Why do people have trouble understanding Creative Agenda, or: A study of internet communication failure
Clyde interviews Vincent Baker on Creative Agenda in this podcast. Vincent has obviously been frustrated by having to explain the concept of Creative Agenda over and over again to people who don't get it. He sounds like a guy who's moved beyond frustration into philosophical acceptance.
Why do people have so much trouble getting it? I have a theory. There's a short version and a long version.
Short version: Traditionalist GMs read Gamism/Simulationism/Narrativism and they badly want it to be a restatement of Robin Laws's classification of player types from Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering. It's not. Internet Communication FAIL. The end.
Long version: Read the rest of this article...
"It's my job to entertain a group of players with divergent interests." That is how traditionalist GMs conceptualize their role. If you think your players are there to be entertained (emphasis on the passive voice), then obviously you need to come up with a compromise that will give every player at least one thing to be interested in per session, and thus you need to understand what your players want. A breakdown of player "types" like one Robin Laws offers is a starting point for figuring out what your players want and thereby finding that compromise. So far so good.
But the confusion sets in when a person who is used to GM-as-entertainer is looking for Player Types - style advice and comes across an article about Creative Agenda. Creative Agenda is something completely different that just happens to use enough similar words that if you squint a little bit and ignore the parts that don't fit, you can misinterpret CA and force-fit it into your preexisting mental model by interpeting it as a restatement of Player Types. This feels comforting because it feels like what you're reading is confirming what you already believe. (Just saying it in a weird way for some reason.)
So our hypothetical GM is reading along, nodding his head, thinking about stereotypes of players like power-gamers and rules-lawyers and drama queens, and then he gets to the part where Ron Edwards says "In order to be coherent a game must have one and only one Creative Agenda".
Bam! Our hypothetical GM does a spit-take!
Because he's looking for Robin Laws-esque advice on making a compromise to please all types of players, and instead he sees advice that seems to say he should be trying to do the opposite. "WHAT? I can't simultaneously satisfy people who like realism, people who like story, and people who like slashing monsters? Nonsense, that's what I have to do every week. Any functional game has to have all three of those things. This theory is bollocks. This Ron Edwards guy is full of it. All of Forge-derived RPG theory is clearly B.S."
Internet communication FAIL!
People who understand CA know that "people who like slashing monsters" is not Gamism, but if you're a traditional GM looking for Robin Laws-esque advice on being an entertainer for people with diverse interests, then you're going to map "Gamist" onto what you already know about "Power Gamers", and from there you figure out what gamer stereotypes you can map "Narrativist" and "Simulationist" onto, and before you know it you've made a category error akin to confusing a box of dry sphaghetti with Catholicism because they both come from Italy.
In recent years, Forgies have tried to phase out the words gamist/narrativist/simulationist in favor of calling the agendas "Step On Up", "Story Now", and "The Right to Dream". This is probably a good move because these names have the advantage of being grammatically more difficult to apply as labels to indivdiuals and therefore harder to mistake for Player Types. (And if the new names sound like the titles of manifestos, good, because that's exactly what they are).
But this isn't going to solve the underlying misunderstanding, which stems from the fact that traditional RPGers have the (unspoken) meme that "GM = artist, players = audience" and therefore the GM's job is to entertain people with diverse interests. Forge theory rejects this meme. In Forge theory the baseline assumption is that everyone is an active and more or less equal participant in a creative activity; some games may assign a few extra duties to one of the players and call that player the "GM", but it's not an artist-audience relationship any more than the banker in Monopoly is in an artist-audience relationship to the other players. So the fundamental problem to be addressed is not "How can the GM reconcile the desires of all the players they are entertaining for", it's "How do we take the creative ideas of all these different players (including the GM) and weave them together into a functional activity of some kind". It's only from this point of view that CAs make sense: there must be a baseline agreement between the players about the nature of said functional activity. What are they there to do?
It might help to introduce traditional role-players to CA by introducing them as "campaign styles". This is still a little misleading since "campaign style" implies something the GM can choose unilaterally and enforce from above, whereas CA is something the whole group buys into or it doesn't happen. "In order to be coherent a game must have one and only one Campaign Style, and all the players must buy into it" is a more acceptable statement to a traditionalist; in fact it sounds so self-evident as to make you wonder what all the fuss is about, which is exactly how it should be - this is not supposed to be a controversial statement, it's just a starting point for talking about how to achieve the campaign style, or Creative Agenda, that you want.
The sad irony here is that Creative Agenda isn't even really that interesting of a topic. Yes, CA mismatch can kill your gaming group, but that's like the coarsest type of gaming group problem and the easiest to fix. Getting on the same page CA-wise is just a starting point, either for play or for design; the really interesting stuff starts after you've got that. The people who are involved in actually designing, playing, and writing about indie games (/story games / Forge games / narrativist games / whatever you want to call them) barely ever even mention CA anymore except when a newbie comes along and wants to argue about it. There are many, many other concepts from RPG theory and from Forge-derived games that are far more relevant and useful to analyzing and improving the quality of actual play sessions.
But for some reason, and I'm not sure quite why, Creative Agenda has become a gateway of sorts. It's the concept that most people encounter first when starting to read about RPG theory on the Internet (e.g. this Escapist article leads with it), and how they react to CA largely determines whether they'll read more about Forge theory and indie games, or whether they'll decide the whole scene is garbage and develop an aversion to it. The latter reaction is a shame because it means the person is missing out on learning techniques that could improve their enjoyment of role-playing. And missing out on playing innovative games that they might enjoy.