What are the most important things that mainstream and indie RPGs can learn from each another?

edited July 2018 in Story Games
What are the most important things that mainstream and indie RPGs can learn from each another? Obviously, I’m speaking in broad categories here and there is tons of diversity, overlap, etc...so take that into account and don’t get too hung up on the language.

Specifically:

1. What are the most important things indie RPGs can learn from mainstream games? Try to be specific, and list examples of mainstream RPGs, which have these important elements that indie RPGs can learn from.

2. What are the most important things mainstream RPGs can learn from indie games? Try to be specific, and list examples of indie RPGs, which have these important elements that mainstream RPGs can learn from.

3. What type of hybrid of an indie RPG and mainstream RPG would you like to see? If you are thinking of two specific games, list them and tell us what parts of the designs you would like to see implemented from each game and what parts of design would you like to see discarded or changed?

Comments

  • 1. Having an open license so you can mix & match & all contribute

    2. Having a strict one right way to run it

    3. I've been wanting, and sometimes try to work on, a document that explains my style of D&D as strictly as AW explains AW
  • My answers assume that "mainstream rpg" means the culture of commercially dominant rpgs in general, while "indie rpg" means fringe types intended for dedicated hardcore audiences, with minor commercial significance.
    1. What are the most important things indie RPGs can learn from mainstream games? Try to be specific, and list examples of mainstream RPGs, which have these important elements that indie RPGs can learn from.
    Playing to the lowest common denominator, even when it's boring for you personally. Mainstream rpgs continue to be a culturally dominant force in the hobby, and the most important reason is that they are very realistic about the actual needs and wants of the buying audience. That and marketing are the two reasons why the mainstream is the mainstream.

    And that's the second thing to learn: greater visibility. Indie rpg culture consistently focuses in the betterment of the art in favour of distributing that art to the needy, which is the exact opposite of what mainstream rpgs do. The consequence is that while there are more excellent, beautiful, humanity-advancing indie games out there than you can swing a stick at, most roleplayers have never heard of them, and even if they have they cannot access them, because accessibility is usually the last thing in the mind of an indie designer.

    I would say that "learning" these two things is more of a social than a personal quest: the indie rpg scene would greatly benefit from having more people dedicated to development and sales (or their non-commercial equivalents, whatever). There are more great designers than we can employ, and consequently good design goes under-appreciated.

    Concrete examples of mainstream games that have been handled well in regards to the lowest common denominator and attention to visibility are obviously the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. I do not really think that I have to belabor on that further.
    2. What are the most important things mainstream RPGs can learn from indie games? Try to be specific, and list examples of indie RPGs, which have these important elements that mainstream RPGs can learn from.
    Being meaningful would be my number one lesson. A mainstream game that combines a lack of substance with a powerful market presence is essentially a cultural black hole: it captures attentions and hobby lives yet leaves little of worth behind in its wake.

    There are many, many examples of meaningfulness in indie rpgs, as that's usually the reason for the game's existence; not that there aren't indie authors whose primary motivation in publishing has been something else, but generally an indie project only sees light of day if it is carried by artistic ambition.

    As an arbitrary and less than obvious example, consider Dragon Union, a weird Dungeons & Dragons variant with its own idiosyncratic systemic procedure for how to arrange and execute a middle-school D&D campaign. Whatever one thinks of its goals, its substantiality is impossible to deny: it covers a field of gaming that suffers of a sparseness of game texts, and it approaches the design problem in a completely unique way, combining aesthetics, mechanics and GMing procedure in a way that's not even close to how anybody else has done it.

    As an opposite example, consider D&D 5th edition. Completely devoid of substance, its only merit in production values and a careful attempt at not pissing anybody off. Anybody who's already mastered D&D will have their work cut out for them in gaining anything at all from the game.

    If mainstream games had even a little bit of that commitment to substantial advancement of the art, that would be an immeasurable improvement. Too often, however, the only purpose that a mainstream game carries is in selfish things like fame or fortune: the game exists as a product in this world as a means of transferring money from its customers to its creators, or as a means for the creator to feel themselves popular and respected.
    3. What type of hybrid of an indie RPG and mainstream RPG would you like to see? If you are thinking of two specific games, list them and tell us what parts of the designs you would like to see implemented from each game and what parts of design would you like to see discarded or changed?
    Every time a game successfully combines genuine artistic commitment and a solid business plan a star is born. I am fond of them all. The outcome seems to usually be a a publishing house on the smaller side, focused on only a few products of high quality. A combination of mainstream market sense and indie commitment to quality, if you will.

