Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Indian Summers

My love for Clark Ashton Smith -- my favorite of the Three Musketeers of Weird Tales -- is rather well-known, which is no doubt why several people directed me toward this article by Adam Ganderson. It's an overview of the life and writings of CAS, most of which is aimed at a general audience. I noted a couple of small inaccuracies in the article, but they don't detract from its essential point, that Smith was a unique literary voice whose like we've rarely seen.

Ganderson wisely turns to Scott Connors, editor of Night Shade Books' The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, for some insightful quotes, but it's actually another Night Shade editor, Jeremy Lassen, whose comments struck a strongest chord with me. In discussing the short-lived Golden Age of the pulps, Lassen explains,
Weird Tales and the pulp magazines came along just as magazines––as the centerpiece for popular culture––were going away. Many of the general fiction magazines folded pretty early in the century, but because there wasn’t a lot of weird fiction in radio and movies, the niche magazines, whose circulation was smaller than the general magazines, actually lasted longer.
I'm not yet prepared to defend the notion, because I'm still thinking it through and, truthfully, lack the evidence to support it, but I see a parallel with the Golden Age of roleplaying games. There are many differences, of course, not least being that gaming's Golden Age lasted barely a decade rather than two. Even so, I can't help but think that the early success and later mass market popularity of RPGs owes to the fact that it was one of the few outlets for people whose imaginations were fired primarily by fantasy and science fiction.

It was rare in the late 70s and early 80s to meet fans of genre fiction who weren't also gamers and certainly the earliest gamers consisted inordinately of people who were already involved in science fiction and fantasy fandom, as my recent interview with Lee Gold makes clear. Hard though it is to believe, in those days, fantasy and science fiction were not as pervasive as they are today. Indeed, the distinction between the two genres was esoteric and not reflected in popular conceptions of them, which tended to lump them into a single broad category.

I wonder then if gaming was in fact too successful for its long-term viability. Lassen says something similar about the weird fiction market in which Smith thrived:
Science fiction/fantasy is a declining literature in the broader sense of pop culture, I think, in part, because [science fiction has] conquered the world. Back in 1982 there were one or two big science fiction films a year if you were lucky. Pretty much every video game that comes out these days is a science fiction plot. Everywhere you look there are science fiction conceits and ideas that 25 years ago were not mainstream.
The same holds for roleplaying games, I think, and this may well explain why it is that gaming represents an ever-smaller sub-set of the much larger pool of people who enjoy fantasy and science fiction than was once the case. I don't personally see this as a bad thing in and of itself, but then I'm not trying to find a way to recreate the gaming fad of the 80s. I pity anyone whose job it is, though.

20 comments:

  1. That seems about right to me. In general, "geeks" just have too many alternatives now for their entertainment/hobby time and money for TTRPG in the classical mode to compete.

    On the other hand, I do think there's a lot of potential in something RPG-like as a popular social medium. It will need to be a lot more accessible to casual play, though, and thus probably not terribly appealing to traditionalists.

    You'll never see mass culture booms like we had in the 80s again, though. Mass culture is dead.

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  2. The problem with many table-top roleplaying games is that they are too combat oriented. Computers just do this better. End of story. There are a couple of things in combat that computers cannot do, like adjudicating illusions. However, these are also the types of things that humans cannot do so well either; we have been fighting over the mechanics of illusions for over 30 years.

    In addition, computers allow you to get rid of the variability of the game master. A fantastic game master is better than any computer game will ever be, but even a mediocre game master (who just sticks to the rules) is not. And that is really what has led to the death of the table tops: the grognards are not enough of a critical mass to expose the younger generation to the benefits of table top over computer RPGs.

    Where computer games still fail is in everything outside of combat - the social aspects of the game. There is a (smaller) market here, but it is underserved.

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  3. Well, I don't know if you can compare Sci-fi conquering popular culture with the rise and fall of tabletop RPGs. Today, I see pen and paper RPGs as a subset of the rise and fall of Sci-Fi and Fantasy in our culture, not it's own cultural driver, as it was in the 80s (and I'm not so sure about that, either).
    Also, I'd say Hasbro's downturn has little to do with pen and paper D&D. I'm willing to bet pen and paper D&D isn't even a big part of the WotC budget, when compared to Magic: the Gathering, let alone Hasbro as a corporation. I've no idea where to value the D&D property as a licensed product for video games, etc.., and wonder if it is sliding in value.

