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No Good

Future Art Here Today

by Juhana Pettersson
Feb 01,2005

 

Future Art Here Today

- Juhana Pettersson

These days I often have to explain roleplaying to people who have never played. I explain it to the people at the institution I work in, Studio national des arts contemporains le Fresnoy. None of these French art people have any idea of what roleplaying is about and those who do know only of D&D or big fantasy larps. I show them the video of Luminescence, aka the Flour Game, the experimental larp I did with Mike Pohjola and try to stave off dismissive comparisons to the happening-art performance things of the Seventies.

Many people are interested. Usually when I don't want to talk about the work actually under discussion, installation, circus or whatever, I make a distraction by mentioning roleplaying. Invariably, I end up explaining it for the rest of the meeting. It works like a charm. They learn something new and I've turned another pointless meeting into a bout of propaganda.

I've even managed to get a game going on with some people at le Fresnoy, called Baby, Dance With Me. It's not like they have a lot of better things to do in Lille, the Cleveland of France. This is the first time I've had a complete success with making a game for newcomers. The final lesson I learned is not to explain anything. Explanations make people nervous and they don't play well. Roleplaying is intuitive and I've found people grasp it easily once they're playing. I started with a scene where one of the characters, Emilie, was waiting by the landing strip close to the U.S. McMurdo base at Antarctica. She'd been having an internet relationship for a year and a half with a Frenchman called Aubin, a journalist who was on the plane approaching from Cristchurch, New Zealand. The characters meet and emotions run wild. They decide to go to McMurdo on the bus.

After they get to the bar, I introduce the first NPC. The players are startled and ask who am I. I realize they don't know that the GM plays the NPCs. They don't even know what NPCs are. I explained a bit more. Generally, I've found that of all the elements of a roleplaying game, the function of the GM is the least obvious to people who haven't played. Since the GM is the thing that separates the roleplaying game from childrens' play, I've recently started making a point of stressing it every time I explain rpgs, and it has made my job easier.

I've also had to explain it to the people at my publisher, Like, the most respectable Finnish indie publishing company and the only one who have managed to have both countercultural respectability and practical, large-scale success. Two years ago, I proposed a roleplaying book to them. It will be published in the spring. 260 pages down, 40-80 to go. I'm proud of myself. In the fall I managed to write 140 pages in two months.

Now I'm checking the spelling and the grammar. This is the part that's generally omitted from artist biographies, the tedium.

Evolution

What I actually wanted to write straight from the beginning was the "Juhana Pettersson on Roleplaying" book in which I explain how things are according to me. However, I didn't have the balls to suggest something like this to a publisher. It felt preposterous. After all, to them I'm a nobody. So I proposed a book that would have been new and revolutionary, but still followed the traditional roleplaying game book formula of one game, one book.

It was to be called Joutomaa, which translates poetically as Waste Land and more literally as Useless Land. I wanted to explore the possibilities of making an interesting, engaging game without any of the usual tropes. It was to be a game set in our time and our world, a game with no rules systems, and no supernatural or genre elements. Incidentally, this freed a lot of space in the book, since the average roleplaying game book consists mostly of rules, world description and superpowers.

I decided to fill that space with the information necessary to make a good game but usually lacking in roleplaying books. I decided to explain what is the roleplaying game, where it came from and how is it made. Books about how roleplaying games are actually made are scarce. In most game books there's some crap about foreshadowing and NPC use and that's it. The basics, the real basics of how to describe, how to use space, what is the NPC, and so on I have never seen properly dealt with. Often the how to make game -sections of games like Vampire read like the writer has never actually played the game and is just making guesses on how these things might go.

So I was talking with my editor, and I suddenly realized that I had a book which was 70 percent about roleplaying in general and 30 percent about Joutomaa, my original core concept. My editor wanted a book that would be accessible to general audiences as well and always encouraged me to expand the chapters on subjects like the politics of roleplaying, how to produce a larp or the interviews of prominent Nordic roleplaying artists. Now, almost two years later, we were back to the "Roleplaying according to Juhana Pettersson". Many things have changed, including the name of the book, which is still being wrangled about with the marketing.

One of the reactions I expect to have with the book is the usual whining about me having the temerity to tell people what is the right way to play. I wish to pre-empt this here and now and ask these people to get some self-respect. You don't need my permission to play as you like. This sensitivity is one of the great mysteries of roleplayer culture. Every published game contains a lot of assumptions about how games are to be played, but God forbid you to actually explicate them in normative terms.

When David Mamet writes a book called "On Directing Film" (one of my great sources of inspiration for this book, incidentally), do you hear Coppola crying "He can't tell me how to direct my movies"? You don't. When I see someone expound their views on how roleplaying, or cinema, or art, should be made, I use and assimilate what I find interesting and useful and discard the rest. I suggest you do the same.

When I started to work on the book I felt that I had to adopt a more serious tone than the one I've had with, for example, these columns. Writing a book is serious business, and I felt I couldn't just swing the words everywhere the way I usually do. I felt that I had to tone down the me me me and concentrate on the issues.

