Thursday, 25 November 2010

Doing it on purpose.

With some uneasiness, and a couple of proviso's, a TV entered Tan-Y-Fron yesterday.

Quite pointedly, the digibox did not and hopefully will not. So no live broadcasts. It's just a big screen, for occasional use.

As in, if it gets used, it will be used for a definite occasion. Maybe not a big one, like last night's viewing of a double bill of Brain of Morbius and Toy Story 3, but not channel surfing.

One of our number in the house expressed concern that she didn't like TV because of her own problems in resisting just sitting and watching ANYTHING... which I can completely relate to.

(See also resisting just eating ANYTHING in my case. Easy fake temporary satisfaction, I guess.)

So the TV is going to become like a freshly baked cake, or that one book, or a board game... rewarding, but not entirely convenient enough to be taken for granted.

As usual, this is firing some other thoughts in the butterfly brain, so hang on...

Doing it on purpose.

Speaking personally, whenever I do something "just because", it's unsatisfying. Watching whatever's on TV. Eating whatever's in the fridge. Scanning through chunks of my rss feeds. Most casual PC games.

Making time, making effort, doing things on purpose, much better. Writing. Most boardgames. You get the idea.

Thing is, some things can be done either on purpose or just because. Some people play RPG's because, well, it's what we do every Thursday. Some people have sex, or get married, or go to church, or don't go to church, or send their kids to school, or vote for a particular party, just, you know, because.

Some people do some of those things "just because" sometimes and "on purpose" sometimes.

A couple of years ago, there was talk on The Forge RPG site about "playing on purpose", trying to break through the old saw of RPG's being 20 minutes of fun wrapped up in three hours of play. There was some resistance to it from some quarters, a lot of it sounding a bit like Mrs Doyle, when faced with a tea making machine that "takes the misery out of making the tea"; "Maybe I LIKE the misery!"

But really, most of the time, doing stuff without doing it on purpose is, yes, easier. But so much less fulfilling, possibly less worthwhile.

Now excuse me while I drink the HELL out of this GODDAMN COFFEE.

The truly Bizarre notion of National Events.

In the last few years, noting the proliferation of TV channels, alternative viewing options, timeshifting, YouTube, etc, there have been periodic paeans to the notion of the National Event That Everyone Watched on TV.

The Royal Variety Show. Royal Weddings, Funerals and Bar Mitzvahs. National Football Matches. The Morecambe and Wise Christmas Show. The Moon Landing. Live Aid.

The fact that we don't all do the same thing at the same time as a nation is supposed to be a damning indictment of Thatcher's, Blair's, Brown's Cameron's Britain. "How can we have a national identity if some people aren't watching EastEnders," seems to be the implication.

It's all quite silly, and the more you think about it, the sillier it gets.

Widespread TV ownership, say 1960 for argument's sake (enough that getting to see this kind of event TV could be taken for granted).

Widespread fracturing of TV viewership, say 1995 for arguments sake (enough options that the terrestrial stations start to sweat).

So that's what, 35 years of national unity imposed by Big Brother screens?

What did we have before that arbitrary 1960 date? For one thing, tighter local communities, for all the good and bad that implies.

There were national events, sure: Royal weddings, coronations, war and peace, but these were celebrated and felt not as individual households plugged into a massive national identity, but as part of a community that was tangibly celebrating, commiserating, panicking, or protesting within arms length of each other.

(Obligatory sidetrack into mentioning a scion of my mother's side of the family who spent VE parading a sign saying "Churchill Is A Warmongering Bastard". Don't accept myths of national unity of opinion at face value. And remember Winnie lost the post-war election.)

Having conditioned us to interact with the national consciousness via a TV screen, when the viewing is fragmented, so will national identity.

And to an extent, good. That level of implied national unity, even on just a cultural level, is historically speaking downright odd.

And some communities only exist through screens. And if you're reading this, you're part of one of them. Hi.

So yes, I think this sort of national unity is a) bizarre and b) on the way out, and I'd like to think it will at least partly be replaced with a new form of the old community spirit, some of it virtual, some of it of necessity physically local.

