Friday, February 17, 2017
Frame of Reference
This blog post was prompted by a prospective reviewer of Alpha Blue. He declined to review it because of his millennial-based reasons - he didn't feel like it or wasn't feeling it or that it might upset the feelings of his precious tumblr readers.
Side-rant: I know I'm generation x and all, but come on, youngsters! If you agree to do something, like reviewing a book someone has freely given you for the express purpose of reviewing, you do it. Maybe you have to grit your teeth a little or sack up, but you do what you said you were going to do. Treating your colleagues and peers with respect is just as important as standing up (or the online equivalent of such) for transgender restroom rights.
Anyways, one of his criticisms of Alpha Blue was that it came off as "just references," rather than original stuff inspired by 70's and 80's sci-fi, exploitation cinema, etc. That got me thinking...
First, I wondered if he was right. Well, in a way, yes, he was. Alpha Blue doesn't use references like, "It's like Star Wars." Instead, it may include something like a green-skinned, insectoid bounty hunter is sitting at the bar, snorting crushed up red crystals in between delirious diatribes about the difficulty of hijacking transport ships carrying ice in the Plutonic Nebula.
Again, yes, it definitely borrows to the extreme. It references - and then cross-references with newness sprinkled on top so that it becomes something altogether different from whatever was stolen from a single source. It builds upon the shared memory, experiences, and impressions of popular culture. And to some degree, I think it has to in order to be 111% effective.
Roleplaying games, as a medium, lack what a variety of other mediums have in abundance - something to help substantiate our flailing imaginations. Literature, film, TV, illustration, music, walking around a museum - heck, even interpretive dance have something that naked RPGs (RPG sessions without any of those) don't have... additional sensory input.
Players are told what their characters smell, the players aren't directly smelling anything for themselves. Usually, the same goes for sight, hearing, touch, and taste. If you're watching a movie or TV show, you get to see what's going on. That's a level of immersion RPGs don't have.
RPGs can and do create compelling characters. However, the RPG medium rarely allows players to get to know NPC outside of their momentary confrontation with the PCs. So, players get a few sentences of information verbally described to them and that's it.
Without any kind of audio/visual input, it can be a rather dry experience. The imagination has to do all the heavy lifting. However, when RPGs tap into our memory of pop culture or things we've watched, read about, heard, etc. a new dimension of reality is added. Immediately, we go from two-dimensions to three, and everything becomes more relate-able and easier to experience.
"Easy" isn't a word that we see advertised in RPGs much. That's too bad because the easier something is, the more it can be played with, hacked, refined, fine-tuned, inverted, subverted, brought to the fore, etc. Easy brings new gamers into the hobby. Easy keeps gamers coming back week after week. Easy allows the GM to keep running those games, instead of succumbing to burnout.
Story is another thing. In my view (and in the view of old school and traditional gaming), RPGs aren't narrative vehicles - narratives, if they come together at all, are the byproduct of playing the game (i.e. adventuring / investigating / surviving). Events happen and it's up to the players and their characters to make sense out of the things that occur, to create a story from the experience.
Because RPGs don't do pre-fabricated stories well, those stories must be taken from other places - movies, TV shows, books, etc. When we can refer back to prior, shared stories, archetypes, tropes, genre conventions, and everything outside of RPGs, the depth of our collective imagination increases, providing a better sense of immersion, and generally speaking, more fun.
In conclusion, don't be afraid to refer back to all the stuff you know and love. When the sleeper awakes, don't forget your jelly babies and may the pon farr be with you... always!