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Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

Some recent threads have discussed aspects of GM and player narration in RPGing. Which hase prompted me to start this thread.

My answer to the question in the thread title is a firm No.

RPGing requires narration: GMs describe situations, and players declare actions for their PCs that respond to those situations. But I don't think the literary quality of that narration is important.

What matters to me is that the players feel the significance of the situations the GM describes - that they feel the pull to action, and the threats of inaction. That is, that the situation engage and motivate the players as players, not as an audience to a performance. And player narration should, in my view, engage with and build on this fiction in ways that display the player's view of the fiction, perhaps challenge other players (and even the GM), that make the other pariticpants go "I didn't see that coming!"

This is how I see RPGs, with their emphasis on participation in the creation of a fiction that is structured through distinct player an d GM roles, working. And it's how I see them differening from more directly narrative mediums such as books and films.
 

Riley37

Villager
If it is, then what?

If it's not, then what?

If there is zero difference between the outcome of "RPG is literary" and the outcome of "RPG is not literary", then my answer is "Oh, yes, it TOTALLY is", just so that you can have something to disagree with. Also, there's an invisible pink teapot, on the other side of the Sun from Earth, named Russels.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
Some recent threads have discussed aspects of GM and player narration in RPGing. Which hase prompted me to start this thread.

My answer to the question in the thread title is a firm No.

RPGing requires narration: GMs describe situations, and players declare actions for their PCs that respond to those situations. But I don't think the literary quality of that narration is important.

What matters to me is that the players feel the significance of the situations the GM describes - that they feel the pull to action, and the threats of inaction. That is, that the situation engage and motivate the players as players, not as an audience to a performance. And player narration should, in my view, engage with and build on this fiction in ways that display the player's view of the fiction, perhaps challenge other players (and even the GM), that make the other pariticpants go "I didn't see that coming!"

This is how I see RPGs, with their emphasis on participation in the creation of a fiction that is structured through distinct player an d GM roles, working. And it's how I see them differening from more directly narrative mediums such as books and films.
I have to say that to me the defining difference between "literary" and not is not "participation." As a recent netflix product showed there can be interactive movies where viewer choices determine outcomes (and they are not the first.) There have been books that way for longer than that.

So, I would strongly suggest your title needs a different word than literary or its gonna be very misleading.

I know I came in hoping for a different discussion than participation.
 

MarkB

Hero
Define "literary", as you mean it. To me, it means "creating a body of written work", so an RPG session only qualifies if somebody is taking very detailed notes.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Depends on what you mean by, "literary."

There's some who will use it to mean, "of a quality and/or style similar to critically acclaimed literature." Much like we talk about a game having "cinematic action" if we feel it evokes the style and feeling and imagery of Hollywood action movies. From context, I expect that's in the ballpark of what you mean.

With that qualifying presumption, my answer to the question is - it doesn't *need* to be literary, but I see no compelling reason that it *cannot* be, either. Noting that literature is also supposed to make people feel things, and often inspire and engage and surprise them with "I didn't see that coming," I don't see any fundamental conflict.
 
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Roleplaying games and literature are not inherently mutually exclusory fields.

But you need to define your terms. Otherwise this thread will just end up arguing about what "literary" means, and whether writing a dungeon module qualifies as "RPGing.".
 
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Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
Going with one of the OED's definitions of literary:

"Concerned with depicting or representing a story or other literary work; that refers or relates to a text; that creates a complex or finely crafted narrative like that of a work of literature."

Gaming can be literary, based on that particular definition. We draw influences from a variety of sources, after all. Two of the published AD&D modules are inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll. Many years ago, I ran a campaign that was pretty much Hamlet. Not in quality, mind you, I'd never go that far. But the plot was directly taken from Hamlet, albeit with an evil wizard and whatnot.

And we can absolutely have a "finely crafted narrative" in gaming. The difference is that that narrative creates itself collaboratively, as we play, rather than being written out.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Some games have been, The Expanse series of novels arose from a RPG game that the authors were (are?) playing.

However, I think this:

What matters to me is that the players feel the significance of the situations the GM describes - that they feel the pull to action, and the threats of inaction. That is, that the situation engage and motivate the players as players, not as an audience to a performance.
Is providing a separation from the GM's and player's narratives, in that the player's are reading the GM's narration as literature? I don't see this being a game as much, it could be, if people want that.

IMO, "narrative" is players or the GM role playing by describing their actions, vs the mechanics of the game by merely rolling dice. It's not a severe dividing line though, more like a sliding scale, where most games in play fall between the poles.
 

