Friday, April 26, 2019

RPGs as Art

I've been trying to devour more RPG-adjacent content lately, which brought me to RPG YouTube and RPG Twitter.  I've encountered this idea in a couple of places — I know The Strix mentioned it, and Matt Colville has definitely talked about it — but here we confront the idea that RPGs don't have a narrative.

There are a couple of interviews between Adam Koebel and Matt Colville where they mention it at length.  If you have some hours to kill, watch them.  I'll be here after the jump.

They talk about a lot of stuff in those interviews, but the part that interests me in this blog post is the idea that RPG sessions don't have narratives — the RPG session is about following the rules of the RPG while ignoring the tropes that make literature happen, and it's only in retrospect that the narrative happens.  (I know Matt Colville mentioned this in another video, but I'll be damned if I can remember it.  For that matter, I don't even remember in which of the two videos Adam and Matt reiterate this idea.)

Like life, basically.  Stuff happens without adherence to narrative tropes, but we narrativize life by organizing our thoughts and stories in ways that make sense to us.  Life has no meaning except that which we give it.

There's some truth to that, but that relies on a very Western view of what a narrative is.  It is well beyond the scope of this blog post to deconstruct the Western concept of the narrative, but a good counter-example is kishōtenketsuKishōtenketsu often eschews conflict — the essence of Western drama! — in exchange for portrayals of dynamic relationships.  A comic giving an example of this four act structure follows; click for a more detailed examination of kishōtenketsu:

The core of the story isn't that the main character is buying a can of soda, but why, and what that says about the relationship between the two characters.

More to the point, trying to emulate genre narrative structures with RPGs ignores the fact that RPGs have their own narrative structure, and have a few unique quirks about how they tell stories.  Most forms of literature do, so let's unpack that a bit.

Novels and short stories are incredibly intimate, projecting a story directly into your brain.  You can do all sorts of things with them, but they excel at showing the reader someone's mental environment: you can spend an entire story in someone's head (or perhaps several someones' heads) without too much difficulty.  (You would be hard-pressed to get a feature length movie out of, say, "To Build a Fire," but the short story contains an entire bleak world in the narrator's head.)  The drawback is that any new or complex concepts have to be conveyed with words, so the more you have to explain, the more complicated the narrative becomes.

Films aren't terribly intimate, but the format means you can include a lot of visual storytelling, thereby packing a lot of story into the comparatively short runtime.  Television has similarities, but you can use it for long-form storytelling, as soap operas have known for decades.  (Police procedurals and anthology series ignore long-form storytelling for familiarity: if you're watching The Twilight Zone, no given episode has anything to do with any other episode, but you know the kinds of stories to expect from episode-to-episode.)

Comic books have a lot of the strengths of television, with the difference that they can visually convey things that television would find prohibitively expensive.  I'll freely admit I don't read a ton of comics, so I'm not fully aware of what comic books can do that other formats cannot.  I expect it's more than that, though.  (For example, I'm sure there's some resonance to the fact that comics are paced like television episodes but rely on static images so that understanding relies partially on the reader's engagement with the text.  You can always slow down and investigate an image or ruminate on a concept for a while before continuing, like you can with a book.  Whereas a television show keeps moving whether you've fully processed it or not.)

Video games are a bit odd, because they get a lot of the visual shorthand of film and television mixed with some of the intimacy of a book.  A video game may not tell a terribly original story, but you still love it because you lived the plot.  The sense of ownership is what makes it enjoyable.  Plus, the interactivity means that video games can turn some things that would be narratively boring into interesting mechanical challenges.  (No More Heroes turns mowing the lawn into a challenging mini-game, for example.)

So what about table-top role-playing games?  Puffin Forest recently had this to say about it, comparing RPGs and film.  (If you don't have the half-hour to watch it, his main thesis is that movies have a lot of time for spit-and-polish, while RPGs are improvised and in-the-moment.  I'm going to invoke Meisner here just to annoy Nicole.)

