Some very good prompts for today, but Innovation just drew me in.
When I started playing tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), the first thing that differentiated games was their theme. Or at least what we understood back there as such.
That was the reason why we had to choose between AD&D 2nd Edition and MERP [Middle-earth Role Playing] (too close in theme), but we could play different AD&D 2nd Edition campaigns set in various settings: Dragonlance, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, Warhammer’s Old World, etc. (different themes). Or at least that’s how I explain it to myself nowadays.
Pretty quickly I began to apply my taste in fiction to TTRPGs, and became more discerning when reading and, more importantly, when playing them. As more TTRPGs became available to me, I had to make the hard decision of which ones to buy, read, and play—and which ones to ignore.
To do so, I had to look beyond themes. As I gained access to more games, I became critical of them. That’s yet another reason why I became disillusioned with TTRPGs at one point, I think; for a time it seemed to me that there was no true advancement, no real innovation in the genre.
Later years gladly proved me very wrong.
Matt Colville proposed (in that video I’ve already cited before) that “all artistic revolutions are predicated on an earlier, technological revolutions,” citing as examples Jimmy Hendrix and the electric guitar, as well as multitrack mixing and The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, respectively.
The Open Gaming License (or OGL) and the advent of PDF self-publishing in websites like DriveThruRPG changed the TTRPG landscape completely. In short, now anybody could publish a TTRPG about, well, anything and, if they wanted to, they could use as little or as much as they wanted of Dungeons & Dragons (Third Edition) rules.
This gave birth to a whole new wave of games, designers and, most importantly, it paved the way for indie design to evolve and become a force unto its own, capable of influencing mainstream TTRPGs. We saw the culmination of this, I believe, in D&D 5th Edition design, which includes a lot of staples of indie design—most notably the Inspiration mechanic and Background tables with backstory generation—in its core design.
The Lack of Innovation in Mainstream TTRPGs
If I try to look at the history of TTRPGs (which is less than 50 years old) there is, I believe, at least one connecting thread that joins most if not all games.
That is the desire and will to innovate.
Even the original TTRPG designers (Anderson and Gygax) were innovating from other games—Braunstein and Chainmail, respectively—and, from then on, aren’t the rest of them just a series of improvements and iterations, like the long lineage of an ever-evolving species?
If you look at TTRPGs this way, you can see why I was so disappointed with the games I had access to at the beginning of my days as a TTRPGer. As they were mostly mainstream, they were the least innovative, in a way. Since they are the most popular—and, as such, the ones that have the most to lose, usually—they tend to go for the widest possible audience.
That’s why indie TTRPGs are so important.
The Innovation Web
Since indie TTRPGs don’t suffer the pressures of mainstream titles to be popular, they have the freedom to explore and innovate in so many ways.
I’ve experienced this first hand, as all the opportunities I’ve had so far as a TTRPG freelance writer have come from indie publishers. That’s how I’ve been able to write about decidedly not popular subjects in TTRPGs, such as a feminist urban fantasy, indigenous warrior women, and non-violent ecological protection.
On the player/Game Master (GM) side of things, I’ve learned more of TTRPG design by reading, running, and playing indie games than by doing the same with any mainstream title.
What’s even better, some of the best indie design is “open”—i.e., you can base your own work on it—creating, in essence, an innovation web that allows designers to not have to “reinvent the wheel”, so to speak, every time we want to develop a game.
Perhaps the greatest example of this in recent times is the Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) phenomenon. D. Vincent Barker created a groundbreaking TTRPG in Apocalypse World (AW), back in 2010, and was generous enough to make his game open. This led to the development of numerous related games, each of them iterating upon the basic design.
And then John Harper took the PbtA design and innovated further than anybody else by creating Blades in the Dark (BitD), another milestone in TTRPG design. And guess what? He made it an open system and, because of that, we now have Forged in the Dark games from designers who are iterating upon John’s design.
It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to predict that we’ll have another groundbreaking TTRPG in the near future that’ll be a descendant of BitD as Blades is from AW. And that is a great thing.
N.B.: Innovative Doesn’t Mean Better
Although it may appear so, I’m not making value judgments here. In other words, I don’t think that BitD is a better game than AW. What I’m saying is that they’re the latest innovations in our hobby and that, as such, is always good to keep an eye on them, as they are the latest technology we have, so to speak.
If you play Original (1974) Dungeons & Dragons and you and your friends like it, then keep on playing it. But I advise you not to forget that there are hundreds if not thousands of other games out there that you could benefit from, either by playing them or by adopting some of their innovations.
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