Accessible vs Derivative

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.

0 thoughts on “Accessible vs Derivative”

  1. I am curious how you feel about games specifically designed to play a media property, like Firefly RPG or any of the various AGOT systems. Same feels as this or different?

  2. There’s an interesting DIY/”backyard wrestling” feel to it, too. Like, amongst a certain demographic, an RPG that is designed to “tell stories like Game of Thones” is actually an awful lot more appealing than a licenced Game of Thrones game.

    Part of it, I think, is just counterculturalism: “that big licenced game is going to be designed to have mass appeal and probably be boring and miss the most essential parts of the experience.” Part of it is the fact that in a lot of cases that countercultural response to licenced games is extremely well-justified.

    And part of it probably stems from the fact that we all do that thing where we watch or read something and say “wow, I’d really like to play a game in that setting” and we start to work isolating why we like the setting and we look at the licenced material and try not to barf at how generic and flavourless they are and we hack away at whatever our personal preference for hacking is or try to create some original mechanics.

    Like, one of the reasons I enjoy TOR so much is that despite all its flaws, it was a big, fancy officially-licenced game that actually attempted to capture the feeling and themes of its property. Similarly the BSG board game. Compare the utterly-lifeless BSG roleplaying game, or the movie-licence Lord of the Rings RPG.

    And then, of course, you’re absolutely right about original and idiosyncratic settings. I’ve been reading Symbaroum, and every time I turn the page and there’s more setting material, I’m left thinking “how do I communicate all this to my players?” I know for a fact they won’t read it; they might not even read a summary. So are we going to charge ahead and then have to stop every time someone makes a decision or assumption that conflicts? Do I just accept that that difference is idiosyncratic to “our” Symbaroum? Maybe, and again, that’s fine in a game where the themes and mechanics don’t interact much; Monsterhearts, for example, leaves lots of leeway for the group to develop how werewolves work in an individual game world, or how a vampire manages to attend classes. But if a game has a clearly-defined setting AND that setting is important to the themes, like Clay, and like Circle of Hands, you’re going to have some rough edges.

    And of course, the closer you hew to an existing property, the more effort you have to put into calling out your differences. If SCUP ends up 90% GoT, but the Queen’s Unicorn Knights are somehow setting-essential, you’re going to have players settling comfortably into their assumptions, only to get regularly stabbed in the backside by unicorns.


  3. I go the opposite way, I describe media properties by what RPGs could be used to play them.

    The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, for instance, is an In A Wicked Age campaign run by sadists and powered by about twenty draws off the Nest of Vipers oracle.

  4. It goes in both directions, you know. I wrote DayTrippers as a totally broad new-wave surreal SF platform: a literary conceit, really, built to support anything one might find in a story about alternate dimensions. I also imbued the game with my own sardonic sense of humor. At the time I knew nothing about Rick and Morty. But when I started posting about it on social media, the first question I got from several people was “Can you play Rick and Morty with it? I did a little googling, watched an episode, and decided yes, in fact I can’t think of any other game more suited to R&M. Now I can use that as a selling-point, and a few people have bought it based on that apparent connection. But it was not in my mind when I wrote the game.

  5. “_The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms_, for instance, is an In A Wicked Age campaign run by sadists and powered by about twenty draws off the Nest of Vipers oracle.”

    Sold, John Aegard.

  6. This is one of those funny places, because I find myself often very close to the OP. Non-surprise all around.

    However, I think that for me there is an element of judgement to it, even when I don’t want there to be. Because while “play a game like Game of Thrones” will get my ick face on, but “play a game like Game of Thrones, if it wasn’t a tale told by an idiot, full of sound, and etc.” will make me laugh and maybe play. Because who wants to play big-media crap? But play something like bid-media crap with the humanity snuck back in? Sure.

    Which shows there is some level of bullshit contradiction, where what I’m judging is not the quality of the game or the creativity of the players, but I am judging both mass culture output and the (understandable) desire to hew to it. The second thing is not more “creative” than the first, and is still basing its center of gravity on mass culture output.

    So yea, I’m a hypocrite.

    I also have parallel thoughts about common gamer shorthands and things that flutter about mass culture genres. Like the use of “fae” in urban fantasy. (It was one of the few things I didn’t like in “Nightmares Underneath” which is this awesome Turko-Persian setting, but the “Fae” are still “Fae” and I’m just like “WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU DO THAT.” Because… fae. fucking hell.)

    But I’m not sure those are quite the same thing as the OP. To me they feel connected, but that’s because of my slant on/background with mass market gentrification and the common denominators of thought. Where as the original seems okay with those sorts of tropes, and more about taking the whole construction as such and going with it.

    Anyway. Non coherent, tl;dr: me too.

  7. I don’t know that it’s always been that way.

    I dunno if publishers have been doing this very long or not, but I feel like fans have been using this kind of shorthand for a while; look at any “What system for [X]?” thread.

