Remnants of Analog RPGs

My first Dragon Magazine.
Martin Ralya recently asked himself "What is a gaming magazine?" on Google+. His answer:
"To me, it's a print product less meaty than the average book that includes both regular features and one-off content, and which arrives in my mailbox on a regular basis."
Brief lamentations about the demise of Dragon Magazine followed. A PDF just isn't the same, even if it's a coherent collected work. The news that Gygax Magazine will be offering a print edition subscription when it comes out on January 26th (a mere 9 days away) sparked some interest.

A few weeks back, Tenkar's Tavern published an article entitled When Did We Stop "Playing" Our RPG Books and Start "Collecting" Them? Gaming books have become less about utility and more about "gotta own 'em all"; less about making a book your own and more about treating books like objets d'art. Maybe the PDFs are there to print and use and throw away while the book remains wrapped in plastic on a high shelf, spine uncracked.

See the whole thing
at plagmada.org.
Someone recently posted a link to the hand-written fourth module of Against The Giants, called Habitation of the Stone Giant Lord. Yes, I've seen it before, and I love it to pieces. In light of the previous 2 articles, seeing it this time it dredged up some new thoughts.

This is a gorgeous example of a 14-year-old gamer's crowning achievement. Here's a module that expands an iconic series of adventures, with similar sensibilities and a catchy title, lovingly hand-crafted with a typewriter and freehand drawings as a totally usable homage to a beloved game. You can see the scars, the scribbled updates, the discolored bits of tape used to mount the graph paper maps to the plain white paper, and each mark tells you about an authentic experience in the creation process.

With desktop publishing so accessible nowadays, I fear we'll never see this level of incidental hand-craftedness again.

Welcome to the New (Digital) World

We're firmly in the Digital Age. If you don't offer a PDF version of your game, you're losing half your market out of the gate. People run RPGs in the ether for players scattered across the planet, through Hangouts or Skype. Your map exists as digital image files, eternally clean and ready for another group to charge into harm's way in the exact same scenario. Character sheets live on USB thumb drives or in the cloud, not in messy collections of paper stuffed into a file folder. Tablets become rulebooks, reference sheets, dice rollers, or character sheets just by tapping the screen.

The future is disposable.
Art by bigblankpaper.
It's tremendously convenient, but I think we've lost something important during this digital shift.

Sure, I can carry around my entire gaming collection on a device no bigger than my thumbnail or access it online with nothing but my smartphone, but it feels very ... static. I don't get the depth of memory nor the sense of growth that I get with a paper character sheet or a series of maps or a module with notes scribbled in the margins. My game box nowadays is a folder in the cloud, filled with ones and zeros and ideas given an electronic half-reality. I can delete files and in my perception they never even existed. Persistent physical artifacts seem so 20th Century, quaint and rustic like rotary phones or angsty teen poetry with hearts dotting each "i".

How Will We Remember Digital Games?

I wonder how the remnants of today's digital tabletop games will be seen in the future's rear view mirror. Media files of recorded game sessions scurried away like the rare clips of silent Super 8 film showing teens gaming in the early '80s? Or perfectly preserved rulebook docs from a bygone era, raring to go with no idea they're painfully obsolete?

Memory fails with alarming regularity, and sometimes I need something physical to remind me of wonderful experiences. A digital character sheet shows a snapshot of the static time between sessions, not a chronicle of adventure and evolution told in a collection of dog-eared working papers.

Digital media wears out
so much faster than paper
or stone tablets.
On my item list I won't see "Magic Acorn" crossed out with "It gives you a Wish, ya damn fool!" scrawled next to it. I won't be able to follow the failed attempts to map out the hypercube of rooms inside Baba Yaga's Hut and remember the frustration and triumph of finally figuring it out. I won't smell the yellowing paper and jump back through time to the basement where every world lay at our feet and all things felt possible. I won't read the hand-written note, "I may have made a dire error in judgement," and remember tears streaming down my face from a mouth crammed full of Sour Patch Kids. I won't groan at horrible puns hand-illustrated in notebook margins. I won't see the regular distribution of tiny brown dots from when Kev spewed Coke all over everything because we made him laugh so hard. I won't be able to feel the fuzzy divot where my character's hit points were erased so often it started wearing through the character sheet.

Game on.
Gaming feels less visceral in the digital world. It feels anti-Cyberpunk, almost antiseptic in its pristine order. It no longer feels like I'm creating something immediate and unique, an experience that will never happen again in quite the same way. In my mind, digital media implies perfect duplication, and while it won't recapture the players' actions, it will recapture the initial conditions in exacting detail. If we fail, we can hit Reset and load from the last save. It's all digital, so we can reload the map and rewind the clock, right?

We're more connected across the entire world through sight and sound in our digital gaming world, but I think we've lost depth of experience and persistence of memory by cutting out the other senses we use unconsciously in analog games. This may be the grognard in me talking, but I don't know if trading depth of experience for breadth of reach has been worth it.

Your mileage will vary wildly, and I hope you'll share your thoughts and experiences.


  1. Thanks for the PlaGMaDA mention! FYI, a book of homemade adventures written by young folks is coming out of the PlaGMaDA publishing arm this Spring. It's built around the Habitition book, and if it's popular enough a second book will follow.


    tim h

  2. Tim: No worries on the mention!

    Very cool! Will that be print, PDF, or both?

  3. I`ve also been feeling disconnected from my gaming in the digital age; even though I only seem to game IRL. After reading the post over on Tenkar`s, I started writing in my books again. It`s something I miss. I also always print out my PDFs and keep them. Now, I`ll be writing in them too! I feel more satisfied somehow...

  4. Sorry, I thought I'd subscribed to replies:

    The book will be released as both PDF and print, you can sign up for the mailing list if you want to get announcements: http://plagmada.org/Mailing_List.html

    It's a lightly used mailing list, I think I've sent out one announcement since I've started it up. Promise.

    tim h