It’s impossible to talk about my gaming life any further without discussing one of the biggest influence on my design and play: the Forge.
The Forge was an Internet forum that was in existence from April 2001 to June 2012. It was dedicated to the development of quality roleplaying experiences and the support of creator-owned roleplaying game. The Forge was highly intellectual; forum posts could approach being essays or scientific journal articles. The Forge was strongly moderated; Ron Edwards, the forum creator and moderator, insisted on a certain level of discourse and was perfectly willing to enforce it. The Forge could be a difficult place; respect for persons was expected, but your ideas were fair game.
And, between 2001 and 2008, the Forge redefined roleplaying forever.
For some, that might be a controversial statement, but I believe that it is objectively true. Here’s an analogy: like it or not, Apple is driving most of the conversation in the consumer technology field. (I’m not an Apple fanboy! I promise!) This doesn’t mean that Apple is making the best tech or anything. (See?) It does mean that most of the technology companies in the consumer space are reacting to Apple and its business decisions. Apple continues to set the terms of the conversation.
The Forge was similar. Love it or hate it, no one could ignore the Forge and the work that was being done there. Arguments about GNS or The Big Model spawned across the Internet, provoking discussion, arguments, mockery, and flamewars. People would loudly proclaim their disdain for all things Forge or, to be fair, their disdain for all things not Forge. Games were designed around the discussions at the Forge, many of which are the seminal designs of the 2000s: Universalis, Polaris, My Life with Master, Dust Devils, Primetime Adventures, and Dogs in the Vineyard.
It was a heady time to be designer. And I was smack in the middle of it all.
I like to tell how I was a member of the Forge longer than Ron. Due to a misunderstanding on Ron’s part, he didn’t actually create his account on the Forge for almost a week after the launch of the forums. This meant that some of us, including me, had accounts longer than he did. This makes me laugh when I think about it.
At the time that I joined the Forge in 2001, I was working on designing my first roleplaying game, Legends of Alyria. I had been writing a Game Designer Journal on the Gaming Outpost, but I was eager to get in on this new forum that had opened up. So I jumped on the band wagon and got my own subforum on the Forge.
Legends of Alyria is definitely a product of its time. The design questions I was trying to address were more about setting design than mechanics design, which makes sense for a game evolving out of the late 90s, where setting design was supreme. At the same time, I was enamored of this whole “player-driven” play idea that was emerging at the time, and I was reacting to the whole metaplot trend at the time, where the game company would fill out what was “really” happening in the game world over a series of supplements.
So, how do you make a coherent setting, full of interesting situations for conflict, while still leaving room for the players of the game to define their own spaces?
I lobbed this question out on my subforum and got a conversation rolling. In that thread, a couple of guys started making some suggestions about having a point-based economy that would let players spend points to create setting elements. That wasn’t really the direction I wanted to go in, but these two were intrigued by the idea and decided to follow up on it themselves.
And that’s how Mike Holmes and Ralph Mazza started work on Universalis.
This wasn’t the last time that Legends of Alyria would be an influence on another’s work. Ben Lehman cited Legends of Alyria and Ron’s review of it for the Forge as significant influences for his work on Polaris. And, in a story that Ben related once, he and Vincent were talking about Vincent’s game Otherkind, and Vincent commented that Otherkind was probably the most influential game that had never been published. Ben disagreed, saying that Legends of Alyria had that honor, and Vincent agreed. (Of course, Legends of Alyria has since been published, and Otherkind has not, to my knowledge, so Vincent is now totally correct.)
I’ve heard that the Velvet Underground was a major influence in rock music. They were never really popular, but they inspired others who became popular. The quote I ran across is “the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band.” I’ve thought of this when evaluating my own body of work, especially Legends of Alyria. This isn’t bragging, mind you. In fact, to be totally honest and transparent, I have found that to be very frustrating.
I didn’t get Legends of Alyria into print until late 2006. I have very good reasons for this. The five years from 2001 to 2006 were full of upheaval in my personal life. I spent 1999 to mid-2002 in night school. During that stretch, both Isaac and Samuel were born. In June 2002, I moved my family from Erie to Peoria to take a job, in part because we simply weren’t making it financially where we were. In the summer of 2003, my mother died suddenly from an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Noah and Justice were born in 2004 and 2005 respectively. We were working an extra job on the side to try to pay off our debt. I’m sure there was more drama, if I really want to probe into it.
And design would slide each time. There wasn’t the time or energy to push Legends of Alyria across the finish line. I would try; oh how I would try. But it was too much. So Alyria would sit there, on the periphery of my vision, reminding me that I was a failure. And I’d see other people get their games into print, and I’d feel jealous. Jealous of the time and energy that they had to put into design, which I simply didn’t have.
And so, when Legends of Alyria finally saw print, its moment had passed. It might have been groundbreaking for 2001, but in 2006 it was tired and out of date. It was answering questions that were no longer even relevant. I had developed enough in my own design sense to see the flaws in its design. Part of me wondered why I had even bothered to put the game out at all, while the rest of me understood that I needed to see it in print, just to be able to say that I’d actually finished it.
I wish I could say that I’ve outgrown this feeling, but I’d be lying. I’m feeling similarly right now with Showdown, a game that I started designing in 2008 which will, God willing, see print sometime in 2013. But will anyone care? Or will it just be another game that was a great idea when I started but will be outdated by the time it’s done?
These are the fears I still wrestle with.