He dances around the subject that I want to address here about the interactivity and intimacy of RPGs.  (I would argue that movies aren't the best analogy: the visual language of film isn't most directly comparable to the verbal language of RPGs.  Role-playing games are somewhere in-between, having both the nonverbal subtext of film with the textual language of books.  It's an odd blend, to be sure.)

RPGs combine part of the intimacy of novels with part of the interactivity of video games.  A role-playing game session is not quite as intimate as being alone with a book, but a role-playing game still injects a narrative directly into your brain.  On the other hand, it tends to be more interactive than a video game, because you (presumably) perform any action you want.  (Some RPGs and individual GMs are more prescriptive than that, but we'll casually assume here that the traditional model wherein you can attempt anything you could reasonably consider in a given situation is still in effect.)

Another noteworthy, but oft-overlooked point: RPGs are art three times.  For, say, a novel, you extract the art twice: once from the text itself, and again from re-living it.  (That's rather simplistic, since there are artistic choices that go into the cover and layout, but we're going to keep it simple here.)  While we often talk of the text-as-art, the act of vicariously living with the text — letting it infect your headspace, integrating it into your life, telling your friends about it — is a form of performance art.  And that's before we get into literary criticism as a form of literature unto itself.  (David Lynch famously refuses to discuss the meaning of his movies because he considers the audience a key participant in the process, and whatever meaning the audience draws from the work is as relevant as anything he could convey.  I can't find a good example at the moment, but they dig a little into it in this article.)

Likewise, movies have the same sorts of layers: you can watch the movie, then wrestle with the movie.  It's up to you whether you want to argue that the-script-as-literature is still part of the movie, but I'd argue reading the script vs. performing the script are two different things, and in the case of film, you can also take the script as another layer of art.  (Part of this is personal preference, but part of this distinction is to maintain my point that RPGs are special due to their three-fold art process.  You come to my blog, you get my bullshit meta, kids.)

(A brief digression: I again recognize that this is a little simplistic.  A single piece of art in wide release tends to generate ancillary art in its wake: people write fanfiction, make advertising posters, and suchlike.  You can argue this all falls under grappling-with-the-text, but on a grand scale.  You can then further fall deep into the rabbit-hole of what ancillary procedures count as art.  Is editing art?)

But RPGs are art three times: once in the role-playing text itself, once in the performance art at the table, and finally when you narrativize it with your friends in the aftermath.

The text is probably the most obvious piece of art: a work of literature, usually with illustrations, and created with an eye towards both being aesthetically pleasing and used as a reference manual.  (That's a hard balance, one with which a lot of people still grapple.  What's the best way to organize information in RPGs?  A definitive answer to that question is The Holy Grail.)  Soberer minds than my own have analyzed both RPG texts as art and the utility of good visual art in RPGs, so let's move on.

The game at the table itself is the one with which Adam and Matt take issue: they argue that the action at the table is largely about rules adjudication.  (We'll ignore the fact that Colville's own postmortem videos for The Chain, hidden somewhere near the bottom of this playlist as of this writing, often talk about hitting certain narrative beats while running the game.  For the benefit of future readers, I'm talking about videos #24 through #33 in that playlist.)  And while there's a certain logic to that — is just doing stuff and living your life art? — even the most hardened grognard does a certain amount of role-playing at the table.  (Did you react to something that happened in-game?  Congratulations, you're an actor now.)  It's the equivalent of arguing that improv isn't art: Yes, and and audience prompts are simpler rules than, say, the entirety of the Player's Handbook, but there are still rules to be followed to construct the action that happens on stage.

(I would also make an argument that the standard progression of RPGs — overcome challenges to improve your character, who can then tackle bigger challenges with raised stakes — mirrors the rising action of Western literary canon.)

