: Trad vs Indie: FIGHT! pt1
Two of the panels I was on, one each at Paxes Dev and Prime, promised to be trad* vs indie knock down drag outs. I'll take 'em in turn. (Spoiler: they didn't turn into fights after all.) At Pax Dev:
The Modern RPG: What Mainstream RPGs Can Learn from Indie, and Vice Versa
The massive growth in indie roleplaying games comes at a time when the powerhouses of game design are reaching out for new fanbases and new ideas. In the creation of RPGs, we're witnessing a meeting of the worlds, where players of D&D and Pathfinder enjoy games like Fiasco and Action Castle. Surely the two styles can learn from each other. So we've put together a convention-ending roundtable of luminaries from both sides of that dynamic divide. Kobold Quarterly kobold-in-chief Wolfgang Baur moderates an epic panel that includes Vincent Baker, author of Dogs in the Vineyard; John Harper, designer of AGON and Lady Blackbird; Sage LaTorra, author of Dungeon Worlds; Mike Mearls, creator of Iron Heroes and lead developer of 4th edition D&D; Erik Mona, publisher of Pathfinder; Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat, designer of Blowback; Jonathan Tweet, designer of 3rd Edition D&D and Everway; and Jonathan Walton, publisher of Push: New Thinking About Roleplaying. Now that's a way to end a convention.
Wolfgang Baur, Vincent Baker, John Harper, Sage LaTorra, Mike Mearls, Erik Mona, Jonathan Walton
(Elizabeth Shoemaker Sampat and Jonathan Tweet didn't make it to the con so weren't on the panel after all, alas.)
The panel started with some joking about weapons and to the death, but turned basically at once into a giant session of what we like about each other. On our side, we all grew up playing trad games, of course, and still do play them, and now we're designing and publishing games that are like one or two bare generations from Over the Edge and Everway (too bad Jonathan Tweet didn't show!) On their side, Mike Mearls started indie and Wolfgang Baur launched his magazine from his dining room table. If there's a divide it's thin.
Erik Mona envies the fact that we own our own work and can chase after whatever crazy ideas come into our heads. We envy his audience and access to distribution.
There was a little bit of "you indie guys don't have to care about being profitable" that I got to take exception to, but it turned quickly into "what you care about as a publisher depends on the size of your endeavor," which is of course true. Erik has to worry about PDF piracy in a way that I just don't - the opposite, in fact. I have to worry about selling through retailers in a way that he just doesn't - the opposite, in fact. Who knew, what's a good thing at one scale of publishing is a bad thing at another.
They have more mouths to feed than I do, but profit is sunlight and water to my games and to their games just alike.
We didn't talk about design in any detail, beyond "you guys can experiment, we have to please our core audience." Maybe there would have been some, I dunno, frowning at each other, then, but I kind of doubt it.
There is one thing to notice, though: "trad vs indie" here meant "D&D vs indie." This is exciting to me. I'll come back to it later.
John, Jonathan, Sage, any thoughts? (Or Erik, Mike, Wolfgang, heck, if you happen by, any thoughts from you?)
1. On 2011-09-07, Vincent wrote:
* I prefer "conventional" to "trad," as in conventionally published vs independently published, but that's because I'm an ideologue. Only a few "trad" game companies are still doing traditional publishing.
Old ground was more or less what I was expecting, but for a new(-ish) audience. If we had the same discussion on, say, this blog it would probably seem like old hat. But for the venue I think it worked.
I also felt intensely out of my league at first, but that vanished pretty quickly. It was a great time!
Something that struck me at Rym and Scott's "Beyond D&D" panel from two PAces back was that when Rym said, "Some games don't have GMs at all!" there was a palpable *gasp* in the room.
It feels like we're retreading old topics, but that doesn't mean everyone has heard the subject matter, even.
When Jack Graham, Luke Crane, and I did "How to Get What You Want Out of Your GM" and I said, "GM is a set of responsibilities and rules you get to play with, but there's no reason those rules all have to be followed by the same player, least of all the ones that aren't fun to do at the same time," a bunch of hands shot up. One vocal individual said that he, as GM, doesn't have to play by rules, and "If the players do x, then I have to do y". I asked, "Did you just make an if/then statement?" People laughed. When Luke said that GMs are players and have to follow rules, we literally saw subconversations begin in the audience.
It's a new way of thinking to a lot of people. Don't get tired now, just as folks are starting to listen!
I was wondering whether that gap will disapear, but I'm not sure it will; if people hear this stuff, experiment with it, and come talk to us, then that will keep generating new stuff. And you lot will keep having a lot to say at panels that will seem obvious to you but shock everyone else! You'll always be a little ahead.
I was disappointed with this panel for a couple reasons:
1) The really lame "indie vs. trad" setup really got in the way of having more interesting conversations, I think, and made everything about publishing rather than about the games.
2) This was especially lame because it was at PAX Dev, which was supposed to be about game development, not just enlightening newcomers about what was going on. Most of the folks in the room (we got a hand vote) already played both trad and indie games, so we we're really doing them many favors, I don't think, by retreading this stuff.
Really, the couple of asides about designing for your audience were among the more interesting things said.
