Popularity vs. Impact – The RPG Awards Season

As we come to the end of the summer, I wanted to reflect on the winners and losers of a variety of contests and awards (including my personal experiences).

Origins Awards

The Origins Awards have historically been more focused on card and board games. They contain only two awards for RPG: “Best Role Playing Game” and “Best Role Playing Game Supplement.” As you can see from the nominations, these awards tend to be focused on prominent companies and popular products. The nod to Atomic Robo is probably about as far out as the Origins Awards are likely to get.

The winners this year are particularly safe and traditional, even to the point that the “Fan Favorite” awards exactly coincide with the regular awards. D&D picked up both with the Player’s Handbook (5th ed) and the Monster Manual (5th ed), and it certainly seems like this year was a no-brainer.

Is safe wrong, though? There is no doubt that D&D 5th ed has had a huge impact on the industry. So far it has managed to reinvigorate the fan base in terms of D&D itself, and is almost certainly bringing new players to the hobby. It is also extremely well written and well produced. If awards are designed to recognize excellence, there is certainly plenty of it here. But do we lose something by not recognizing the excellence in a title like Atomic Robo – a game that may not have the broad appeal of D&D but certainly has quite a bit going for it regardless?

I might argue that D&D would not lose much by not receiving this award, but FATE and Atomic Robo (and indeed the hobby) could gain so much if they did. The question is – should that even be a consideration? Perhaps the Origins Awards are not the place for such thoughts, since there are only the two RPG categories. But it is an important question.

Game Chef

I wrote previously about my experiences as a reviewer/participant in this contest. I want to take this opportunity to add a few observations about the effect that this process had on the nominees and final winner, at least of the English language portion.

The theme “A different audience” clearly caused problems with the interaction between peer reviews and nominations. There was about a 50/50 division between entries that interpreted this theme within the bounds of gameplay and those that took it as a larger challenge to reconsider the potential audience of roleplaying in general. With very few exceptions, it was the first category that was peer-nominated to the finals. This is not entirely surprising, since the reviewers – given very little guidance – were likely to lean towards games that they themselves would want to play. Games that felt challenging or otherwise confusing because they were addressed to a literally different audience were not well-represented among the finalists. The organizers may want to consider this interaction of theme and participant for future contests.

Worse than this, though, was the possibility of unintended influence. I say unintended because I believe that to be the case, but the results definitely suggest that the effect may have occurred. This year, a blogger who was also a participant laid out his own categories for grading (which failed the tests of an actual rubric in that the scoring criteria were still arbitrary and not pre-defined) and then proceeded to review almost half of the entries while the contest was going on. I am willing to believe he just thought he was making interesting content, but two things happened in the finals that may have been coincidence but may also have been indications of influence:

  • The game that was given the highest score by this reviewer made it to the finals. This wouldn’t be that surprising except that the game in question is full of problems that I won’t go into here. I leave it to the reader to decide for themselves whether this piece is clearly more deserving than other entries.
  • The blogger’s own entry made it to the finals. Again, not necessarily an indication of influence, but it raises a multitude of ethical questions.

Game Chef is a largely amateur contest that encourages participation by first-time designers. However, people who are putting their creative work out into the world for the first time are full of insecurities. A strong voice speaking with authority might make someone follow a particular reviewing model instead of trusting their own, or give a second look to a piece because they think they must have missed something (and then convince themselves they’ve found it), or even prioritize that authority’s work because the new creator assumes the authority must be skilled.

All this can happen subconsciously – it need not be deliberate. But it is critical that the organizers be aware of these dangers and protect against them.

Diana Jones Award

The Diana Jones Award is very much an industry insider award. The general public does not participate in the nomination or decision process, and often isn’t even aware of the award. There may be politics involved, but history has shown that the award winners are clearly chosen for their innovation and impact.

This year’s award went to the Guide to Glorantha, a tremendous labor of love that was wildly successful in its crowdfunding largely because it revives a setting that has been around for decades but has experienced multiple setbacks in attempts to update it. D&D may have more followers, but the importance of this release cannot be overstated.

Gen Con EN World RPG Awards

The largely fan-driven awards that are the Ennies illustrate the distinct difference between popularity and impact. The Guide to Glorantha, though nominated for several categories, received merely a silver nod in Best Cartography. Instead, this year’s Ennies went almost as safe as the Origins Awards, with multiple golds going to D&D products. More telling, though, was the success of A Red and Pleasant Land.

A Red and Pleasant Land is a supplement mostly for the Lamentations of the Flame Princess system but with plenty of systemless material as well. It is a dark Alice in Wonderland-themed setting, and it is certainly well-written. However, its fantastic success at the Ennies has less to do with its quality and more to do with the celebrity of its creator, Zak S. Zak is an internet firebrand, a well-known social media agitator who is in turn praised and scorned for his often blunt and callous manner. Such folks have a tendency to gather followers that will certainly flock to open voting opportunities like the Ennies.

This is not inherently bad. It’s just the nature of the awards. However, immediately after the awards someone posted a comment on Zak’s behalf claiming that this was a “victory for DIY” and that small-press had finally won through and this proves that anyone can make games. This assertion is not only disrespectful to the many small-press Ennie winners in the past (many of whom have gone on to transform the hobby) but is also incredibly naive about the effect of celebrity. If Wil Wheaton’s setting wins an Ennie next year, I hope that he will not claim it as a sign that “anyone” can make games. That would be ridiculous. And so is such a claim about A Red and Pleasant Land.

We did almost have an indication that “anyone” can make games, but not in a good way. Somehow the judges initially allowed the nomination of an unlicensed Mass Effect RPG that used actual characters from the video game and fan art made from screen captures. Although I did not raise any public objections at the time, I am relieved that the game was removed from consideration, as I felt that its presence threatened the legitimacy of the awards. And although they have their issues, the Ennies are currently our industry’s most public form of recognition, so we need to keep them as respectable as possible.

Conclusions

As an industry professional, my bias clearly leans towards the award that is entirely focused on professional impact (Diana Jones). I have seen issues with both participant nomination (especially without guidance) and public voting that make me leery of such open awards structures.

But we must return to the question, “What is the purpose of awards?” Perhaps it is enough to excite the general public with a sense of celebration. Perhaps excellence is less important than engagement, and award processes that involve the public are certainly more engaging. Perhaps there is room for both, and as our industry continues to grow we can see expansion among the awards for impact without losing those that favor popularity.

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