MarkB

Hero
There are systems where the players routinely help to define the fiction of the gameworld, and there are other systems where the GM generally defines the world and the players influence that situation purely through their characters' actions. Both are RPGs. Neither is essentially "good" or "bad", though for some people one or the other may be "not how I like to play."
 

uzirath

Explorer
My answer to the question in the thread title is a firm No.
I rarely have firm answers to questions about what RPGs can or cannot be. I've played in so many games over the years that have entirely different premises and aesthetic sensibilities.

I agree with you to the extent that playing or running an RPG is not equal to writing or reading a novel.

But RPGs can certainly have many literary characteristics, as Ralif Redhammer pointed out:

We draw influences from a variety of sources, after all. Two of the published AD&D modules are inspired by the works of Lewis Carroll. Many years ago, I ran a campaign that was pretty much Hamlet. Not in quality, mind you, I'd never go that far. But the plot was directly taken from Hamlet, albeit with an evil wizard and whatnot.

And we can absolutely have a "finely crafted narrative" in gaming. The difference is that that narrative creates itself collaboratively, as we play, rather than being written out.
I played in a great Traveller campaign once that we later learned was based on the Goldilocks fairy tale. I've played in explicit Middle Earth games where a strong understanding of Tolkien canon was a requirement. I've played in games where the players were expected to write up each session as a narrative that was later edited and self-published into a book. I'm an advisor for a student who is designing a roleplaying game with deep roots in his study of Alice in Wonderland.

And, from another angle, many literary elements are useful in RPGs: foreshadowing, pacing, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. Players and GMs who can describe developments with precision, efficiency, and eloquence tend to be the types of players I enjoy playing with. These are also qualities I appreciate in fiction.

So I'm not sure how to usefully tease apart the differences.
 
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Ralif Redhammer

Adventurer
Campaigns have elements of the Bildungsroman (the journey from a 1st level scrub to a heroic legend) and Picaresque (scoundrels that get by through their wits through a series of non- or loosely- connected exploits), in varying doses.

It's no surprise that out of all the appendices of the original DMG, arguably the most discussed and examined is Appendix N, the book list.

And, from another angle, many literary elements are useful in RPGs: foreshadowing, pacing, rising action, climax, denouement, etc. Players and GMs who can describe developments with precision, efficiency, and eloquence tend to be the types of players I enjoy playing with. These are also qualities I appreciate in fiction.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I played in a great Traveller campaign once that we later learned was based on the Goldilocks fairy tale. I've played in explicit Middle Earth games where a strong understanding of Tolkien canon was a requirement.
For the Ashen Stars mission my players are currently playing I took the Sherlock Holmes story, "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and filed the serial numbers off. Barely. Like, the character of the butler in the Holmes story is named "Shiela Butler" in my adventure. An early name for the real Baskerville Hall is "Clyro Court", so the adventure is taking place on the fourth planet in orbit around the star Clyro, which is a swampy world...
 
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I

Immortal Sun

Guest
Since it apparently bears repeating, define "literary", otherwise I am unclear on the question.

Being a participant in the thread and the direct conversation that lead to the creation of this topic, I would prefer not to guess at what you mean.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Literary in the sense of "relating to books"....

Many aspects of RPGs are, to me, Literary - writing the rules and adventures technically are literary endeavors. So is reading them.

But play? Only when playing via textual media. Which is VERY doable. Or writing after-session reports. (Also very doable.)

And many of my players have been unwilling to apply themselves to the literary side of the hobby.
[MENTION=6786839]Riley37[/MENTION] - the distinction is mostly relevant for external justifications; irrelevant to the player, but not to those critical of, or dubious about, their participation. People like parents, supervisors, background investigations.
 

Riley37

Villager
for external justifications; irrelevant to the player, but not to those critical of, or dubious about, their participation. People like parents, supervisors, background investigations.
Ah, so it's for explaining D&D to people whose conception might come from "Dark Dungeons" by Jack Chick, or from the "Dungeons and Dragons" movie? (And of those two, which is worse?)

Are movies literary? There are movies which are works of art, and there's also "Ishtar", "Gigli" and "Waterworld".

Are books literary? Keeping in mind that "books" includes Harlequin Romances and Twilight.

If you started with Melville's novel Moby-Dick, and changed *only the epilogue*, adding a choice, "If you join the crew of the Rachel, turn to page 588; if you never sail again, turn to page 590"...

