For a long while now, I’ve believed that tabletop rpgs were an art form in its infancy, and that there’s a potential for gaming sessions to be a kind of performance art based around collaborative improvisational narrative.
I also think that, as art, rpgs are mostly terrible and have been since their beginning. Recently, that’s begun to change.
Last Sunday night, my game group wrapped up a campaign in a fun and satisfying way (don’t worry, I won’t tell you about it). How amazingly different it was from the games I played as a teenager.
I’m old enough to have played D&D before it became AD&D, and while I had fun, the game itself was a crude simulation of the books I loved. It was all numbers, hex paper, and moving little figures around. My friends and I moved to a new, simpler system that struck us as more realistic, but we still played dungeon crawl after dungeon crawl.
After many years and a shitload of other systems, we moved to superhero games, which gave us narratives beyond “Kick down the door and murder everyone inside, then take their stuff” although it was hard to break the characters from their lawless power-gaming habits. We had fun, but a spectator would have been bored out of their minds.
And thanks to YouTube, people are playing games for spectators. I’m not going to link the ones I’ve seen, but most are as interesting as a dude telling you about a workout routine he’s thinking of doing later. In short, it’s the worst art imaginable: lifeless, irrelevant, and utterly lacking in enjoyment for people outside the circle of players.
Before games become actual art, they’re going to have to become pop art. They’re going to have to become as fun as pulp adventure, and at the moment, (typically) they’re not. But! Games have changed. They’re much more collaborative and focused on narrative than they were when I got into games, and I’m sure there’s someone out there, somewhere, making collaborative improvisational narrative art with the verve of the old pulps.
Which brings us to this:
Will this be the kind of pulp adventure fun that can grow into something more serious? Well, it’s combining something I really enjoyed (Thundarr) with something I hated except for the boobs (Heavy Metal), and it’s Wil Wheaton. Also: Titansgrave: The Ashes of Valkana. So maybe.
Of course, Wheaton has already aired a two-part gaming session, and there are lessons to be learned from that show. Have they been? I guess we’ll see.
What about my gaming session from last Sunday? It was art, and I sure as hell enjoyed it. However, it also was not designed to be a performance the way that Wheaton’s is, or those guys who record their sessions and post them on YouTube.
I guess the question is: What would have to change in role-playing games for them to become art that could be enjoyed by people who aren’t playing? I do have some ideas.
 And isn’t that part of the problem? If you describe a great movie, you can make it sound wonderful. Describing a game session? OMG, get this weirdo away from me.
 Like most activities you do, the fun comes mostly from the people you do it with not the activity itself.
 The Fantasy Trip, by Metagaming, if you care
 “First I’m going to do five push ups, then flip over and do five crunches, then roll over for more pushups, without any pause, and I’m going to keep doing that wait where are you going…”
 Video games don’t count. I’m talking about tabletop now.
 And by “we’ll see” I mean “someone else will have to watch it and tell me how it goes.”