Give me a subjective review based on actual play, not another faux-objective review based on just reading the rules.
I just finished reading The Creative Act: A Way of Being, which is music producer Rick Rubin’s examination of how creativity operates. The book is a collection of insights arranged not so much as a narrative but as a series of themes. As befits a work on creativity, it doesn’t attempt to provide a recipe, but instead lays out an array of ingredients and provides notes on how to think about selecting and combining those ingredients in whatever way works for you.
Spirits in the Material World
As I was reading through a section that touched on how artists should interpret public reaction to their work, I was struck by the symbiosis between an artist’s intention and the state of mind of the audience.
Popular success is a poor barometer of work and worth.
He goes on to explain that the circumstances surrounding the arrival of any creative work matter as much or more than the intrinsic quality of the work. A creator puts something out there and its reception is not so much a matter of the quality of the work, but of the circumstances in which the work enters the world. Think of all the movies that got panned on arrival (Blade Runner, for example) only to become classics, or tabletop RPGs that won game design awards only to be swiftly forgotten.
Your trust in your instincts and excitement are what resonate with others.
Resonate with others is the phrase that stuck in my mind, this idea that how well a work is received is largely determined by how many people out there in the world are ready to receive it.
Murder by Numbers
This was all rolling around my brainpan when I came across an interview with the film critic Mark Kermode. He expressed something I’d been thinking for years when he said:
The older you get, the more you tend to write about films, rather than pass judgement. It’s one of the reasons I hate star ratings.
Star ratings and thumbs up ratings have been around for decades. They’re just ubiquitous now because they are so helpful to the platform providers who make it possible for us to view the average rating from 4,322 reviews of Charmin Flushable Wipes. And it’s not just products that are reduced to numeric ratings. Thinking of visiting a local park? It’s been assigned a quantitative rating. Every thing, every experience, and increasingly every person is being quantified.
This suits the needs of algorithms, but ignores circumstance, intent, and nuance. It flattens and reduces everything. Perhaps more importantly, as Kermode notes, it compels us all to pass judgment. When we give something a star rating we are not being asked to share our experience of it; we are being told to assign value to it.
As we all throw our judgments into the bin, they merge with every other judgement and the end result, we have been conditioned to believe, represents the wisdom of the crowd. Because it is a composite, this collective assessment is assumed to be objective – whatever subjective elements were thrown into the mix are evened out and the result magically can be thought of as objective and therefore inherently more useful than any single subjective assessment could be.
But is that really true? And when we review tabletop RPGs in particular, does providing grist for the algorithm in the form of star ratings help the intended audience? Does it help us as reviewers?
Kermode said something else in that interview which is rather obvious, but it’s also not something that reviewers usually call out, because all too often they are working so hard to reduce a product down to a rating:
…there are other times where what you think about something cannot be expressed by ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’. It’s just not that simple.
That is precisely where a well-written review provides far more value than a simple star rating. Exposing what a game is, rather than attempting to assign value to it, offers the reviewer a chance to help the reader get an idea of whether they might connect with that game or not. And the reviewer’s own biases and experience can really help with this endeavor.
For example, in the preamble to his splendid review of 13th Age Glorantha, Andrew Logan Montgomery eradicates any pretense of objectivity. He loves Glorantha:
Had I not encountered it in my junior high school “D&D Club,” I doubt I would have gone on to get a Masters in mythology and epic literature, that I would be a Ritual Magician, or that this blog – which focuses on storytelling, mythology, and gaming – would exist. I’ve run and played Glorantha for three and a half decades, reviewed it extensively, blogged about it, and even written for it.
Montgomery is telling us that not only does he know a great deal about the game world, he cares about it. This matters. How many times have you come across a tabletop RPG review that kicked off with a disclaimer like, “I’m not really into this game’s genre, but I was curious and picked it up.” That’s like saying, “I’m more of a death metal person, but I thought I’d review this Garth Brooks album.”
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t review games that aren’t in our usual zone of interest. But as a reader of reviews, the most valuable ones will absolutely come from gamers whose interests overlap significantly with mine. And a negative assessment from someone whose gaming interests don’t align with mine is far less useful than a discursive review from someone whose interests are aligned with mine.
Possibly the least useful reviews are those that purport to be objective. The critic Kermode puts it plainly:
…objective film criticism is just nonsense. Film criticism is not objective. In the end, whether it worked for you or not is utterly subjective.
He’s referring to film, but it applies to tabletop RPGs as well. We can argue about whether RPGs are art, but although they are absolutely functional artifacts, they can’t be judged with any degree of objectivity because even their functional aspects serve the needs of entertainment. Some people think dice pool mechanics are elegant and fun, while others express a strong preference for games that use a single d20 for task resolution.
Three quarters of the arguments in the tabletop RPG world could be avoided if people just agreed that we all can have different preferences. It’s a universal thing, really, not just confined to roleplaying games, but it’s also surprisingly difficult for us humans to act on.
I once encountered a review of a game I really enjoy. The review was a bit baffling to me at first, because the things it faulted the game for were the things I cared about least. In this case one of the aspects missing from the game was random tables, and one of the aspects that was too present in the game was relatively detailed character creation.
It wasn’t wasn’t until I read a few more of this person’s reviews that I realized they were approached tabletop roleplaying with an OSR sensibility. In that context both of their disagreements with the game made sense.
Beyond the context of where someone is coming from, the most helpful reviews are based on actually playing the game. First, when a group gets together to try a game, that means its premise resonated enough to convince a group of people to expend valuable time playing it. Second, actual play reviews provide insight into how the game works when the two components (game and players) come together.
For me the pinnacle of tabletop RPG reviewing is a review based on multiple play sessions. Yes, I recognize that everyone is in a rush to get a review out the door while a product is hot. But in a world saturated by shallow first takes (or worse, hot takes), a thoughtful review based on repeated play is like mana from heaven. The more personalized the review, the more it tells me about you and your preferences as well as about your experience with the game, the more valuable it is for me.
As a reviewer, actual play reviews are also more valuable, at least in my experience. For example, this Edge of the Empire review, while not even close to an example of best in class, still gets a steady stream of views every month, more than eight years after I published it.
Ultimately getting past ratings and into why we like what we like requires revealing more of ourselves and dispensing with the pretense that any of us are dispassionate arbiters of objective reality. This may be more uncomfortable, but in age in which algorithms determine so much, it’s a small act of useful rebellion.