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  4. That's a great comment from Jeremy Lassen about the niche role for pulp magazines. To use 21st C buzzwords, the economics of pulp paper and a really rather robust distribution system (the magazine explosion of the late 19th C - early 20th C owes a lot to the expansion of the penny post and rural free delivery) made it possible for the pulps to exploit the "long tail" of niche interest in fantasy, etc.

    Gerard Jones' history of comic books, _Men of Tomorrow_, has a great discussion of Harry Donenfeld, the huckster and semi-pornographer who co-founded DC Comics, and Donenfeld's distributor Eastern News as “a major nexus for an important, undocumented alternative culture in early twentieth century America,” linking feminists, fitness fanatics, social visionaries, gangsters, and girlie mags. So the trucks that carried Donnenfeld’s pulps and comics also distributed Hugo Gernsback’s “scientifiction” stories, Bernarr MacFadden’s body-building magazines, Margaret Sanger’s (then illegal) birth control, Al Smith’s campaign literature, and Frank Costello’s mob liquor. It's like the alt-dot-culture of the 1920s and 1930s, a crucible of cheap magazines and disreputable ideas.

    Changes in the distribution system may be as important in the shape and history of a hobby like gaming as actual developments in content like new games and rules.

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  5. I've no idea where to value the D&D property as a licensed product for video games, etc.., and wonder if it is sliding in value.It is dead.

    Computer game companies like making their own IP; licensing has become very expensive for them. You can see this in EA's move from licensing to in-house IP over the past year.

    You still license if you have an old and respected product with a strong guaranteed fanbase. Look at Mythic and Warhammer. But D&D 4e is the worst of all worlds. It is so radically different from previous generations that there is no reason to license it as an IP.

    Furthermore, the game has removed most of the "controversial" rules mechanics, so that almost everything in the game can be managed by a computer. Unfortunately computers can spend the computational power to have more complex and interesting rules. And they are better at managing strategy between large numbers of opponents than a human game master is.

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  6. Today, I see pen and paper RPGs as a subset of the rise and fall of Sci-Fi and Fantasy in our culture, not it's own cultural driver, as it was in the 80s (and I'm not so sure about that, either).

    Except that it is a cultural driver in computer games.

    Partly this is because the only things that is acceptable to kill in a game are Nazis, robots, aliens, and zombies. But Sci-Fi games are major business, in particular sci-fiction CRPGs. Look at the success of Mass Effect and Fallout 3 (though I hate the latter).

    I teach (computer) game development at the university. All of my students claim to play and love RPGs. But very few of them have ever played anything other than a CRPG.

    Mark Nelson said the following about Ken Rolston this year at GDC: "You know Ken's old because he still calls them CRPGs."

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  7. I just wanted to say excellent post on Clark Ashton Smith. He is my favorite author and a superb source of inspiration for games.

    Such a perfect blend of horror and fantasy is hard to find and I believe that Smith could create a more frightening story that draws a person in than Stephen King or Clive Barker have so far. Stories like The Dark Eidolon or Master of the Crabs, just to grab two examples from Zothique, are tales that are evocative, frightening and, bring the reader into his nightmare world.

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  8. Walker:

    The problem with many table-top roleplaying games is that they are too combat oriented. Computers just do this better. End of story.
    I agree with the broad point here, but disagree with the assertion that it's the end of the story: S. John Ross notes that computer games lack 'tactical infinity,' and a couple of other features that are cheap in imagination but prohibitively expensive in animation. I'm guessing you know this, so I'm curious about your exact position on the trade-offs between limited/absolute rule sets and improvisational play. Also about what sets the orientation of a game

    Also, if it's not rude, could I ask where you teach?

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  9. one or two big science fiction films a year if you were lucky.and note that he says "big" and not "good." When I made computer games in the 90s it seemed like there were only a handful of films that everyone used for inspiration, and more than half of those starred Harrison Ford. If I were teaching a "culture of games" course I might call it "Harrison Ford: Patron Saint of the Home Game System."

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  10. I'm not sure I understand what it means for TTRPGs to "compete". You mean compete with World of Warcraft? They're two different hobbies. That's like asking if cat showing can compete with model rocketry.

