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RPG and Art

I think that it is undeniable that role-playing games constitute art in every sense of the word. The act of communally creating a story regardless of mechanical means underpinning it is clearly a work of
art. This thought is often abbreviated, however, whether out of embarrassment or an excess of ego.

First, let's not be shy about calling it art. It is an art form and there are better and worse results as art. As with any art, the capacity of the resulting activity to amuse is not necessarily related to its quality. The capacity to entertain (cf. Eisenstein) perhaps more closely is. The capacity to expose ideas that otherwise may not be illuminated certainly is. To head off the obvious accusations of "badwrongfun" -- yes, some fun is artless. You are not an evil or stupid person for enjoying that. But the fact that your dungeon crawl is great fun does not make it art and, more importantly, the fact that the medium can be used to cerate art does not make your dungeon crawl suck. My crappy doodling in the margins of crossword puzzles in not art either, but it is diverting. I will not defend it as art and I will not be offended if you make the claim that it is not art.

Second, let's not mistake the medium for the message. Once someone (usually a game designer) gets it in their head that this passtime is sometimes art, they usually glom on to the idea that the game itself is art or (more insidious) that the game affects the whether or not art is created. Or affects its quality. I want to stand well apart from that idea. Not because I think system doesn't matter (where system is defined largely as the rules as applied by the table -- vaguer and proportionally less useful definitions exist) but rather because talking about the system is rather like discussing the qualities of cinema by focusing on lenses, film, and cameras.

The, art, you see, is in the play.

Now, when a film-maker sets out to make a great film there is no question that he selects his tools very specifically. But he selects them in the context of his goals. Not all tools are always useful and some turn out to be rarely useful indeed. But the art is in the finished product -- the film itself -- and not in the lens or the colour process.

And so I think that the art in role-playing games if firmly vested in the table itself -- in play. And it is there. We have all experienced a thrill, a sense of awe, a rush of excitement, from a moment in play or, more rarely, from an entire session. When looking back over play notes from a multi-session campaign there is often a powerful emotional response to the story (though -- and this is another essay -- not from the reproduction of events but from the memory of the actual session that it evokes). This response is the giveaway that that we are dealing with art. And it happens sometimes in most games and all the time in none. More in some perhaps. Less in others. But always it is from play as influenced by system and not from system as represented in play. The storytelling is the artform. The people telling the stories are the artists.

Somewhere this feeds into increased narrative authority as a tool to get more out of sessions by inviting more of the table to be artists more of the time.

Rambling thoughts re: art and rpg

Some people have variously lauded and derided role-playing games for assuming the mantle of "art". I suggest that role-playing games are not art in any useful sense but rather method. The art -- and it certainly exists -- is solely in the play. The degree to which the game creates sophisticated, thoughtful, and entertaining play is the degree to which it succeeds as a method for this particular form of creative art.

Now, from Eisenstein: "...from preconceived methodological positions, nothing grows. And a tempestuous stream of creative energy,unregulated by method, yields less."*

So, seeing the game system (as opposed to the game played) as the method, we derive that fixing the method rigidly strangles the potential of the art -- the play -- despite the play requiring some method in order to effectively channel creativity into art. And so, the best methods are derived as part of play, using the written method as a springboard. Methods that assume they will be used without modification assume that they will be used to produce a weak art -- something that might be interesting once but must stagnate as the method is "used up". Modification of the method to suit the needs of the art is the only mechanism for progress.

(Adding the analogy: the paint by numbers set provides perfect rigid method for creating precisely one painting. All the tools are present in it to paint a great many paintings by selectively ignoring portions of the method, but a strict reading of the method produces only one painting. Few would recognize the results of a paint by numbers set used strictly, as art.)

Consequently, effective RPG rules are those that admit to change either by design or by accident. Games that are seen as "flawed" compared to either technical manual (rigid method) or fiction (art) nonetheless may be optimally designed to ensure that play is ongoing, changing, deepening art by providing the space to modify method as play gains sophistication or changes direction.

