Considering the Medium

So, this is where I answer my own question. I’m echoing a few sentiments that came mup in my comments, but also differing from some of them

The question is what stories RPGs tell, or more specifically, what story elements RPGs excel at. I’m not saying that these are limits on RPGs – it is a nearly unbounded form – but as with every medium, there are things that it excels at and things that it’s less strong at. With that in mind, I’m not looking to provide an encyclopedic list of things RPGs can do well. Rather, I’m focusing on the things that an RPG would be the first choice for.[1]

The first and most obvious element is agency – players in an RPG may make choice to impact play. This is almost unique to RPGs – there is some overlap with elements of improv (a reason many RPGers look to improv for inspiration) but it is a different sort of animal if only in terms of the framework it exists within. This is kind of awesome, because agency leads to investment, but in and of itself it a hollow thing, like saying painting lets you use colors. It’s true, but it’s kind of dwelling on a unique tool, not a unique result.

There may be some fertile ground around the idea of investment, but I admit I haven’t really found it yet. Like agency, it seems to be a tool, but there are some unique manifestations of it. It can take the form of shared knowledge of a truly staggering scope but I’m not sure how much of that is unique to RPGs. The shared knowledge of the Forgotten Realms is staggering, but the yardstick to compare it to is Middle Earth, something born of novels.

Creation? Perhaps one of the strengths of RPGs is the profound blurring of the line between author and actor. But if so, what can we do with that?

Maybe it’s something more obvious: what about Play? After all, if RPGs are art, they’re art you can win.[2] That feels closer, if only because it’s definitely a unique reason you’d want to play an RPG rather than write or create in another medium. Heck, compare it to writing contests: novels may make for better stories, but RPGs make for better competitions! But again, I’m not sure that suggests anything unique about what they say.

The thing I keep bumping my head against is that I can think of a number of fairly unique techniques to RPGs, but those are useful only after I have decided to use RPGs as my medium. They don’t suggest reasons why I’d choose to tell a particular story with an RPG rather than in some other way.

But there’s one exception. The element that I think might actually be the most important is reflection – the events of play reflect back on the player. In other media, you may become invested in the characters, but in RPGs, the characters may become invested in you (or at least your character). The creation of a reality that looks back on the actor is huge, and it’s often dismissed as mere sleight of hand since these people and places are not real, but I would counter that the fact that they are fiction does not rob this of its power. Most creative media rests on the idea that we may be powerfully and truly moved by fiction, and I see no reason to carve out an exemption here.

And that suggests that the reason I’d want to use an RPG, rather than a book or a movie or a play or a painting is if I want it to be your story.

That’s some powerful mojo, but it has a few implications. First, it underscores the fringey-ness of the hobby. A game doesn’t say much to the people who are not playing it (as any number of recorded sessions will tell you) but that’s because it’s not supposed to. The more it speaks to the world, the less it speaks to the table. That’s awesome for play, but it also means we’re unlikely to end up with our games hung up in some equivalent of the louvre.

Second, and perhaps of more immediate consequence, it demolishes most any sense of ownership or authority in the creation of play. A GM may do everything he can to make play awesome, but if he creates his story, he’s misusing the medium[3]. It is only by surrendering that power to the players that he will really succeed. This can be a really, really hard thing to grasp, and it can come a s slap to the face to a GM who busts his hump making play rock, but there it is.

There are some further implications of this, but they enter into the realm of conventional wisdom. The insights that our hobby isn’t scalable or that the GM shouldn’t treat players as an audience are far from new.[4] But I wonder what happens if we embrace them as weaknesses of the medium and try to focus on the strengths. I imagine it looks weird, sure, but at the same time I sometimes suspect that we’re trying to write novels with paintbrushes, and that we’d be a lot better served deciding what we’re actually doing, and pursuing that with passion.[5]

1 – The great pain is that “Telling a Story” does not make this list (or at least telling a specific story). Books, movies and plays all do a better job of this for reasons I hope are self evident. Yes, you can tell a story with an RPG, but you need to jump through more hoops than you would if you were just writing it.

