Caster slows down time in order to contemplate a problem or take a break from blogging. Only verbal and somatic components are required to cast this spell.
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What makes something a role-playing game? The Essence of RPGs was a serial in three parts running here at ihobo.com that offered an answer to this question by tracing the essence of these games to two sets of player practices, rule-play and role-play . Each of the parts ends with a link to the next one, so to read the entire serial, simply click on the first link below, and then follow the "next" links to read on.
Here are the three parts of The Essence of RPGs, each of which begins with a link to the corresponding part of the source serial:
If you enjoyed this serial, please leave a comment. Thank you!
In 1998, I produced one of my final tabletop role-playing game designs with my friend and colleague Rob Briggs, who had also worked on my first published tabletop games, Avatar and Outlands. My work in this space was always motivated by trying out something different that could build upon the successes of other games. Avatar tried to overcome the problem of player knowledge in RPG worlds (since they often had thousands of pages of details that needed to be read) by asking players to co-operate in a world building game to co-create their setting. Outlands attempted to merge science fiction settings into a hodge-podge world in the same manner as Dungeons & Dragons had done with fantasy, and remains one of my favourite designs. Shifter made play from the absurdity of time travel when you can endlessly repeat and modify your previous actions. In Contract, Rob and I tried to boil down the essence of our role-playing into the simplest possible system, and what that meant was creating a character sheet that served as a contract between the games master and the player, establishing who the player was vouching to be in the fictional world of the game.
In the previous part, I described how the ontological complexity of Dungeons & Dragons lead to engaging ‘rule-play’ that was rooted in the infinite variability of the character sheet. In this final part, all that remains is to show how the character sheet was also the locus of the other lineage descending from the tabletop role-playing game – namely role-play. The essential point here is the one that was central to Contract – that the character sheet serves as an agreement as to who the player is undertaking to be in the fictional world of the game. To commit to role-play was to follow that character wherever it led, even – or especially! – to their death. The choices you made as a role-player were not about agency as it is usually construed in videogames, but about being someone else and choosing what they would choose. It was about play-acting and empathy more than about power fantasies and free choice.
From the earliest days of the tabletop role-playing game, there were two main camps for how the story-play would operate, two different sets of player practices for role-play neither of which was specified by the game itself. The first, and the one I was involved in right from the start, could be called dramatic role-play, a form that takes its influence from storytelling and mythology – the kind of psychological patterns identified by Joseph Campbell as the heroic monomyth (or ‘hero’s journey’). This branch of the RPG story leads from the fantasy novels of the mid-twentieth century (that inspired D&D) directly to the sci-fi and fantasy novels of the end of that century and the start of the next. Authors such as Cory Doctorow, China Miéville, Walter Jon Williams, and of course George R.R. Martin were all dedicated role-players who crafted their narrative skills at the gaming table.
In dramatic role-play, the focus of interest is how characters inter-relate to one another, and as a result those of us engaged in dramatic role-play very quickly realised that the dice were a liability more than they were an asset. We learned to fudge dice roles for dramatic effect, and never regretted it. Characters in our games still died, but they died as a consequence of their actions, not as a result of mere random chance. In the 1990s, many tabletop systems began to emphasise these player practices explicitly in their designs, a lineage exemplified by Erick Wujcik's Amber Diceless Roleplaying (1991), which dispensed with dice entirely, and Jonathan Tweet’s Everway (1995), which replaced dice with a highly visual Fortune Deck (an example of which is pictured above).
The parallel set of player practices to dramatic role-play are what nowadays is often misleadingly termed ‘Old School role-play’. This name is an attempt to claim legitimacy from the sheer age of the practice, but this approach is not any older than dramatic role-play, having the same historical root – Dungeons & Dragons. That said, given that drama is as old as civilization, the practices of dramatic role-play could be traced back to the ancient Greeks at the very least, especially if we take seriously Roger Caillois’ suggestion that theatre (as one form of his mimicry) should be considered a key example of human play.
