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May 9th, 2006


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02:46 pm - RPG Culture Wars
There's an amusing (if rather overlong) debate between Levi Kornelsen and RPGPundit on the Nutkinland RPG forums, called simply "Pistols at Dawn". They're debating about the culture of role-playing and game design. What's interesting to me is that they wander wildly over what they're arguing about. There's some sort of core clash of culture and/or identity here.

I'm not sure what the core of that is. I suspect that there is a political divide here, with Levi being more liberal and RPGPundit being more conservative. This seems to match other characteristics: Levi identifies with the ideas of "story" and "art", and would like to promote new games with non-traditional rules and focus. RPGPundit identifies with "game/gamer", and would like to promote basically "more and better" of D&D (cf. his recent "Letters Day" post).

To me the interesting thing isn't so much their point and counter-point, since as far as I can tell, their positions aren't hugely different than each other. They might have slightly different taste in games, but then again, Levi's Perfect20 system is at least a close cousin to Green Ronin's True20 system which RPGPundit raves about. The curious thing to me is why it seems like such a fight.

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Comments:


[User Picture]
From:bruceb
Date:May 10th, 2006 07:30 am (UTC)
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The problem is that Nisarg needs medication, or at least sustained counseling. If he doesn't have a severe untreated case of clinical depression or something of the sort, he's at least got really, really bad life management skills. I'm not indulging in armchair theorizing or petty revenge here - I've been in some of his mess and I've seen it close up in people I care about. Levi has problems he's well aware of and obviously working on; Nisarg is in rather thoroughly denial. Basically, Levi is winning at the game of adulthood.
[User Picture]
From:the_never
Date:May 10th, 2006 11:54 am (UTC)
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What are his bad life management skills? I'll give you this: Levi is a much nicer person, and Nisarg can be really, really, really mean, and all that smoking can't be good for him. He obviously terrorizes people who would otherwise be happy smugly talking about how great they think they are. But I don't really care about either of their personal lives.

Ok, longer response below.
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From:jholloway
Date:May 10th, 2006 10:05 am (UTC)
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It seems like a fight because, at heart, it's not about styles of play, or even politics, although politics has a little bit going on there, but about ... sort of ... I dunno, cultures of adulthood, or cultures of maleness, or something. Levi is generally open-minded, inclusive, gentle, and interested in talking about his feelings. Nisarg is harsh, aggressive, and not. Like Bruce said, Levi is a better adult.

So when Levi proposes that a quest for redemption might be as interesting as a quest for power, look at Nisarg pooh-pooh the idea. He never actually says that stories about emotion are for fags, but the gist is pretty clear. Instead he attacks systems that aim to "promote story" as "artifical" or "not really RPGs," and presumes that the players will, VtM-style, use this a cover to loot, slay and hoard (although he never identifies what's wrong with that, other than not being D&D). Plus ca change.

Mind you, a lot of Nisarg's targets aren't doing themselves any favors, either.
[User Picture]
From:the_never
Date:May 10th, 2006 12:33 pm (UTC)
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This discussion was pretty good. It wasn't much of a debate since they both agree on most points. Where they disagreed, I found myself siding at different times with both of them.

The heart of the debate for me was about the culture of pretension and how it has negatively affected most discussion of roleplaying and poisoned the well of partipationism.

Here's where Levi really gets in some great points:
"It's impossible for the hobby to both "not tolerate" people and "encourage" them simultaneously; that kind of behaviour is more commonly, and simply, known as bullying."

I've made this point myself. I have a funny story about 2 refugees from a certain indie-author's former gaming group trying to form a gaming group with me earlier this year. It didn't work out because although they professed that they "hated the Forge and everything it stood for" (direct quote) and "couldn't game with (that guy) anymore", but they also couldn't decide on a game to play and didn't want to run the risk of being in a dysfunctional mainstreamer group (of which they would represent 2/3 before we went looking for other people.. and they contacted ME). And the most vocally opposed one had never actually tried anything she was vetoing. After about 16 emails I just cut them off. Damaged beyond repair.

Levi also equates the "overly pretentious" with the "terminally socially inept": on page 1 as being part of the same problem. This is a hugely important point. Levi says both types represent extreme minorities, which is another good point. I don't think they represent opposite points on a continuum-- theyre often the same guy.

On page 3 and 4, though I like a lot of what RPGPundit has to say. Especially about how they don't actually represent anything indie, they re very consciously focused on a sort of cultish Forge brand.

