Defining “Media”

[pt. 5]

RPG’s are a particular medium… but wait. Are they? Are RPG’s a distinct medium? What is a medium?

The definition pertinent to communication studies, my bailiwick, is “a means of communication”. Not the content, but the vehicle that delivers the content. Broadcast/Electronic media: television, film, CD’s. Print media: Newspapers, books, comics. Then the spoken media: storytelling, singing, and speaking (the most basic medium).

Are RPG’s their own medium? Well, are they exactly identical to any other? To newspapers, novels, television, radio, storytelling? No, of course not.

RPG’s, like every other medium in existence, share elements with other media but are fundamentally their own thing.

You speak in RPG’s, but RPG’s are more than just talking.

You use rulebooks, but RPG’s are more than just reading the rulebooks.

You speak about fictional events, but RPG’s are not storytelling or writing fiction.

RPG’s are their own media form, as distinct from newspapers as newspapers are from news magazines, are from radio news broadcasts, are from television newscasts. They have their own tools (rules, randomizers), their own conventions (player characters, non-player characters), their own methods. Here’s one method utterly peculiar to RPG’s:

The GM reads a rulebook and learns of a particular character, described in terms of numbers and personality. In play, he interprets the personality and numbers, deciding how to depict that character (descriptively or dramatically), and extemporaneously portrays him, deciding in the moment how that character will react to other characters, themselves being depicted by players. If this character takes an action, some randomizer is used to determine how successful he is (dice, typically), and the same gamemaster depicting the character uses intricate rules (explicit or tacit) to adjudicate what happens.

Utterly bizarre. Never happens in any other medium, even those dealing with fictional events. Not novels, not film, not storytelling. Unique to RPG’s, and only RPG’s.

RPG’s are their own thing, their own form of media. They share similarities with other forms of media, but are not identical.

My Background

[pt. 4]

Before I go any further, a few notes about myself. Like everyone else, I’m an amateur. I haven’t the background or desire to write “Understanding RPG’s”, but I do have the background to contribute a little to the subject.

I graduated with a degree in Radio and Print Journalism (the oft-maligned Communications degree). I worked as a Talk Show host for three years, and a newspaper opinion columnist for two.

Communications is an odd degree. Half the department is a trade school. You learn to handle mikes (on radio and TV), how to use cameras, how to write newspaper stories to AP Style and edit them, and so forth. Practical, nuts-and-bolts skills you need to get employed in the media.

The other half is a scientific research endeavor. Marshal McLuhan (“the medium is the message”), media selection effects, and so forth. You learn statistics (including calculating the statistical significance of data), devising and carrying out scientific studies, writing articles for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal, and the skills you need to become a professor and academic.

That’s my background: studying the media, in a practical and academic sense. I’m not a Literature student, and I don’t approach RPG’s from a Literary Criticism background.

Literary Criticism leads to things like the following Freudian analysis of Jurassic Park: “The island is the egg, and the helicopter a sperm, fertilizing the egg and releasing life…” That’s not a hypothetical, just so you know. A college professor devised it.

That sort of approach is inappropriate to RPG’s, in my opinion, and lends itself to generating self-important twaddle that does nothing to advance practical understanding of what is, at its core, a pop culture medium. RPG’s aren’t obscure, inaccessible post-modern novels, and don’t need to be.

When you write an RPG, you’re not A Great Artiste, and playing an RPG isn’t Making Great Art. You’re playing pretend, imagining that you’re an elf, superhero, or hard-bitten detective. It’s pure, imaginative fun, and that’s all it ever has to be.

So, instead of a self-important Critical Theory approach, designed to cement RPG’s as A Fitting Subject for Serious Academic Inquiry, I want to look at the nuts-and-bolts of RPG’s, how the medium itself functions. This isn’t prescriptive, I’m not trying to fix them or tell other people how to play them. I don’t have a Grand Unified Theory of All RPG Games and Players.

It’s as descriptive as possible: how people are (or have been) playing RPG’s is probably the way they should be played. There are tips and techniques we can share from GM to GM, or player to player, and methods to develop mechanics, but the medium itself (and its implicit rules and conventions) don’t need a revolution.

We just need a little practical, grounded understanding to correct the misinformation promulgated by the Literary Criticism wing of the hobby. I hope to provide some of that understanding.

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.