What characterises Old School role-play isn’t drama but harshness, and I propose to term it brutal role-play. In these player practices, the dice are as sacred as in Caillois’ games of chance and fate (alea) and therefore players are honour-bound to accept their outcome, no matter how terrible. (This would give the ‘Old School’ players an unbeatable comeback to my previous comment about theatre, since no human game is older than dice!) Since all tabletop role-playing games are shockingly inadequate simulations of reality, playing ‘Old School’ generally means accepting a risk of death disproportionately higher than in everyday life. This also means that brutal role-play can be highly effective at simulating the psychological paranoia invoked by violent encounter. No Old School role-player enters into battle unprepared!
When these player practices crossed over into videogames, they developed in both predictable and unexpected ways. Dungeons & Dragons immediately spawned rule-play imitations such as dnd (1974-5) on the PLATO educational computer system. The popularity of these early dungeon crawl games was such that pioneers in computer role-playing games were not always tabletop role-players, since some of them simply picked up their practices from digital simplifications. Michael Toy, Glenn Wichman, and Ken Arnold don’t even mention role-playing games when talking about the origins of Rogue (1980), although they did name-check Adventure (1976-7), which is a direct descendant from D&D.
Rogue, like many of the early computer RPGs, inherits brutal role-play but without the role-play, thus creating a kind of brutal rule-play that today goes by the term permadeath. This concept, however, is a player practice originating with tabletop role-playing games, within which a dead character was dead forever. Before role-playing games, no fictional game world lasted long enough for permadeath to make any sense. Dungeons & Dragons, however, was effectively a persistent world – and one in which fatality has a very permanent meaning, at least until the later introduction of resurrection spells for characters who had reached a certain level within the game. Frankly, even after these rules additions returning from the dead was exceedingly rare, requiring a level 16 Cleric in the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (at the time, a very high level indeed – probably taking well over a year of playing every week to attain). In all my years of playing D&D, no character ever returned from the dead. Extra lives were an invention of the arcade.
The split into the Western RPG and Japanese RPG lineage, although initially connected and in both cases rooted in D&D, produced a division into the Western-style player practices that were essentially rule-play (brutal or otherwise) and a Japanese-style that was more narratively focussed. But despite the greater emphasis on character and story in the Japanese lineage, role-play was not a part of their player practices in any meaningful sense. The Japanese planners (i.e. game designers) were not tabletop role-players, and did not import player practices from face-to-face play in any example I have been able to locate. Curiously, however, the Japanese traditions did culminate in one of the most significant examples of videogame role-play, namely Yu Suzuki’s Shenmue (1999). Inspired by 1980s Japanese computer RPGs, Suzuki set out to create a rich fictional world in which the player was asked to play a specific character, Ryo Hazuki. Players enjoyment of Shenmue was largely down to their openness to the player practices of dramatic role-play, which Western games seldom if ever encouraged by design.
This does not mean that the Western RPG lineage did not foster role-play: on the contrary, it was widespread but primarily as a player practice. The focus on agency lead to rule-play by design, and it supported role-play only when the player was willing to bring that element in through their own play. This took an interesting turn with the creation from 1978 of MUD1 by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle. The player practices of tabletop role-playing games rapidly spread online in these text-based fictional worlds, which included a mix of both role-play and rule-play. The latter was epitomized by the LP MUDs and DikuMUDs, from which EverQuest (1999) and World of Warcraft (2004) directly descended, adding little more than graphical and technical polish. Simultaneously, role-play was happening in just about all kinds of MUDs but only when specific players knew (and valued) the relevant player practices. Personally, I found it was more common with the various MUSEs in circulation in the 1990s. (I spent many years in TrekMUSE playing as a Romulan ambassador who later became an officiator of marriages, and never once fired a gun).
