Once in a while I look over at the Forge and I see a game like Shock or The Pool and I think--"That sounds fun, I'd play that."
And I don't.
The reason is because there's nobody to play with.
What do you mean, Zak? You've got players, right?
Ok, but they're a different kind of player than the players you'd need to play most of the more interesting indie games I've seen.
Here is what Mandy playing The Pool would be like:
Me: "Ok, now you have to describe your character in 50 words. Anything you want."
Mandy: "Fuck this."
Somehow this request creates a social or mental situation in people that "pick a race, pick a class" doesn't. To some people these 50 words sound like freedom, to some people, it sounds like work.
One indie-narrativist game battlecry is "Story now!" It seems like a fairly decent description of how their games work: in the most interesting and original indie games I've seen*, the players are all put on the spot at one point or another to come up with some interesting and creative story elements.
Here's the hitch--in order to play you either have to have faith in your on-the-spot creativity or be unselfconscious enough not to give a fuck.
And, if the latter, you have to have faith that even though you don't give a fuck, this game is still going to be fun and worth doing.
In other words, it's not true in RPGs that "the only limits are your imagination". A huge limit is the amount of energy you've got that day and your faith in the notion that sitting around using your imagination (and very little else) is going to be a fun way to spend the next 2-4 hours.
In the gaming community, I would guess that 90% of people who have that particular kind of faith in their own on-the-spot creativity or who are unselfconscious and faithful enough not to worry or who are always sure their imagination is more fun than their xbox are GMs or prime GM-material.
Basically, these are the people who run the games, own the books, and write the blogs. These are the people who like to think about the game when they aren't playing the game and who know who Kevin Siembieda and Ookla the Mok are.
And, if you haven't noticed by now, this blog is largely about how you can play and have lots of fun with only one or two of those people at the table and have the rest of the people just be players.
At least, you can play D&D that way.
Essentially, in order for a game to work, I think there has to be a certain critical mass of creativity at the table. The available sources are: the players, the GM, and the game itself.
In a video game, the creativity is supplied largely by the game. Your input is optional--Mario will grow when he eats a mushroom whether you provide an explanation or not. In, say, The Pool, none of the creativity is supplied by the game (obviously, it took creativity to design the mechanics, but what I mean here is, it doesn't readily suggest a scenario for play), it's all on the players. In a D&D scenario, the creativity is shared between the GM and Gary (or whoever else wrote setting elements the GM is using in the game) and the players can, in a well-run game, pretty much provide as much or as little as they want.
If we imagine this continuum, with Super Mario Brothers on one side and improv theatre on the other, you can see most indie games as an attempt to raise the creativity ante for players and lower the creativity ante of the game publisher--moving toward the improv side. On this scale, all D&D would be in the middle (as well as most other similar games--Palladium, Games Workshop, White Wolf, etc.), with old school D&D being closer to the indie games and more branded and defined versions of the game being a little more toward the Mario side.
My point here is not that one side or the other is good or bad--after all, there's a name for what happens when all the creativity is supplied for you and you find it engaging--it's called "great art". My point is that the Mario side is a good place for players who aren't yet sure that the game they're playing will automatically be fun.
What's it like in the middle?
I think of D&D working kind of like a dinner conversation.
Imagine a table at a wedding:
There's a conversation going on. Everyone can hear it but not everybody has to talk. There's rarely an embarrassing silence, though, because there's at least one person there who just really wants to get to the heart of the matter of whatever this conversation is about and so will start talking if there's a lull.
Once in a while, no matter who you are, you will be called upon to perform simple, well-defined tasks. "Can you pass the peas?""Are you going to hit the rust monster or do something else?" This is easy for pretty much anybody and doesn't put you on the spot.
Nothing necessarily stops you from doing something mechanically novel like, say, putting olives on your pancakes, but the conversation and the meal will keep on even if you don't.
Nothing stops you from interjecting with your own ideas "Well I think Sigmund Freud was full of shit!""I think we should tie the displacer beast up before we try to sell it to the mountain gnome," and thus taking the conversation in a whole new direction, but the conversation will keep going if you don't.
