Not a Conspiracy Theory: Moving Toward Better Criticism in RPGs


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Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
The problem with RPG discussion isn't RPG theory at all. It's about general devolution through social media into a positions over interest culture. Folks want to win, they want to be right, and they want these things above a good discussion. It is also accentuated by gamers propensity for being anal retentive and overly pedantic.
The internet has also meant the end of gatekeeping of who gets to be a reviewer or content producer generally. (Which is 99.99% A Very Good Thing.)

That means no one tosses back garbage reviews and says "this makes no sense and you have no supports for your arguments." And now we've had at least two generations of people who've grown up with reviews that are just "I don't like it, bleah," and the whole process has gotten dumbed down.

Even the actual good reviewers get yelled at for "that's just your opinion, man," which doesn't exactly encourage anyone to do better.

And that in turn means that ordinary people, who don't necessarily have any aspirations to be reviewers, typically don't have models for good analysis and criticism. (The handful of English majors and academics can't hold back the tide on their own.)
 

Haiku Elvis

Knuckle-dusters, glass jaws and wooden hearts.
brass-eye-youre-wrong.gif
 

payn

He'll flip ya...Flip ya for real...
The internet has also meant the end of gatekeeping of who gets to be a reviewer or content producer generally. (Which is 99.99% A Very Good Thing.)

That means no one tosses back garbage reviews and says "this makes no sense and you have no supports for your arguments." And now we've had at least two generations of people who've grown up with reviews that are just "I don't like it, bleah," and the whole process has gotten dumbed down.

Even the actual good reviewers get yelled at for "that's just your opinion, man," which doesn't exactly encourage anyone to do better.

And that in turn means that ordinary people, who don't necessarily have any aspirations to be reviewers, typically don't have models for good analysis and criticism. (The handful of English majors and academics can't hold back the tide on their own.)
Yes, and no. Just because there are more voices than ever doesn't mean good meaningful discussion isn't happening. Its just the overwhelming bollocks is deafening. You need to discover your own noise to signal method.
 

Whizbang Dustyboots

Gnometown Hero
Yes, and no. Just because there are more voices than ever doesn't mean good meaningful discussion isn't happening. Its just the overwhelming bollocks is deafening. You need to discover your own noise to signal method.
There's definitely good reviews still out there -- typically the folks that do have people they answer to who tell them to do better on their reviews and analysis -- but more and more, people just see the equivalent of howler monkeys throwing feces at stuff they don't like.

And I definitely agree everyone needs to find quality sites to read and learn from.
 

Haiku Elvis

Knuckle-dusters, glass jaws and wooden hearts.
Anyway on a more serious note.
Like @MGibster I've also had the delight of studying archaeological theory which also suffers from the disagreement about what the word/field actually means. It doesn't seem to different from RPG theory to be honest. Substitute "Narrative games" for "New Archaeology" and you can probably keep a good chunk of the disagreements intact.

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It seems to me that because RPGs (TTRPGs) blend both games and narratives, that it should follow that any criticism should similarly use both game criticism and narrative criticism to arrive at style of play criticism. I don't think most TTRPG criticism really does that. I think most of it tries to synthesize an overarching scheme that all RPGs have to fit into.

I'm reminded of a YouTuber who, in two hours of "I'm a video essayist without an editor" levels of detail, reviewed Super Mario Odyssey as though it were a Dark Souls game. Not exactly, but basically. Unsurprisingly, he found the game wanting. He's playing it because he's making a video about the game. He ends up frustrated with the game's challenge after multiple complete playthroughs (yes, multiple complete playthroughs of Odyssey). He plays games for the skill challenge (e.g., Dark Souls) and Mario... isn't intended to be a deep skill challenge! I think he fell into this trap because his entire channel had gained traction by doing extremely detailed reviews of the Dark Souls games. However, I think it's the same trap we can fall into when criticizing or analyzing RPGs. Often when someone criticizes a game, it's because it doesn't do what they wanted it to do regardless of what it was designed to do. It's not that they're doing it wrong, it's that they just don't agree with the original design intents. On the one hand, this means we're not taking the game for what it is, and on the other, we're often compelled to criticize a game for how well it is or isn't specifically D&D. I think this is what theories like GNS mislead us into doing. It gives us language that ultimately isn't useful.

One of the real issues is that most games seem to be designed to generate a game with a certain style of play. But style of play is incredibly broad and diverse. Pathfinder 2e, Amber diceless, 10 Candles, and Call of Cthulu are, ostensibly, the same type of game. That's absurd! They attempt to tell entirely different stories with entirely different goals for the game and in many cases barely share a mechanic between them.

So how do we evaluate games that have different styles of play? How do we evaluate games that have different quantities of rules? Microlite20 and Basic Fantasy RPG are both games ostensibly in the same OSR-adjacent area. How do you compare them? It's like comparing Neil Gaiman's Coraline to the short stories for the Magic storylines. And comparing it to 3e D&D is like comparing Coraline to all of Erikson's Malazhan Book of the Fallen. Like, what are you even doing?

The thing is, the only concrete example of a style of play I can think of is OSR. It would take a long time to pin all the elements down (or just read the Principia Apocrypha) but I think that might be the only well-defined style of play. OSR implies things about the mechanics, about the style of story, about the means the DM uses to create content, about the primary type of content, and so on. It doesn't imply anything about setting or class vs classless, necessarily, just about that style of play.

And from there it gets very complex very fast. Like what's the difference between an Encounter and a Scene? I know exactly what kind of game is going to use the term "encounter" and what game is going to use the term "scene" and they are not the same type of game.

I'm remembering the old video game reviews that would break things down by story, graphics, controls/gameplay, sound, and performance. we don't even have that level of detail. I can tell you that Modiphius Conan 2d20 is a fantastic game that perfectly encapsulates the Hyborean Age, but that also has perhaps the worst book organization I've ever seen in an RPG and the magic rules are basically unusable as written and barely playable with the expansion book and the designers notes available online. Outside of that game specifically, I don't think I've seen a game that demands that level of technical criticism, but I don't know why we don't do it. How easy is it to prepare and run for? How easy is it to adjudicate or look rules up? Conveyance of the rules and order of play. There's just so much to cover with RPGs. The DM side, the PC side, both before and at the table. The flow of play. The utility of the books. The themes that the style of play encourages. Whether the mechanics are fun to resolve or if they become tiresome. There's so much going on with an RPG, I'm not even sure how you express all the modes of play and elements taking place.
 

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