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How do the 'Big' RPGs Really Work?

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Dec. 22nd, 2005 | 04:54 pm

Opened w/r/t jimhenley's post in the Whither Theory? thread/

This is something I think is stunningly important and under-examined in RPG theory thus far, so I want to open it big-time here. Note that there is a discussion of something like this at The 20x20 Room, 'Missing Link' thread.

I think it's also important to scan all the way back to the origins of D&D and Runequest and Petal Throne and so on, so anyone who has strong information about that stuff, please pile in. Links very welcome too.

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Comments {8}

mrteapot

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from: mrteapot
date: Dec. 22nd, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC)
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What do you mean by "big" rpgs?

I've been thinking that a lot of Forge theory has been about pointing out how D&D, Vampire and a lot of other games are bad, but rarely explaining why they are good. And there must be something good there, or else the audience wouldn't be there. This isn't strictly suggesting popularity is a measure of quality, as there are a variety of factors involved, but something really awful won't be popular even with a giant advertising machine pushing it, as various Hollywood bombs demonstrate.

But I'm not sure that is what you're asking about, and I certainly don't have an answer at this point.

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Christian Griffen (xenopulse)

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from: chgriffen
date: Dec. 23rd, 2005 12:12 am (UTC)
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I'll tell you my opinion on why big games are popular, based only on anecdotal experience and no scientific research whatsoever. :)

Roleplaying opens up a huge realm of possibilities. I remember the feeling I had when I opened my first box (of Das Schwarze Auge) and read the introduction and the example of play. I had chills. I immediately understood the vast potential of this form of activity.

Now that I had that realm opened up to me, I immediately explored it to me with the tools given to me in that very first system. This automatically created preconceived notions on how this exploration was supposed to happen. These notions stayed with me for a very long time, and I stayed true to that initial system because it's what I started with.

The big systems are popular because of that initial wow factor. The vast majority of players are brought into the hobby through one of the big games; it's a self-perpetuating mechanism. Sometimes they realize that their style could be better supported by another game, and they reach for another big game because of name recognition and recommendations by other players.

The players I've seen who came to the hobby through "small" games don't have the same attachment to the big games. And people I've played "freeform" with have no attachment to any of the big games at all and tend to see rules as hindering their creativity.

It's all about how you are initiated into the hobby. That ritual sticks with you, and it shapes how you view other games. It's not that Dungeons&Dragons was especially great; it's that it was the first really popular game and the introduction game for a huge number of new players, who will all connect it with their initial wow experience.

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Dec. 27th, 2005 10:03 am (UTC)
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While I have no hard evidence to back it up, I would agree that the "promise of possibilities" is a big factor in the Big RPGs' success.

Honestly, on a design level, I don't see traditional RPGs as being all that different from small indie games. However, Forge-style games are upfront about what they are designed for and don't try to be the end-all game.

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(no subject)

from: anonymous
date: Dec. 27th, 2005 10:04 am (UTC)
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Sorry, that above post was me, timfire.

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jhkim

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from: jhkim
date: Dec. 23rd, 2005 05:38 am (UTC)
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This seems like an enormous topic to me. I think for the most part, Big RPGs work the same way as Small RPGs. Or do you mean, what makes them big? I actually buy Ryan Dancy's argument to a degree -- that the network effect exists in RPGs, thus successful RPGs gain in strength. But there have been upsets like GURPS and Vampire.

Anyhow, I'll narrow the topic a little to talk about D&D in particular. I'm posting an excerpt from an essay I wrote, About D&D.

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Christian Griffen (xenopulse)

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from: chgriffen
date: Dec. 23rd, 2005 04:47 pm (UTC)
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From Robin Laws most recent "See P. XX" column:

"The great success of the Vampire line and its many spawn can be traced to the way it grafts horror iconography onto a traditional escapist power-fantasy."

It offered something different when people were getting worn out on regular fantasy and wanted that angsty gothic dark self-indulgent touch. From that starting point, once it became big, it was *the* alternative to fantasy play, and so the network effect (which I guess I unknowingly replicated with my response above) has been in place ever since.

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jhkimrpg

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from: jhkimrpg
date: Dec. 23rd, 2005 04:56 pm (UTC)
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Oops. Corrected link. My excerpt is actually at About D&D.

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M

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from: eyebeams
date: Oct. 20th, 2006 07:26 am (UTC)
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Any discussion about that sort of thing would involve talking about how such games are designed. I think one root divide in a basic approach to game design is whether one designs things out of a sense of exploration or because they don't like an existing system.

The basic narrative of discovering the Forge seems to be: "I played X and I didn't like it. Now I found theory/the Forge/a community and play/designed Y and like it." Me, I've just never been in an RPG session that generated a strong feeling of resentment. I've had good and bad games, but the bad sessions have generally been unfortunate flukes.

When I talk to people who work on mainstream games I almost never hear about some sort of bad experience. I hear about how doing such and such a thing would be nifty and fun to sort out. That means that once the bare bones of an RPG get set in place the fun is using that as a medium to play with various situations in the game, condify them where it might be necessary or fun and move on.

This expansive approach has drawbacks, but it has benefuts, too. For one thing, it means that designs within a system usually exist in a hierarchy moving from the core mechanic to the most elaborate extension. In D&D you might map this as:

Core: d20 vs DC
Core/Extension: Combat rules
Core/Extension/Extension: Grappling

This is great because we can drop below the default level of resolution.The problem is that too many games leave discussion of this implicit order until long past the core release, even though it's always been there. But smart players do discover this and benefit from being able to choose a mode of resolution to taste, making these designed player-empowering instead of indulging designer as author.

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