve the story tellers agenda.

  12. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    Yeah, I find that a pretty believable scenario, Ralph. It’s all in the context for me, though – ancient schlock entertainment becomes a thought-provoking curiosity with enough time and a different context. When an ancient myth does some easy twist and, I don’t know, has the hero win an immortal pig from a giant in a monty-haulish manner, it doesn’t annoy me that much because I’m not reading that myth for personal entertainment, but to understand the culture where the myth originated.

    I should again emphasize that I have no pre-conceived boundaries in what I find appropriate or interesting in entertainment. It’s just that the particular combinations I see in recent fantasy games seem trite and uninteresting to me. I’d be quite fine with calculated and prepackaged entertainment, I suspect, if it was calculated and prepackaged for me instead of subliterate teenagers. Much of that is in the presentation, as well – most of the features that annoy me in recent fantasy games would be quite fine and appropriate in a superhero game, it seems to me… although the fascist wish-fulfillment power-up curve would still be thick in the air, I guess, and wouldn’t be helped by a genre shift. Superman going around killing criminals for xp would be just as strange, presumably. So no, I’m not sure if anything can help this stuff, really.

  13. HiQKid Says:

    “The strange part

    The strange part here is that while I seem to have no sympathy at all for the 4th edition D&D aesthetics, the actual rules system should by rights be something rather original and coherent. Everything I’ve read so far seems like it’ll be a quite fun game as long as you engage it within its own context. I just can’t make my mind go with the flow as regards the visual imagery and fantasy worlds used with the rules – they’re all constantly hammering childish and superficial details that leave me little choice but to disconnect from the cheesy setting stuff altogether, considering the game as a pure tactical exercise and not an adventure game at all.”

    Oddly enough, I think that is what they want you to do. I also think that has been the trend for a bit now (for most of 3rd/3.5 edition of D&D). They’re trying to create a toolbox, but they need some nice red paint to finish it in. I don’t think they are actual worried about the outside coating too much, which is why we get this rather lackluster fluff and setting bit. And I think we know it, and I think the designers know it.

    But they won’t admit it. Or maybe they’re being forced to “package” it this way by higher-ups. Either way, we get this situation where the designers say something like this “We’ll, we’ve got this great engine, a nice chassis, great mileage. But… it needs some great body work so that people will buy it.”.

    But does it really need the body work? Would the new D&D sell as well if they took the mechanics and rules and cut out all the unnecessary setting and fluff, all the pictures? And replaced all that with options on how to use this engine, suggestions on settings, fluff, and flavor… really varied ones, not actively promoting any one option?

    Unfortunately (Or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), I think it wouldn’t sell as well that way. Even though some of us might find it preferable.

    In closing, I think that there are three major possibilities. Either the designers don’t really know what players want, A Higher Power is interfering with the designers work for some “profit” concerns (Either real or imagined), or WoTC and similar companies are trying to cater to too many (or the wrong) viewpoints (And all viewpoints are equally viable, just not with the same game).

    I think it’s probably the last one, but who knows.
    All of the above is simply my own opinion, and I may be (Read: Probably am) wrong.

  14. HiQKid Says:

    I realized, after sleep and some thought, that I was wrong in some respects above. Particularly, I said that D&D as toolkit is a new thing. I realized that is probably wrong and D&D has always been this way, but it’s been integrated with setting through the second and third editions.

    So, honestly, I’m not sure what the problem is. But some of what I said above may be valid.

  15. Joshua BishopRoby Says:

    Also consider, Eero, that driving you off may be intentional.

    It’s not so much that the mall-geeks have more money than you do, but that they’re way more willing to part with it… or get money from mom/grandma/firstjob and put it into games. Before denigrating a product as childish, consider if its intended audience is, in fact, children.

    (Which brings up the far more scarier topic that WotC is marketing disinterested sexuality and hyperviolence at kids…)

  16. Eero Tuovinen Says:

    That’s a most excellent point Joshua, and an excellent link. Thanks! I don’t have the time the topic deserves this week, being swamped with work, but we’ll return to this at some point. I find growing into an adult in gamer culture an intensely interesting topic, especially when you consider the evolutionary aspects of play and adulthood.

