Show, Don’t Tell: More Indie RPG ranting

[Keep in mind, as I rant on this topic, that this mainly concerns what I and the growing group I play with personally need from an Indie Role-playing Game, and why we haven’t gotten it. I hope everyone continues to make the games they love to make; I also hope some people start making the kind of games that serve folks like us really well. Disclaimer done!]

I think most role-playing games, as a culture, have some very old and hard-to-shake traditions.  One has to do with designing according to what you put in (think traditional RPGs, with pages of charts, facts, magic items, abilities, setting, etc.), even though what you leave out makes an equally large impact. Designers have known this for a long time, and use it as a primary principle. What you leave out gives room for what you put in to breathe, to draw the mind and eye of your reader to what matters. I have noticed a very few indie game designers exploring this territory, not just graphically, but textually. That excites me; I want more!

Another traditional problem: role-playing game texts ‘tell’, instead of ‘showing’. Switching the balance around, by ‘showing’ more often than ‘telling‘, would make RPG texts far more easy to absorb and enjoy (god forbid) for many people, including myself.

Imagine, you have two options to absorb the proposed setting for an RPG. You can thoroughly explore it in the form of a novel (or graphic novel), or you can ‘learn’ it in the form of a history textbook.

Which do role-playing game designers most often choose?

Funny enough, many new RPGs, based on novels or comics (a ‘show’ medium if ever I saw one), immediately start ‘telling’, as if nothing could make more sense than to go from an enjoyable story that makes you want to inhabit its characters, to a history text about those characters that you must slog through and retain. Now, I think this has started to change (I just looked at the Mouse Guard Role-Playing Game, and it  does seem really promising!), but the pattern exists: “Oh,  you want  a role-playing game? That means stripping out the story and replacing it with lists of factoids and history”.

Now, many traditional RPG readers do absorb setting this way, and enjoyably so. I know some of these folks. We just need to expand the design values to include more of the rest of us. I sometimes hear that indie game designers want to pull in ‘non-role-players’ into the world of role-playing. Well, here lies one method: make  your books absorbable by a wider community of people.

I’ve learned the hard way that most newbie folks that I want to storyjam with me really cannot handle that many impediments to play itself; they don’t want to stop to have setting ‘told’ to them, they don’t want to look through lists and charts, they just want to play ASAP. If playing ever starts feeling like working, I immediately start losing them.

So, I propose that instead of creeping farther in the direction of including these kinds of people, we plant a flag in the place where design must end up to serve these folks. Rather than slowly shaving away traditional elements, or making RPG texts less text-like, we just jump over to that new spot and start designing the (at first) shockingly different games that those folks need.

I think Nordic role-playing game poems, though not exactly what I mean here in terms of visual presentation, do tend to ‘shock’ traditional and indie game players and designers in the way that I want. They often question whether or not we can even call them Role-playing Games. But I see this as a good sign; if you’ve designed something that makes  you wonder that, then boy do I have an ever growing group of players that want to play your game.

Written by Willem