I have lately been feeling old. Not old old, just older. Enough of my adult life has now passed for me to start to see phases and things passing on.
This is not a perspective that I had in my 20s. In my 20s everything seems forever and the forces that shape you seem eternal. In my 30s I have become aware that the forces that shape and guide me are anything but eternal. I see their rises and their falls. I've gained a little of what could be described as experience or wisdom in place of endless energy.
Dave Arneson died this week. Gary Gygax died last year. Terry Pratchett has Alzheimers. No-one is eternal.
The Old Ones
Many of my formative forces came from my days in tabletop roleplaying. I'm one of those people working in video games who actually came into the field quite late after a long stewardship in other kinds of games. Roleplaying was my thing for a long time (particularly as games master, or GM). I was a D+D kid, with battle mats and source books arranged all around me. I had copybooks filled with notes of all sorts, a giant collection of dice and an ever-expanding collection of T-shirts from Gaelcon (Ireland's largest games convention). My bedroom was a blizzard of notes, ideas, character sheets and hex maps growing up.
It was all the American guys' fault of course. Guys who I didn't know but whom I came to recognise, sometimes even meet. I was 12 when I came across the name E Gary Gygax emblazoned on a copy of the Dungeon Master's Guide and it sounded exotic. (Years later when it turned out that E stood for Ernest, less so).
I heard about another guy called Dave Arneson. I read the small booklet version of Traveller by some guy named Marc Miller. Steve Jackson out of Texas (and Steve Jackson out of the UK too), Sandy Peterson, Greg Stafford the shaman, Mark Rein*Hagen formerly of Stone Mountain Georga, now in the Tiblisi Georgia. In their own weird way they and others' games were my transition from boyhood to something approaching manhood. I wanted to be them and I believed that some day somehow this little underground games scene that I was a part of would change the world.
It did, but not in the way I thought it would.
The Story and the Game
There have always been essentially 2 kinds of tabletop roleplaying. There's the system game and the story game. The basic difference between them is whether the players look to the GM or to the rulebooks for authority. In reality almost all actual game sessions contain a bit of both, but there is always an over-riding flavour of one or the other. I have always at heart been a story gamer. Who has the time or inclination to sit and count 42 numbers up and compare them on a table on page 68 when there's a princess to save? Dramatic roleplaying is what it's all about and the characters and rules are only ever a guide.
In the early 90s that was also the view of much of the tabletop scene. Games were epics. They were all about persona, about quest and archetype and character. Some publications had always had that aspect (like Call of Cthulhu), some acquired it (D+D tried it on for size with 2nd edition) and some just flat out went for co-opting the language of theatre and show (like World of Darkness). Live action roleplaying (the non-rubber-weapons variety) was in some ways the furthest out-reaches of that, where story games were bridging the gap into improv theatre. My 20-something view was that this was where it was going. This was the future.
I was dead wrong.
The system game came roaring back in the mid-90s on the heels of Magic: The Gathering. Although the story game had artistic ambitions there really wasn't very much money in it. Modern horror, the most directly visible genre of the story game time, didn't really extend successfully beyond White Wolf's walls (like In Nomine, Nephilim or Kult) and the movement just didn't have the same kind of commercial opportunity. System games are inherently more tangible than story games and companies can make more useful things to sell: cards, rulebooks, dice, miniatures, tokens, chits, whatever. System games are more sustainable for business. System games are also most applicable to computer conversions.
Computers make for crap dramatic GMs. However they solve the biggest problem of system games, which is all the maths. Nobody needs the compedia of tables and rules extensions in Role Master when the video roleplaying game does all the heavy lifting for them. That's what the game engines of Diablo, Oblivion, Mass Effect, Final Fantasy, World of Warcraft and a thousand other titles do as a matter of course. Video roleplaying games can be so thoroughly complicated in a way that their tabletop progenitors could never have dreamed, and there's gold (or gold piecs even) in them thar hills
I have come to know death. In my 20s death was something that happened on the distant branches of my parents' families, a succession of grand-uncles and relatives in America. In my 30s it's my grandmother, my closest-aged cousin, one of my mother's closest friends. My old heroes are now dying too. Gary Gygax died last year. Dave Arneson only a few days ago. It's all natural but it stirs up old feelings. I feel loss and regret.
Buddhists tell us that death and change are the same thing. As the old passes by, so the new sweeps into the void left behind, and what remains are ghosts and echoes. It's the passage of the seasons, it's Winter and Spring. The story game essentially died a long time ago. It retreated into the very conceptual and oblique. But the system game also died in its way. D+D 4th edition left a generation of older fans aghast because its design is so dumbed-down to try grab ahold of the Warcraft generation.
Yet if death is change then consider: The language of the roleplaying game passed into common culture years ago and its influence is everywhere. The Sims is essentially a domestic roleplaying game. Half of the most popular games on Facebook are roleplaying games. Virtual worlds and their heaving virtual goods based economies are roleplaying games. So much of their core has sunk into everything that roleplaying games have in some ways become a mechanic rather than a genre.
Roleplaying games are everywhere, and yet nowhere at the same time.
I'm Younger Than That Now
I used to believe that the only path for games to become artistic was to figure out a way to bridge the story gap. Many people in video games struggle with that issue today and they're foundering on the same inherent contradictions and paradoxes in that idea as I did. No matter how tall the budget or massive the scope, it always comes back to gameplay first, and that atomises story.
I lost that belief some time ago and realised what a massive dis-service I was doing to games by not looking at them for what they were. Games create a special mental space of rules and interaction and action where the subtle influence of tone becomes the evocative idea that drives the game. It has always been thus but it's taken my older, more cultural and change-aware mind to finally understand it.
The imaginative space between the rules makes a game artistic. That's where the magic has always been and where the imagination catches fire. Form and function acting in unison.It's never been about system and story as I used to think. It's about symbiosis.
"I was so much older then, I'm younger that that now." That's what Bob Dylan wrote in My Back Pages. 35 is way too young to be feeling old, and if there's a mile of old graveyards and huge frustrations between where I am now and getting that youthful lightness back then maybe that's ok. I feel a sadness at the passing of the old generation but it's still Winter into Spring. A new generation of game makers all across the spectrum steps up and defines the new axis and the new era. The Old Ones are passing and it's time for the New Ones.
And this all brings me back to the concept of what is eternal. Is anything fundamental, are there any noble truths or is everything in flux? I can't speak on a cosmic scale, but on the human scale I think the answer is yes.
We often confuse popularity and immediate impact on markets with long lasting value but the true impact of a person (be they old or new) is in what they leave behind. Some people write poetry, others found companies, others make whole nations. Our bodies are impermanent, our minds grow frail and our bones become fossils, but our art is eternal.
What we do and what we create matters in some strange way. That is what Dave and Gary and all the rest leave as their legacy. We owe it to them to use it to leave our own.
(You can follow my more instant thoughts @tadhgk)