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The Culture Beneath The Stairs

Nations of Gaming: Why there needs to be more than one roleplaying system

by Conan McKegg
Jul 16,2004


The Culture Beneath the Stairs

By Conan McKegg

Nations of Gaming: Why there needs to be more than one roleplaying system.


Well here I am, back after a three-year hiatus from this column. When I first started writing The Culture Beneath the Stairs I had been fired up to discuss a number of topics, but eventually personal life issues and the like kind of overwhelmed me. After having spent more time studying up a variety of issues in political and social philosophy, I'm now back and with a whole new list of topics to discuss.

But before I begin with this week's topic, I thought now would be a good time to clarify what the exact purpose of this column is. The Culture Beneath the Stairs is at its core, an opinion column. That should be fairly apparent from the tone and style. It's not aimed at converting you to my way of thinking, but rather to facilitate discussion and debate about how we see our favourite hobby; the community surrounding it and the industry that produces for it.

By drawing on various theories, ideas and thoughts I hope to be able to get readers to think about the various issues that relate to a hobby that I see as an odd dichotomy. Roleplaying is both a highly social activity, yet seems to involve many anti-social attitudes. In the end, I have noted that many theories from social philosophy end up playing out within the microcosm that is the roleplaying community - both online and off.

I don't intend to waste time simply regurgitating my studies though. Rather, I intend to use my knowledge of social theory to discuss elements of the community and provide (hopefully) some practical ideas that people can think about. Maybe reading this column may change the way you look at your hobby; provide you with new insights into what you enjoy; or inspire you to open your regular gaming group's habits to new horizons.

Or simply provide some fun entertainment. I hope to avoid too much lecturing. I am not aiming to say what is the definitive right way or wrong way of gaming, or human behaviour. My tone may sometimes come across as that - but I will endeavour to avoid this as much as possible. What I do hope is that, if nothing else, this column will inspire you to just stop and think for a moment. And there are always forums at the end of the articles to allow you to have your say as well.

Feel free to e-mail me about anything regarding this column at: culturebeneathstairs@ihug.co.nz

Now on with the show...

Nations of Gaming

When Wizards of The Coast first started working on Dungeons and Dragons Third edition, the commonly stated argument that tended to be bandied around the internet and gaming clubs was the notion that gamers prefer to stick to one game system for the duration of their participation with the hobby. Studies had claimed that this was the case for large numbers of players - and most studies seemed to suggest that most gamers played TSR's Dungeons and Dragons at some point. The goal for WoTC was fairly straightforward - if players were going to play one system only, then work damn hard to be the publisher of that game system.

The reality, however, is a little different. Yes, most gamers tend to favour a particular system over another. But that system isn't always the same system between groups. Essentially what we get is a microcosmic version of nationalism - where gamers usually congregate towards other players of their favoured system. For some it's Unisystem, others its Storyteller, and for a large number it is d20.

My point is that, much like the world, the roleplaying community is made up of a variety of gaming "cultures" that form around certain systems with the strongest proponents stating that their system of choice is the only system they'll ever need.

WoTC's model worked on the belief that gamers benefited from this mentality namely because it made it easier for them to learn new games if they were all based off the same core systems. Again, this is a reasonable assertion; and again, it is faulty.

The Cosmopolitan

In political philosophy there is a certain view held that for any nation to be successful, there must be a unity within that nation; that all the members of that nation must share the same values, ideals and goals to allow the nation to remain stable and healthy. In much the same way, the WoTC original model worked on the idea that if there was one stable system openly available to all companies, the hobby would be successful because more gamers would buy into it.

The thing about this model is that, while it has some strong points... it is ultimately unrealistic. Consider the case of the Cosmopolitan. The Cosmopolitan is a member of a society who mixes with a number of cultures and happily borrows and interacts with a variety of elements from each culture.

Most nations, after all, consist of not one culture, but a large variety of them. It grows not from forcing those cultures to follow one singular culture, but rather from creating its own culture via a sort of compromise where values from each culture are mixed to create a shared goal and value system that allows the nation to grow - while still allowing those individual cultures to follow their own values where they do not interfere with the over all system.

Now, bringing this back to gaming, consider the Cosmopolitans of the gaming community. You know, the guys and gals who avidly collect not one system but multiple game systems. These are the people who tend to set up gaming clubs, surf multiple internet forums and generally are fans of the hobby as a whole. There is a benefit to all game systems by having these Cosmopolitans moving from group to group - one of shared ideas.

On sharing ideas

No single game system has an infinite lifespan. This has been proven time and again since the first roleplaying game was published. Look at the current champion of gaming, Dungeons and Dragons. It is not the same game system that first hit the shelves back in the seventies. It has mutated and changed over the years due to revision and the introduction of new ideas taken from other game systems that have since come and gone.

Every time a game system leaves the market, we hear people bemoan the death of the hobby - and yet the hobby endures. Why? Because the death of a system is inevitable. Just like any other system, it must evolve or end.

The same happens for nations. Either a nation changes and accepts new ideas, new thoughts or it is doomed to eventual obscurity. The Cosmopolitan ensures the continued existence of a nation by acting as a bridge between the cultures within the nation, uniting and mixing ideas.

