Award shows everywhere are dying, but in the world of rpgs, did they ever really live?
Not yet. But maybe last year is changing the tide.
That was when I participated in "The Awards," one of several attempts to host a show worthy of mourning. In my mind and others, The ENNIes, Diana Jones, and Origins don't count. They meet the requirements in the technical sense, but they lack the surprise, wonder, and inspiration other award shows have.
The point of an institution like the Oscars, Grammys, D&AD, One Show, and even the ENNies is not to identify excellence in a given art. "Excellence" is a subjective framework. It changes from year to year and from judge to judge. It's meant to ebb and flow. Get better and worse. Feel right and feel wrong.
In the end, the definition of excellence is a mirage. It's meant to provoke and challenge people toward discovery. The discussions, debate, and celebrations around the show aren't tangental, they're the point.
"Excellence" is a provocation interrogate the word by observing people, their work, and their context in relation to ourselves and our own tastes. I could just as easily change the word excellence to words like relevance, importance, originality. Nothing would fundamentally change. It's meant to adopt a specific meaning from its infinite number of meanings depending on the subject. The only thing that is constant is the exploration.
It's a means to discovery.
That's the point of an award show.
What are The Awards?
The Awards is an experiment started by Joe DeSimone the rpg community's resident critic and shitposter (respectfully). It's got a familiar structure:
- Showrunners. Administrators to manage the infrastructure, organize submissions, and tabulate votes.
- Judges. Invited guests who winnow down the list of candidates down to nominees and (traditionally) vote on who to award special distinction.
- Candidates. Those wonderful writers, designers, and craftsfolk who make the games, supplements, and toys we know and love.
Sounds like another show we know, right? Here's where things deviate from the ENNies and similar award shows.
- The public does not pick judges by voting. The showrunners do.
- The public does not decide who wins an award. The judges do.
- The candidates don't run by category. The awards are show-wide.
They're good changes. Most of them I agree with pending some strict rules. I think, however, had the rules been stricter, I never would have been a judge. I wouldn't have let me be a judge. In this year's case, however, there weren't very many people who said yes—and I obviously never say no to an opportunity to talk about design.
What's the best change?
Public voting is a fun way to invite the general public to participate, but it's a terrible device for pushing the industry into exploration.
Public voting is why the ENNies are an inflexible mess. The judges hardly change. The nominees are predictable. The winners ride in on waves of hype.
That's because the audience gets to decide the show's judges and winners. There are no reviews, no emergency meetings, or moments of "wait, let's talk about this" except during the nomination process. Any critical interrogation of biases has to be done by the judges. For the rest of the system, it can't change course, and it can't be proactive. It's a feedback loop.
The Awards did away with this. The judges are invited by the show's administrators and those same judges have final say on the winners.
This years Awards were full of impassioned speeches, debates, straw votes, votes to resurrect candidates, and agreements on philosophical intent. It was a process led by editors, publishers, designers, and influencers from different camps of the industry from different parts of the globe.
One judge's criteria
A prospective winner makes me smile. It makes me say, "rad." If it's really good, it leaves a scar. Then I try to explain it like a rube
Here's my rube criteria:
Craft. This is all about the intrinsic qualities of the thing. It’s the playfully worded sentence. The rule that grows at the table like a seed. The polished visual design reinforcing concept. And the illustration that writes rules. How does it work on the audience and how does it go about it?
Originality. Nothing is truly new. Originality is about sourcing and arrangement. It's the combination of old ideas into new ones. It not objective. It’s subjective. It makes me see old things in a new way. Originality usually says something about the things it borrows from. Sometimes it destroys them.
Context. Context is the meta-text. It's the circumstances and origins of a thing. It can be about the creator and their impact on the community or the game's impact overall. A game cannot win on context alone, but it’s morally irresponsible to ignore it. Context is fraught but necessary.
My personal Standouts
All Options is a larp about the staff of a Midwest abortion clinic in the 1990s. The anti-choice movement looms over it. But unlike other games, it doesn't don the mantle of popular counter movements to respond.
Instead, the overall execution is plain and clinical. There is no partisan agenda. The players are meant to experience the concept divorced from the collective conceptions. Instead, they must assume the role of the participants and discover for themselves what that means.
It's personal. It keeps us in the heads of people whose minds are the tiniest of battlefields. Abortion isn't about marches, or policy, or trends. It's about the chapels of faith upended around a clipboard. It's not trying to play on an idea but the density of the experience itself.
In worse hands, this larp would have been cuter, more triumphant, or defiant. All Options isn't. It's raw, patient, and transformative. It took a while for me understand it. Thanks to the other judges, I think I at least admire it. Simple design with a very pointed goal. Genius stuff.
You can find All Options on Itch.
The John Waters-Lite of this year's showing. Crapland, Crapland 2, and Crapland Squared look like they were transcribed from the bathroom stall of a gas station. It is hard to look at. To some, it's sophmoric. An insult to good tastes, good design, and usability. Crapland feels like it bled out from an alternate universe. It's an anomaly flung into our world like vomit.
Crapland is art. It's what the punk zines and counter culture say they are, and it does it without ad copy, over explanation, or commercialization. It's trash carving out space for trash. An achievement of craft, originality, and context coming together into one giant copper-stealing, meth-fueled, shit heap.
There's a lot of nuance in its design, writing, and illustration. As creative people, we often try to emulate the texture of other media to evoke them. When we do it really well, it looks close to authentic. Not an evocation but the actual thing itself. As a designer, I'm thoroughly impressed. It's not convincing. It is. It's sense of place and tone is that of a native and not an ambassador.
It exists and so changes the existence of others. Games like these need to be fought for because they're on fringe of everything sacred, surrendering Crapland is surrendering the silouette of its opposites. What are they if Crapland isn't there to be compared?
You can find Crapland Squared on Spearwitch.
Crapland and Odyssey Aquatica almost didn't survive the nomination process. They had to be resurrected from the no-pile. For Crapland it's obvious why, but for Aquatica (which I exhausted my social capital on) it's subtle misunderstanding of craft.
Odyssey Aquatica is controlled. Restraint bottled by a master distiller. To call the design and writing polished is to undersell the courage of writer and designer, Tim Denee. Every decision from art, to typefaces, to prose is strategic. It's not too much or too little. It picks shrewdly from its inspiration and avoids alluring traps. In the hands of a someone else, there would have been more ingredients and more stunts. It would have been an imitation of its influences or a diorama.
Odyssey Aquatica is great because it's the best of Wes Anderson's Life Aquatic filtered through Agon. The rpg persists. It's not an art book, a theme, or an emulation. It's a play set for Agon. Every piece is playable. Nothing is added just to look the part. It has to serve it too.
A rare triumph in technical execution that still surprises me with every turn of the page. Sometimes a winner confounds standard and sometimes it crystalizes them.
You can marvel at Odyssey Aquatica on the Old Dog Games' store.
There's no such thing as a good award show. The best we can hope for are good years. This year was close. I think the overall winners are a good sign. Twenty incredible projects took home a prize. Some of them you've probably never heard of.
In the coming years, I'd like to see more effort put into the promotion of the awards themselves. The more the awards can draw attention, the greater the impact it can impart on its subjects.
As part of that initiative, I offered to design The Awards logo you can see repeated in this article. Hopefully it'll be outgrown. In the mean time, I'll have to do everything in my power to resist the urge to form a different kind of award show to compliment this one.
Until next time...