    I also feel like some “you can play”s are bigger flags than others. The AGoT comparison is one of the most problematic, IMO, as it’s just as ill-defined as when someone says “gritty fantasy” — SCUP may be the one game that actually knows what it means.

    And remember that what a lot of people want out of an RPG is emulation, so telling them what media property they can revel in proves helpful.

    (Granted, I also find it kind of weird, because honestly I’d argue you can “play X” with virtually any RPG, depending on what your expectations are.)

  8. Interesting. My take on it is that if you are selling a Star Wars game and I want to play Star Wars, I’m more likely to play your game than a generic Sci-Fi game that can emulate Star Wars. My reasoning is that if I want to play Star Wars, then I might as well buy a Star Wars game that’s done setup for Star Wars. I don’t want to buy generic Sci-Fi and then have to do all the heavy lifting of putting Star Wars into it.

    The opposite can also hold true. Say you are selling Game of Thrones the RPG. I don’t want to play GoT, So I’m not going to buy your RPG. However I still like the concept of GoT in a broader sense so I’d be more inclined to support a generic fantasy RPG that emulates the political, grittiness and scope of GoT. This would be as opposed to just playing DnD which isn’t really setup mechanically to do that, again unless I put in a lot of work.

    Then you have your totally original idea. First you have to explain the idea to me and then try and sell me on it. There’s definitely more upfront work to pitching an original idea. From a design perspective it’s got the biggest freedom to create and tell the type of game you want. So I see that as a huge draw. But selling people on it is certainly more of a climb because you aren’t marketing to fans of Star Wars or GoT you are marketing to a void and hopefully you aren’t the only one in it.

  9. “You can play X with it” is so rarely a useful observation that I don’t really give a fuck about it.

    How many tabletop game designers have the ability to actually extract the fictional dna of their favorite properties and encode it into a set of rules that’ll actually produce fiction in the spirit of their inspiration?

    The ones who can are in the vast minority. The rest are just producing the same old nerdcruft with new paint on it.

    As for game players … you read all those “What system for X” threads and they might as well all be entitled “Tell me what your game tribe is.” I’ve never seen any of those discussions turn into a thoughtful “ is about x, and this game does x in this way.” But I haven’t been around RPGnet for about a decade now except for the occasional drama drive-by.

  10. Well, this is sort of related to generic systems — and more importantly to semi-generic systems.

    I’m much more psyched to play something that says “can be used to play Frankenstein, the Ring, Aladdin, and Pretty Little Liars” than something that says just one, or none of these.

  11. I feel like it’s been going on for a long time: at some points, it even went circular (when I was in grade school, someone thought the selling point of DnD was that you could even play Dragonlance with it). DnD always had a certain “it does Tolkien” to it; Vampire had a “it does Anne Rice” pitch.

    That said, I’m in your camp these days. I don’t just not-care about others properties; I mostly don’t even want other people’s settings. Looking at the pitch for 7th Sea, I lost interest at the prospect of spending so much effort looking over the details of someone else’s imagination. That’s what I and my group are for!

    These days, BitD is pretty much the outside border of what I’m interested in in terms of someone else’s imaginings.

  12. Some times, I think people use that kind of language to ground new people in a game that they didn’t design to emulate a certain thing. Or sometimes you step away from it and go, “This is a lot like X, I should probably use that as a touchstone.”

    I’m less interested in things that are just the serial numbers filed off, but then again, sometimes that can be really cool. I’m thinking of Burning Wheel: Jyhad, the not-Dune setting book.

  13. Overwhelmingly, when I sit down with my group to decide what we want to play next, they’re almost ALL wanting to pull something from a media property as our first step.

  14. It’s fine, but I feel like it squeezes out others who might have an original idea they want to explain because they don’t have the shorthand everyone else does.

  15. For me, I’m more ok with a thing the less reliant on any single touchstone it is. Like if someone had originally pitched Urban Shadows as a new way to play Buffy/Angel/Dresden, my interest would be pretty minimal.

    But when it’s pitched as Buffy/Angel/Dresden, plus The Wire, then I’m much more on board.

  16. With most games you can see what IPs inspired it. Sometimes they call it more than others. I like a game that dares to be original. There is a difference though between making something new with an existing idea, or just wanting to copy it.

    I read a book a few years ago called How to talk about books you haven’t read. One of its points was that if you read enough books, you’ll know what context a book is in, and in that way know everything about it without having to read it. It is a bit the same with RPGs.

    On a related note, the first question I got when my game was kickstarted, was: can I run a Firefly-type game with this?

  17. Maybe we just use shorthand of media people are familiar with to gain their attention and simplify things? Because let me tell you how fucking hard pitching some of my games is.

    Like, we do this with all media. Movies inspired by reality. Video games inspired by sports. Etc and so on.

    To my knowledge it has always been this way (bc early D&D is like, baby’s first Lord of the Rings RPG) but we don’t always name the media because of copyright and so on. We are inspired by other media, and many people want to give credit while also benefitting from it.

