Thursday, December 13, 2012

Zappadan, Day 10: The War on Beige

Judging from the number of pageviews I've gotten lately, a lot of people who normally read this blog are not interested in my Zappadan posts. So be it. Frank Zappa is an acquired taste and not everyone digs him. This is gaming blog, and these posts aren't really "gaming content" per se (whatever rickety connections I create between them). Here's the thing, though... Every author has his or her influences, and those influences are manifold, springing from the experiences and memories and half-grasped feelings of that person. So, when I get on a real roll in writing about gaming, what you are hearing is not just me. It's a chorus of voices which include people like Frank Zappa, Charles Bukowski, Robert Crumb, Stephen King, The Three Stooges (didn't see that coming, did you?), and a host of other people whose "voices" influence my own authorial style.

For me, it's impossible to separate these things. The crafting of words, or words with music, or words with images, or whatever other thing one might do with words is fascinating to me, a rhetorical scholar by trade. I've had a lot of great teachers, most of whom I've never even met. These are sources of wisdom, for me, or as Kenneth Burke (another rhetorical scholar and a personal hero of mine) said, in reference to literature, they are "equipment for living." I find it amazing that someone can go through life and not read, on purpose, even if they are literate. I find it amazing, also, that so many of my fellow citizens of the world are content simply to sample from what other decide is "good," never even venturing beyond what is initially offered to them by an increasingly monopolized marketplace of popular cultural products. Even when you put people in charge of marketing who are supposed to know "what people want" you're still dealing with someone who can impede the flow of ideas. Consider:


"The person in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population."

Then of course there is the problem of too much community input. For example, the D&D Next playtest no doubt will use the results of the playtesting to establish what the RPG community of The World's Most Popular RPG "wants" from the game. What they'll get is a bunch of opinions, and those opinions must be considered, weighed, balanced, and otherwise incorporated. The result, no doubt, will be the gaming equivalent of the color beige. It is at once colorful and nondescript, and speaks to the vision and passions of pretty much no one.

So, even when you do your best to design something that appeals to the greatest number of people, you end up with something that appeals to no one in particular. Nobody is going to be passionate about D&D Next, I'm guessing, because it's attempting to serve far, far too many masters. Products like Anomalous Subsurface Environment, Dungeon Crawl Classics, and [insert other OSR gaming product here] are "like D&D" but they have a personality and an identity, which springs from the fact that they are relatively unfiltered versions. There's no gatekeeper beyond the authors themselves. Even when playtesting is happening, I get the feeling that something like DCC was more about "Does this work?" or "Is this fun?" than about "Will this sell to males between 12 and 25?" or "Is this going to compete with D&D's market share?" or even "Is this what the OSR wants?" (like that's even a unified group)

You'll notice that the real difference here is the difference between a focus on what happens with the product once it hits the market (regardless of its quality) versus the quality of the product (regardless what happens in the marketplace). Now, I'm glad that these products are doing well, or as well as they can be given their relatively limited audience. I'm very, very glad that the authors chose to do what they could do best and brightest and loudest and most awesomest, rather than simply saying, "What's gonna sell?"

The funny thing is that one can never really know what's going to sell. Yes, you can focus-group it to death. You can copy what is popular. You can try to establish differentiation from competing products and define your "unique selling proposition" (It smells like toast!). But these things are signfiers of difference from something else, not signifiers of quality or kind. It's the difference between saying "Fighting robots are awesome, and I'm going to build the most awesome fighting robot ever!" and saying "I'm going to build Megatron!" Sure, you'll use the same sorts of parts, usually. A fighting robot has parts that a fighting robot should have. But in limiting the scope of awesomeness to things that already are recognized as acceptably cool, you leave out so many other possibilities for innovation, invention, mashing-up, and otherwise creating things that are worth having, seeing, or whatever.

This happens even when people supposedly know what they're doing, and try their best to satisfy the untapped needs of others. Now, I'm not one of those people who believes that creation is the province of the genius. Anyone can be creative. But I will say that must people are ashamed or embarrassed on some level to try to be creative. They're afraid of what other people will think. And sometimes, to be sure, they should be afraid. On the other hand, sometime people go with their guts and put something out there because they like it. And they find that other people like it, too. That's what happened with DCC, I think, and I know that's what's happening with the Metal Gods of Ur-Hadad campaign. Adam and I have produced something we like, each in our own way. We put these things together in one place and ask, "Would it be awesome?" rather than "How do we get people to like us?" It's nice that some people think that it's awesome, and like us as well. It's also really great that other people go, "Meh. Not really into it." and go find something else about which to be passionate.

So, bear with me with this Zappadan thing. It's something about which I am fairly passionate, and maybe a few others are as well, and maybe, just maybe... you'll find something here worth hearing. If not, I'll write more stuff about DCC and other gaming stuff when I get time for it. Right now, what with what's happening at work, I pretty much got time just for this. And, hey, it's the closest thing I got to a religious holiday. I gotta celebrate. Now, how about a Zappadan carol? I like this one. It's about two things I really like.