    TTRPGs do what they do. Nothing else really does. Your characters are not the center of anything in WoW. Nobody cares if your Dwarf saved the sugarplum forest by slaying the evil gnoll bandit Hogger. *Everybody* has saved the sugarplum forest like 50 times. Nobody cares, because no matter what it is, it amounts to nothing except XP and item drops. There is no "world" behind those things.

    Nor can you come up with weird schemes to get past certain encounters. Nor can certain encounters be weird and unpredictable. That's just not what MMOs like WoW do, any more than a First Person Shooter allows you to actually debate the political ideology of national socialism with the German grenadiers who are attacking you. That's not what you can do... you can use the BAR or the captured MG42, but you can't discuss it and you can't have a Saving Private Ryan-esque angst scene (unless merely scripted) over a captured German prisoner. You can only do set things. That's what computer gaming is, and will always be no matter how much more complex it gets.

    Nor do I see why hobbies have to compete. I like WWII naval miniatures. What is that competing with? Seafarers of Catan? It does what it does, it is what it is, and the people who play it play it. *shrug*

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  11. WWII naval miniatures....Seafarers of Catan?

    Now, THAT would be a mashup! :-)

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  12. Great posts, Korgoth, Rob MacD, and Francisca. James, your implication about Hasbro’s sales seems kind of ironic if you read that article. In which it seems clear that Hasbro’s SF&F genre products are among their best-selling. The brokerage house quoted still lists Hasbro as “Outperform” after all.

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  13. S. John Ross notes that computer games lack 'tactical infinity,' and a couple of other features that are cheap in imagination but prohibitively expensive in animation.

    I agree with this. This is essentially the points that I was making with illusions. In general however, table top RPGs have very, very codified tactical rules which are finite. Tactical infinity comes about with improvised actions, which often require mechanics to be devised on the spot. This is very hard for novice game masters, and is exactly what I mean when I say that computers get rid of game master variability.

    As for your other question, I run the computer games program at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.

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  14. I'm not sure I understand what it means for TTRPGs to "compete". You mean compete with World of Warcraft?

    MMO RPGs are very different beasts than traditional CRPGs. You are absolutely right, the hero is commoditized. I do not like for that very reason.

    My references are to single-player CRPGs. That is what Mass Effect and Fallout 3 are. And this is what gamers are playing today instead of the table tops (I am fascinated how even the word "gamer" has morphed over the years). These are story driven, and have a lot of the features that you speak. Even open-ended play is supported, particularly in faction-oriented plot lines like SpiderWeb's Geneforge series.

    Yes, table tops have infinitely more variability; I do not disagree with that. I still love the table tops, and I think they have made many advances since the 90s that computer games still have yet to incorporate. But us old players do not appreciate how much the quality of the pen-and-paper game depends on the skill of the game master (partly because players with bad game masters stopped playing long ago). The younger players come to the game without mentors and guidance, and more often than not, they find the experience worse than what they can get from the computer.

    This is what lead to D&D 4e. That game was essentially designed to cut the grognards loose. Wizards wanted a game that younger people could pick up and play, and have a uniform experience without explicit mentoring by older players.

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  15. On a slightly more on topic post, I love CAS as well. The company has gone defunct, but if you can get your hands on the CDs for Ziggurat Production's Zothique Audio Books I highly recommend them.

    It sells on iTunes, but those are the mono super-compressed Audible versions. The atmosphere of Reg Green's voice and the background music is much better in stereo.

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  16. I haven't read enough Clark Ashton Smith, I must cofess. I've got two 2nd hand paperback anthologies which I'm saving for the right time. I love his style of writing.

    Are there any "authoritative" or recommended collections of his work available?

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  17. "Mark Nelson said the following about Ken Rolston this year at GDC: "You know Ken's old because he still calls them CRPGs."

    Wow, now I feel old... :/

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  18. Chris T: Grab the Nightshade editions, those guys really went to great pains for accuracy and added a few bits and pieces not found anywhere else.

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  19. Shimrod,

    My apologies. I didn't mean to suggest that Hasbro or WotC weren't doing well (though I reserve judgment on this point), only that concerns about turning a profit from this hobby aren't my concern. I personally don't think there's much money to be had from gaming and am happy with that situation. Hasbro, on the other hand, needs to make money and lots of it, so they do have to contend with all these issues. I don't envy them, because I think, ultimately, they're fighting a losing battle.

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