This is normal, this is what all kinds of people do every day. They are shy and insecure or apathetic about the subject or the company they're in and when they become comfortable or the conversation moves to a place they have ideas about, then they talk.
In D&D, as a player, you can (often, not always) choose to grapple hard with the scenario ("I look in the desk,""I write 'xvarts suck' on the wall with a rock", "I mix the growth and shrinking potions together to see what happens") or you can sit back and roll dice when it's necessary and just regard what the DM and the more aggressive players are doing as entertainment, like a movie where you have a choice.
In other words, D&D supports several playing styles simultaneously (assuming the DM's any good). In a good game, everybody's playing the game they want to play, even if it's eight different games.
Right here, I should say something: the 'passive player' is rarely forever passive.
You can't just go "passive players suck" because what happens is the table is an evershifting patchwork of active gaming, passive gaming, metagaming, snack-eating, etc. Most people move easily from one mode to the next and do it all the time--players have moods, and the mode fits their mood, and I can tell you that, at least in my game, the mood of a Los Angeles porn star can change faster than any observed phenomenon yet discovered. The only person who has to be steady-state is the GM.
Also, as I am discovering, players don't really need to know the rules. I mean, they can, that's fine and good, but the penalty for not knowing--at least in the beginning--isn't that big. A D&D game that's basically "Tell me what you want to do, I'll tell you what you need to roll to do it" will work perfectly well for a player's first session or two--long enough for them to learn the basics. The game can grow as their knowledge, confidence, and faith that the game will actually be fun grow.
A lot of the innovative new games, however, seem to require that everybody know the rules and/or that everybody be inventive (or at least confident and energetic) at regular intervals.
In a broad sense this is just the price of democracy--with the power to control the world, comes the responsibility to help keep it interesting. On the other hand, I think it'd be a nice challenge to create an newbie-friendly game that still offers the player a lot of narrative control if they want it, yet doesn't make the wallflower player feel like a useless spectator if they don't seize the bit immediately. Probably it's already out there.
The concept I'm getting at is, I guess: Buy-in.
"Buy-in" is, basically, the feeling that a thing will be worth the amount of effort asked.
It's not just "Do you want to play a game where you're a wizard" but "Do you want to play a game where you're a wizard for x amount of effort?".
The GMs of this world are the ones who say "I want to play a game where I'm a wizard for almost any amount of effort" the player-only people have their limits. I see those limits when I introduce new players to the game "Will I have to....?""What if I...?""I'm gonna suck, you'll see!"
For many people, it's embarassing to be seen putting out mental effort and failing. "Ha ha, noob!" And so, to new players, RPGs are scary. You can practice a video game in the comfort and solitude of your own home and then play with others once you're good at it. With RPGs you can't. The fear many people feel (or just the distaste or disinterest which masks fear) is really akin to the fear people feel about public speaking or having a story or drawing they've made critiqued in a classroom. One of the big things I have to do as a GM with new players is say "Don't worry, you can't really do it wrong."
In D&D, the DM has to be on--s/he has to be up and awake and paying attention and also has to be enough into the game of D&D that s/he has a scenario ready to roll and roll smoothly. But nobody else does. They can show up diffident and hungover and largely unconcerned with the genre of fantasy literature and the direction of the campaign and still have a blast.
In the indie games I've seen, this appears to not be so. You need a handful of GM-types at the table or else the game won't do what it's supposed to do. I am cool with this. You need a handful of good musicians to make great music and we all need great music.
However, I think that people working on designing games should be aware that despite the fact that it's derived from wargames and stories about white men in Medieval Europe, the world's oldest RPG is actually astoundingly comfortable for newbies to get into because it is so flexible in the demands it makes on them.
Addendum: Road test of this theory...
*Note this phrase "the most interesting and original indie games I've seen". Mountain Witch and Dogs in the Vineyard do not fit into this category. Not by a long shot. This post is not about all indie games or all story games, it's only about the ones I find interesting. (note added after this happened.)