This is RPG-ology #53: In the Spirit of Radio, for April 2022.
Our thanks to Regis Pannier and the team at the Places to Go, People to Be French edition. This was originally published in the Winter 2004 edition of the Daedalus e-zine, and was forgotten when that publication vanished. However, having seen the French translation of it the author searched and found a copy of the original, in PDF, and converted it for publication here.
The role-playing hobby has something to learn from an old medium.
Half a century ago, before even I was born, people used to listen to the radio.
That may sound like the most ridiculous opening for an article about role playing, for two reasons. Don’t people still listen to the radio? And, what has it to do with role playing games? No, we don’t listen anymore. I spent half a decade in radio, and gave it a lot of thought. We do not listen to the radio the way people use to listen.
The rise and survival of radio
Back then, the Federal Communications Commission didn’t think that radio stations should play prerecorded music. Radio stations should play things people couldn’t already have at home. Thus there was a great emphasis on live broadcasts, from bands playing at the local hotel ballroom to sporting events to game shows. There were also radio dramas and programs which we would now label sitcoms, variety shows, news magazines–the kinds of programs that dominate television. Radio had become a centerpiece of the lives of many in technologically developed nations. People would gather around the family hi-fi to hear Jack Benny, or “The Shadow,” or “Fibber McGee and Molly.” They scheduled parts of their lives around shows, and sat beside the radio and listened.
The rise of television ended this. By the late 1950s people treated the tube the way they had treated the hi-fi a scant few years before: they came to watch their favorite shows. I clearly remember my mother calling us to gather around the television in the playroom to watch “The Wonderful World of Disney” every Sunday evening before we were chased off to bed. People didn’t use radio that way anymore. Radio programs died out until the syndicated Christian program “Unshackled” remained as the last of the old-time radio dramas.
As entertainers of every description attempted to make the transition from the old medium to the new, this advice became common: think of it like radio with pictures. The line became so common that decades later one radio commentator joked to a television host that he should think of radio as television, without the pictures.
The joke, and the point, is that television is not radio with pictures. It is an entirely different medium altogether. It does things radio cannot do so readily. Our generations can recognize many national and world leaders because their faces are slapped in the corner of the screen on the evening news. We know where the wars and many of the battles are because there is a map behind the commentator. Modern news and information channels have learned that we can absorb a great deal of information more quickly than a speaker can deliver it; thus while the reporter is speaking there will be one or sometimes several tickers running along the bottom of the screen conveying more information. Foreign programs can be aired in the original language with subtitles. Slapstick and sight gags have become staples in situation comedies, action sequences punctuate our dramas, artistic montages accompany our music–all things that require the eyes to appreciate. Having the ability to put images on the screen completely changed what you could do.
What is more interesting about this is that it completely changed radio. People stopped listening to it. Families did not gather around the hi-fi to hear radio dramas, and they stopped being produced. Many became television shows. To survive, radio had to compensate. It had to find the things that it could do which television could not. This is when prerecorded music started to take over the airwaves. By the time I was in radio, the vast majority of radio was music or call-in, and the vast majority of stations did one or the other.
People no longer treated radio as a medium for drama. Radio had found its strengths, and those strengths were that people could listen when they couldn’t pay attention. You can listen to the radio while you drive, at work, in stores. People no longer have favorite radio programs. They have favorite radio stations. One station always has the news. A couple are back to back call-in shows, there is a station for classical music, maybe one for jazz, and dozens for the more popular musical styles. We don’t tune in for our shows; we tune in to our stations.
The lesson for role playing
The second reason that the opening of this article may have sounded ridiculous is that it would not have been apparent initially why people listening to radio had anything to do with role-playing games. By now it should be clearer. Radio was still in its infancy when television emerged to challenge it. Yet, through that challenge innovators discovered strengths radio had that enabled it to continue in competition with television. We who play and design role-playing games are in much the same situation. Our hobby is still young, still uncertain of its own strengths, and facing challenges from other media that have sprung from us, yet in some ways overmatch us. Collectible card games and a resurgence in board games provide complex strategic play with plenty of color. Computer and console role-playing games utilize rapid number crunching and visual displays to enhance aspects of the gaming experience. The answer for role-playing games is the same as it was for radio: recognize those areas in which this medium excels, and work to enhance and promote those.
I don’t have all the answers to this; however, there are a few aspects of what I often call real role-playing games that computer emulations, elaborate board games, and strategic card games cannot address as well. By recognizing these, promoting them as the strengths of our hobby, and steering our design and play priorities in these directions, we may be able to bring new vitality to the pastime and appeal to people who are now only dimly aware of it.