    How it’s included, how it’s phrased, and how it genuinely relates to the game seriously matters though.

  18. I don’t know that that’s actually true about D&D! When we play Grayhawk or whatever, it wasn’t LotR and we weren’t really playing toward those tropes. Although the LotR DNA is really hard to disentangle from all fantasy everywhere, so … maybe. But I guess what I’m getting at is that we weren’t all “we can play Lord of the Rings with this!” in the same reverential, conscious way that I’m talking about.

    Attention-getting, yeah for sure. That’s a marketing thing for publishers and players. Good for setting expectations. I guess I don’t love that this is the best way to set expectations, although it’s convenient as heck.

    “It’s like the movie Platoon” and “it’s about men struggling to keep it together as they’re physically and emotionally blown apart” are super-duper different, you know?

  19. Considering the original D&D had halflings as hobbits and I know a fair number of people who did say “we can play LotR with this!” I’m talking like, Red Box, where hardcore LotR fans heard “hobbits, elves, and dwarfs” and nearly shit themselves in joy. And it’s not much different from games like Shadowrun using the rules of cybermancy by pulling from RoboCop, and while they didn’t cite it, people got it. This is subtle versions of what you’re saying is being explicitly noted.

    And yes, those are different, but they are also not. To some people reading “men struggling to keep it together as they’re physically and emotionally blown apart” is “stupid dramatic Oscar bait” content, but Platoon is recognizable, easily consumed, and isn’t spelled out with emotions and shit.

  20. I think it can limit play and design. I’m less focused on play — my needs for stretching my boundaries don’t need to be anyone else’s — than I am on design.

    And at the same time I think media references can be helpful for accessibility, because when you’ve gotten something super weird with no touchstones (Glorantha, Tekumel, Talislanta, Degringolade) that’s not good either.

    I’m not proposing a fix or really even complaining, nothing like that. Just chatting about something I’ve been thinking about. It’s in my sights right now because I’m designing something that I think would be ill-served by saying “it’s like King Arthur” even though that is, at a very shallow level, totally true. But if someone picks it up and says “Yeah sweet, this is a lot easier to run than Pendragon” and then they get into it and it delivers a holy-shit-wtf-is-this experience that’s so not Pendragon, I’m not sure I did anyone any favors by invoking it in the first place.

  21. Yeah, I’m just trying to understand and all.

    Trying to figure out how to pitch Turn is hard because there is no comparable media. Like, I kind of envy people who can do this because nothing seems to fit.

    But yeah. It has implications on design and play, even if only intended to market.

  22. Brie Sheldon right? Tricky!

    I’d love to see designs take more chances but if you’re actively limiting your audience because they can’t relate to it, ugh.

    (Hook me up with Turn sometime and maybe I’ll have some ideas.)

  23. Yeah, I have a lot of feelings on how to market to people who you don’t know and who might not have your same media experience and it’s all *shruggie*

    (Sure, it’s easing towards more playtests right now. The original feedback has been amazing but pitching it is hard as hell.)

  24. Is it obvious to say some of this is simply people lacking the vocabulary to talk effectively about their game? I.e., they may intuitively know what it is they’re gong for (or maybe not, honestly) but are unable to explain it. I mean, you may know how you feel when you watch/read AGoT, but you don’t really know why, or what exactly triggers those feelings.

    E.g., this happens to me in my UI design work all the time. People interact with designs all the time, but it’s often in unconscious ways. But when they ask me for something, they can’t do much beyond say “make it pop” or “just like Amazon, okay”.

  25. Then there’s mashing two properties together. Hollywood writers often pitch their ideas this way. It just works. Kira Magrann has a story in the upcoming #UbiquiCity anthology that has been pitched as “Her meets Fast and Furious”

  26. “Trying to figure out how to pitch Turn is hard because there is no comparable media.”

    That works as a pitch for me!

    Pitching sucks though. Really the thing that gets me to try a thing is either I like the creator’s past work or creators or friends tell me it’s good. That’s the pitch that works for me. Invoking media for games limits them because they are different types of media and the comparison weakens both.

    Maybe I lied though because mechanics and structures of play will pitch me good.

    “Game of Thrones set in space” = who cares

    “Dresden Files City Creation rules mixed that then uses Apples to Apples for combat resolution” = at least now I know what that will be like and I’m interested in checking that out.

  27. I’m in the same boat, my happy place is definitely in that “a little of X and a lot of Y, but instead of A it’s got B” zone rather than the “It makes games like X!” zone.

    But since somebody mentioned Burning Sands, my favorite favorite thing is BW Elves and Dwarves, which do Tolkien in exactly the way every other game doesn’t. Burning Sands is similar. So… Is that a second axis, or what? It’s definitely not a position on the Glorantha/sui generis weirdness<->broad genre emulation<->more specific setting/tone stuff<->“it does GoT” continuum.

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