We’re All Amateurs

[pt. 3]

We’re All Amateurs: Why is our understanding of RPG’s so primitive, when compared to the myriad works covering screenwriting, directing movies, writing novels and the like?

I can find a dozen different works, still in print, telling me how to write a book:

Techniques of the Selling Writer20 Master Plots and How to Build ThemThe 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)Writing the Breakout NovelCreating Characters: How to Build Story People.

There are (many) others. But where is the plethora of analogous works for RPG’s?

If I want to make a game, what book tells me how? What book can I turn to that gives a solid, grounded description of what RPG’s are, and what techniques make for a good RPG and a bad RPG. (From the POV of a GM and a designer.)

There is none.

Is it because RPG’s are somehow less than the other mediums? Is it because RPG players and designers are incompetent?

No. It’s because we’re all amateurs.

RPG’s come alive at the game table. RPG manuals are important, they’re half of the bifurcated medium we all love, but the real medium, the actual coolness and magic of RPG’s, exists at the gaming table.

An expert creates a movie. The director, screenwriter, actors, costume designers, art designer, cinematographer, soundman, and so forth are all highly trained, well-paid experts in their field. The audience watches a movie, and experiences the combined output of all these professionals.

No expert crafts an RPG session. You play. You GM. You read the rules and try to apply them. It’s all up to you, and your friends. (RPG’s are a social medium.)

And you are not a professional. (I suppose it’s possible that there are professional GM’s, but they’re very scarce and irrelevant to the hobby as a whole.) Most gamers are common, ordinary geeks (if you’re not a little geekish, you don’t roleplay) who sit around a table, snarfing snacks and soda pop, pretending to be an elf, or a brave investigator, or a caped superhero.

We don’t have highly paid professionals carefully crafting experiences for us to consume. No writer slaving over his novel, no director fighting to get the perfect performance from an actor, no musician obsessively practicing fingering on his guitar.

We’re amateurs, and because we’re amateurs, and because the moneymaking potential of RPG’s is so small, we don’t get the critical attention that other mediums do. People can’t make money writing endless books about RPG design and play, so there isn’t a plethora of books about RPG design and play. If there is to be an “Understanding Comics” of RPG’s, one of us amateurs will have to produce it.

What is “Understanding Comics”?

[pt. 2]

Understanding Comics: What is this? It’s a book by Scott McCloud that dissects the medium of visual + textual communication. Presented as a comic book, it explores what comics are, how they function, what techniques are effective in portraying comic art, and much besides.

The cliche is that a work is “widely hailed” for being excellent. “Understanding Comics” is widely hailed, and in this case it’s not a cliche. Check here, and you can read accolades from Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Jim Lee, Will Eisner, and more.

So, the question: where is the “Understanding Comics” of RPG’s?

Where is the landmark work that analyzes the medium, that clearly sets out its strengths and weaknesses, that explains why people love it, and how it works?

And, if one were written, what would it look like? What are RPG’s? How do they function? What makes them tick? Why do people love them, and what goes into a good RPG?

More importantly: Why is understanding of our medium so primitive? Why don’t we understand RPG’s better? Why is it so easy for faddists and snake-oil salesmen to spread misconceptions about the medium, to claim black is white and grey is chartreuse?

Where is the “Understanding Comics” of RPG’s?

[pt. 1 of a multi-post series.]

First, some history.

Cinema History: In the beginning, movies were stage plays recorded on film. They showed everything in a scene, from the ceiling to the floor. Full-body, static shots, and people wandered through the scene, talking and moving from left to right and back.

That’s not movies today. Today, we have close ups, cuts, POV shots, and all kinds of special techniques.

Example: When one object, say a car, moves from left to right in a shot and another car moves from right to left in a completely different shot, we as the audience understand they are converging. In a perfectly flat medium, the director has conveyed to us the impression of 3-D space.

That’s magical, and this is just one technique directors use when composing the “mise-en-scène”. There are dozens of these.

What happened? How did we go to “static shots of a whole stage, like a play” to “a specific visual language tailored for the strengths of movies”? Someone (a virulent racist, no lie) analyzed movies and devised a visual language so movies could more effectively communicate action to the audience.

(Similar events occurred when society moved from radio plays to television shows, when stereophonic music replaced monoaudio, when ebooks began to supplant the printed word (a process still going on). It takes time to master a new medium.)

Movies resembled plays, but were not plays. They were different mediums, with different strengths and weaknesses, and people made mediocre movies until the medium was understood well enough that it’s strengths could be utilized.

Thesis: No medium is exactly like another. The strengths and weaknesses of each are utterly different. Even if they have some small resemblance, they are not identical. Treating them as identical is foolish, and wastes the strengths of the medium.

RPG’s are a medium distinct from all others. (A coupled medium, actually.) They are not comics, movies, or novels. They may resemble some of these in certain respects, but are not identical. Understanding and mastering the various aspects of RPG’s must start with a recognition that they are a unique medium, unlike any other.

Period. Full Stop.

If you don’t agree, or don’t understand, none of what I say after this point will make any sense.

Design Notes: Taming the Game

[A sidebar from the rulebook.]

