Day Ten: where do you go for RPG reviews?
Huh, so something I hadn’t realised: I don’t. Like, I don’t really read RPG reviews, which seems crazy given my obsession with roleplaying games of all kinds. If I feel the need to read an RPG review (now and then I will look things up to get a gauge on whether I might like them), I will usually go to RPG.net or EN World, but I find the former a bit longer than I would like (I am aware of the irony) and the latter a little light on substance. Also, I tend to find that I prefer some writing styles a great deal over others, and follow particular reviewers I click with. For instance, for computer games, Rock Paper Shotgun and the Extra Credits game focus videos are usually my go-to for both developer news and reviews. I used to spend hours reading a specific horror film review blog that I sadly don’t remember the name of any more, just because I liked the writing style. I also find that RPG.net often focuses on the RPG as product rather than a contribution to an art form (detailing the feel, look and price of the book over its role within the form, though that is obviously very variable by writer) and also go into the complexities of the rules, which is less interesting to me in a review.
So, I don’t tend to read reviews before I look at a game. I’ll listen to recommendations from friends, but I prefer to read and play the RPG myself and draw my own conclusions. Just like any other form, the experience of any RPG is going to vary a great deal by consumer, and RPGs perhaps even more so given the fact that every reader has their own complex relationship with the RPGs they’ve played in the past, bad and good experiences they’ve had and the groups or sessions in which the game they’re reviewing has been demonstrated. I’m lucky to have an excellent story gaming community nearby who are into collaboration and improvisation, but if everyone round here was an old school gamer who hated story game mechanics, I would undoubtedly have had a less positive experience of running Masks or Spire.
Creator vs. Critic
One of the reasons I find the RPG industry and culture so fascinating is that it rarely draws the distinction between the game designer and the theorist. If you look at literature (my primary area of study), there are plenty of theorists who are known primarily for their theoretical essays, reviews and commentary. In the world of RPG theory, this is not the case – there are exceptions of course, just as there are literary theorists and critics who also write novels or poetry – but the majority of RPG theorists demonstrate their theories through their games. Even those who do publish their theories in a more familiar academic form (e.g. Vincent Baker, Robin D. Laws) usually then publish an RPG showcasing or using that theory. At the very least, the theory is meant to have a practical application (e.g. Ron Edwards’ GNS Theory). It is rare to find theorists who do not cross the boundary between creator and critic, which is an unusual trait in a narrative form (and yes, I believe RPGs are an art form, we can argue about that another day). One could argue that, for instance, computer games and films have greater barriers to engaging with the form on a creative level, but this is not true of novels or poetry in the same way. And as for the technical boundaries, anyone who has studied a particular form extensively enough as a critic will be well aware of the technical aspects of creation – OK, they may not produce something that’s actually enjoyable, but it will be at least competent.
Perhaps it is the very ease of engagement that produces this unusual culture – it is by its nature interactive, encouraging all players to take a role in creating the narrative. Though there are plenty of players who never become GMs, and plenty of GMs who never have any desire to create mechanics, and plenty of designers who don’t really care about writing about the theory of their designs, so perhaps not.
It may also be to do with the lack of mainstream publications that pay people for critical work (i.e. reviews and opinion pieces), or that gaming is only now starting to be taken seriously because the disdain for an art form that prioritised ‘play’ was so great.
I don’t know if we will see more critical work on RPGs in the near future, reviews that treat them as more than products or games, and academic texts that focus on more than ludology or the social dynamics of games. I would like to think that we would, but I feel that there needs to be some more critical work that takes the disparate concepts and practice spread across mainstream RPGs, independent self-published games and message boards and turns it into an actual discipline rather than a set of warring movements. We need a vocabulary and a reference guide. We need the ability to develop theoretical frameworks that encompass a wider range of examples than just the historical perspective, the OSR, Nordic LARP and Story Games. Each of those movements have made their own inroads, but they also rarely engage with concepts outside their own position.
I very much hope I get to see it. And perhaps even take part.