Friday, June 14, 2024

Escapist Play vs Cathartic Play in RPGs

On Sunday, I've been invited to take part in a play test session for a local guy (I've never met him before) who is working on his own game. Of course I said yes. 

He sent us a message a week or so ago with a few options for a setting for the play test. 

  • American Western
  • Late Middle Ages
  • Modern Day
  • Warhammer 40k
  • Near-Future Sci-fi
  • Viking Age

Viking Age ended up the winner, which is good. It was my #1 choice out of those (WH40K being bottom of the barrel for me).

I don't know much about the system yet (I was told "Bring 4d6 and a pen, not a pencil"), but from a few clues, and from a message he sent yesterday with some of his expectations for the game (not just vikings, but 8th Century horror set in Northern Europe at the dawn of the Viking Age), it was pretty obvious to me that he's working on a Forge style Story Game, rather than an old school or new school style Adventure Game. 

I'm not the biggest fan of the story games side of the hobby. I haven't had the best experience with them, because I find that either the mechanics support a GAME, in which case it takes a lot of force to make the right sort of story emerge, or else the mechanics support a STORY, in which case there's not really a lot of relevant game play to keep things interesting. 

I'll post my thoughts on the session, his game system, and everything next week, of course. For now, though, preparing for this game has got me thinking about that dichotomy. 

JB at BX Blackrazor has started calling his games Fantasy Adventure Games (FAGs... yeah, he knows) rather than RPGs. I think he may be on to something. Whether it's OD&D, Gamma World, 5E D&D, Traveller, any of the myriad of Palladium system games, various licensed property games like any edition of a Star Wars RPG, they all have one thing in common. They're primarily escapist. 

You get to create a character and go on adventures. Maybe you become a great hero or villain, maybe you get slain by a kobold or shot by the first stormtrooper to cross your path. It's exciting, it's fun, it's a way to get away from all the stress of your daily life. 

It's like going to see the latest MCU movie in the theater. A fun afternoon. Or it's supposed to be, anyway.

Sometimes, that silly popcorn movie of a game impacts you deeply in some way. And when it does, it makes us love the game all the more. But we're not expecting the game to change us in a deep way every session. It's part of the game, actually. Whether the session will be exciting or boring, pedestrian or deeply moving...that's all up to chance. It's unexpected. 

Story Games in the mold of The Forge, however, are typically designed to emulate fiction. They want that Three Act, or Five Act, structure that movies have. They also tend to try and explore some theme, linked to emotion and trying to get into the head of someone going through some shit. In that sense, they are a lot closer to the origins of Role Play as a psychotherapy. You're there to explore emotional impacts, traumas, and hard moral decisions in the game. And if the game is well designed, you'll also create an interesting narrative out of the experience. 

It's like going to see an art film at a film festival. It's cathartic. Or is supposed to be, anyway. 

Sometimes, though, that deeply moving, lovingly crafted art film is just a boring dud. You come away from it feeling like you just wasted a few hours of your life, because you couldn't connect to the characters, and the story was purposefully vague or anti-climactic to make some sort of statement. Maybe you kind of get what they were going for, but you still didn't really enjoy the experience. 

And I think for me, one of the reasons this always seems to happen to me when I play more narrative-focused Forge style games, is that I know how the sausage is made. I've studied creative writing and screenwriting. I've been a DM for 4 decades now. I've got insider knowledge on both ends. 

Being able to see how the game mechanics are supposed to craft a five act structure, or manipulate you into feeling just this sort of way about the events in the game...well, I see through it. 

It turns what should be an entertaining, if challenging, art film experience (or literary novel read, take your pick) and turns it into one of those poorly made films where you see every "twist" coming a mile away. Or at least it seems like that for me. 

Still, I'm looking forward to seeing what this guy has done. I may not be the target audience for his game, but that may make me more valuable to him as a play tester. And maybe, fingers crossed, this will change my experience of story games. I'll let y'all know soon.


  1. Knowing how the sausage is made isn't really the basic issue. Story games habitually attempt to force the conventions of other art forms (novels, films) onto an unsuitable medium (games) with negative results. There are obviously some commonalities but trying to indiscriminately ape other media is misguided and, I suspect, rarely thought through - more often based on ideas of what a story is "supposed" to be rather than any more careful consideration of the tools and material at hand. The same thing is (or was, I'm not entirely up to date) evident in video games. It's probably true of any young form of art, I imagine early cinephiles made similar complaints.

  2. You make some good points. There were problems with early cinema, simply aping stage productions but on film. There could be something like that going on here.

    I think there is potential in "story" games to be interesting role play experiences, but like you say, trying to force play into a 5 act structure doesn't work well. I think this is part of the reason many of these games are intended as one-offs. You get the experience of X, and you don't need to keep experiencing that over and over again.

    With escapist play, every chance to game is an escape from real life, so it's more engaging for long term play.

  3. I would agree with you for the most part but my personal outlook and approach is to strive for a happy medium. That is to say, why can't we have 'cathartic escapism'?

    The best example of this I can think of is the ALIEN RPG with its Stress/Panic mechanics. The game has a built in way of having your PC freak out in horror situations, something integral to the genre and difficult to make players feels without such rules. Other than that however, ALIEN is pretty much a traditional game.

    I've not only run used it to run Sci-Fi exploration campaign but its also doubled as the mechanics for Red Dwarf and Ghostbusters games [by altering the Panic chart so results are more humorous then horrifying]. All of these are clearly escapist but sometimes the nature of the situation and/or the PCs responses to said situation take us into a deeper narrative.

    Escapism can certainly be cathartic.

  4. There is definitely a spectrum between the two, but certain games are much more focused on the escapism (any version of D&D, for example) while others are very focused on the catharsis (Dogs in the Vinyard, the Despair System we tested on Sunday, etc.). Other games are right in the middle.

    I find that WEG Star Wars is more exploration/escapist, but there is a strong dose of narrative focus/catharsis implied by the system. It's supposed to feel good when you use that Force Point at the end of the session to finally achieve your goal!

    I was trying to point out in my post that escapist play does have catharsis, and cathartic play does facilitate escapism, but they are by-products in each case rather than something either demands. Your example of the ALIEN RPG (the new Free League one?), or WEG Star Wars, are hybrids.

  5. I really just don't understand people who say games are purely "escapist" I get some people play(or watch movies or read novels) for that reason, but I just don't feel a need to "escape" and that has nothing to do with why I play games

  6. I didn't call any games "purely" escapist. I said certain games are "primarily" escapist, and other games are "primarily" cathartic. As I replied to Adam, it's a spectrum. You can turn the dial to more escapist or more cathartic. Neither end of the dial goes to 11.

    1. Trying to say a game is on a spectrum of escapist or cathartic may be true for some individuals and how they play games, but completely ignores every other aspect of play. It's a flawed and limiting way to look at games in the same way as the two axis alignment system is a flawed way of looking at character motivation.

    2. Okay. I don't think I've ever made a post here that takes in every aspect of RPGs holistically in that way.

      This post was about this particular aspect of RPGs. Feel free to ask ChatGPT to read all my blog posts and spit out my comprehensive philosophy of gamesif that's what you're after. :D