Since then I've had many confusing meetings. Every time I meet my editor she says that I have to write more about myself, my experiences with roleplaying, my experiences in life as a roleplayer, my experiences in the grocery store or the hospital. Also, every time I make a preposterous claim ("the rpg is the blueprint of a revolution", etc.), she puts a little note in the margins, something like "More!" or "GREAT!". I've asked her if this is really the way to go, but she told me that if I believe in what I write about, I should let that belief shine through the text. I suppose she's right.

Fortunately, the Swedes are very good at the art/revolution talk, and every time I've been struck down by a bout of timidity I've had one of them do the prophesying in an interview.

Believe

This is a book meant to elevate roleplaying. Elevate the quality of individual games, elevate the rpg in the national consciousness, make roleplayers more ambitious and less inclined to make more of the same old, same old. I want more games, better games, more money in games, more respect for games. I want to be able to say that I play roleplaying games without having to explain what they are. I want other people to write their own books. I want progress.

These aims will only be achieved through proper cultural discussion. Every new artform, from the novel to the film, from the comic book to the computer game has had to fight for recognition. It's a depressing fight because history has shown it to be pointless. You never lose. It's a fight against smallmindedness, and in a hundred years it will seem preposterous that there ever was a fight at all. The conservative elements die but the game goes on.

In Finland and the rest of the Nordic countries, we're already well on our way there. Roleplaying games are being seriously written about in the culture sections of the major newspapers and academic roleplaying studies are slowly finding their feet. The recipe has been simple: professional media work combined with good games. If the games look like art, they must be art. The PR-man can't promote cultural recognition if the games she's promoting have no ambition. The only obstacle to success is between the ears of the roleplayer.

I have something like 140 pages on how to make a game. I still feel that I've only said very basic things. I talk about the nuts and bolts of playing and making games, the technique of roleplaying. I start from the assumption that like in any other medium, there's a ton of conventions, tricks, tactics and methods in roleplaying. Nobody's proficient when they start and can only become good roleplayers through experience and a willingness to ask questions and experiment.

In my experience, almost every roleplayer has had to re-invent the wheel when it comes to even the most basic things related to roleplaying. I'm trying to prevent this, so that instead of having to come up with all this stuff by themselves, they can read it in the book and go on to develop more interesting things.

The need for this should be obvious. I also have a hidden agenda. Since the book is going to be read by non-roleplayers interested in the medium, I want to subtly communicate to them that roleplaying is a vibrant, new medium with it's own traditions, the same as any other. I often meet people who seem to assume that just because they don't know all the details, it can't be all that hard. Those 140 pages are meant to say, "You don't know jack. Have some humility."

Writing this part of the book feels like articulating ideas which have been floating around, indistinct, for years. I'm surprised nobody has taken a serious stab at this before because a lot of what I do is just collecting and compiling ideas which are not mine but the product of thirty years of roleplaying.

Propaganda

This is a book of propaganda. My publisher wants this book to be the first book that explains roleplaying to the layman in accessible, sexy terms. I want this to be the book that explains to the general reader and roleplayer alike that roleplaying is a new, revolutionary artform. It can be used to achieve great things and only a small fraction of the potential has been accessed as of now. I propagandize for art and ambition, community and pride.

My publisher believes that the audience for the book will consist mainly of people who've always wanted to know what's the deal but have been frustrated by the insularity of the roleplaying community. Teachers, librarians and culture people. The parents of young roleplayers. Journalists and youth workers. There's been enough roleplaying books aimed at the tweenie market, so I figured mine would be for the adults.

U.S. roleplaying writers take note: My publishing deal grants be 20 % of the price of every book sold, I own all rights to my own work and if there's no reprints from my publisher in two years, I can publish it again wherever I like. This is the advantage of working for a publisher of literature; you get treated like an author instead of a content provider.

It's been wonderful to write about things I believe in. It's easy to motivate myself to write four hours every day and do playtesting, interview people and do research. The book has been written in a variety of places from my home to a hospital room, from a theater foyer to an airport. It's a book with a strong focus on Finland written everywhere except in Finland. I corrected a lot of typos during my Christmas vacation in Helsinki, but that was it. The rest has come into being in foreign lands.

I had a conversation recently about idea theft where the person I was talking with was warning me to keep my cards close to the vest lest someone steal my ideas before I manage to publish the book. She'd had concepts related to her thesis fly away like this. I understand the concern, and she'd certainly had more than her share of problems with it, but I felt that thinking like this doesn't really apply here. All the ideas in the book are ideas I want to promote. They're ideas I believe in and ideas I want to see spread everywhere. I can't keep my mouth shut when I want to speak.

It seems that I will be explaining roleplaying to people who don't have a clue for a long time yet. After a generation or two, the roleplayer of the future doesn't have to do that anymore because the kids are going to learn it in school.

The book will be in Finnish. I wouldn't mind seeing it translated.

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