But let’s forget about the profit for now.
Noism started an interesting debate with two posts about a seemingly overarching theme of bleakness in modern oldschool RPG releases and discussion. And I think it’s an accurate observation. The majority of content that is getting major exposure these days is pretty dark. But I think the main reason for this lies in the popularity of the works of James Raggi and Zak S., whose personal styles simply are bleak and grotesque. You could easily count Patrick Stuart as also having ascended into this exclusive group. Together they and their works easily tower over everyone else combined. This of course creates the perception that oldschool gaming is dominated by dark and bleak content. And when it comes to commercially produced publications this is actually the case. But I believe these great adventures are popular primarily because they are really good, not because they have bleak tones and dark themes. It probably is mostly a coincidence that the most successful creators are sharing such similar artistic styles.
That being said, it’s still a valid question to ask how we all could produce content that is just as good but taking a more positive outlook on things? Having bleak adventures dominate is indeed kind of a problem, in that it is quite easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm that is surrounding their reception. Deep Carbon Observatory is awesome and makes me excited to make something just as awesome with my own ideas. But at least for me it’s always very easy to fall into the trap of falsely assuming that something similarly great would also be similarly structured. It takes me conscious effort to say “This is not what you wanted to do. You had a different idea that is also awesome and your own.” So I find it very worthwhile to encourage a discussion about what other shapes great oldschool adventures can take and to get people to put more of those out there so that we have a broader perspective on what we can be doing that builds on our own passions and develops into our own personal style.
The original question that started this was “can RPGs be cheery?” I am not a native speaker but this doesn’t seem like a word that I could align with fantasy adventure RPGs. Cheerfulness seems to be in conflict with …well, conflict. As I see it, every adventure needs conflict. Without conflcit there’s no treat and therefore no tension. Maybe you can have RPGs that are cheery, but I don’t see it working for games of the fantasy adventure type. However, what these games do have the capability of is FUN!
To me, the absolute holy grail of a perfectly executed adventure is Raiders of the Lost Arc. It has violence and pain, a terrible threat, and the most evil of evil villains: Nazis! Is it in any way cheery? No, I really wouldn’t say so. But is it a bleak movie or a pessimistic one? I’d say far from it. It’s exciting and wondrous and Indiana Jones is a hero who has no pretentions of glory but is good without a trace of doubt. And it really is fun.
I do enjoy a certain gloominess in my favorite games and movies, but I would say that those are all cases in which the mood isn’t bleak but rather somber. To me the big difference lies in the outlook forward. In bleak settings there is a universal certainty that the actions of the protagonists won’t be making and difference for the better. Things might even end up being worse despite their best efforts. Things are bad and are only going to be worse. Adventures in such environments can be fascinating and entertaining, but unless everyone is set to go down in a blaze of glory, it’s not going to be fun. (Early Warhammer 40k always seems hilarious to me.)
But dark elements or periods of gloom do not have to drag everything into bleakness. As with Indiana Jones you can still have an overall very positive outlook, simply by giving the players confidence that their efforts will make things better. Things will look up in the future because the heroes took great risks and paid great personal costs. if the players walk away with a confidence that it all had been worth it, then even an adventure full of darkness can have an overall positive outlook. A great example for such a tale would be Princess Mononoke. That movie gets outright terrifiying as shit goes to hell, but even then the hero keeps pushing forward because he knows that he can make the future much better than it’s currently looking to be.
I don’t think I’ve consciously been thinking about it this way, but I believe that my Ancient Lands setting is at its core a world meant to be about the struggle for making things better. The setting is build around the concept of treasure hunting, but not about gold fever and the suffering it brings to everyone involved, but again much more of the Indiana Jones type. The main motivation for PCs is the excitement of discovering magical wonders that people back home would never have dreamed of. To reach them, great threats have to be overcome and there is fierce competition from highly dangerous and unsavory people who might use such discoveries to harm. You can easily have the PCs encountering great dangers and dealing with serious threats, but overall I find it an approach that lends itself very much to having a lot of fun while doing so,
As I see it, the world is not so much “Points of Light surrounded by a vast sea of darkness”, but rather islands of the familiar surrounded by oceans of the unknown. When it comes to designing settings and adventures it’s really very much the same approach, but the dangerous unknown doesn’t have to be dark. Even if it’s just unfamiliar you can still have high tension adventures without any need for bleak darkness.