In fact, to be frank, in the long term it's the only sustainable way. And it's pretty much been what the evolving brain has created in a feedback loop with other evolving brains over a lot longer than the 35 years of "One nation under TV". We're badly adapted to being in a community of 40 million, never mind eight billion. A couple of hundred (you know, like the average Facebook friends list, or what you can just about fit into a village hall) seems to be the human brains' median social comfort zone.

Which makes me very suspicious of anyone trying to sell the truly bizarre notion of National Events.

Which makes me happier that we've left the digibox behind.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Inhabiting the corpse of the RPG industry

Another random blurg, after the food blurg, a game blurg.

So, everyone's talking about the death of the rpg industry*. Or at least it's dwindling to stump.

Some random thoughts:

1. Thirty years ago, when I first threw polyhedral dice in anger, if I wanted to play a game about, say defeating a dragon, what were my options? Blocky ploygons on the atari 2600. Read a fantasy novel. Play a miniatures wargame, or a board game which would come in two flavours: moronically simple roll and moves or Avalon Hill titles with rules more complex than the average house purchase document. Even text adventures on home computers were a couple of years away, and then were essentially fantasy novels revealed through through working out puzzles.

D&D and it's clones were state of the art.

Now... well, World of Warcraft and Dragon Age are just the beginnings. Consoles and PC's offer immersive experiences with as much an illusion of freedom as you get in most table top games, without having to arrange time with half a dozen folks for a whole evening.

As goes return on time invested, RPG's are looking lousy. But so is writing, and acting, and crafting, and other hobbies that require more effort than finding a charged controller and the right disk. And they're still going strong. At least partly because people recognise that part of the reward comes from knowing you've made the effort to do something that takes effort.

These are activities that value the product of effort, rather than the experience of entertainment. Can RPG's do the same? Should they?

It's been over ten years since people first started talking about this, about gaming on purpose, on taking the activity seriously, as much as a garage band or amateur drama club would, to work on producing a worthwhile experience for the participants. Otherwise, why not just plug in the Xbox?

2. Paper fetishism.

What is a table top RPG? In a product sense, it's mostly books, a few dice. Even when sold as electronic media, RPG's are usually electronic stand ins for paper books. Often some of the best looking books you will see, and more often than not, these days, with indices and hyperlinks inside the text.

I want an electronic toolbox for playing a game. I want to be able to fire up a character creator from the get go, I want tools to manage the job ready to roll.

I want to be able to run a whole game from an iPad. Possibly a networked set of iPads No, I don't have an iPad, but keep the design philosophy in mind when thinking about...

An app for Universalis that takes free text input from multiple chat clients, allows tagging of text and busting it out to objects created on the fly while tracking tokens and dice pools.

An app for Inspectres that tracks the dice pools and rolls between all players, who's had a confessional, etc...

An app for Dogs in the Vineyard that contains the town builder, character builder and conflict trackers...

So far, I've mostly seen dice rollers, online mappers with some game functions embedded for D20 derivations, and character builders, mostly fan built, mostly... not great. And especially not great for games from the Forge diaspora.

But developing takes time. And costs money. And no-one yet knows if anyone will pay for for table top rpg's in this form. So it's not going to get done.

And those who are still publishing will be publishing like it's 1989.

3. And does it matter?

You can buy a new buggy whip, if you want to. Which means someone is still making money out of the proverbial thing that you can't make money out of any more.

The shops may be going, but the online outlets will stay. The conventions will shrink, but they'll keep going until the rising cost of travel will kill all such shindigs.

And, you know, rising fuel/electricity costs could get people to look again at local, social, low-electricity forms of recreation.

My boy wants to play table top RPG's. He wants to get his friends involved.

The industry is shrinking, if it was ever an industry at all. The hobby? It's barely out of the cradle.

*Mostly triggered by , who commonly suffers, along with many other intelligent commentators on RPG's, with people arguing with what the voices in their head tell them is being said rather than the actual words.