“In literature, a conceit is an idea, collection of ideas, metaphor, structure, or other imagined device which defines or enables the world of the story, or some action in it. Conceits can be obvious; if a book is about space explorers who question their humanity upon discovering life on Mars, the conceit is that there is life on Mars. Originally the term was used much more specifically, to refer to a deliberately chosen juxtaposition that rarely or never occurs naturally (life/Mars), used as a means of revealing the unique properties of the items or ideas being juxtaposed. Its usage has broadened.”
I generally have a cynical view of roleplaying games and the people who play them. It’s still my favorite form of gaming, mind you, but my instincts tell me that 90% of people who come to the table, do not give two rats’ buttholes about the conceit of the game. They show up playing what they want, doing whatever they want, and living inside the mind of their own lenses and not the camera of the game world. In other words, the gamemaster might have a particularly genius conceit as to why the PCs are adventurers in the Land of Noodle, but if one of the player wants to be a half-dwarf, half-drow magician/illusionist/kharmic wholesaler/princess/thief, that player is going to do whatever he wants.
[Some] Game designers spend a great deal of time working out the conceits of their published game worlds (even if they don’t know this word), only to have all of that ignored by a single player who “does what he wants.” Gaming is escapism after all. Who needs a logical excuse to go rape and plunder a dungeon (both figuratively and literally). And it only takes one player to ignore the conceit of game design to make the jenga tower unstable.
People who do this intentionally are spoilers. People who do this because they hide behind the excuses of “I’m tired and I’m out of ideas,” are also spoilers. Just a worst kind of spoiler. But spoilers come in many shapes and sizes. I won’t delineate them all here, but you know them when you see them.
I’ve been accused of taking gaming too seriously in the past.
But then, I really love gaming. I know what I want out of it, and I’ve spent enough time around spoilers to know, I don’t like them.
The generally goal, in gaming, for any conceit is to explain what is in conflict and what keeps the group together. D&D’s conceit is simple and perhaps the best in all of gaming. We are adventurers who want gold and glory. Out there are people/monsters who have gold and killing them will bring us glory.
New iterations of D&D move this goalpost to match the morality of the players. We are not adventurers. We are heroes. Or whimsical neophytes out for a walk. Who knows what we’ll find? Or we are mercenaries hired for a specific task. Or we are pirates out for our own selfish desires? Or vikings? Or ninja? I think in many modern derivatives of D&D, these conceits are ignored completely and people just accept that the gamemaster is feeding them things to do.
Lots of games do the conceit, relying on the thinnest explanation of what is going on. Old editions of Star Wars really had no conceit at all. It fell on the gamemaster to invent one. Fading Suns comes to mind as well. Great universe. Now what do I do with it?
Vampire’s conceit is strong, but most people ignore it and just run around with super powers doing whatever they want. There’s even a running joke in the hobby: Vampire would be a great game, if it weren’t for the players.
In truth, the conceit is the most important part of the game. The looser the conceit is (D&D; see above), the easier it is to play and the more copies of a game someone can sell. The tighter it is, the easier it is to focus a plot, but the harder it is to find people who want to play it. (Criminy. Just look at my catalogue of games.)
Conceit tells you what you are playing and why. Combined with tone, these two elements trump anything else relevant to the game. Rules. Plots. Character options. These are all byproducts of conceit. D&D wins the conceit game because a half-centaur bard and a blind elf night soil merchant can be in the same adventuring party.
But when the game and gamemaster write up a conceit that delineates what the players CAN and CANNOT play, the list of people who are interested in the campaign diminishes.
Which brings us back to escapism. For some people, escapism means doing whatever the heck they want and damn the rest of the table. For some, it’s about shared storytelling and exploration of things they would never usually play (conversely, we all know players who just play human barbarians). For some players, escapism is doing math and spread-sheeting, while tracking every copper and iron piece.
For some people, escapism means building new worlds, with new problems and plots (check out my one-page worlds series on dtrpg for examples). No one can define your escapism for you, but it might be questionable whether a shared gaming experience is the right place for your needs.
Some assembly required.
The next time you sit down to write up a campaign, or a new game, consider the question: What is my conceit? What about this game/world is any different from generic D&D? Is the work you’re doing even necessary if all you’re doing is changing the name of elves to aelves and naming their forest the Foreverwood? Is anyone going to notice? Are they just going to kill your orcs with the same intentions and vehemence?
I don’t have a good closer. Just assume I wrapped it up with a closing paragraph the way my English teacher told me to.