RPGs and What We Can Learn from ‘Understanding Comics’

I recently read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. Its a very early take on comics (although as its from 1993, this tells us more about how comics are or were regarded as unimportant than anything else) presented as a nonfiction comic. This form is actually great as the repeated visuals are much better way of bringing back concepts than just referencing them. It seems quite highly regarded by other comic artists and writers.

One of the major themes of the book is what the artist can leave to the imagination. For example: Two disparate pictures will force us to make the leap between them. But there’s more.

The major thing is actually this: The book talks a lot about icons. The level of detail on characters makes them less iconic. A very simple character, say Dilbert or the Bone family. Even superheroes lack some detail making them somewhat iconic, although much less so than Tintin.

This lack of detail isn’t called iconic for no reason. The lack of detail is the key for our imagination. If everything is given to us, our imagination won’t have much room to maneuver. Of course, sometimes the artist want’s to be clear with what he’s doing, but there are other media for that. For comics, some level of iconism is generally desirable.

So, basically I’m posting this to buttress my points from August, namely this. As the GM (or a player) you shouldn’t try to hijack other people’s imagination. Less is often more. We can’t rely too much on information about a totally different art form, but in both cases the audience consists of humans. Usually nerdy humans, at that.

Of course, if I understood this better, I would pick and choose which parts I would try to establish or manipulate and which parts I’d leave for the individual and to which degree. Compare to Tintin: the characters are very iconic, but everything else is very detailed. This must have been a conscious decision. I don’t think anyone would go to that length with the backgrounds, but leave the characters that simple without a good reason.

However, most of the time this would mean just stripping down your games. No music, no images of the characters, no miniatures. In a way, this is part of my ongoing campaign to keep the GM workload low, but its not about laziness (in this case). Its more about understanding how the brain works. The two media do differ quite a bit, though. Both can benefit from things the other can’t. Comics don’t have interaction (at least its not a usual functionality at the moment, although I’m sure someone has already tried that, perhaps xkcd’s huge scrollable image was one example of interactivity), but they do have images which can have implicit information, which can be hard to convey in an RPG.

If you haven’t read Understanding Comics, I heartily recommend it. Its a quick read. Its a very early take on the medium, so I’m sure many of McCloud’s ideas have since been dismissed, but than again, the last twenty years might have brought us some other books on the subject, but I bet there aren’t that many of them.

One thought on “RPGs and What We Can Learn from ‘Understanding Comics’

  1. I’m with Aki on this. It’s a great book. Read it.

    I would also like add that using this kind of information to manipulate the thoughts of the playing group are not that difficult. As a GM I like to use background music most of the time. Usually I have a certain playlist with music from movies and tv-series. Music that set the players in the mood or encourage them to see the game in a certain way.

    For example with our current game of Wayward Sons I prefer to use soundtracks from horror movies from the 80s mixed with suitable tv-soundtracks such as Supernatural and X-Files. On the other hand when playing cyberpunk we had avoided Blade Runner most of the time as all players where familiar with that soundtrack.

    In a western game we played we actually had a theme song for each character. Most of them were picked from spagetti westerns and we even went as far as giving the characters bonuses on rolls when their theme song was playing.

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