Modern capitalist lingo relegates artists and creative’s to the role of ‘content providers.’ Such artists only real value is their ability to produce tangible content which can then be consumed for the purposes of increasing capital for a corporation or other such entity. Within such a system a creative piece of work is judged on its ability to create ‘engagement’ with its audience, usually with the goal to draw traffic and clicks to a website which create advertising revenue. The audience in this case are passive consumers of products. The works of the artist just another commodity to be consumed.
There is a deeply entrenched value judgement at work here and vast swathes of art as well as artists simply don’t fit into such a model as their work is difficult to frame in the context of what is marketable. Beyond making it difficult for such an artist to make their daily bread it creates a difficulty for the artist, as well as the purveyor of the art, to see any inherent value in a work that doesn’t fit this model of marketable content to be consumed as entertainment.
Modern RPG’s, especially the more commercial kind like 5E D&D, put the GM in a similar role. They exist to provide content to their audience, the players, for consumption. This puts the GM in a position where they are expected to design what amounts to a narrative experience for the players to go through. The inciting incident, the call to action, the journey into the unknown, the climax, the denouement.
This experience must also be ‘balanced’ by the rules of the game. A game that is not ‘balanced’ is unfair as the players cannot ‘progress’ within the ‘experience’. It is therefore not ‘fun’. Someone not having ‘fun’ is the most mortal sin a GM can commit. They are expected to facilitate a ‘fun’ experience. A character dying isn’t fun, hence fudging the dice to make sure that happens is expected. The adventure not flowing isn’t fun, so a GM railroading players to the next exciting set piece is fine because that’s where the fun is. The GM’s role therefore becomes one of an entertainer or performer, they exist to put on a show for their audience of players via the content they’ve created or bought.
The enjoyment of the GM themselves isn’t considered here, for they are merely the content provider. Nor is the reality that fun is subjective considered. A GM isn’t responsible for anyone’s fun any more than anyone is responsible for another persons emotional state, yet such design encourages this dysfunctional attitude towards human interaction which only serves to create resentment in the long term.
The players are put in a position of being passive consumers within this context. They have little engagement with the actual game beyond their inert character roles. They can certainly have choices, or at least the illusion of such. The most prominent of these choices occur during character creation and leveling. Modern D&D is egregious for this. The player has a wide array of little knobs to configure for their character, from feat and skill selection to classes, multi-classing, races, where to put your ability scores, what spells to pick and so on. This fits within the ideological framework as the game itself becomes the content, with new additional rule books the game designers release providing more content for the players to purchase giving them access to more knobs to fiddle with. The GM is expected to abide by this system, sure they can have some control but they are seen as spoiling the players ‘fun’ if they push their limitations too far. For example only allowing humans as a character race or only allowing the core fighter/wizard/cleric/rogue as classes.
Within the game itself the players choices are just as limiting. They can choose which attacks or spells to cast in combat but ironically these choices are limited because of the complexity of the character creation process. The existence of the ‘grappler’ feat , limits every character from attempting to grapple unless they invest in this feat. If this rule is ignored however the player who invested in the grappler feat wasted their feat slot and they presumambly picked this feat over something else because they really wanted to be able to grapple. Apply this across a multitude of feats, skills and abilities and suddenly your range of actions in-game become vastly limited to whatever is on the character sheet and within the rulebook. The player may want to talk to the guard, but they best shut up and let the Bard with skill focus do it if they want a chance to succeed.
Beyond this players can choose whether to go down road A or road B although both roads often lead to the same place, the scenario may be built to handle a couple of different endings but none the less it will end in much the same way. In this way the players have the illusion of choice but no actual choice or input and in a twisted way the GM is also trapped within their role as an entertainer unable to really significantly influence anything without being accused of spoiling the ‘fun’ as laid down by the rulebook.
This illusion of choice is at the heart of the capitalist world. There are 6 major energy companies in the world but hundreds upon hundreds of different brands of soft drink. We have a choice between two roughly similar and corporate controlled political parties but over 6000 shows on Netflix . Hence you feel as though you have choice when in reality no such significant choice exists. You just have a lot of little knobs to fiddle with but no real power.
A look at any one of 5E D&D’s adventure modules confirms this style of play is intended by the biggest player in industry to be the norm. They’re all designed like a script and broken down into episodes intended as a relatively linear narrative towards a predetermined conclusion. Lots of stuff happens along the way but there’s not a lot the players can particular do to influence what actually happens.
This isn’t to say such design is ‘wrong’, or other methods of design and play are ‘correct.’ I’ve designed and ran a lot of games like this. It works. To a degree it’s satisfying, it’s designed to be entertaining, especially if the players don’t see through the illusion. It is however an illusion that seems to miss the point entirely of what makes an RPG unique as a creative medium, specifically, player agency and an actual shared narrative experience that both players and the GM input into the experience thus creating something unique. This does however require more work for all parties involved.
Design that follows the norm sits ill with me. It niggles at my scalp because it’s based on an ideology I find flawed as it can only see what is consumable as valuable and requires me to effectively do what feels like lying and manipulation to maintain that experience. It further puts the unsaid expectation on the GM that their role is to ‘tell a story’ and tailor a ‘fun’ experience for the players, rather than simply being the person running the game. In this way when the experience goes badly for a player, for example their character dies or an ill effect happens, it becomes the fault of the GM because the player didn’t find this fun, rather than the players for erroneously acting in the way they did or simply the dice for landing the wrong way.
There are ways to run and design games that go beyond the ideology of the norm. There are gmless games, games that use jenga as a resolution mechanic , narrative and story games, and OSR games. These tend to exist on the fringes. I suspect this is because being in a game counter to the norm can prove far more challenging as it requires a fundamental shift in the base ideology for both the GM and the players. This puts creative responsibility on everyone involved. This can be scary. It’s also not particularly commercially viable in the respect that you cannot easily write a module or game system that translates such a thing to the tabletop because it involves a certain intangible quality that’s difficult to write down. Such a thing would not be particularly good to read because it would contain game able content rather than descriptive and narrative details a reader can consume. Likely the reason so many Indie RPG’s are now designed using the PBTA model is because it has created a different framework of play that’s both engaging to read and translatable to actual play.
Nor can you stream a game that does well under such ideology as an audience has come to expect a certain thing from a narrative, including an investment in characters and a ‘story’, that an emergent game can not really provide. RPG’s as streaming forms of entertainment seem to be the next step in the ideology where the players and GM’s become the product for the consumption by a wider entirely passive audience. This once again creates a feedback loop where such play is then expected by those audience members should they make the leap into the game. They wish to move themselves from a passive observer to a player but in ironically become just another passive observer viewing the game from a different position of their own creation.
Where does this leave things? I’m not sure. We can’t help but be framed in the ideological setting we live in and that happens to be a capitalist one and we can’t frame anything outside of that context without referring to it as a basis. That said there’s a growing number of games, writers and groups who have pushed back against this and managed a degree of success, the OSR or Indie game movement being a good example of this, however even such success can only be framed within that same system.
Having said all that, here’s a picture of a cat.