What can be seen clearly in these examples is the point I made at the beginning of this serial: an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading. When it comes to role-playing games, whether tabletop or computer, the options for both rule-play and role-play are very often supported by the very same game, with the possibilities being exploited by different players in unique ways according to the player practices that they have previously encountered and enjoyed. Players who learned to role-play at the tabletop often brought their practices into their digital play, continuing to focus on dramatic story telling and characters. Those that did not were rarely if ever encouraged to role-play by any videogame, despite Bethesda’s mission statement to bring as much of the tabletop RPG experience into videogames as was technically possible. In this regard, the authentic experience of tabletop role-play has mostly appeared in videogames through artistic motivations unconnected with the tabletop: I have suggested in reference to one of Tale of Tales artgames that “there is more of the authentic experience of role-play in Bientôt L'été’s flaws than in all of Bethesda’s perfections.” So too their massively multiplayer screensaver The Endless Forest, which inspired thatgamecompany’s Journey – both examples of digital games that deliver role-play despite having only tangential lineage connections with tabletop RPGs.
The essence of role-playing games lies in their connectivity, via their player practices, to tabletop role-playing games, and thus to Dungeons & Dragons, the origin of the form, and the most influential game of all time. These player practices can be understood as forming two broad and diverse lineages – networks of related games and their interconnected ways of playing. Firstly, that of the rule-play of complex ontologies, epitomized by the agency-focus of the Western computer RPG lineage that branches from it. Secondly, that of the role-play of dramatic story telling, epitomized by contemporary tabletop role-playing games like Ben Lehman's Polaris: Chivalric Tragedy at Utmost North (2005) or Thoughtful Games’ Montsegur 1244 (2009). These latter practices appear in videogames by design just occasionally, although they are always being manifesting in a vast variety of games as a result of players who have learned the player practices of role-play from the tabletop. This indeed is what has always motivated me as a player: as much as I enjoy rule-play, and as much as I take pleasure in designing systems that support it, my own play is always far more influenced by the player practices I learned at the tabletop. Anyone whose life has been swept away in this wondrous inheritance, as mine has been, knows that we cannot pretend that videogames are somehow isolated from the tabletop that helped bring them to life: digital gaming is as much descended from the dice of the role-player as from the joystick of the arcade.
With thanks to David Calvo for suggestions as to the most interesting recent examples of role-play practices, and to everyone who ever played or designed a tabletop RPG with me over the years.
In the previous part, I staked my claim for a new understanding of role-playing games as nothing more nor less than the children of TSR’s seminal Dungeons & Dragons. This sounds trivial: but that’s only because it’s easy to underestimate the earth-shattering effect of D&D upon player practices, and the sheer impact it possesses through its demonstrable influence. This was not just upon tabletop game designers but also videogame designers, whose player practices (and hence design practices) descend directly from the programmer-designers of the 70s and 80s, all of whom were conditioned by the ubiquitous presence of tabletop RPGs in the gaming culture of the time. Next week, I’ll explore the concept of a role to be played that was also essential to the role-playing game concept, but first I want to explain why the rules of D&D remade our understanding of games in their entirety, in ways that now dominate commercial videogames even today.
Boardgames had been on the rise from the moment the industrial revolution made the means of mass production available. This wasn’t surprising, as humans had been enjoying games for millennia, but the games were necessarily either simple or narrowly distributed, because of the cost of hand-making all components. The late Victorian era saw an explosion of games with colourful titles like The Game of the District Messenger Boy (1886), although their components were all quite simple. In the twentieth century, games became more and more representative as the means of production allowed for more elaborate components, a trend exemplified by Cluedo or Clue (1949), which adds a map that is not just a track or a grid but clearly the layout of a fictional mansion. For the nerds of the late 50s and 60s, however, family boardgames such as these had become irrelevant, because Charles Robert’s Avalon Hill was finally on the scene, making a dizzying array of historical wargames, with rules defining player practices that are still being used in turn-based strategy games today.