2 – Though speaking of which, you know what I’d buy a book on to see how it applied to RPGs? Editing reality TV. Those guys are really good at creating a narrative out of a bunch of stuff that happens and putting it all together like that’s what’s actually going on. It’s masterful fiction, and it resonates a lot with the idea of stories being created as a result (not an intention) of games.

3- We’ve all seen the GM who should just be writing their book.

4- Though I amuse myself at least in the route that lead to those points this time.

5 – I feel like this is also dovetailing into my growing certainty that setting is king, but I do not trust that conclusion quite yet.

11 thoughts on “Considering the Medium

  1. Seth Ben-Ezra

    I’ve found that roleplaying is at its strongest for me when I use the story produced to understand myself or my fellow players better through the property of reflection that you cite. In fact, it’s precisely this feature that makes A Flower for Mara work.

    Regarding “setting is king”. Ron Edwards holds that Color (e.g. the “look-and-feel” of the fiction) is king in roleplaying. I’d be interested in seeing how this harmonizes with your thinking that setting is king. Might be saying the same thing.

    –Seth Ben-Ezra
    (who is having trouble getting his computer to let him post comments)

  2. Sebastian Hickey

    For me, roleplaying offers collaboration and interaction. No other medium does it quite so well.
    Sure, you’ve got your MMORPGs and FPS deathmatches, but these engender direct, economic hostilities, whereby another person’s loss is to your benefit.

    In a tabletop RPG, there is often a mush towards a storytelling experience, that can be shared and re-shared, and broken down and explored, which does not rely on the normal gaming antagonism.

    It is the society of the tabletop paradigm that makes it unique. People enter into a short term contract, during which time each of the participants will be engaging with each other’s stories, for better or for worse. This sharing and layering creates unpredictable results to which, though no one holds absolute responsibility, you are a direct influence.

    That’s kind of unique, though video games are starting to venture into that realm with success(Left for Dead).

  3. Will Hindmarch

    This post, and these great comments, have it right. The more I attempt to quantify play, the less of a grip I seem to have on it academically, sometimes. For me, RPGs are good for simple play, for make-believe, for cooperative imagination, for surprise and satisfaction, and even for dramatic dissatisfaction.

    I, in a manner of speaking, comment on this post every time I play. I’ve been chewing on this question for nigh-on twenty years, and I love that I don’t have a simple answer for it.

    The longer answer, however, I am gradually sharing over years of blogs and play. You know how it is.

  4. Seth Ben-Ezra

    Actually, to follow up on my previous comment, I remember having a conversation with Emily Care Boss about encouraging self-reflection as a part of the roleplaying experience. Both she and I have included both guidance and encouragement for reflection as part of our games.

    Though, this is somewhat akin to teaching people to think critically about movies, TV, novels, and the like. In other words, it can be pretty hard to do.

  5. Sam

    Collaboration, cooperation, imaginative play: these are the reasons I choose RPGs.

    I often describe RPGs to my friends to entice them to play as “collaborative storytelling” and “guided theater without a specific script” (I’ve learned to avoid using “improv” as it has certain connotations that frighten some people).

    I love that I can come up with half a story idea: there’s a village plagued by an evil force. What’s that evil force? I don’t know yet, my players haven’t done anything to drive the story in a particular direction. Oh, wait! Now it’s a shadow-beast that eats light!

    I just find it incredibly rewarding to get together and tell a story together, to act it out through words and descriptions.

    I agree with Seth, that MMORPGs differ from table-top, but for me the difference is this: with MMORPGs it feels too mechanical. If I do X then Y happens, always. In order to do/get A then I must kill B. If I want to do that, I play single-player computer games. Or as I’ve told my other RPG friends: if I want to hack-and-slash stuff and spend hours calculating the best way to spend my experience points, I’ll play computer games.

    From RPGs I want to share a storytelling experience.

    Why can’t I do that with collaborative writing? We’ve got wikis and Waves and all sorts of other ways to do that. Good question. I think the answer is RPGs have more “shared control.”