Role-playing games require and promote greater levels of imagination. In writing, it is often that which is not described that is the most terrifying or the most beautiful. It is the same in role-playing games: we can imagine what we cannot show, by using the canvas of the mind to provide the details that fit the individual. Thus, one aspect of play that we should be encouraging is that of letting the mind fill in the images. This has always been part of our games, but in the face of challenges from games for which this is a weakness it is time to play to our strengths.
That power to unleash anything within our imagination gives role-playing games a rarely rivaled opportunity for creative force. We don’t need or want pictures of the monsters, I submit, because vague descriptions of fearsome entities are much more powerful in the imagination than photographs. How many legs does Shelob have, and how many eyes, and just how large is she? Tolkien doesn’t give us these details. She is the mother of all spiders, but she has far more twisting hairy legs than any of her offspring, and she is large enough to crush a hobbit beneath her. That is more frightening than a picture, as it requires us to fill in the blanks with our own fears. That is something we can do with role-playing games that other games cannot do, or at least cannot do so easily.
The character of characters
Role-playing games also hold advantages in characterization and character development that other games cannot match. Characterization means that we can populate our worlds with imaginary entities that seem like people. They don’t just look like people–and maybe they don’t particularly look like people–but we have the capacity to make them rich and diverse, each an individual. Many games focus on what the character can do; that is something any kind of game can do, even a simple board game. Certainly a role-playing game can provide many more answers than, say, a computer game to the question of what the character can do, but a difference in degree will eventually be overtaken by improvements in technology. Characterization, who the character is, is a difference in kind. The nuances of personality, the quirks and fears, as well as the dreams and desires, are harder to include; but one of the strengths of role-playing games is that we can include them, and more effort in this area should produce more compelling games filled with more interesting people.
Character development is an aspect of characterization that is often overlooked. Real people grow and change over time, and the best characters in the great stories do so as well. Through choice and experience, the character in the game world can become someone different–not merely more skilled, but different, whether more mature, more paranoid, or otherwise changed. This is character development. There are some things we do now that we would not have done before, and other things we did before which we would not dream to do now, because over time we have changed. It has happened because of what we chose, and what we experienced from those choices. Role-playing games can do this. Other games cannot do it so well, if at all.
Story creation is among the things that role-playing games do that other games cannot. Certainly many other kinds of games tell stories. Computer role-playing games and board games often have stories running through them, and sometimes the outcomes of those stories are determined by the successes and failures of the players. This is a pale imitation of story creation, however. Role-playing games give us the power to develop stories with powerful themes, and mold them in many directions. Much has been done in this area, thanks to a significant degree to Sorcerer and the work of its author Ron Edwards. Consciously putting story creation in the foreground not merely of the text but of the mechanics themselves, games on this model are bringing forward this strength in role playing.
One of the opportunities that real role-playing games offer more easily than other games is creative problem solving. Many games present problems to be solved, but in role-playing games it is possible to present problems that don’t have a single answer, and to let players create answers for themselves. Most other types of games provide problems for which there is one solution, or a short list of options, possible within the game, and players must either do that or fail. Role-playing games have the ability to get beyond this, to give the players the opportunity to find their own solutions to problems. This difference is an advantage, and something which can be enhanced in play and in design.
Along the same lines I would mention flexibility. Role-playing games can do anything. There are games which push the envelope of what that means by exploring ideas previously untouched, proving that they can be done. These contribute greatly to the worlds of role-playing games; but even more than this are those games which themselves do many things. Universalis changes the definitions of character and setting such that all things can be controlled and altered by the players. Multiverser has enabled play experiences as diverse as a gigantic playground, a time loop, vast breathable oceans, and birth. Designs which free the players to create and explore worlds the designers never imagined push the boundaries and declare the strengths of these games.
Finally, games are fundamentally complex forms of structured social interaction occurring within social interaction more generally. That is, we get together to play games as part of getting to know each other. Role-playing games have a power to do this that exceeds most other forms of interactive play. They give us, individually, the power to explore who we are and who we might be, and in so doing they give us the ability to express aspects of ourselves which might otherwise have lain hidden.
Role-playing games are in their essence social interactions through which the players play characters who are interacting socially. They are an incredibly rich opportunity for exploring relationships, real and imaginary, in ways that few other forms of entertainment whatsoever approach.
Looking at the possibilities, these few recognizable strengths in role playing as compared with similar games, I have great hope for the future of our hobby. As was done with radio in the face of the challenge of television, if we recognize and embrace these and other strengths, we can build a future for the hobby that reaches beyond what we have thus far imagined.