    But first I’ll need to find the time to write about my 24 hours on the Shadowfell. It was very educating, to say the least.

    (Not ignoring you, Kid; I’m just a bit busy now. For what it’s worth, I like analyzing rpg product history in terms of play faciliation – some of the most popular rpgs are explicitly toolboxes, as you note, deriving their strength from adaptability and from simply giving the GM a permission to create.)

  17. HiQKid Says:

    Y’know, I need to stop posting so late. So I’ll try to keep this short. In response to Mr. BishopRoby’s point, I’m not really sure WotC is engaging in the evil masterminding of GW. Rather I think that they are falling victim to either greed or business pressure.

    I personally believe (and this belief only seems to grow as I discover more) that there is and will remain a big problem in roleplaying games, particularly those as “large” as D&D. This problem is focused VS broad games and target audiences.

    Focused games (In this context, those with a clear view of their target audience and designed specifically for those people) will, I think, be better received by gamers than broad games (Those meant to appeal to a wide audience, or without a clear view of their target audience).

    But the flip side of this is that broad games will (generally) tend to sell in larger amounts, at least at first. But this people leave alot of people dissatisfied.

    In a way, WotC is trying to please everybody (or almost everybody). But ends up pleasing very few.

    I think that some of what I’m saying may tie into Ron Edwards’ GNS essay, which you’re probably familiar with. I’ll include a link any how for those not familiar: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/articles/1/.

    But I’m not saying that it’s exactly the same thing.

    I also think that “Indy” or small publisher games tend to be more focused, while more “Mainstream” games tend to be more broad. I think this may (or may not) lead to a trend of people playing “Mainstream” games, enjoying them somewhat but being dissatisfied, and then moving over to “Indy” games.

    What I wonder is, will there ever come a day when this moving progress to a point that the current “Mainstream” ceases to exist and “Indy” games (Though certainly not a single game) essentially become the “New Mainstream”?

    I might just be spouting off sleep deprived nonsense, who knows? But it sounds good now, and maybe it’ll have some value to someone out there.

    (And to Mr. Tuovinen, worry not. Take your time and do what you must.)

  18. HiQKid Says:

    Wow, to think I said I’d try and keep that short. Sorry.

    And to make this post actually useful, I’d like to say I’m quite interested in hearing about your opinion on Shadowfell. I’ve got it, am running it, and beginning to form some of my own opinions. But I’m going to wait a bit for those.

  19. Jonathan Says:

    Hi! New to this blog.. LOVE this post. Someone else pointed me here as it was nominated for the upcoming 2008 RPG Blog Anthology. I’ve also added you to my blogroll and reader. Nice work!

  20. Abkajud Says:

    Love your blog, Eero.

    I have to say that D&D can do what it likes. I consider D&D, Exalted, the whole bevy of White Wolf games, and so on to be stepping stones at best, and stumbling blocks at worst, on the way to more interesting fare. Insert standard “But if it’s fun, that’s the most important thing, blah blah…” 🙂

    That’s a fascinating insight about Irish myth, Ralph. That reminds me of the incomprehensibly weird nature of the Norse indigenous origin myth – there’s stuff about milking a cosmic cow, the cow licking some giant’s face, something about a duck and an egg, I think… not exactly what you’d call coherent stuff, or anything with more panache than a late 1970s D&D module. It’s, well, kind of goofy, actually.

    But I interpret the thrust of Eero’s frustration to be “wow, it’d be nice if my RPGs didn’t remind me of going to the mall, and most video games. Separation, please!” Even going back to my old Mage: the Ascension books, and just looking at how *hard* White Wolf was trying to have an “awesome” product layout.. it’s a little painful how hard they were trying to be cool. They succeeded, in places, but failed in others. Honestly, it’s the Encyclopedia Britannica approach to rules design (read: YES we need 400 pages! WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU) that turns me off more than anything, in congruence with enormous prices and stuff.

    I dunno, for forty-five bucks I’d like something with a little more style and focus, you know? Those Sorcerer books, with their under-100 page count and their postcard-sized cover, they’re just more intriguing and less text-booky, which makes them look more like fun and less like an endeavor. I guess that’s my main point.


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