While reading the rules, you will notice various “Design Notes” sidebars. Each will explain the reasoning behind a different design decision. This makes it easier to understand why a mechanic exists (and how it works), and hence easier to make house rules for the game.

Infinity encourages house rules. We assume gamemasters will want to tailor the mechanics of the game to suit their own preferences, and we want you to do so. Our motto is “Your Game. Your Rules. Your Fun.

In Chapter 10, “Building Better Worlds”, we’ll discuss how to design your own setting. Part of this is choosing the genre, then tailoring the rules of the game to your genre. A supers setting should have different mechanics than a gritty noir-inspired setting, for example. This process becomes is easier when “Behind the Scenes” information is available, which is the point of these sidebars.

The “Design Notes” sidebars exist to help you tame the game, to make it your own.

The Infinity ∞ Files: Alternate Realities

What is an alternate Reality? Such worlds exist on two levels, the physical and the metaphysical.

Physically, each alternate Reality is a collection of planes or dimensions. Our universe, out to the limits of space, is one plane. It contains countless stars and many, many galaxies. If there are other planes, we don’t know of them. That’s our Reality.

An alternate Reality might have a primary plane resembling that, plus a Heaven and Hell (resembling medieval conceptions of such, ala Bosch). Or, its primary plane might be a sphere, in the center of which is a flat Earth surrounded by crystal spheres, on which planets are located, all of them (plus the sun) orbiting around the Earth on epicycles. That’s an alternate Reality: an entire separate cosmos, full of impossibility.

When it comes to alternate Realities, there are no universal constants. Even the laws of physics which hold in our universe, need not necessarily be true. Magical forces, Divine forces, even moral imperatives can be as fundamental a part of the alternate Reality as the Laws of Thermodynamics are a part of our Reality. In another Reality, Good and Evil might not be moral precepts, but forces as real as nuclear fusion, as effective, and as powerful. (These facts are not well-understood by Infinity, Inc., and though some have theorized that this is the case, these theories are not accepted outside a small community of two or three cranks.)

In any given Reality, it may be possible to travel between planes. Angels may carry souls to Heaven, warlocks may summon creatures from outside time and space, and starships may easily enter and exit hyperspace. The walls between Realities are inviolate, however.

No known spell, miracle, invention or artifact can penetrate the walls between Realities. Only the (seemingly) natural portal events can establish contact between one Reality and another.

What causes them is unknown. Why they are so variable is unknown. And why they are increasing in frequency is (most worryingly) unknown.

The Infinity ∞ Files: Selecting Realities

Realities can be anything the GM wishes. Any kind of weirdness you’ve ever encountered in a horror movie, fantasy novel, or cyberpunk video game can be brought to life and become part of the campaign. More, the campaign background enables the GM to experiment with various Realities.

GM’s can introduce any kind of Reality they wish, because if they don’t like it, the players don’t like it, or it just doesn’t work out, the portal closes and it goes away. (Conversely, if people love it, it can stick around longer.)

Sketch Realities, worlds with very little development put into them, become practical options. If they only affect one or two adventures, and then only obliquely, there’s no need to spend weeks or years carefully devising an intricate mythos.

There’s a lot of flexibility built into the campaign, and GM’s have a lot of options. This makes it very easy to plan an incursion and use one to generate an adventure.

But the adventure template is very simple: An incursion occurs. This causes problems. Players investigate. (Then kill Evil, take its stuff, and do it again next week.)

Within that template, GM’s can tweak the campaign to their heart’s desire. That’s The Infinity Files.

[Continued in Part VII.]

The Infinity ∞ Files: The Scope of an Incursion

[Continuing the discussion on designing incursions.]

The GM controls the scope. By default, The Infinity Files is a globe-spanning campaign setting. Players travel the globe, looking for current incursions or information and artifacts left behind by previous incursions. (And, occasionally, people. Or monsters.)

However, a campaign can focus only on one locale (the United States, Japan, Australia), and the portals that open there. In this kind of campaign, it’s assumed that other agencies handle incursions in other places. (The EU, for example, may have a team that’s dedicated to investigating European incursions.)

Or, if the gamemaster wishes, he can create a “strange little town” setting. This one town, for whatever reason, is a junction of portal activity. They open and close all the time, and weird things happen to the town on a regular basis. Such a burg can be any small town, even a fictional one, or a major metropolis like New York or Chicago. (Or even something like Nexus: The Infinite City.)

The incursion can be big or small. The default size is a few square blocks, but they can be bigger, encompassing a whole city, state, country, continent, or the world. They can be smaller, encompassing a single street or cul-de-sac, a building or home, or even one single person.

(That strange little street, where all the people are just a little too happy, and wandering pets seem to disappear? Perfect Infinity Files adventure.)

Portals can move. They can relocate across the country or across the planet. If the players defeat it in Manhattan, it can reappear (sometime later) in Hong Kong. Wherever the GM wishes, that’s where a portal can be.

Portals last as long as the GM wishes. Portals are, by default, temporary things. A portal can open to a specific Earth, cause an incident, then close up (on its own, or as a result of player interference). Or it can last for weeks, months, and years.

[Continued in Part VI.]