The recent kerfuffle over Wizards of the Coast’s attempts to wrangle their open source content into being less open, has got me thinking about the future of roleplaying in an increasingly open source, self-created, and freely shared media environment.
A while back I hungrily devoured Chris “Long Tail” Anderson’s presentation on “free stuff” at the Nokia 2007 conference. Then, yesterday, Paul Czege linked me to Clay Shirky’s speech on the transition towards interactivity at the Web 2.0 conference. Both of these talks are very inspiring.
One of Shirky’s main points is that there is a growing shift from a model of media consumption to a model of media participation. Even things like the rise of fanfic (not one of his examples) point to consumers’ shared desire and expectation that they will become involved in the creation and dissemination of the things they like. And, in many ways, roleplaying is ahead of its time in this regard, having always held the door open (to one degree or another) for fans to create their own material to supplement or replace commercial products. In fact, it’s impossible to be a passive consumer of roleplaying. Even in the most railroaded of all dungeon crawls, players are actively engaged in a participatory manner.
However, I think both mainstream and independent roleplaying design has a strong tendency to try to replicate traditional print and audio-visual media, especially genre fiction novels and movies, which have a much more passive model of consumption and don’t allow as much space for “audience participation.” Roleplaying as an activity may demand a level of participation that’s higher than your average scifi novel or film — and consumers may independently create networks for exchanging material that they’ve created to supplement or replace commercial products — but it’s less often that designers and publishers try to actually make room for consumers to create and disseminate their own material that exists on equal standing (or is even recognized as superior to) commercially published material. This attempt by Wizards to rein in the OGL is definitely a step backwards.
It would be worthwhile for us to get better at this, I think.
For example, right after In a Wicked Age was released, there was not a day that went by where several new Oracles or Oracle creation projects / invitations were posted on Story Games. That is powerful stuff, and Vincent didn’t even expressly suggest people should create other Oracles, though he certainly got excited about it when they did, which helped build enthusiasm. Generally, though, the excitement spread because people saw how cool Oracles were and simultaneously thought, “Hey, I could do that at least as good as Vincent, at least, for this particular thing that I care about.” Wouldn’t it be cool if all of roleplaying worked more like that, and explicitly so? If everyone could be valued and supported for their contributions, whether they had “authority” as the original author / publisher of the material or not?