A conversation I had recently with some of my players about running Cartel at some point reminded me of my most notable transformation throughout a lifetime of roleplaying.
The conversation basically went like this (and also took place online, in sidebar, with a couple folks):
Them: “I really don’t want to play Cartel.”
Me: “Oh really? I thought it looked like good drama.”
Them, pick one:
• “God it looks tacky. This is real crime, you know.”
• “I hate drugs, the drug war, kids on drugs, all of it.”
At least two of these people have watched and enjoyed Breaking Bad, Narcos, other movies related to the cartels. One of them is a reader of Mexican narcofiction like The Black Minutes.
To be fair, the other half of my world is all-in. It’ll get to a table sooner or later but this explains why it’s been so frigging hard to set it up. But this whole thing reminded me of the topic of credibility in RPGs, and my relationship to that topic.
It cuts across a lot of different ideas, so hold on tight. If you’re not good at reading the OP and all the comments, this might not be the right thread for you.
The Way-Back Machine
There was a stretch, basically from when I started in 1980 until the mid-90s, when RPGs were explicitly and exclusively escapist fun for me. In my experience, any and all efforts to treat them as anything more than that were universally terrible and borderline dangerous. Minds Eye Theater LARP was the worst offender, with make-believe power and domination structures bleeding hard into the real world without any formal intervention by facilitators.
I’d also seen efforts to earnestly treat roleplaying as a form of psychodrama as well, either formally via design intent or informally as an exercise by ambitious GMs. Those were universally terrible and borderline dangerous in my experience. The goal was to address and possibly even resolve deep-psych stuff via the “safety” of an RPG: phobias, trauma, interpersonal problems. What can I say? It was the wild west, nobody knew better, the promise was powerful.
Then you had the folks, aiming for “high drama,” finding themselves in the deep end of the pool. If the goal is drama, well, you look at dramatic genre fiction for inspiration/emulation. And you end up with rape stories, murdered families, extremes of unpleasant human experience. There’s a lot of terrible genre fiction to pull from and to hide behind.
They’re two different goals and boy do they get easily intertwined: the desire for powerful human drama, and the desire for powerful human experience.
It’s really no wonder, in retrospect, that I – among many, maybe most of my peers – had come to understand RPGs as strictly escapist entertainment.
I remember a late-night BS session at GenCon…96, maybe, with major design and publishing luminaries. I was one of a couple up-and-comers who had gotten the tap on the shoulder. Steve Perrin asked “so is there an audience, you think, for more mainstream settings and topics?” And my answer, from where I was sitting in 1996, had to be “Nope. No way. Every game needs some woo-woo, something escapist, some way to goose the empowerment fantasy.” Everyone in that room shrugged and sighed and drank their beers.
That’s a very common position out in the big world beyond small-press gaming, and if your personal roleplaying experience has mostly been in the small-press scene hopefully you understand that, at least in the abstract.
I’m not sure when that shifted for me, but it did. I wrote this essay for those people as one of my final gestures in The Business. The copyright is 1999 but an early draft of it was floating around in ’97 or so. My personal journey has continued from there.
And We’re Back
Bringing this back to the subject of credibility, there’s this confluence of (at least) two different ideas happening. To recap: intensity of drama, intensity of experience. Two different play and design goals even if they look similar. And as long as credibility is a question, I think that’s why RPGs are so easily dismissed as escapist diversions.
Drama is where my personal play needs continue to lie. I think that’s because of my skepticism about roleplaying’s ability to handle personal experience. I mean the psychodrama part. I’ve always been super-iffy about games that poke at grief, trauma, addiction, dysfunction. Edgy/experimental games that burble out of Game Chef (for example) often trigger my skepticism on this front. Mostly I have deep doubts about designers’ ability to handle material with real-world implications.
But my skepticism about designers’ capacity to handle real-world human experience doesn’t make it objective truth! I know (in the abstract) that plenty of folks get that out of their games, and plenty of designers are fruitfully and successfully bringing that to the table.
So I find myself at the crossroads of that stuff with Cartel, surrounded by folks who haven’t gazed at their navel as intently as I do. I’m thinking about the drama; they’re thinking about addiction, celebrating real-world violence, reducing something problematic and terrible to “just a game.” You know, for escapist entertainment.
It’s interesting to me that the roleplaying community at large is often totally okay with other media tackling problematic material but we’re often way-not-okay when an RPG tackles the same material.
I get that, and I think it comes down to a credibility gap at some point: we don’t trust the designer, or the facilitator, or the other people at the table. At some point, we don’t want to take that risk. I’m not persuaded that this is something you can address procedurally, like via an X-card or something. You can’t unring the bell, although you can stop going down a particular line of thought. But if I’m watching a movie about something traumatic and terrible, I (at least) have this trust that the writer and director have worked harder, researched harder, pulled in more experts. If I’m reading a novel or listening to someone’s album, I don’t have to rely on my fellow readers/listeners to approach the material correctly; I’m answerable only to myself.
So why do we watch Breaking Bad and Narco and Scarface but turn our noses up at Cartel?
I propose it comes down to credibility, and this impulse to hold games out at arms’ length as amusing diversions and not creative platforms every bit as legitimate as novels and movies.