Even if you're totally eschewing traditional Western narrative rules (and as noted above, there are other cultural options), you're still collaboratively building something at the table.  It might not be in the standard literary sense, but performance art is still an artistic exercise, even if it's mediated with rules.  (A philosophical question: if RPG sessions aren't art because of the logistical rules governing play, do the social rules governing traditional art forms limit their artistic content?)

Finally, the narrativization post-game is another form of artistic expression.  It's the one that you talk about with your friends, put up on Obsidian Portal, use to draw pictures, use as the basis of your fantasy novel, or turn into another RPG product.  It's not quite as obvious as the RPG text itself, but if you sufficiently broaden your view such that a story told orally is as much art as one recorded textually, you can recognize the art content.  (It's still art, even if it's unpolished.  An entertaining tale told drunkenly outside an IHOP at 2 AM still potentially counts, even if it's not recorded for posterity; your brain still engages with it the same way, and it still leaves you changed afterward.)

But all of the above content argues that RPGs should be considered a form of artistic expression along all points of development while ignoring the main thrust of my point: RPGs are their own thing.  They resist clean comparison to other literary forms because they're not exactly the same, and possibly require their own language to describe them.  You get some Western literary tricks in there: rising action (most of the time, assuming the standard challenge/improvement/bigger challenge model), foreshadowing (although no fact in an RPG is guaranteed to later be important), and irony (to varying degrees), but the interactive nature of the medium suggests that we ought not to be looking to Western canon for our models of RPGs.

Traditional Western narrative structures rely on control: the creators of a work have total control over the structural events that take place therein.  (The audience's engagement relies on the fact that the work's interpretation is beyond the creator's control, but the basic facts of the work are ultimately known.  Fun fact: in literary criticism, the common convention is to refer to literary events in the present tense, because they're all happening concurrently.  The book has been written; the contents are ongoing.)  To contrast, role-playing games are not predetermined; the outcome is left to the participants (and to a varying extent, the use of randomizers).  I know a lot of wordcount has been devoted to RPGs-as-stories, but to get full enjoyment out of the genre, you have to abandon the idea that they're going to be the traditional, linear stories you're used to telling and reading.  Table-top RPGs can handle linear chains of events — particularly if your group is primed for that sort of thing — but they excel when groups are confronted with choices to make and open-ended problems to solve.  That yields a lot of information about the characters' interior worlds.  (Even a bunch of old grognards, moving their characters as playing pieces through a megadungeon, still engage in this behavior, making choices in an ever-branching decision tree.  Those choices tell us important things about their motivations, even if that's just gold-for-XP.)

Keep in mind: this is in no way an indictment of genre emulation in RPGs.  If that's your thing, go for it!  A lot of storygames try to cleave to literary tropes, making for tighter narrative structures in game.  But also keep in mind that RPGs have their own genre conventions, and maybe it's time we start confronting those rather than trying to use the language of novels or film to talk about them.  Different media are capable of supporting different sorts of stories, and the collaborative nature of the role-playing exercise precludes neat classification into existing literary forms.  Learn to embrace the loose, free-flowing nature of RPGs and you'll have fewer frustrations about keeping the players firmly on track of the plot, or how to deal with player absences, or whatever troubles you have.

Final Note: This is unlikely to become a series, but I'm sure I'll revisit the subject as I have more organized thoughts on it.


  1. This is a really good article. I also dig that you touched on other non-conflict based story telling.

    One thing I really like that the Mouseguard and Torchbearer RPGs do is they have a player recap the previous session (you get rewarded for it!) and it's always interesting listening to THEIR version of the previous session compared to what you have in your head.

    It feels a bit like that thingy in quantum mechanics - an RPG session is just a blurry cloud of possibilities until someone observes it, and then it becomes a concrete thing for that observer.

    1. Replying because I forgot to check notify

    2. In an ideal world, I wouldn't do session write-ups at all, instead drawing from my players' recaps and notes, but sadly everyone's too busy now.

      I really dig the Rashomon aspect of learning what's important to the different players at the table.


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