I've already touched on this before, but a post over on JB's blog got me to thinking about it again. And just what is "It"? Well, "it" is optimism in a game setting.
I'll start by describing what I mean by optimism in this context: It is the notion that no matter how bleak a setting or situation may be, that the overall tone of a campaign is positive and that players feel like their characters can make a difference—can have an impact on the world around them. This doesn't mean that everything has to be shiny and happy and full of duckies and bunnies. It doesn't mean that every little thing will always go the character's way. It simply means that there is hope in the world, hope for something better.
Star Wars is most definitely such a setting. When you watch the movies, you see a Galaxy in the grip of a tyrannically repressive regime. You see the good guys just barely holding on, through great sacrifice and tragedy. And yet, despite all of this, and the terrible things that happen to the main characters (Leia loses her whole planet, most of the heroes are tortured, Luke has his hand chopped off and mentor slain), the story is a positive one of redemption and the triumph of good over evil. That appeals to me—and obviously to a lot of other people as well (judging by the success of the franchise).
And yet, a fair number of old-school gamers seem to prefer especially bleak settings. Notable in this regard is James Raggi, of "Lamentations of the Flame Princess" blog fame. Admittedly, a lot of what he says is designed to stir up thought and discussion. And, from what I've seen of the gaming materials he's produced, he is a very creative guy and a good writer. But in the end, I am just left cold by the bleakness of his gaming world. To paraphrase his several posts on the subject, his preference is for a world where the best players can hope for in the long run is a slow defeat and eventually entropy will overtake them. He has gone on to discuss how these aspects would play out in a 'movie' of his setting, and even poked fun at the fact it would be unmarketable. I'd have to agree.
But like I said, that is just a matter of personal preference. Some folks like it bleak. Some don't. I would argue, however, that the latter outnumber the former. I would also argue that being part of the optimistic crowd does not make you any less of a gamer or even 'student of the human condition'. Optimism does not equate to being "sheltered" or "naive". I think most people are familiar with how unfair real life can be, even if their own lives are pretty good. You have to look no further than the news to see bleak. And I think that's what bothers me a little about the whole situation: The attitude (intended or not) that if you don't play that way, then you don't 'get it'.
Well, I get it just fine. But when I play games it is to escape that mundane, unfair real life. And anyone who says they don't game for "escapist" reasons isn't being honest to themselves. As far as I've seen, there isn't a popular game out there that simulates "real life" (unless you count the Sims. But if you think that is real life, you're in trouble). People play roleplaying games to be someone else and do things they wouldn't or couldn't do in real life. To explore worlds of fantasy and "escape" their real life for a few hours with their friends. And there's nothing wrong with that. That's what entertainment is.
The argument that is always leveled at what I just said is that by thinking this way, I am ignoring the deeper implications of the game. That it is about challenge and quick thinking and loss and cold hard rules determining your fate. Another blogger, Brunomac, had a post about "Elmer Fuddism" in gaming that struck a chord with me. I never played that way, either, and I don't think my approach to gaming is less valid than anyone else's. If you allow/encourage characters who are 'above the norm' (stat wise), it doesn't automatically make them less interesting. Stats were always very low on my gauge of what defines a character. Personality and actions speak much louder, and even 'super' characters can be challenged if your GM is doing it right (otherwise, Superhero games would be completely impossible).
Bleak isn't the end-all of gaming. It is just one style. You can still have challenge and quick thinking and loss and even cold hard rules, but everything doesn't ultimately amount to naught and every character doesn't have to be an 'everyman'. Using my Star Wars campaign as an example, the characters have faced great trials and almost all of them have faced loss in one form or another—but that really only serves to accentuate the positive when they finally achieve it.
I'm certain I've already said all these things before, but the issue just keeps popping up here and there, and I'm not sure if a lot of us 'optimistic' folks are as vocal about it as the other guys are. Probably because we are willing to just let it slide and say different strokes for different folks.
In any case...after all that—I want to say that I agree wholeheartedly with JB and his discussion on post apocalyptic settings having at least an inkling of optimism in them. About community building and 'rising from the ashes'. Otherwise, like he said, its just a prolonged fictional snuff film (or in this case snuff game). And I personally don't see the fun in that.