The Tyranny of Excellence

I came late to the storygaming scene: not just playing and running games in the new school, but design, theorizing about play, publishing, indie gaming blogs, forums, con panels. The scene is vast. The thing that attracted me to the scene was the relentless focus on excellence. Game design could be and must get better. Play can be iterated and improved upon. Production can always be better. Representation must improve. The experience can and will change lives. Gaming is identity. Gaming is politics. Gaming is art.

For whatever reason, I’ve got a strong streak of self-improvement in me. I was a pretty good mountain biker but I could always get better or braver. I’m a pretty good writer but there’s always room for improvement. I run a good game but can I run a great game? Could I dare to design… a Great Game? That drive is in there. It hasn’t been great for my mental health.

Storygaming is not a welcoming scene.

A year or so ago this idea cropped up in my social media circles, that storygaming isn’t a welcoming scene. That struck me as absurd on its face: look at our inclusive content! Look at all these diversity panels! Look at all the wokeness. Conventional tabletop gaming is mired in colonialist fantasies and racist and sexist worldviews, we would tell ourselves. I’m not relitigating this assertion (#notalltrad, etc.), just putting it out there. I’m sure #notallstorygamers actually believe this, or believe it in an absolutist way, but I guarantee all storygaming spaces have had their reckoning with what they/we feel are problems in traditional tabletop roleplaying.

But then I started hearing this same message from PoC gamers. Women gamers. Nonbinary gamers. Over and over, I hear many marginalized gamers say: storygaming is not a welcoming scene. This isn’t about the occasional bad actor, either. Lord knows, there are bad actors aplenty scattered throughout every subset of gaming. I’m talking about the cultural underpinnings of storygaming itself.

I chatted with my circle of non-cishetwhitedude gaming friends about this, and they confirm that the storygaming welcome mat is frequently not laid out. Despite the outreach, despite the Codes of Conduct, despite the good-faith efforts.

Is it individual gatekeepers? Is it casual –isms?

I propose it’s the culture, and it’s been there since the start. I think it’s storygaming’s tyranny of excellence.

I wasn’t deeply involved in the earliest years of the Forge but I got a first-hand look at the diaspora, fora and blogs and Game Chef and Games on Demand. The constant striving for improvement on all fronts all the time was a powerful draw. But you know what? The demand for excellence is intimidating. It comes from every angle — players, organizers, bloggers — not just high-profile creators, although the culture was established in the earliest days of storygaming. And it’s driving people out.

Design

The big one for me is the drive toward excellence in game design. Every game designer and publisher I admire, personally, wants games to get better. Better specific table experiences, faster handling time, clearer incentives, better emergent discoveries, more precise evocations of specific moods. We are obsessed with not just sparking joy, but a specific joy in a specific way for specific reasons. And even as I write this, I’m like yeah! This is great! But the wider I cast my net on this topic, the more I’m seeing this demand for excellence not only as a set of preferences specific to our scene, but actively hostile to whole categories of folks who would like to be in the design space. (Spoiler alert: this includes me.)

Design contests are a reflection of this cultural value, this striving toward excellence. But game jam culture seem much less so: no winners, just make the thing (and then post it to itch.io). I feel like young(er) gamers prefer jams over contests, both as designers and organizers.

One side-thread I followed for a while was an assertion I’ve heard that the OSR scene is more welcoming to marginalized designers than storygaming. On purely tribal grounds this blew my mind! But I looked at what’s out there, and talked with some OSR publisher-friends more about this. The big revelation to me is that inclusion and acceptance is more explicitly valued in many OSR spaces than storygaming spaces, sometimes at the expense of demanding excellence.

I feel like the generational split is entangled with marginalized communities when it comes to valuing participation over excellence. I’m not saying “the kids” don’t want great games, good grief. Nor am I suggesting marginalized creators are somehow not concerned with doing good work. I’m just proposing that excellence isn’t prioritized over access.

Storygamers (particularly a middle-aged white guy coming from a very privileged space, like me) look at every new game with a highly critical eye: is this tight? Is it novel? Does it break new design ground? Does it advance the state of the art? Does it answer interesting questions? But you know what? I’ve seen far more OSR folks look at a new thing in their space and enthusiastically high-five the creator just for doing the thing. Doesn’t matter if it’s “good” by any metric storygamer partisans care about. They did the thing and that’s what matters.

I look at my own demands for excellence and I can’t meet them.

Lord knows I’ve outthought myself more times than I can count when it comes to something I’m designing. I look at my own demands for excellence and I can’t meet them. It’s not novel, or it doesn’t break new ground, or it’s derivative of older stuff, or it doesn’t ask interesting enough questions. I’ve spent years blogging about storygames with a critical eye and it’s broken my ability to work outside of that gaze.