This makes sense: In a way- nearly all RPGs have been indie to begin with, especially if you discount the licensed ones. Mark Rein Hagen and Jonathan Tweet were just college roomates who came up with Ars Magica and put it together and printed it themselves. Gygax assembled those first 1000 boxes in his basement. The Siembieda story is about a guy and a typewriter.
By following the Forge brand (and making use of the Forge cross-promotion strategy, which basically amounts to having unpaid promoters appear in places and write gushing endorsements), the Forge games have been:

  • 1) less successful. If "System Does Matter" means anything, it explains just as much why people gravitated towards Vampire and D&D (and why those were runaway successes even in their first years) just as much as it explains why Sorcerer hasn't exactly 'caught on' anywhere but over the internet.

  • 2) more corporate-- in the sense that "Forge Games" are now a recognizable brand that doesn't really tolerate much in the way of design diversity. I can think of two examples of people developing games independently and then coming to the forge and revising heavily in order to get them more in line with what will be accepted there.

  • 3) in the end, since they are so beholden to groupthink and peer review they are a lot less independent.

    Although independent publishing seems like an exciting development, there's a certain amount of nastiness directed at independently produced games that don't come through the Forge. I can't seem to find the post now, but there was one on RPGTalk where someone linked to someone's independently produced "Best Ever RPG", and several people took turns bashing it- content unseen.

    Not that I think it would be any good, either, but really, isn't that illustrative?

    Here's this quote from RPGPundit: " I think if John Kim had been seen as the model to follow rather than Edwards things will have turned out better for gaming theory."

    Anyhow. Interesting discussion.

  • [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 10th, 2006 01:15 pm (UTC)
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    Oh, I've long been amused at the implications of their creed that Forgeites won't look at.

    As for Nisarg: the key thing is that he's a stalker, and that he holds ridiculously intense grudges, in at least one case for going on a solid decade now. He is apparently just not able to let things go. Knowing that I've had bad times with him in the past, I don't read his stuff - I try not to get too into mocking anyone, and I have all the real grief I need and then some. So I only know what he's up to when I happen to see his posts quoted. (In the period between his getting banned from RPG Net and his blog attracting attention, I literally never thought about him at all.) Conversely, since I'm on his enemies list for arguments we had three to five years ago, he's still reading my public traffic nearly every day, looking for anything he can use to bolster his old rants when the subject comes up again, or he can interject it. And he's been doing that for years longer with other people I know. It's sad and it's unhealthy. When gaming people who now seldom or never post publicly talk about why they gave it up, his obsession is very often on the list.

    He's definitely not stupid, and in the way of many depressed people, he has a lot of genuine insights. I just prefer to get them from other sources.

    In keeping with my practice, I'm not going to read his stuff because I have enough to be depressed about already. So I'll just bounce off your comment here.

    I really, really agree about the foolishness of the whole "we're indie, that's not" thing. At its height, White Wolf had about 50 full-time employees, including the guys in the warehouse and all - less now, presumably. And it goes downf rom there. Two or five or ten or twenty people doing something as fringe as this are indie. Even WotC's pretty small fries, particularly at the part that specifically does RPGs. They took a stab at being corporate and it hasn't especially worked out, and almost nobody else can even begin to try. It's all folks taking big hits in their earnings and general social status for the sake of this funky thing they love doing.

    And a big part of what the determination to make ultra-focused games has done is replace the supplement treadmill with the new game treadmill. Instead of a campaign book you use for a few adventures and a splatbook you get a few sessions of stuff out of, here's a game you play a few times and then another game you play a few times and another game you play a few times, and you queue up to wait for the next batch of what the marketeers will tell you is the coolest thing ever. (And that is often quite genuine, all around. I've often said that the test of a good splatbook is the number of readers it makes say, "My life is a hollow lie unless I play one of these!" And a very good way to get there is for the creators to be stoked about it themselves. It's often the case, too. When I see an enthusiasm that feels similar from others, I assume it's genuine until I have a very good reason to believe otherwise.)

    Malcom Sheppard calls the ultra-focused style "consumerist", and I kind of like that - "You will feed me an experience that makes me feel intense for a while, without requiring sustained invention on my part, just following the instructions." That's not an innately bad impulse, but it's also not innately so much better than any of the alternatives. Also, it really easily creeps into fondness for confrontation and escalation in ways I find deeply unpleasant. I cheered at Plume's and Jason Corley's comments about the ills of machismo, and find similar ughs elsewhere.
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    [User Picture]
    From:cpxbrex
    Date:May 10th, 2006 02:13 pm (UTC)
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    What I find interesting is the extent to which people are willing to condemn Nisarg as needing, y'know, medical help. That strikes me as being a trifle outrageous, and a conversation stopper. Y'know. You don't need to address his points because he's "not an adult" and "needs medication".
    [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 10th, 2006 03:18 pm (UTC)
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    You probably don't know me, so you can't tell this and I don't expect you tog o out and memorize my posting history, but...it's not a conclusion I reach lightly or quickly. I came to it only after most of a decade of watching the particular kind of damage he inflicted on a lot of net communities I was associated with, and also after my own experience of physiological problems that can create behaviorial trouble.

