Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Essay: Returning the Genie Back in the Bottle

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

In light of a dilemma, one solution people often resort to is returning the genie in the bottle: In the Philippines, it might be removing traces of Imperialist influence. When it comes to the environment, it might be not using fossil fuels. In technology, it could be the Internet and piracy. Honestly, you won't solve most problems by eliminating the latter--people will use and resort to them because, well, people know they're there.

This issue was tackled in Isaac Asimov's novel The Gods Themselves wherein humanity was using a power source that was later discovered to be ultimately fatal to the universe itself. Did this stop them from using the power source? No. (Sounds familiar?) The solution provided by Asimov is that we can't return the genie back in the bottle, but we can make it obsolete. In order for the heroes to solve their technology problem, the protagonists simply developed a more efficient power source that made the previous, harmful power source obsolete.

So how does that relate to gaming? Well, tabletop RPGs are a relatively new hobby but the people playing it have aged. It's been 30+ years since the first RPG was released. Unfortunately, there are people who played the game 30 years ago expecting other people to play the same game. Now what you do with you and your gaming group is your own business. But as far as the entire industry goes, you can't expect them to acquiesce to your particular demands. I've seen some gamers who want to, so to speak, put the genie back in the bottle but that's honestly not possible. Here are some examples:

1) Labeling tabletop RPGs as simply RPGs: Now if you notice, I've always been referring to the hobby as tabletop RPGs although there are other names for it: pen-and-paper RPGs is most common (I just don't use it because it's too long) and some people even go as far as to call tabletop RPGs as analog RPGs. It's not them that I have a complaint against. Rather, it's the people who don't recognize other RPGs. To them, when you speak of RPGs, you really mean tabletop RPGs instead of say, video game RPGs, MMORPGs, etc. Now I'm not saying tabletop RPGs aren't RPGs. They are. It's just that to the rest of the world, the first thing that comes to mind--assuming they've heard the term RPG--aren't the pen-and-paper variety but rather video game RPGs. It could be anywhere from Final Fantasy to World of Warcraft. Some even use it as a term for role-playing, such as what occurs in some chat rooms or online journals. It's only among tabletop gamers that I've seen it used in the context of tabletop RPGs. So please, don't expect the rest of the world to adapt to your terminology, especially if you're trying to convert a non-gamer. Adapt to them, don't make them adapt to you. Let's face it, the term RPG has evolved over the years and has come to encompass a lot of different meanings and games. Just as I don't expect people to think of Dungeons & Dragons when I mention RPGs, don't expect people to think of tabletop RPGs when you mention the word RPG. Qualify it, precede your term with words like "tabletop" or "pen-and-paper" or even "analog". It makes the discussion flow more smoothly.

2) The Dungeon Master's Guide as a Book for GMs only: I saw this thread at ENWorld and how some Dungeons & Dragons players (I'm not referring to other games in this context) wished that we'd go back to the years of yore where the only book players read was the Player's Handbook, citing evoking one's sense of wonder as the primary reason for limiting such resources. Now that might have been the case in Gygaxian D&D but lately, let's face it, I expect fellow gamers to peruse and browse (but not memorize) previously "GM-only" books like the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster Manual. First off, in D&D 3.0, I wish all the relevant information for players was stored in just one book (Player's Handbook). Unfortunately that wasn't the case. Post 3.0, the genie I think is out of the bottle. Players will browse the Dungeon Master's Guide and the Monster's Manual mainly because they'll want to be familiar with the rules (environmental hazards for example) and how to optimize their characters (by looking at what the monsters are like). One movement in the RPG industry is the slow transition of power from one person (the GM) to the rest of the players. In mainstream RPGs like D&D (and was also admitted by the designers of the 3rd Edition of Legend of the Five Rings), this "power" was the rules--at how game rules wasn't arbitrarily left to the GM, at least most of the time. (In the independent RPG scene, especially the more storyteller-oriented games, arguably this power transition isn't necessarily in the rules but in determining who controls the flow of the story.) So no, I can't really expect players to stay away from the Dungeon Master's Guide, especially when there are player/GM overlaps. There are some books though that I still think players should shy away from as much as possible, such as the actual adventure module. (Obviously, we're working on a different paradigm when it comes to other RPGs--some RPGs follow the D&D model, others include the main plots in the main book so pffft, can't help you there.)

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