Wednesday, September 18, 2019
The Way Out Is Through
Tabletop RPGs produce designers of tabletop RPGs at a tremendous rate - and it's a rate that continues to increase. In addition, the barriers to simple publishing have largely fallen, and they are trampled lower and lower each year.
This puts the industry of tabletop RPG production in a permanent state of oversupply.
Oversupply typically results in a lot of commodification, a race to the bottom in price, desperate companies using this to justify worker exploitation and laughable pay rates, and bitter struggles to build branding that can shelter a company and act as a vehicle for assured attention. It can mean wild overreactions to criticism as if it were an existential threat, because it might be one - and it can mean rapid reform, if that's what consumers want, because producers are hungry to give consumers what they want. It means new entrants are often met with resounding fucking silence.
And we've got all that. So, thing one:
The usual business of the tabletop gaming industry is desperation economics.
Tabletop RPGs and their creation exist in a nesting doll of 'design scene' within 'tabletop gaming culture' within the broader context of 'nerd culture', and all of those are... Damned weird, detail-obsessed, filled with entitled discourse, and "traditional" in many of the worst senses.
There have been, and will continue to be, arguments about whether this or that game is really an RPG. About whether RPGs are art. About whether it's okay in some kind of moral sense for games to be expensive, or free, or only available in print.
There's bitter bullshit directed at PoC, and women, and trans folk, and on and on, which factors into this as well (but is also its own whole expansive thing beyond it).
Which is to say, while the material gates to trying wild new things have never been lower, there's still endless static and gatekeeping behavior. There's always pressure and noise which adds up to pushing people to do things, in design and publication, largely according to one of the Traditional Patterns.
And more than this - the people in these various cultures are all aware, to whatever extent and in whatever framing, of Thing One above. And in true gamer/nerd fashion, a lot of them have A Specific Solution, which almost always just happens to be publishing more of what they like, priced how they want, delivered as they like.
So, thing two:
The usual politics of the tabletop game industry is gatekeeping and control politics.
I'm going to cut to the money quote from a big pile of tweeting I did yesterday:
The existence of abundant design can either result in a radically lower value being placed on design, or it can result in a radically greater range of designs and practices.
Which is to say, if all these game designers try to fit themselves into the pressures of Thing Two, they will continue to be stuck in the extreme competition of Thing One. Thing Two is the cage that perpetuates Thing One.
To get out of that trap, we don't need to follow one pattern more correctly, and we certainly don't need to reduce the number of new designers with barriers of some sort or to place new artificial social controls on business models.
We need more patterns. We need intense diversification. Games built for and around podcasting. Bespoke game design as a service. Game encoded around and on physical artifacts (I for one want a campfire spooky story game on a "talking stick"). Games you design as you play. And games as performance art, games that floss their teeth with the line between RPG and boardgame, theatre, kids pretend, all of it.
We need to seed a thousand niches we've never even noticed, and we never will so long as we're having petty shitfights about properly fitting one.
The way out is through.