Monday, September 04, 2006

Bob the Fighter welcome here

Over at (pimp, pimp) there's a neat little thread going called Originality in Fantasy: deeply over-rated?
which has drawn some comments from one of my alltime favorite designers, S. John Ross. (You can find all of S. John's latest awesome work at his site Cumberland Games & Diversions. He occasionally posts a comment here, which always causes me to audibly squeal with delight. It's pathetic, really.) Originality in game design is sorta a pet subject for Mr. Ross. He developed a specific and idiomatic approach to the subject quite some time ago, which you can find in the general RPG stuff section of his Blue Room FAQ. The Blue Room is Ross's personal page for non-commercial stuff and it's chock full of great stuff.

Anyway, today I wanted to riff on a snippet S. John's comments in the Originality thread. I'm going to quote him completely out of context and build my own position from there, basically because I have no journalistic standards whatsoever. Here's the quote:
nobody who just wants to play a Human Fighter need ever feel like the poor cousin in the party
Ross is writing specifically about how he made his nifty Uresia setting broad enough to allow for totally weird character concepts, but grounded enough in the fantasy staples that any of the old guard of fantasy archetypes fit in just fine. So in Uresia a party could be composed of something like a Sailor Scout, a Ninja Pastry Chef, and a Surly Dwarf with an Axe. No big deal. Note that this is one of the virtues of Eberron as well. Richard Baker made it a design goal to find a place for all the core D&D stuff, then built a whole new edifice upon this foundation.

I think this approach is exactly why I find both Uresia and Eberron compelling. From a practical prospective I can pitch these games as "everything you already know about traditional fantasy, plus extra added awesomeness". That's a lot easier to get people onboard for than, say, Arcana Evolved ("trad fantasy with every class and race replaced by new ones") or Tekumel ("what if JRR Tolkien obsessed on Mesoamerica and India rather than Western Europe"). It's not that AE or Tekumel are less rad, just that the learning curve is tougher on the newbies. From an artistic* perspective I'm not ready to abandon orcs and elves because I feel like I still have plenty to say with them. And from a social perspective setting-intense RPGs and the kind of GMs who run them can be a pain in the ass.

On that last count, I think it comes down to this: I want the guy who makes Bob the Fighter to be welcome at the table. Bob may have no backstory, no discernable personality. He's probably nothing more than a Walter Mitty vehicle for putting the player into the adventure. And in my book that's just fine. This hobby needs Bob's player just as much as they need the players who write fanfic about their own PCs. Some games and some GMs want to talk down to Bob's player, telling him things like "You'll need to develop a background compatible with the setting before Bob can come in." or "Bob is a terrible name. Here's a list of names appropriate to the setting. Please pick one." I understand the impulse at work here, but in my opinion elevating the setting over the PC is the exact wrong approach to take in D&D. If you're playing a historical game I can see the concern, but if your D&D game can't endure one or two PCs with lame names and no personality then either your setting is too rigid and/or you're being a control freak. Stop picking on Bob.

On a completely unrelated note, today I discovered that John Kim, keeper of the incredibly neat-o Encyclopedia of Role-Playing Games, also maintains an RPG livejournal. Cool!

*Yes, I said artistic. I side with the "RPGs aren't art" crowd, but I'm not blind to the art in roleplaying. I just loathe any attempt to elevate the artistry above other elements, such as the social aspect of the hobby or the sheer fun of playing silly games.