Accessible vs Derivative
On my mind lately: how the primary pitch for many, maybe most, RPGs these days is “you can play insert media property here with it.” I don’t know that it’s always been that way.
First off let me put right here, very close to the top, that I’m not passing judgement on the players or the designers who do this. And, yes, I’m well aware that “derivative” has a negative connotation. But I can’t think of a better word. Inspired by maybe? Doesn’t feel quite right. So maybe I’m judging after all.
I don’t know that it’s always been thus, nor am I sure that players have always wanted it. When I worked in the business as a
content generator respected supplement writer, the Big Dream of the creators was to get a property that someone else would turn into its own media property. Yes of course there was always cross-pollination: Deadlands had tones of Hexslinger and The Dark Tower and the Lee Winters stories; Battletech referenced Japanese mecha stories while adding a more American flavored military twist. But we didn’t play Battletech because “you can play Battle Angel Alita,” right?
Now, clear media inspiration can also be awesome, right? Because you can clearly communicate expectations and complex ideas in a tidy package. Coriolis has lots of Firefly in it, and you can sorta-kinda “play Firefly” with Coriolis although you’d have to ignore all the Arabian Nights pre-Islamic stuff and cook up your own pseudo-antebellum-frontier material in its place. So that’s an example where it’s there for inspiration, a quick way to communicate “tight-knit small-ship crew kicking around space.”
A week or two ago Paul Czege mentioned in passing that his enthusiasm for a game instantly deflates when he sees that it’s for playing out other properties. I’m kind of in the same boat! Like, I don’t know that I want to fanboy Charmed when I sit down to play Urban Shadows (nor does the game expect or require it, just saying). And when I see a Kickstarter for a new RPG I get such mixed feels when it says something in the region of “play stories like A Game of Thrones.” Which…yeah. SCUP is what prompted me today, and I’m backing it so I’m obviously not allergic to it. But it gives me pause.
It also gives me pause on the design side! Because unless you’re completely immune to the need for it to make money or have players at all, your game needs an audience. And if you’ve designed a game with literally no media/cultural references at all (like, say, Czege’s The Clay That Woke), that can be inherently limiting if you need to communicate expectations.
So like I said, I’m not really judging the accessibility/derivative/inspiration thing so much as just thinking about it. And a small part of me feels disappointed when players and designers alike don’t give their game more creative room to breathe.