    You don't have to believe any of that, and I'm not being flippant about it. I know how often people toss around such things lightly. All I can say is, watch me in the future and see what I do with such things. I'm willing to earn credibility on the matter.

    From:(Anonymous)
    Date:May 10th, 2006 06:57 pm (UTC)
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    Wow, Brucie.. project much? Anyone who knows me IRL would be able to tell you that the LAST thing I am is depressed. I'm pretty optimistic, actually. And why shouldn't I be? It'd be pretty freaking hard to be depressed when you've been as fortunate as I've been in my life.
    But in that equation of how my life is going, RPGs don't even enter into it! The very idea that you could tell whether I'm depressed or not based on what I write about RPGs shows just how off-kilter your sense of priorities about RPGs are in YOUR life. I can only draw the conclusion that you're desperately trying to read your own depression/obsession onto others.
    But then, one only had to look at the soul-killing way you massacred Gamma World to know that.

    And you overestimate yourself. I don't go looking for your posts daily; you're not interesting enough. You're relatively second-string on the Rogue's Gallery, one only has to compare the number of times I've written about you on the Blog (compared to many of the other Rogues) to realize that.
    [User Picture]
    From:eyebeams
    Date:May 10th, 2006 10:04 pm (UTC)
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    They're both sides of a consumerist method, competing for a share of a community. This isn't the mainstream gaming community or even the mainstream internet gaming community represented by ENWorld. It's the community of people who are aware of there being multiple ideas about games and multiple ways of making games.

    The message both parties have is certainly not populist. By hating the World of Darkness players you hate about a quarter of gamers or more, after all, and by hating Palladium you increase that to maybe 35-40% of gamers.

    This "culture of pretension" bit is a tad misplaced, given that *every* dominant set ideas has adherents that force-feed this stuff down people's throats. You ned look no further than Ryan Dancey's occasional bleats to see some of this in action. In terms of its place in gaming culture, it's about equivalent to some of the WW-related howlers I read on Usenet in the 90s. There's really no substantial diference between saying that games with a emphasis on theme and atmosphere are superior and saying that there are inoraxable laws to gamers' tastes. They are both basically silly things to say and represent a kind of hubris that should prompt anybody smart to take a step back and entertain some doubt as to the statement and the fate of any property that chooses to obey these kinds of things as gospel truth.

    Totalist ideas about gaming are very attractive, because aderents feel like they have the weight of revealed truth behind their choices and heir chosen communities. As for its politics, that sort of totalism is pretty solidly a property of neoliberal and centre-right politics. The distinction is a bigger deal when viewed inside the mainstream American political spectrum but I don't see there being substantial differences in either positions. There's no skepticism about the wisdom of these totalist projects and assertions at all. It's just a mirror of the chattering between anti-intellectuals and co-opted intellectuals.
    From:(Anonymous)
    Date:May 10th, 2006 10:12 pm (UTC)
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    Just a note; Im not clear if you meant me by your statement, Eyebeamz, but I like and have supported Palladium, and I did so long before it became fashionable (in light of their recent troubles).

    Likewise, hating White Wolf's ideology as a company and their practices of elitism does not equal hating anyone who's ever played a WW game or bought a WW product. So really the percentage of gamers I'm excluding in my "big tent" is a pretty tiny one.

    RPGPundit

    http://www.xanga.com/RPGpundit
    [User Picture]
    From:ewilen
    Date:May 10th, 2006 10:58 pm (UTC)
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    Political divide? Okay, when I first read this I think you're calling Nisarg a Republican or something. And maybe there is something to that--he's no fan of Bush, but there's something of a P.J. O'Rourke in his overall style. Basically it's the impatience with cant and pie-in-the-sky theorizing, and wariness of unnecessary experimentation--conservatism in the classical sense.