    Examples of what I mean are the likes of Ars Magica; indubitably not an indie game, yet nevertheless passionate beyond all reason about what it does, and supported by its fan base. Glorantha games (and other Stafford titles), Paranoia, much of the Call of Cthulhu stuff over the years, even Exalted at its best... Examples abound over the years. Burning Wheel could almost be viewed to be in this category, depending on where one draws the line between "mainstream" and "indie".

    I'm less fond of the hybrid game that combines the mechanical flavour du jour of the indie fringe with expensive production values and that's it. It's sort of like the half-assed version of the above: artistically mediocre, and also mediocre about marketing and community-building. I'll leave naming examples as an exercise for the reader, as it'd be a prime distraction if I called somebody's favourite game "artistically mediocre" here.
  • As an arbitrary and less than obvious example, consider Dragon Union, a weird Dungeons & Dragons variant with its own idiosyncratic systemic procedure for how to arrange and execute a middle-school D&D campaign. Whatever one thinks of its goals, its substantiality is impossible to deny: it covers a field of gaming that suffers of a sparseness of game texts, and it approaches the design problem in a completely unique way, combining aesthetics, mechanics and GMing procedure in a way that's not even close to how anybody else has done it.
    Dragon Union is awesome. Also Eero worked on it
    As an opposite example, consider D&D 5th edition. Completely devoid of substance, its only merit in production values and a careful attempt at not pissing anybody off.
    5e is awesome. Also Eero often misrepresents and misunderstands it and is unaware of how awesome it is. Often goes out of his way to avoid looking at it. The one time he played LMoP he played a joke character (a living train!?!??!?!?!? which 5e could handle just fine. Is robust & hackable game).

    5e has plenty of new ideas and well executed implementiations of old ideas.
    Anybody who's already mastered D&D
    No such person exists!
  • Dragon Union is awesome. Also Eero worked on it
    To clarify for posterity: I did not, and didn't choose my random example above with that in mind. It is possible (I haven't checked) that there are some sort of acknowledgements in the English-language edition, but that would simply be because I discussed the project with the creator in length after it was published in Finnish, not because I did anything in particular for it. Some passing studio critique, that's all.

    To tell the truth, Dragon Union is a great example of a work that is deeply provocative and interesting, but that I am not all that certain to be quite finished yet. Had I really been working on it, it would probably have ended up somewhat different.

    As for the rest, it is no surprise that people have different ideas of what counts for substance and what doesn't. I can only say my piece.
  • I'm really not sure about this part:
    The consequence is that while there are more excellent, beautiful, humanity-advancing indie games out there than you can swing a stick at, most roleplayers have never heard of them, and even if they have they cannot access them, because accessibility is usually the last thing in the mind of an indie designer.
    Unless I'm misunderstanding, most indie games are MORE accessible to many people than D&D5 is. Sure, you can't "walk to your local bookstore" and buy them, but honestly, I can't "walk to my local bookstore" and buy D&D5 either. While many, many indie games are available digitally for a tiny fraction of the cost of a single D&D book.

    Also, I have issues with Sandra's statement about robust&hackable and stuff, but that's a derail, so I'll just leave a dissenting opinion and move on.
  • Accessibility is a complex thing, with many layers. While there are some indie games that are more accessible than some mainstream games in some ways, I don't think that the overall trend is favourable to indies in this regard.

    I'm happy to open up my thinking on this in more detail - it pertains directly to Jeff's actual topic, after all.

    So what is the map of accessibility like in rpgs? I would argue that it looks something like the following:

    Product development determines how easy the product is to use. In this regard mainstream games are generally superior: they are written in a simpler way, they assume less, and they demand less of their players. The product is simply easier to use, which translates into more likelihood of it reaching the gaming table. More attention is paid to usability, as it is a key concern in being mainstream-successful. The same is not true with indies; you can fulfill your goals as an indie creator quite easily without worrying too much about product usability.

    Choice of theme is an important aspect of product accessibility. A mainstream game generally has a common theme, which means that not only is the prospective player more likely to have a handle on it in advance, but they're also more likely to have friends and co-players who can help them with it, forming an ecosystem of support. An indie game in comparison is more likely to have a high-brow or other special interests theme.

    Choice of system is also important. A mainstream game text is likely to describe a relatively vague, traditional and generic game with a few mechanical stand-out features that distinguish it from the competition. This is much more accessible than an experimental indie game is likely to be, as it is more familiar to most gamers. Furthermore, the indie game is likelier to opt for a system that supports a highly distinctive creative agenda that many people will find difficult to work with.

