distractionary: tabby cat batting at camera (o hai.)
high and mighty robot ([personal profile] distractionary) wrote2009-08-04 11:40 am

promised thoughts on "collaboration vs. utilization in RPGs"

I was tossing around the phrase "Collaboration vs. Utilization in RPGs" the other day, which I'm aware by itself sounds like a ridiculously pompous phrase – what actually happened was I was trying to boil the concept down to the fewest possible words, and those were the ones I got. I think the concept itself is fairly simple; it started out as a comparison in the back of my mind the other night, and I managed to tease it out and actually look at it. When I did that, I thought something along the lines of "... oh, well no wonder I feel that way!"

So, to explain it, I'll start with the comparison.

Or rather, I'll start with the warning that my ability to write essay-form things like this has atrophied horribly in the last ... decade or so, and I hope you will be willing to ask for clarification when I've put my feet in my mouth instead of reading it as willful rudeness, because it isn't meant to be.


(The comparison is between part one, OSes, and part two, RPGs.)

Consider, if you will, two operating systems: Linux and Microsoft Windows. One is collaborative; a group of people, desiring to use a product, work together to create and improve it, to turn it into the product they want. The other is utilizing; a group of people, desiring to use a product, pay for a different group of people to create and improve it, resulting in a product that may or may not be precisely what is desired by the first group.

Both of these have their good points, of course. With collaboration, there's a level of pride in the creation; a person who collaborates in creating this product can point at it, at a section of code or whatever, and say "I made that, all by myself." With utilization, there's a level of ease; a person pays for a product and immediately can begin to use it as desired, without worrying about whether or not he's supposed to start tinkering with it. Instead, that person's concern begins to revolve around the material he creates with the product. Obviously the collaborative person is not going to ignore the material created with the product, the end result – but he's also going to be paying attention to the product in a way the person who paid probably won't.

There isn't anything wrong with either method, but when something is wrong with the operating system you're using, one of them offers you a solution for fixing it yourself; the other, you have to write in and hope that someone will fix the problem for you, or you have to take your money elsewhere and (theoretically) start using a different operating system.

The original phrase I used, though, wasn't "collaboration vs. utilization in operating systems", but in RPGs, so I should probably remember that I'm not done at this point. Specifically I meant in Internet text-based RPGs, because those are the kind I spend the most time with. And the split, instead of being Linux vs. Windows, is actually "original" vs. "fandom", although a better term than fandom is probably "based on published media".

At the most basic, the media games invite players to pick up characters from the medium's universe, and then play them in that universe; to play them in another universe; or to make up a character who would fit in that universe and play him there. Those three styles seem to be the most popular, but this isn't an academic essay and I haven't done any research; this is all just based on casual observation from someone who doesn't go looking for media-based RPGs to play. (If I'm missing something, please let me know, because I'm curious.)

In contrast, "original" games usually involve characters created specifically for that game, not based on any published-media characters, to be played in a universe created for that game, also not based on published media. For some people, it is incredibly easy to create universes suitable for RPGs. For a lot, it really isn't. Ditto characters. "Original" games, which I keep using in quotes, tend not to be interested in being published later; they have an element of cooperative writing to them, but as they have multiple authors and turnover, I'm pretty sure it would be impossible to publish an RPG anyway. And because there isn't the drive to publish that's present in a fair amount of original fiction writing, there's also an element of "borrowing" from published media – not straightforwardly, I think, but in taking tiny pieces from multiple sources and melding them together to create something original.

This is the part where I'd quote the line about how there are no original story ideas left out there, because everything's done and there are only so many plots with endless iterations, but I have no idea where to pull the fancily-worded quote from, so please fill it in as you like.

But the thing is that these two concepts aren't separate – the RPGs and the OSes. You've still got the same spectrum, with the two axes of collaboration and utilization, and generally speaking I don't think there's an RPG in existence (nor ever has been, or probably ever will be) that actually exists at the absolute end of the spectrum, in either direction. Media-based RPGs, even if taking characters through the same story from their published canon, still reimagine it and add to it and give it a slightly different perspective. And "original" RPGs have to get ideas from somewhere, and plots can be recycled in new and different ways without really being a different plot, at the most reduced. (See: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to win girl back, etc.)

And just like with the operating systems, some people are going to prefer one end of the spectrum to the other. Some people don't like creating universes or characters, or creating characters to play in the universe that someone has already created for that RPG. Some people really, really hate being told that they're playing a character "wrong," by someone who has encountered and enjoyed the same media source for that character, and will do just about anything to avoid encountering that statement – up to and including a vow never to play a media-based character again. After all, if the character is purely the creation of the player, someone else can't really say that that player is doing it wrong, can they? It has a certain logic to it.

They both have their own values, but those aren't the same values. I think that original games prize overall creativity where "fandom" games prize characterization that neatly matches up to the original author's version, for instance. The original games I've encountered also tend to be more along the lines of cooperative story-writing; there isn't necessarily going to be an agreed-upon-from-the-start plot, or someone who's "running" the game (like with tabletop RPGs). On the other hand, media-based games can be more friendly; there's less of a sense that you need to do a lot of studying or reading-up before trying to join, because after all you've already read the source material at the point where you've started looking at the game. Original RPGs have original universes, and sometimes those have a lot of rules, and there's all of the character interaction from the past that's vitally important to the game's overall story – and outside that game, the story doesn't exist, and the characters don't exist, and this is why it can seem really daunting to try to join an original RPG.

(Caveat: Don't tell an original RPGer that his characters don't exist outside the game, because the odds are pretty good that they do exist, inside his head, and he'll get awfully mad at you.)

This doesn't mean that everyone should join fandom or panfandom RPGs. It doesn't mean everyone should join original RPGs, either. Some people really aren't going to like one or the other (or even both). And some people are going to like both, and eagerly and happily play in both, and have a hundred active characters spread out around a dozen or so games – more power to them! I know that I can't handle that much of a time commitment, but other people can and do.

I think that most published-media/fandom/panfandom games do a pretty good job of making themselves heard and available to new players, and most original games have more trouble doing that – they probably have fewer players to start, and the social circles of those players have probably heard all about that game a dozen times or more, and so the odds are pretty highly stacked in favor of not getting new players on a regular basis. In contrast, of course, the larger a game is, the more people will hear about it, and join it, and expose their friends to it, who will become curious, and join it to try it, and ... Et cetera.

And so, as a quiet plug, if you are looking for an original RPG, either because of this entry or before it, I'd love to suggest Dirty Life, hanging out on LiveJournal since 2004 at [livejournal.com profile] dirty_life. It's a sort of casual urban fantasy, the world next door, where things happening in the news here in our world are happening there, too, with a few minor changes – and an undercurrent of magic that's unknown to the world's population at large. Yes, there's a lot of rules associated with that magic, but no, you don't have to know them in order to come join in and play – only if you want to play one of the species that are magic in origin. Other than that, if you're playing your basic, run-of-the-mill, ordinary and extraordinary human with likes and dislikes, desires and challenges, you only need to be familiar with the world around you and how to write in third-person, past-tense narrative. (And if you want to know everything that exists, well, there's even a wiki!) The players are few in number but great in welcome, the application is resoundingly simple and straightforward, and we'd love to have you.

Game Information, Dirty Life, Dirty History

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