Avery Alder on theory still useful from the era of The Forge.

Twitter thread reposted with permission:


Avery Alder @lackingceremony

Over the summer, I’ve been putting together a few threads looking back at my time in game design (my journey as a designer; games that influenced me). I had this idea to do a thread where I unpack game design ideas/theory that influenced me along the way, especially older stuff.

It felt like an important thing to take stock of, because (a.) it informed the work I made and was exposed to, but more importantly (b.) theory is often jargon-laded and difficult to penetrate, and people can feel shut-out by conversations they aren’t welcomed into.

I’m especially thinking about theory that emerged from The Forge and the Big Model, right now, because that’s the analysis I was trained on. But the more I thought about what I might want to relay, the shorter the list got.

In some cases, gaming culture advanced, and the need to make certain statements became irrelevant. They were just obvious. In some cases, better techniques changed the field or subverted commonly-held wisdom. So, this gets to be a really short thread.

There are only 2 theory bits from 2000-2010 that I look back at and think “oh yeah, that still feels useful.” First, a stripped-down definition of Creative Agenda. In short: people play games for different reasons, and you can’t cater to everybody at once. Choose your audience.

And secondly, the notion of the Fruitful Void (coined by @lumpleygames, I believe). [Editor: it was Ron Edwards, noted by Vincent Baker in a reply]. In short: yeah, your game is about what the mechanics are about, but it’s also about what is suspiciously absent from your mechanics, and yet clearly central to the story.

And finally, not a piece of theory but rather a reflection tool, here is The Big Three: 1. What is your game about? 2. What do the characters do? 3. What do the players do? I think it’s useful because it helps you remember that these questions are distinct from one another!

There! In my opinion, that’s everything that a modern game designer needs to know to be 100% caught up on all of the theory from The Forge / Big Model. Everything else of value has, in my opinion, already been absorbed into contemporary techniques & ideas (or disproven by them).

All three of those things were actually around before the Forge. :upside_down_face:

If we’re looking at the longue durée of RPG theory, then The Forge contributed little that was “new” — Mary Kuhner, Greg Stafford, Robin D. Laws, Lisa Padol, Glenn Blacow, Jonathan Tweet, and Greg Costikyan were all RPG theorists who hit Forge-salient topics like System Matters, the importance of indie publishing, and one’s game not being about what it claims it’s about.

That being said: the spirit of The Forge is undeniable. It was an activist community dedicated to getting specific, streamlined indie TRPGs under many eyes and into many players’ hands. The earlier conversations in ‘zines, BBS-es, and listservs reached a small, nerdy public. The Forge gave an opportunity for the hipsters, academics, hippies, oddballs, and (yes) queer folx like myself and Avery a sudden, disciplined space in which to talk about TRPGs as serious works; interventions within a longer discourse in games. It was mind-blowing then, even if everything had already been said before, and it was also equivocal and abusive in its own right!

Bill White will have a book in print soon crosses fingers that will help us all relativize this forum’s legacy. Who knows if that’ll help.

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Yeah, I pretty much came here to say that. Sure, most all theory has been discovered before, but how far had it been disseminated? How much had it been internalized? Compare the games before The Forge and after. There’s a huge difference in the quality of games - they’ve become more sophisticated in many ways.

I mentioned on twitter that I really wanted to address this bit:

In some cases, gaming culture advanced, and the need to make certain statements became irrelevant. They were just obvious. In some cases, better techniques changed the field or subverted commonly-held wisdom.

This part is super interesting to me. What bits did we figure out were irrelevant or obvious or outdated? I missed the era of The Forge, and I’d love to get some of that distilled so I don’t make the same mistakes.

The Forge was also very divisive and put off a great many people who were involved in theory discussions elsewhere and actively working on designing games. A large part of that was the echo chamber effect found within its fora, and I suspect that’s a large part of why it didn’t actually contribute anything of great value–if everybody there was parroting the same thing and those who don’t simply weren’t there, nothing new could come of it.

There was so much crap to be found, too. Edwards’ riff on the rgfa Threefold showed that he simply didn’t understand the Threefold and what he offered up was horrible. There’s a whole site’s worth of crap I could critique, though I’ve no interest in revisiting that.

I am interested to know which communities these would be. RPG.net, the WotC forums, and ENWorld operated as fairly conservative forces during this era, especially as the d20 OGL flood hit the hobby stores in the early 2000s. Other forums like I would knife fight a man, where many early seeds of the modern indie community, were not public and accessible like the Forge. Story Games started as a reaction against the Forge, and was plagued by many of the same bigotries and narcissism. I am interested to know which communities the Forge supposedly silenced.

Your eagerness to dismiss the community (and its dissenters) is telling here. How much value was produced by, say, Vincent Baker, Emily Care Boss, John Harper, Ron Edwards, Nathan Paoletta, Paul Czege, Fred Hicks, among many others? The Forge was a controversial place, and virtually no one was satisfied by it, but denying its impact on the TRPG hobby in general appears to be in bad faith. I hope I am proven wrong!

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This seems like it could be a contentious topic. Let’s try to stick to facts and first hand experiences as much as possible, and remember to be kind.

Who said anything about the Forge silencing existing communities? O_o I think you’re ascribing far too much influence to the Forge, as it didn’t silence any of the other design communities. The Forge had very little influence on the other communities in which I took part, as those who read on the site generally came away shaking their heads.

There were usenet groups where design was discussed. Blogs where design was discussed. Personal sites with articles on design. I won’t pretend to even have read most of them, because there were far too many for the free time I had. I’m quite puzzled that anybody who was active online at the time didn’t stumble across many of them.