At this and some of the other panels I went to, I thought it would be better to start with a brief presentation (either by a couple individuals, or each person on the panel, if it was a small group) giving an overview of the state of things. And then you roll into discussion and Q&A. This is how we do things at academic conferences and there's a good reason: it helps focus the discussion and actually make sure you have things to talk about and that the audience gets primed to ask more insightful questions because we're all starting from the same baseline.
As it was, we were wandering around all over the place, especially with the number of people on the panel, and I felt like we never really got down to it and talked about much that was really significant.
Maybe I have too high expectations, but there's no reason to settle for whatever chatter we can come up with on the spot, rather than really knock it out of the park with a little more prep and thoughtfulness beforehand.
There was also the inevitable thing where we're are a lot more familiar with what the trad guys are up to -- because they make some of the biggest games in the world -- than they are with all the stuff happening in indie games.
I wanted to talk a little bit about really experimental design work -- again, trying to play to the indie developer crowd -- and the examples that got mentioned were Fiasco and Happy Birthday Robot. Sure, they have some experimental aspects, but I was thinking more about the less structured, emotionally experimental stuff influenced by Nordic larp and Jeepform or recent Game Chef games that challenge some of the remaining assumptions about the structure of play.
So, in some ways, I felt the pull of focusing on subjects that everyone could talk competently about, which I think is another reason that the conversation got pulled towards publishing. It was great meeting Mike, Erik, and Wolfgang, but I wish we could have dug deep into designing a fantasy adventure game or something else where we all have shared interests and experiences that's still design-oriented.
> I wanted to talk a little bit about really experimental
> design work -- again, trying to play to the indie developer
> crowd -- and the examples that got mentioned were Fiasco
> and Happy Birthday Robot. Sure, they have some experimental
> aspects, but I was thinking more about the less structured,
> emotionally experimental stuff influenced by Nordic larp
> and Jeepform or recent Game Chef games that challenge some
> of the remaining assumptions about the structure of play.
You've given me an idea for a small-group presentation I now really want to do somewhere. It goes like this:
THE 4 PROBLEMS WITH TABLETOP RPGS
The way I see it, there are 4 serious problems holding tabletop roleplaying back: trite content, oppressive social footprint, counterproductive procedures of play, and the microaudience. Come find out how ambitious rpg designers are tackling these problems.
Then we have our 4 well-informed and excited ambassadors talk about how Jeep and Nordic larp, for instance, are taking on trite content; how the Cel*Style publishers, for instance, are taking on the oppressive social footprint; how the Forge diaspora and the OSR, for instance, are taking on counterproductive procedures of play; and how Failbetter and Elizabeth's company, for instance, are taking on the problem of the microaudience.
There's not one cutting edge, there are four.
Or, y'know, however many. Those four are the ones that come to mind. Anyway, I want to do it!
"Then we have our 4 well-informed and excited ambassadors talk about how Jeep and Nordic larp, for instance, are taking on trite content; how the Cel*Style publishers, for instance, are taking on the oppressive social footprint; how the Forge diaspora and the OSR, for instance, are taking on counterproductive procedures of play; and how Failbetter and Elizabeth's company, for instance, are taking on the problem of the microaudience."
Dang, I'd be all over that panel, it sounds great!
Can you talk a bit more about how the paragraph I quoted fits together? If here's not the place, maybe in another post. I actually think I'm picking up on what you mean by "trite content" and how Jeep and Nordic larp have been responding to that.
But "oppressive social footprint", "counterproductive procedures of play", and "microaudience", and how Cel*Style, Forge/OSR, and Failbetter/Elizabeth's company are dealing with those things, respectively, I really don't know.
I can draw my own conclusions and infer, of course! But I'd like to see you unpack these in a bit more detail, if you might. They're probably painfully obvious!
I once saw a way for making a series of talks, where you first off get together a load of people you think are interesting, then you-all suggest questions that you want answers to/issues that you think are important.
People vote for the different questions they think are most important then you put people on the panels according to that. The people who thought stuff was most important first, everyone on about two pannels, then a little bit of maths to avoid clashes.
You leave a few spaces on each panel for people randomly assigned from other pannels, so that you have people there who can give a half-informed outsider impression. Stop people getting too precious about "this is the thing that will change the world".
Jonathan, I see "genre fiction obsessed" and "trite" as different (though overlapping!) vectors.
For instance, Apocalypse World is deeply rooted in genre fiction--several different strains, all meshed together--and it's anything but trite. Though the genre elements do carry with them a mild-to-medium risk that a given play group will bring a trite approach with them. still, though, AW's principles and procedures are set to kick their shallow action-adventure assumptions in the teeth.
I've played an X-men game (well, New Mutants, actually) that was definitely non-trite, though the material DID exert a gravitational pull twoard schlocky parody that we were constantly having to pull back from.
100% agreed, Joel. Though I see them both not as different issues exactly, but more as part of a larger issue about content: how to make it both accessible and welcoming and yet also challenging and impactful.
About micro-audiences: the Jeepform "The Upgrade" is designed to be played in front of an audience. The audience play too: they play the Upgrade Show audience (and they are the game resolution system, sometime), so they participate in the game.