*"A Course in Treatment", _Film Form_, Sergei Eisenstein 1949, Harcourt

Diaspora artwork

So we've decided to go "art light" on Diaspora, which basically means that I get to do it myself. Now the problem here is that most of the really useful art will be of space craft, because they are the most evocative visual part of the setting (such as it is) and so it's a great place for people to get their grips on things. Thing is, they are very geometric and I'm not real good at that. I played around with Blender, but that's not what I want either.

So I settled on this diagrammatic "blueprint" style that I can do fairly quickly but that produces the kind of thing I want to convey. I think. It'll tak e a few dozen before I get the hang of increasing variation, but overall I'm pleased I think.

Other bits coming along nicely. If I can get my colleagues to get the editing engine happening, we could be in print by February.

Diaspora proceeds

After much discussion with my co-authors, I've revised the Diaspora cover. The titling font is now Skia, which I wasn't pleased with at first but after balancing colours and playing with some simple drop shadows for contrast, actually works pretty well. Toph had the bright idea of including a cluster diagram in the cover and it's a cool idea in the end -- it's emblematic of the game and at the same time echoes the shapes in the bubble chamber graphic that dominates.

The structure is pretty solid now I think and the text is almost ready to go to typeset, though I want a little more attention to it from the table first (we went to typeset too fast last time around).

What about interior art, though? I've considered doing it myself but I'm not a very accomplished illustrator. I can do the diagrammatic stuff but any actual people or vehicles are probably best left to a professional or left out. I'm considering pestering Storn Cook if we decide to actually pay for work.

Nov. 3rd, 2008

I whipped up a cover image for Diaspora this afternoon using some simple graphics software and a bubble chamber simulator from the awesome Complexification site. Well that and a few minutes with Blender (which I still pretty much completely fail to grasp). I found a font I love but have settled for one I can afford. My preference would be to use Palatino Sans both for titling and body text, but not at that price. I hate to settle, but settle I must.

So instead I'm titling with Gill Sans, a nifty sans serif from the twenties that suits my needs (which is to say, it is installed with my operating system). It seems a bit static for body text though. In the body I'd really prefer Optima but I don't want to get covered in Traveller. Any ideas for a sans serif font with plenty of thickness variation and otherwise well suited to text? Or a Modern era roman would work too, I guess. Maybe there's something in the middle where the two meet.

EDIT: Going with a classic for interior type I think: Palatino.

Still more Diaspora

Diaspora is coming along nicely. After an evening's playtest of ship combat we managed to refine the ship construction system. Now we have three design systems -- ships, weapons, and armour -- that use a unified and very simple system. So things are designed in similar fashion and therefore described in a similar fashion and therefore function (as a game mechanism) similarly. The missing level of scale is vehicles, which we weren't going to bother with but now intrigue me.

Almost at the point now where we need to start writing real game text.

More Diaspora

After another fun playtest evening, we got a very cool cluster, some wicked characters, and hammered out a ship construction system that is vastly simpler than our previous work. I think we might be on to something here.

Some nice parallels are shaping up -- weapons and ships have a very similar design sequence and so I think that vehicles between those two scales are probably similarly representable. And, again, the cluster graphics are really cool.


So a long time ago my gaming table, enamoured with Spirit of the Century and nostalgiac for Traveller, spent a good deal of energy creating Spirit of the Far Future. It's an homage to Traveller built with Fate. It's also probably not going to get finished because Mongoose scooped us with a frankly inferior product and now own the license exclusively.

So we could surrender.

Or we could file off the Traveller product identity and make a kind of white-chocolate Traveller.

Or we could use the new bits to make a new game: harder sf than Traveller, packed with the cool of Fate, and with a target market of, well, ourselves. Thus, Diaspora begins. Currently we are hacking, brainstorming, and playtesting. There's some communication on the SotFF mailing list and the Fate mailing list.

And I get to make cool star maps.

Lawrence Welk

This is important.

LHC Hysteria

Worried about the LHC making a zillion black holes and sucking the world up tomorrow? Maybe the Higgs Boson doesn't so much explain the Big Bang as START ONE? No problem, just keep checking Has The Large Hadron Collider Ended The World Yet web site every hour on the hour for updates.