    When it’s your turn to work on our co-authored novel, I really have no say in what happens until I get to read what you’ve written and then I offer my input/critique/edits. With an RPG, we’re writing at the same time, from different angles.

    I surrender some authorial control – you get to play certain character(s), I get to play others – but we both have near-instant veto power.

    I think this mostly comes up in synchronous play (ie. tabletop or IRC or Skype) and not as much in asynchronous (Play-by-post, email, or Wave). Which might be why I have a harder time maintaining interest in those and why they tend to lapse into the “long silence” so frequently.

  6. Leonard Balsera

    One piece of the puzzle I’ve been able to quantify for myself is that roleplaying is the only medium that provides all the payoffs of engaging in fiction with immediacy.

    There’s the payoff you get as the creator of a work, where the material resonates uniquely with your reaction to the human experience – you and the other participants “own” it in a fundamental way. There’s the payoff you get as a “performer” (in quotes because people write on MUSHes and forums), where you can feel like you’ve presented the work in an emotionally affective fashion. There’s the payoff you get as audience/fan that we’re so familiar with from our long relationship with movies, books, and TV shows.

    I’ve had moments in roleplaying where I’ve experienced all of those things almost simultaneously. That’s part of the high that keeps me doing it.

    That’s also part of the reason I think discussions about RPGs and story break down when you start talking structure – the paradigm we’re familiar with is largely geared toward creating only one of those payoffs.

  7. semioticity

    Thanks, Rob. You’ve helped me put my finger on what’s been wrong with my current game – it’s neither mine nor my players. Now to fix that.

    On another note, I’d love to read a follow-up post on licensed-property games (Star Wars) or games that attempt to emulate another medium directly (PTA). Considering our tendency to analogize games to other medium (“this game is like playing through TV episodes!”), how does looking at what unique experiences RPGs offer square with the media or properties they attempt to emulate? And why play Star Wars rather than watch one of the movies?

  8. Trevor

    @ Rob
    you forgot Sport. I think RPGing can be fun to watch _if_ you know what everything means. Perfect exsample: juggling. Take a juggler and have him do a show and people might be impressed. Have him do the same show for an audeance of jugglers and they will be awed. Because they know the procsess.

    but now for my 2cents:
    I RPG, and have always RPG’d for two reasons,

    one as meaningfull interaction with friends. A good RPG adventure is the best ice-breaker / conversation starter, “What do you do when a terrorist takes a hostage?” Answer: “Shoot the hostage.” These situations spark meaningful diolog with me and my friends.

    second, to play pretend. I think putting my conscious into fantastic situations is fun. And I think that is the CORE of RPGing, It’s a game and it’s fun.

  9. Reverance Pavane

    Re: audience participation

    One of the best games of Pendragon I was ever involved in was held in a semi-public area of the local university. So we had people wandering through to watch and listen, and a lot of people wanting to join in as the day progressed. Given all the knights had squires I said sure, not realising someone at the back of the room knew enough of the system to generate actual characters for the squires (rather than just using the standard age roll). Other people assumed the roles of other characters who joined the questing knights. The end result was about 23 people actively playing at the end of the day (from a starting group of six).* And it wasn’t a static group of people gathered around a table either. The players were actively getting into their roles, standing to make speeches, crying at the death of their fellow knights, and acting like the impassioned Arthurian knights that they were playing.

    But the thing that really rocked my clock was the dozen or so people attracted to what was going on (many of whom had never experienced role-playing before), who sat and watched in fascination as the knights made their ride back to London in the face of all their foes, and cheering them on to greater heights of Glory.


    [* Hey, I like gamemastering large groups because I find it much easier. Although this does require surrendering a lot of control over the game to the players, so it might not be to everyone’s taste.]

  10. Helmsman

    Okay… there must be more thinking done on this Reality TV narrative thing. I hate almost all reality TV but the point is too important to disregard. The individual passions and foibles of the contestants influence the game but also give the show appeal to an audience that is not me… understanding this may hold some keys on how to market TTRPG’s to people who are not me.

    Dammit, brain juice is hemorrhaging out of my ears… excuse me while I go get a bucket.


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