Keeping up with this ridiculous thing is hard. Not even a week into it and I’m getting worn out. Might have been the 3 day weekend combined with a lingering summer chest cold (the worst!) which has now entered the cough-up-dire-chunks stage.
Thoughts behind the question:
I feel so ambivalent about PbtA games. I own a crapton of them in hardcopy and PDF; I think my count is 35. I’ll probably play less than 10 of them, like, ever.
PbtA has become kind of a cliche of indiegame monoculture, yeah? Two of the 2015 Indie Game of the Year winners are PbtA games. I have absolutely no statistics to back it up but I’ll bet PbtA and Fate together make up 99% of the sales. It feels like there ought to be more variety, especially given the indie of indiegaming, right? It’s probably like grunge was in indie music though: thousands of independent acts that all kind of sound the same.
So, my ambivalence comes down to what feels like a lack of ambition on the part of both the audience and the creators of indie games. I wrote an IGRC post about genres and tropes a few months back, and one of the more common comments was along the lines of “no duh, well of course there’s lots of tropes in RPGs, that’s what RPGs are.” And that premise struck me as so weird that I didn’t know how to reply to it.
Looking through my library of PbtA games, the vast majority of them are tropes-y celebrations of known slices of fictional genres: here’s a game about urban fantasy stories, here’s a game about D&D style fantasy, here are some games about cyberpunk.
But you know what? My favorite PbtA games are not the tropes-y ones. Jason Morningstar’s Night Witches is about the experience of being a professional woman under very difficult and humiliating circumstances. It would be a very different feeling game, I think, if he was trying to model military dramas in general. Gregor Vuga’s Sagas of the Icelanders is arguably centered on genre (Viking sagas) but it’s about the experience of living in an honor-bound society with traditions but not laws. It, too, I think would be a very different game if he’d tried to design a game to model the Vikings TV show. And efforts I’ve seen around to expand on or improve SotI (i.e. The Man playbook) that slave themselves to the Viking sagas, I think, do not succeed because the rest of the game isn’t really about modeling the sagas.
The PbtA games about personal experiences are my favorites. The ones about celebrating genre are not, although I still play them and enjoy them very much.
This really came into focus for me working on my own game about the history of the American West. It was a huge revelation to me because of the big gap between Westerns as a genre and The West as a time and place. I want to write a game about personal experiences (like Night Witches and Sagas of the Icelanders) but holy shit is the gravity of genre hard to fight in PbtA. I have some ideas why that I’ll get into later. But, like, I could dash off a Western genre game in a weekend and I’ll bet it’d even be pretty good. And it’s probably what the audience would prefer, to by honest. But it’s not the game I want to write, so I wonder if there’s something about PbtA itself.