    An ecosystem of support is very important to rpg accessibility, as most gamers end up playing most games via indirect means. A mainstream game is likely to have more visibility and more players thanks to being a more commercial endeavour (that was the definition I was running with above, as we remember), which translates into the individual player facing the game not as a lone, strange book, but rather as a living campaign they are joining, with other players who are already fully conversant with the game.

    Having to spend money is indeed the one factor on which the indie culture is likely to be more accessible. RPGs in general are however not a hobby in which this is an issue: I'm sure that there are exceptional individuals here and there, but by and large gamers both have 1st world money to splurge, and don't have to spend much because they benefit of those support ecosystems and can just use each other's books if they want to. Even the most disgustingly commercial roleplaying games struggle to draw more than a couple hundred dollars a year from their players - and even those games tend to be perfectly playable on a minimal budget if you really want to.

    A welcoming hobby culture is obviously an important aspect of accessibility, but I think that neither mainstream nor indie has an edge there: mainstream is more consistent but slower-moving, while indie culture has historically been both quicker to do outreach to new demographics as well as being more batshit insane than a mainstream publisher would ever allow for a commercial product. Therefore I call this one a tie.

    There are probably other ways in which mainstream games are more accessible on average than indie games, but I think that demonstrates the thrust of my thinking on this. As you can see, all these factors flow in a very direct way from the specific motivations of the mainstream publisher and the indie publisher: if you're publishing to tell the truth that burns in your gut, for example, you're not likely to worry about the above sorts of accessibility issues as you are when your goal is to make money.

    Just look at some of my own extremely half-assed publication projects to see what I mean. I would never, ever characterize something like say Fellows of the Julenius Archive as accessible despite it being available for free in the Internet [grin].
  • Honestly, I don't think they have much to learn from each other on the game design front. Different horses, different courses, etc.

    I think there is a lot of useful knowledge to be shared about things like how to market, how to budget, how to keep from losing your shirt, and so on, but even there I think there's a big difference between being a free-lancer who has to maintain good relationships with multiple developers and being a true indie who does their own thing, and I'm not sure how much overlap there is beyond "don't be a jerk" and "keep your promises."
  • edited July 2018
    1. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Some problems should be solved, even if imperfectly, rather than rendered inapplicable via drastic overhaul.

    2. Take nothing for granted. Be willing to do the unfamiliar.

    3. The giant field of PbtA games represents this pretty well. But I would love to see the structure of games like Kagematsu, Witch, or Montsegur melded with the freedom of traditional roleplay. Give us reasons to stay within a framework, but tools to really roam about and let different paths emerge.

    Sorry for brevity; busy right now. I might come back to give this more thought later.

    I think all indie games are already informed by traditional games, and most traditional games value their tradition above indie-style reinvention. So the phrasing of the questions rings a little weird to me. But if you replace "important" with "neat" then I'm there. :)
  • Mainstream rpg culture is full of different, conflicting playstyles and agendas. Most of the books give useless advices on how to realize them. I pray for well written and easy to use PbtA principle-packages, just like Sandra wrote it.
  • edited July 2018
    Thanks Eero; I don't really agree with your first bullet point at all (I find most mainstream RPGs to be a struggle to read and feel that the instructions contained therein are often poor in terms of how to actually use the game), and "Ecosystem of support" feels a bit too "Chicken and egg" to sit well with me, but the rest of those are spot on, thanks!
  • Posting from my phone, not going to be verbose, but speaking in large brush strokes...

    Mainstream games could learn to create targeted experiences. Too many mainstream games give you a toolkit, but unless you have a clear vision, don't give you enough direction what you should be doing. Modern AGE is the latest game to give me this vibe. But it's true of most freeform and point buy games, but many mainstream games try to be about everything and end up being about nothing in particular.

    Indie games, on the flipside, could show a bit more appreciation for the emergent experience. Not all participants are game designers/tinkerers, and building in a few places you can expand the game is heartily appreciated.

  • Indie games, on the flipside, could show a bit more appreciation for the emergent experience.
    Could you go into a little more detail about what you mean by “emergent experience”...I think I understand what you mean via the context, but I want to make sure I’m following what you’re saying.
  • Define "indie" and define "mainstream".
    Is Fiasco mainstream?