It was into a landscape of player practices defined by Avalon Hill (and, by the 1970s, it’s me-too competitors) that Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren released Chainmail (1971). It was revolutionary precisely because it wasn’t historical: its influences were fantasy novels of the kinds made popular by Robert Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Michael Moorcock, not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien. But because it wasn’t historical, it also shifted the focus of its player practices significantly as well. All Avalon Hill games were about being in command of an army of some kind or another. What Chainmail invented (or rather codified, since it was inspired by various fan rulesets in circulation), was a switch in focus from armies to heroes. With this, the rules naturally changed to express different parameters and to measure different concerns – hence the appearance of magic spells and monsters, and more importantly levels.
With Dungeons & Dragons, which was initially presented as a variant of Chainmail, Gygax and Dave Arneson refined the level concept to encompass another key player practice in gaming today, that of experience points. In D&D, players picked a character class (just Fighting-man, Magic-user, and Cleric in the first edition!) and then advanced their character through levels via the acquisition of XP, gaining in power as they did so. It is a player practice so ubiquitous in gaming today, that it is difficult to truly appreciate that it originates almost entirely with D&D. Prior to D&D, gaming as a hobby was about tactical simulations of clashes between essentially anonymous armies, for which any concept of advancement was irrelevant. That ceased to the be case as soon as the template for the fictional world was not a historical battle but a quest narrative. The ultimate consequence of D&D’s very simple mechanics was a gradual intensification of advancement mechanics and their associated player practices (such as grinding), until – via the viral explosion of so-called ‘social’ games, and the more overtly D&D-descended World of Warcraft – these practices had become the foundation of billion dollar economic behemoths, worlds apart from the face-to-face tabletop play where it had spawned.
‘Rule-play’ is in essence a focus upon character advancement. This might go to the extremes of ‘min-maxing’ (making decisions solely for the purpose of maximizing benefit) or it might be a more subtle focus upon the pleasures of gaining new powers and capabilities. Indeed, Dungeons & Dragons created a near-infinite array of things to acquire! It is this breadth of options that underpins rule-play, and that can make a game fit the descriptor ‘role-playing game’ even when the elements of role-play are slender. What distinguished tabletop role-playing games as systems from the games that existed prior to Dungeons & Dragons (if we ignore the player practices, and hence what the game actually consists of in play) was the presence of a complex ontology. This philosophical term ‘ontology’ refers to the study of being, but it has acquired a sense in information technology of cataloguing and classifying what exists. In role-playing games that serve rule-play well, what exists is a great many things!
In early arcade games, the variety of entities was low because of technical constraints – Pac-man generates its engaging play from just seven entities, not counting the individual mazes. With the Avalon Hill wargames, the ontologies were basically lists of units and lists of terrain – many more things than possible in the (later) arcade, and also more than in family boardgames, because the players were capable of dealing with more complex systems and thus more intricate player practices. A fully delineated ontology for, say, Monopoly, might rack up many entities by treating each different card as a separate entity, but even this would not reach the degree of complexity that Dungeons & Dragons opened the door to. Firstly, there is the range of possible player characters that can be constructed from (fictional) ontological elements such as class and race, not to mention the variety of specific entities implied by different combinations of attributes (Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma). These are further diversified by the varieties of equipment – both that which can be purchased in a shop, and that which can be acquired as treasure from ever-more-detailed tables. And this is all before the adventurers have left the tavern! Once out in the world, there are varieties of monster (all equally diversified by their attributes), of terrain, even of alternative dimensions. The fictional world of a typical role-playing game is always diversely populated.
The sign of the relevance of ontological complexity to role-playing games was TSR’s decision in 1977 to pursue a two-pronged strategy, dividing the game between the comparative simplicity of ‘basic’ D&D and the extraordinary complexity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with its large (and expensive!) hardback rulebooks. Again, rule-play is an appropriate name: players whose interest lay with narrative play did not need five hundred pages of lists and tables to fulfill their play needs! But rule-players did – they craved more details, more tables for simulating very specific situations (even if they never actually used them), bigger treasure tables, more monsters, more equipment, more, more, more! This is the essential quality that computer role-playing games inherited from the tabletop: with the limitations of a computer, the role-play dimension could only be crudely replicated, but the ontological complexity was perfectly suited to computerisation, albeit requiring the work of many artists to create the entities’ appearances (and even more now that games are routinely delivered in polygonal 3D). Ontological complexity begets player choice, and for many players that dimension of agency is irresistible.