In gaming it is also the same. Eberron, WoTC's newest line is an example of this. It's inspirations come from a variety of sources and the style of play it promotes comes more from such game lines as Exalted and Hero Quest than from its traditional tabletop roots. Buffy the Vampire Slayer would never have been possible without the invention of such game systems as The Whispering Vault and Adventure! Orpheus would not have been able to so successfully use the concept of a metaplot without the earlier trailblazers of Shadowrun and Tribe 8.

Without cosmopolitan gamers who were willing to try various different game systems, these popular games would have never been able to be developed. Even Dungeons and Dragons wouldn't have been able to make a come back. A little known fact is that the look of D&D 3rd Edition was inspired by the layout and format of Tribe 8. While the crossover of ideas may not always be big or innovative, it is their simple addition that help to keep ideas fresh.

Some possible problems

Of course there are some barriers to being able to mix a variety of systems. The first one is cost. Roleplaying games are expensive. If one thing drives gamers to stick to one game more than anything else, it is the prohibitive cost of gaming. On the other hand gamers also tend to demand high quality product. Hardcover, glossy pages, full colour art; these things don't come cheap to a hobby that has limited distribution. If games companies could get a larger market, the cost could drop. But the hobby is one that isn't renowned for being a money generator. Unless you have a large distribution network already set up, such as Hasbro...

Another limitation to growth and cosmopolitan gaming is time. Not everyone has the luxury that I have, being able to roleplay four times a week and still work, study and socialise. When you are only playing one night a week or even once a fortnight - you can't really justify buying so many games. What's the point of buying into, say, The Dying Earth RPG if you wont be able to play it for about five years?

This is why such services as Drive-Thru RPG are a good idea. Cheap access to the core game systems helps to generate interest prior to purchase. Of course, DTRPG has its own controversial issues - but these are outside the issue of this article.

So what can you do?

Cost is fairly easy to cover. If your group wants to benefit from a cosmopolitan model, why not share costs. The group can research on company sites about games and make a list of the games that they - as a group - would like to play. Then each member picks a game to purchase. Just the rulebook, and not necessarily at the same time - after all, you wont be playing the games all at the same time. Sure, many game companies want you to buy a copy each - and if you could, that would be great. But the point of this exercise is to broaden your gaming horizons, rather than get you feeding the industry just yet.

Now for the time issue... One of the groups I play in has a system where we play two campaigns at a go. We alternate Saturdays from one game to the next. So one week we're playing Paranormal BESM, then the next week - Mage. Sit down and work out a way to optimise your gaming time. Aim for four-hour sessions, and maybe look at making campaigns work on a television season basis. - i.e. Split the campaign up into shorter "seasons" that can be put on hold for someone else to run a short campaign to try out a new game.

Once you try a new game, ask yourself what you liked and didn't like about the game. Think about how those elements could affect other games you usually play. Dramatic Editing worked in Buffy? Want to move that over to your Unknown Army game? Congratulations. You have become a cosmopolitan gamer.

What can the industry do?

This is a little trickier. Publishers have one primary goal - making a profit. My suggestion to any company is to believe in their product and not be afraid to experiment. Furthermore, don't produce a product solely for profit alone - it is most likely not going to sell. The cosmopolitan model is primarily placing the onus on the players and not the publishers - but that doesn't mean that publishers are totally free to do as they please.

Games should be designed to capture the cosmopolitan gamers as much as your loyal fan base. After all, cosmopolitans are the gamers more likely to draw new blood to your product by the fact that they tend to move in a number of gaming circles rather than stick to one group.

Eberron strikes me as a strong example of how to do this. A game that tries to mix elements of other successful ideas as well as produce its own unique flavour is much more likely to draw wider interest than simply rehashing an old idea. The free PDF download of a base system, highlighting the various unique qualities of your game can also help to draw the cosmopolitan gamer. But also, hiring gamers from outside your fanbase will also help revitalise and ensure continued growth in your game line. The worst thing a gaming company can do is to be locked off from trying new things.


Ultimately, the position that you only need one system is not a bad view to hold - but it shouldn't mean being closed off to new ideas. Obviously, I feel that it is important to mix with new groups, new games and new people. I think that the one thing that dooms a gaming group more than anything else is never straying outside of the same habits. Look at the number of people who post on the forums that they are sick of the hobby - a large number of these people have been playing with the same group for years and have often played the same campaigns.

This also is the same for the greater gaming community. One system, untouched, is never going to last forever. Keeping marketing focused on one group of players is not going to produce growth. It merely delays the inevitable. I mentioned in my introduction that roleplaying is a highly social hobby that tends to involve a number of rather anti-social attitudes. This is a gross generalisation, but one that has some weight. Many gaming groups are loathe to step outside of their particular clique.

Of course this is not something that can be changed simply and overnight. Over the course of this column I hope to provide a variety of suggestions and ideas to help readers not only try new gaming habits and styles; but also look at new themes and even try to bring new people into their groups and the hobby as a whole.

By doing this, I hope that we can all take advantage of the cosmopolitan model - one where we take the elements of this hobby that we enjoy and mix them up a little to try out new ways to keep the hobby enjoyable, fresh and healthy. TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg

What do you think?

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