    But the political divide is also over the need to attack other forms of gaming. Bruce has one theory; I don't have any background on that and I'd rather not delve into it. In any case it happens that RPGPundit has a good number of supporters who one would suspect aren't all in need of medication. Instead, I think we've got a combination of a vendetta/persecution cycle and an honest-to-goodness struggle for survival in a world of network externalities. (There really is a strong parallel to the historical development of religions and other ideologies. The minority calls for tolerance and diversity until they achieve power; then they go about stamping out dissent. Then if there's a reversal, you get an even bigger cycle of persecution after the restoration.) Fact: your favorite RPG is useless if you can't find anyone else to play it with. Fact: people have only so many resources to devote to playing RPGs with you. It's no wonder people fight for brain-share.

    Politically, then, Levi is "liberal" in pretty much the sense that gets savaged by both radicals and conservatives. It's a tough position to hold when every other faction is engaged in a manichean power struggle, where defensive moves by one side are automatically interpreted by the other side as threats to its existence.
    [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 10th, 2006 11:16 pm (UTC)
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    Just to be clear: I don't dismiss the content of Nisarg's arguments because of what I think about him as a person, and lots of people can (and do) make basically the same argument without triggering my "get help" button at all. I don't really pay attention to his arguments, because of the hassles, so I couldn't tell you just what he's arguing for, but I'm sure that I have seen them elsewhere and found them interesting whether or not I agree iwth any particular one of them.
    [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 10th, 2006 11:18 pm (UTC)
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    Okay, self-policing time. I've gone years without posting anything about Nisarg, and...I should go more years. I said my piece, and will no let it rest. The world doesn't need me slipping into regurgitated vendetta anymore than it needs anyone else doing it. I cede the floor on the subject, and turn to other matters.
    [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 11th, 2006 12:18 am (UTC)
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    I think that Ewilen hit on something important in using "liberal" and "conservative" in non-political senses. Levi is very liberal in the sense of encompassing a broad range of tastes harmoniously, open to a lot, liking a lot. He takes an evident delight in experimentation and discovery. When last I was following, Nisarg's tastes were certainly wider than, say "X company's lines only", but not that broad. I'm somewhere in the middle, drifting sometimes more toward that style of definition of gaming and gamers (and therefore myself), sometimes toward the wider, looser range. Tied up in this is how happy one's gaming history has been, how one relates to it now, how one feels about anxieties elsewhere in one's life now, and like that. (Some people turtle up in the face of stress. Some go seeking new satisfactions. Complex stuff.) Some people are in the market for an overhaul of what gaming means, and some aren't.

    This is in addition to other issues, I just wanted to flag it out separately.
    From:marcochacon
    Date:May 11th, 2006 11:00 am (UTC)
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    I actually don't think Levi and the pundit disagree all that much save at the very fine semantic points.

    Really, that whole debate has been pretty low-boil in terms of rantiness. I think this is because ultimately, their goals are similar:

    (1) Although Levi sets himself up as a theorist (and is one in a technical sense) he mostly *isn't* in the traditional sense.

    He does not believe mainstream gaming is damaged or dysfunctional.
    He doesn't believe in literal brain damage.
    He doesn't claim (AFAIK) to have been emotionally scarred by mainstream games.
    He isn't either a vocal proponent of or silent-partner to the GNS model.

    The result of this is Levi's posted glossary of gaming terms which, while not "basic and plain spoken" enough for everyone is certainly a lot more accessible than, say, the Big Model and doesn't contain its inherent contradictions and structural weaknesses.

    He isn't calling for less theory: he's calling for less prentension in theory.

    (2) Pundit is extremely flamey and (IMO) sometimes seems to blur the stated intents of the indie (alternative) gaming scene and the rpg-art scene (and I think they *are* ultimately similar but use 180-degree different language and approach and therefore should be treated distinctly).

    But more or less, what he is calling for isn't less innovation in game design--he wouldn't talk down to someone writing a 'fantasy heartbreaker'--but less pretension in game design.

    These two view points, really, are pretty similar.

    What's different is the medium (IMO), not the message.

    -Marco
    [User Picture]
    From:ewilen
    Date:May 11th, 2006 03:01 pm (UTC)
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    "RPG-art" scene? Wuzzat?
    [User Picture]
    From:bruceb
    Date:May 12th, 2006 05:02 am (UTC)
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    As a personal note, I am much more sympathetically inclined to communities whose members say "well, yes, inevitably we're going to end up excluding some worthwhile stuff, but it's worth it for the sake of these other things we want to emphasize" than those that deny it happens, or blame those who feel rejected, or both.
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    From:tundra_no_caps
    Date:June 1st, 2006 10:01 pm (UTC)
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    Click on "Thread".

    But yes, annoying.
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    Date:July 4th, 2008 03:38 am (UTC)

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