What is worth noting about the design of Dungeons & Dragons is the way it created an opening for player practices that engaged with worlds of such enumerated detail. Prior to D&D, the entities were all formally specified by the rules with the only wiggle room coming from house rules (which were common, but generally did not add much to the ontological complexity). With D&D, the concept of a character sheet changed the landscape of play forever by creating a component of play that was filled in by hand, and thus that could be completed in any way the player imagined (provided the games master – or dungeon master, in D&D’s case – agreed). No need for a token or card to represent every piece of equipment, you just write what your character carries into the relevant box. Want to make your elven bard stand out from the crowd? Just write a unique description onto your character sheet! It is the character sheet that opened up player practices towards infinite imagination and away from prescriptive rules systems, and from this simple conceptual liberation the possibilities of both rule-play and role-play emerged.
Next week, the final part: Role-play
Near the beginning of my career as a game designer, one of my first speaking gigs was at an event in London where I was scheduled to appear with Warren Spector. Unfortunately, Warren was attending via webcam and the conference organisers took so long to set him up that my hour presentation on non-linear storytelling in games had to be condensed to ten minutes. By way of apology, Warren and I had a good exchange of emails where we discussed, amongst other things, some of the issues that Deus Ex faced during its troubled development. One thing in particular stuck with me. From the beginning of the design process, it was agreed that Deus Ex was going to be a role-playing game (RPG) – yet the many designers working on the project did not agree what an RPG was.
One of the strangest points of contention was that if you didn’t get to create the name of your character, it wasn’t an RPG. I found this particular odd because it was quite common in tabletop RPGs (especially at conventions) to be given a pre-generated character to play, and no-one thought this meant you were no longer playing an RPG! But it highlighted the enormous range of opinions as to what the essence of an RPG was, a situation that is no different now, a decade and a half later.
The problem with approaching the question of what constitutes an RPG by definitions is that these are always a post-hoc solution to the question of language. We do not in general learn words from declarative definitions because we are not programmable robots. We learn words through examples. This surely is why some of Warren’s team were fixated on the ability to name a character as a defining character of RPGs: it was a common trait of the games that they had previously played which had identified as role-playing games.
The philosopher Wittgenstein recognized in the early twentieth century that some words are particularly ill-suited to rigid definitions because they collect together many diverse entities. He gave ‘game’ as a specific example of what he termed family resemblance, because no single definition can adequately collect together everything to which this term is applied. It is for this reason that we fight so much (and so fruitlessly) about the definition of ‘game’, an issue that I eventually turned into a productive investigation of implicit aesthetic values that was ultimately published in the journal Games and Culture. The problems with the definition of ‘role-playing game’ are an extension to this more general issue, and similarly rest upon the sheer diversity of things that can lay claim to being RPGs. Creating a static definition, while occasionally useful, will not solve the disputes. What is needed is a way of understanding the family resemblance of these play activities.
In my parallel career as an academic, I try to give all the new students a grounding in the history of games, one that goes back four millennia and shows that games are related to one-another by ties of loose inheritances that form what I term lineages. For any given game, its lineage is a network of games (and other artworks) that contribute to the inherent qualities of that game. It is akin to inheritance in biology, except games exchange their constituent elements in a manner more akin to bacteria than to mammals i.e. through a free exchange of their constituent elements, leading to the impossibility of identifying any strict concepts of genus and species for games. What’s more, these relationships aren’t best understood in terms of material factors.
While it may be tempting to try to relate games by their design elements, this is an abstraction of what can be observed being passed on between games: player practices. Whereas sports are founded upon the principle of conserving such practices over time, most games thrive on experimenting with new combinations of player practices, either by baking them into the artefact by design, or by supporting the creation of new player practices within the accompanying fictional world. Whichever way you look at it, we can’t just treat a game as a sterile material object: an artefactual reading is always an incomplete reading.