...would that remove all literary value from the previous 585 pages, because this revised edition is now a Choose Your Own Adventure, and has somehow crossed into a category which *fundamentally and innately* cannot overlap with literature?

You might as well ask "Are numbers prime?" Some are, some aren't.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Ah, so it's for explaining D&D to people whose conception might come from "Dark Dungeons" by Jack Chick, or from the "Dungeons and Dragons" movie? (And of those two, which is worse?)

Are movies literary? There are movies which are works of art, and there's also "Ishtar", "Gigli" and "Waterworld".

Are books literary? Keeping in mind that "books" includes Harlequin Romances and Twilight.

If you started with Melville's novel Moby-Dick, and changed *only the epilogue*, adding a choice, "If you join the crew of the Rachel, turn to page 588; if you never sail again, turn to page 590"...

...would that remove all literary value from the previous 585 pages, because this revised edition is now a Choose Your Own Adventure, and has somehow crossed into a category which *fundamentally and innately* cannot overlap with literature?

You might as well ask "Are numbers prime?" Some are, some aren't.
it is axiomatic to a pedant: a book is never cinematic, a movie never literary. Not in the strict definition of the terms.

I'm a strong bit of a pedant, but not that strict; that said, many of the religious right are that pedantic. Having lived through the satanic panic, and the school scares about various RPG's, the only thing that worked with them was pointing out that the books encouraged reading skills, that the play encouraged story-telling, that the books encouraged reading other books. (That they supposedly encourage paganism being a non-starter when arguing with a civil service agency, including school districts without elected leadership...)

That the books, in a fairly strict definition are literary and encourage other literary endeavours is one of the few things that kept the district I worked for from banning outright RPGs in the 80's, the 90's, the 00's... each time when the religious right came calling, demanding the "devil game" be banned. I was a student for one, an employee during another, and in college during the one between.

That external reference is important. As of 2012, there had been an RPG group in the same spot at my alma mater since 1983... one gm taking over for another through the years... Same for another HS, as well. I've spoken with students overlapping through all the years betwixt... That the game got kids reading was the best defense for principals resisting political pressure to ban RPGs.

Then again, many of the same voices calling for no RPGs also want no fiction in school lit classes.

So, the very narrow definitions are the valuable ones: logic bombs.
 

Riley37

Villager
each time when the religious right came calling, demanding the "devil game" be banned.
If I wanted to find out for my own curiosity, whether I might have any Roma ancestry, then I would use historical, genealogical or anthropological parameters for determining what counts as Roma ancestry. If, however, I were responding to a census inquiry, in Berlin, in May of 1939, then I'd prefer whatever parameters result in the answer of "no", because *the people who act on that answer are not seeking my best interests in good faith*.

So are we seeking honest answers in good faith with each other, here on EN World, or are we figuring out how to resist censorship by hypocritical fanatics? I can do either - just tell me which one!
 

Hriston

Explorer
There seems to be a fair bit of wrangling going on in this thread over the definition of the word literary. I think it's pretty clear, however, from the context of the OP, that what is meant accords well with the standard definition found in Google dictionary, for example, "concerning the writing, study, or content of literature, especially of the kind valued for quality of form." I think the OP intends to put some emphasis on the "quality of form" part of this sort of formulation of what makes something a literary endeavor. I'm sure [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION] can correct me if I'm off-base about this. I think RPGing is not a literary endeavor when examined in this light, because the focus is not on the quality of form of the content of the fiction being generated through play, but rather on the content itself and its potential to engender participation. This is why responses to the effect that it can be literary in this respect are a bit orthogonal. It's just not the main focus of the activity. One wonders why so many posters would rather engage in a semantic discussion over the meaning of literary instead of engaging with the content of the OP, but perhaps further inquiry into the motivations for doing so will shed some light on that question.
 
[MENTION=6787503]Hriston[/MENTION] - I'm glad at least one poster found my OP clear enough!

To elaborate - and I see what I'm saying in this post as consistent with the OP, and hopefully you will also - I don't see RPGing as primarily performance (in the artistic sense). Not for the GM - of course a melifluous GM can provide entertainment, but I don't see that as core. And likewise on the player side - thespianism is (in my view) secondary, whereas engaging the fiction from the position/perspective of the character is absolutely central.

And here's one way I would make this more concrete in terms of advice: if a new(-ish) GM asked me what is the one thing to do to make his/her game better, I would recommend working on managing framing and consequences to maintain player engagement, rather than (say) working on the portrayal/characterisation of NPCs.
 

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