But you know what? I’ll bet I could have put out a dozen OSR goodies by now. The shape of old-school play is a solved problem, and new takes on that format don’t really shake that up. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone position one OSR game or another as “better,” just different. The art can be terrible, or weird, or personal and quirky but, hey, it’s distinctive and you did the thing and, again, that’s what matters. Perfect is the enemy of good.

When I realized how high the walls have become, it’s really no wonder folks feel intimidated by the storygaming scene.

And you know what? As a critic and player deeply invested in atomizing, evaluating and deconstructing what we do, I’ve played no small part in that myself.

Play

Another place I see the tyranny of excellence is in play: improving facilitation, sharper player skills, digging deeper, hitting themes harder, evoking stronger emotions. There are endless blog posts and convention panels that hit this stuff all the time. There’s potentially money on the line as well, if you livestream or otherwise monetize your play, and that’s surely changing both the players and the audience. And I’m starting to see otherwise accomplished, self-actualized adults doubting their ability to keep a table engaged for four hours.

One well-known storygame designer admitted to me that they’re filled with doubt about rules mastery. “I admire how confident you are that you’ll figure this out on the fly,” he told me at a con recently. And I was like…isn’t that how we do it? Honestly I have no idea if I’m actually that confident, or if I just have a different understanding of what a table of players expects of me. Maybe if I got fixated on the expectations of excellence-fixated players, I’d lose that confidence. Oh no I’m outthinking myself now. (I’m not. Not really.)

A parent told me once, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” And boy did that fuck me up.

But I have to wonder: are “play” and “striving for excellence” really compatible? I mean, yeah. You can absolutely get better at anything you do. Some relative, probably a parent, told me once, “Anything worth doing is worth doing well.” And boy did that fuck up my approach to recreation. Demanding constant iterative improvement in yourself and others is uhh…not always recreational. This is a place where I need to re-evaluate myself. There are times when another player’s abilities directly hinder my ability to have a good time, certainly. But I’m thinking long and hard about whether that means they need to play “better” or just different. What’s “better,” anyway?

Politics

Last bit on this topic before I go. One area of storygaming I’m very happy to see improve is in how self-reflective our games have become — and believe me, this was not always the case. See beautiful indie darling Dogs in the Vineyard, for example. Decolonizing is (finally) a thing, as is better gender and queer representation. Doing politics better requires cishetwhitedude storygame creators work with a more diverse pool of folks and their lived experiences. The broader storygame design community has a growing audience eager for their perspectives.

Sometimes this all comes across as performatively woke, sure, but I’ll take the performance over casual racism/sexism/whatever-ism or, worse, assertively offensive work trying to cash in on aggrieved incels, white nationalists and toxic old neckbeards marinating in their unexamined assumptions. This is a place where I think both storygaming and OSR scenes are doing better than conventional game publishing, even if they’re for different reasons. Storygame designers are tying themselves into knots to hit the right notes, and the OSR is happily embracing a super-diverse creative and play community.

Where Do We Go?

First off: laying blame for this is not productive. I have thoughts on where and how we got here, but it’s unuseful speculation based on imperfect historical recall. And I don’t even think there’s blame per se to be handed out, nor an active conspiracy of gatekeepers, patriarchs, or anything more at play than our traditions. I mean, striving and improving can be good! I would never suggest anyone stop trying. Rather, let’s remember there are considerations in addition to chasing down a narrowly defined form of excellence.

I think it’s our fixation on a narrowly defined kind of excellence that’s the problem.

I sincerely hope the old guard of the new school sees how tyrannical their, our, fixation on excellence is. We can set it aside and let more imperfect work in. I still evaluate new storygames on whether they’re “good,” but you know what? Lots of imperfect games speak to players and provide valuable experiences to them. I’m not sure their experiences would actually be improved much with “better” rules. I’m sitting here rethinking what it means for a game to be “good,” and whether it even matters that it is.

Maybe it’s time to start paying attention to how our demands for a specific kind of excellence is distorting design and participation. Maybe less fixation on excellence can mean we take more interesting chances in design and how we play.

5 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Excellence

  1. This is a very good post. This kind of self reflection is not always possible when you’re on the self-improvement grind. It can be hard to unclench the fist of willing improvement into exsistence, but we might find ourselves having more fun if we do.

  2. Great article, though I can’t say I have much personal experience here since most of the people I know are unwilling / uninterested / unable to play Storygames. I try and bring something like MASKS or Epyllion or even Kult and they just shake their heads and go back to playing WoD or D&D.

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