Thursday, February 09, 2006

The Trashmen Tests

The Quarter Bin is an old webpage devoted to comical funnybooks, what with the caped superguys and all. It's well worth the read if you are into that sort of thing. My favorite piece from the Quarter Bin is Comics Reality Checks I: The Three Trashmen Tests. In this article you will find how an obscure Minnesota surf band leads the author to the formula for good comics. What's more, lately I've been thinking that the Trashmen Tests are applicable to the kind of roleplaying games that I like. Here's the relevant passage from the article:

Some music makes it, and some doesn't. Often the bloviated importance granted to pieces by long-winded critics travels in inverse proportion to the compliance with the standard; while we can roll our eyes at hopelessly self-important acts whose works find their way into freshman literature courses (masquerading as poetry or as words of substance), we can turn, wrily, towards three truths the Trashmen understood. Music can qualify as fun and worthwhile if it qualifies three criteria that together compose a necessary condition.

*Only such music as we might describe as loud at any volume qualifies.

*Only music which we might describe as annoying to grown-ups qualifies.

*And, most importantly, only music which we might describe as stupid qualifies.

And that, in a nutshell, explains why "Louie, Louie" by the Kingsmen holds a warm place in the hearts of overly loud drunks in a way that "Revolution Number 9" probably never will. It undermines the necessary loudness by dabbling in long stretches of quiet and subtlety; rather than annoying grownups, it invites them to greater feats of self-admiration by basking in a glow of perceived genius; and it invites too-serious discussion, denying it the label of "stupid" even where certain details of the song make the exclusion somewhat problematic.

Why are D&D and Rifts successful while so many indie masterpieces languish in obscurity? Because D&D and Rifts are louder, more immature, and stupider, that's why! The closest thing to a 'serious' game I've ever enjoyed is Call of Cthulhu. Even then, that game is hardly at its best when played with a straight face. All the Cthulhu plushies and whatnot ought to tell you how seriously people really take CoC.

The Trashmen Tests also help me come to grips with what I was doing wrong with my old Traveller campaign. I was trying too hard to make my game a deep exploration of setting in a realistic sci-fi universe. Clearly I should have put way more emphasis on blowing shit up and other hijinks.