  • Indie games, on the flipside, could show a bit more appreciation for the emergent experience.
    Could you go into a little more detail about what you mean by “emergent experience”...I think I understand what you mean via the context, but I want to make sure I’m following what you’re saying.
    I may be generalizing here to recent indie games "on my radar", but it seems to me that the trend is that indie games are smaller, more tightly focused games. This generally means that they do that one thing they mean to do very well, but anything outside its tightly focused ruleset is left to fiat or simply not in the scope of play. Broader trad games have a stronger expectation of letting the players dictate any aspect of the PCs life (even if it is underserved by the rules), but often this can result in some interesting slice-of-life play I don't typically experience in indie games.
  • I actually disagree with that. I think it is a generally accepted "truth" about indie and trad games, but I don't think it holds up to examination.

    I have heard people say that "I can do anything with D&D!" or that "I could play D&D for my whole life and never explore it fully!"

    Rather, I say, that point of view is a product of the play culture and its expectations.

    (Much like the assumption that "indie games" are all about short-term play, for another example. Most "indie" games actually demand and are designed for long-term play!)

    The most important and famous "mainstream" game is D&D. D&D (especially modern D&D!) is an *extremely* focused game. Characters are limited to a certain set of races, classes, and alignments, a limited palette of specific (generally combat-oriented) powers, and then set up against "encounters", which are balanced by XP cost. As the characters overcome these challenges/encounters, they gain levels, which set them on a predefined progression of increasing combat prowess and more and improved combat powers. You can read all of these ahead of time in the book(s), and know a great deal about what will happen next: you're going to fight some monsters, then level up, at which you'll take the Fireball spell and a +1 to Strength, after which you... can pretty safely say you'll fight some monsters of a very specifically higher power level. Eventually you'll confront more and more greater evils and become known as great heroes.

    I could also take a pretty good guess at what kinds of characters are in your D&D game, too, without knowing ANYTHING about the game or the people involved. They're all adventurers, they're probably wannabe heroes but not yet very important or experienced, and if I guess that most are of good alignment and include something like a fighter, thief, wizard, and cleric, I'm likely to be at least partially correct.

    The expectation that such designs are more likely to result in emergent, unexpected, or "slice-of-life" moments in play than something like Archipelago or The Pool... is pretty contrary to my experience.

    That said, the expectations and the culture do affect how we play the games - and how we design them, as well. It's more acceptable to present your game as something "very focused, which you can play in one evening!" as an indie author or designer than as the publisher of a "mainstream" product. This means that both the books and the players involved will tend to harp on how easy and quick their game is... or write long dramatic texts about how "your imagination is the limit, and you can do ANYTHING with this game!".

    I think you could easily take most indie or mainstream texts and rewrite them in a different tone of voice, and that alone would change the presentation a great deal.

    Of course, I am exaggerating slightly to make my point; trends do exist. But I don't think they're anywhere near as strong or as overwhelming as people tend to think or say.

    If I can run a "political romantic drama" game using D&D, by throwing out most of the rules and only rarely rolling dice... I can definitely do so just as well using the Dogs in the Vineyard ruleset. Why not? In both cases, I have a clear vision of what I'm going for and I ignore the actual rules (or the assumptions of the text) in order to make it happen.
  • I think you are disagreeing with something I'm not saying. If I am trying to play political romance drama drama, then I am not talking about emergent play. So I am not talking about people hacking their games per se.

    You are right that this is about playstyle. But I find that many recent Indie games I have encountered try to build an experience a little more focused than the anything goes style of trad RPGs. Yes, there are exceptions, and Indie covers a lot more territory than this; that's not the point.

    More thoughts on this, but I am planning a game right now.
  • Define "indie" and define "mainstream".
    Is Fiasco mainstream?
    Well these are broad and imprecise categories...I would call Fiasco an indie game that ended up getting a bit of mainstream attention, same with PbtA games, or Mouseguard, or, arguably, even Fate.

    There’s no perfect definition of indie or mainstream.

    Indie games would be something like Dog Eat Dog, Archipelago, Fall of Magic, Burning Wheel, Dogs in the Vineyard, Follow, etc. ...and mainstream would be more like D&D, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Star Wars (FFG), GURPs, etc.
  • I dont know about 'in general', but on a personal level, I have learned from mainstream games (not just RPGs) that sex-iness sells. People wont just 'get' your supposedly clever rules or fresh take. They will come for the glitz and glamour, and only later, stay for the rules.

    Perception is everything - you have to engage their imaginations an evocative story about your game, accompanied with super slick graphic design, compelling artwork, amazing minis, etc...

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