One of the striking things about analysing games by their lineage is that when we are talking about videogames there is one particular game that appears in the lineage of the vast majority of all digital titles: TSR’s Dungeons and Dragons. This is because, as I wrote about at length in Imaginary Games, the original tabletop role-playing game from 1974 was innovative in multiple different ways, many of which are now part of the core player practices of videogames – even games whose designers never played a tabletop RPG!
Some of these innovations are part of the lineage of genre fiction: the idea of a game world that is a hodge-podge of elements from different fantasy novels and mythologies was pushed into overdrive with D&D. From its roots in fantasists such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock, who had used specific mythologies as source materials for fantasy worlds, the designers at Tactical Studies Rules began drawing from every mythology as a source for a single world – a practice now shockingly common in all published media, as witnessed in ‘urban fantasy’ or film franchises such as Shrek. However, some of the other inventive ideas found in this game were new player practices devised and developed by Gary Gygax, Dave Arneson, and Jeff Perren (who produced Chainmail with Gygax in 1971, and from which D&D directly descends).
The lineage approach to understanding the history and analysis of games affords an exceptionally useful solution to the problem of determining what constitutes an RPG, albeit by sidestepping the fool’s errand of a static definition. Player practices can be tracked confidently wherever explicit influences have been mentioned in interviews and the like, and can be tentatively attributed in many other cases. All role-playing games have in common the presence of Dungeons & Dragons in their lineage – indeed, at the root of their lineage. Of course, as already mentioned, the class of games this is true for is vast, far beyond the way the term would usually be used. Grand Theft Auto (1997) was inspired by Elite (1984), which was inspired by Traveller (1977) and Space Opera (1980), two tabletop RPGs directly descended from D&D itself. Should all GTA games be considered RPGs, then? I would happily support someone bullish enough to say so, but I don’t need to make so strong a claim here.
The litmus test I propose in order for a game to be called a role-playing game is that its player practices either entail the essential aspects of Dungeons & Dragons, or another game that directly descends from it (i.e. that has inherited a significant proportion of player practices from games that do the same from D&D). Final Fantasy (1987) was inspired by Dragon Quest (1986), itself inspired by The Black Onyx (1984), which Henk Rogers took to Japan after being a fanatical Dungeons & Dragons player at university in Hawaii (and also from Ultima, which similarly descends directly from D&D). The games that players use as personal type cases to make an individual judgement as to what is or is not an RPG are all (necessarily) games whose lineage tracks back to D&D via player practices that have remained closely related throughout.
In this short serial, I want to examine the essence of role-playing games as two diverging lineages. Because lineages are only cross-sections of networks of player practices, there are always many other ways that this subject could be explored, but for the purposes of both understanding RPGs, and thinking creatively about how to make new ones, the division that I will be making is perhaps the most productive – particularly as it neatly splits up the two rival camps most likely to disagree in arguments over definitions of ‘role-playing game’. As was my thesis from Implicit Game Aesthetics, such disagreements are always evidence of aesthetic values (which may also relate to Bruno Latour’s recent claim that we can identify different ways of being in the world by looking at the language clashes between them).
I shall save until last the essential quality that I most value about role-playing games, which is their flexibility as powerful tools for narrative play, for which I shall reserve the term role-play. We call them ‘role-playing games’ precisely because they entail taking on an imaginary identity – a player practice now endemic within videogames, in part because programmers working on games in the 1970s and 80s were all either playing tabletop RPGs or knew people who did. But the innovative design of Dungeons & Dragons was only partly about taking upon a role within a fictional world, even though without this breakthrough none of the other aspects of its play makes any sense. Before we can properly understand role-play, we have to first understand “rule-play”, a derogatory term that narrative-valuing RPG players assign to those others who are not focussed upon RPGs as a storytelling media. And rule-play can describe the other essential elements of role-playing games perfectly.
Next week: Rule-play