One commenter (littlemute) pointed out (or, rather, inferred) that I can hardly be fair in my reviews of these games and game products if I've never used them in actual play, and he has a point. Critics of books, films, music, and theater have all experienced the product they're reviewing in the form in which said product is intended to deliver itself. Same with video game reviewers and food critics: you expect a restaurant review to have been written by someone who's actually eaten at the joint.
|A typical critic.|
But RPGs are a slightly different beast, even from other games. You can open up something like Monopoly or Pictionary, read the rules in under 15 minutes and start playing. You can fire up a video game on the Xbox and immediately check how the gameplay feels. An RPG requires a significant investment of time and energy just to prepare for a game...not just reading the 900 page instruction manual, but convincing others to play (not always an easy task), organizing a gathering, going through the chargen process (for many RPGs this is a session in itself), before finally sitting down to play the game. Yes, you can cut-out the chargen (using pre-gens), but it's often such an important part of the game experience (especially for player identification/immersion) that a true review of game play requires it.
So what to do? RPG.net offers two types of reviews for readers: "capsule" and "playtest" for out-of-the-box looks and actual play respectively. I don't really have the time to play test every RPG and RPG supplement I look at (perhaps if someone was paying me...) and yet I'd like to think that most of my "reviews" go a bit beyond looking at artwork, layout, and organization.
Should I just keep my thoughts to myself? Since it's all speculation anyway? I mean, I don't know that every druid player is going to make heavy use of the thorn whip cantrip, just like I don't know that most magic-users in B/X are going to select sleep as their first spell. Hell, even if I see it in play, there's always a chance that my gaming table is the anomaly, right? Rendering even a play test review worthless?
And isn't it possible that while I love or hate a film or book or piece of music, someone else who isn't me will have the opposite reaction? Even if I pan a restaurant for a poor meal, isn't it possible it simply wasn't to my palette's taste? Heck, could it be the chef just had an off-night?
The thing is, reviews are opinions. They're subjective, and they're coming from one fallible human being's singular experience. If the reviewer is an expert on the subject matter, the opinion may be better informed, may draw on a wealth of knowledge and experience, but it's still just an opinion. Your own opinion may differ.
Some of my gaming reviews are based on actual play, but most (especially adventures and supplements folks request I review via email or whatnot) aren't. For the most part, I don't have the resources needed (time, energy, players) to set up a game simply for the purpose of testing a product. Even an "important" product like the latest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. BUT, even if I DID have the resources, my play experience wouldn't necessarily be your play experience.
After all, I'm a pretty good DM most days.
So INSTEAD what you're getting from my "reviews" is my opinion of how well an RPG or RPG product delivers its goods to the intended players. I'd like to think that my opinion is fairly well-informed by my 30+ years of playing and reading a large variety of RPGs, adventures, and supplements, as well as my more recent (10 year) side-hobby/passion of game design and writing. My opinion is certainly colored by my own priorities of gaming, but I think those priorities are laid out pretty clearly, and people who don't share them are free to look elsewhere for opinions...er, "reviews." Certainly, if one wants play test examples, they're going to have to look to other blogs (most of the time). And that's not a bad thing. When I'm on the fence about making a game purchase, I check multiple reviews (when they're available)...usually one's not enough to move my arrow.
But you know, much of the time I'm not reviewing anything that's uber-current (unless I'm talking about a film or television show I just saw). I've analyzing and examining and opining on games that have been out for a while. Things that have already been purchased...things that my readers have already formed their own opinions regarding. I'm not swaying anyone...and I'm not really trying to. I'm just presenting my thoughts, my feelings, my opinion on a game. It's me thinking out loud, through the blog, and the great thing about the blog is that readers can provide input and feedback and point out things I've missed, or things I might want to think about. Yes, it's my blog and my opinions, but it's not entirely a monologue...this ain't a review in a newspaper when all a dissenting reader might do is crumple the thing in disgust (or write a pointed letter to the editor). The comments from readers can have a transformative effect, and not just the "puffing my ego" kind.
And that's cool, and an additional motivation for me to keep typing my thoughts out here for everyone to see.
All right, it's lunch time. Later on, I'm going to quote part of the original PHB and then, if I have time, I kind of want to talk about my personal DMing style (in a separate post). We'll see.