Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

Hussar

Legend
People spend millions of dollars painting buildings, too. That doesn't show that painting buildings is per se an artistic endeavour - maybe it is (if we're painting St Peters), maybe it's not (if we're painting a block of flats to protect the exterior against the weather).

I'm a published author in a natural language based but technical discipline. (Or in fact two such disciplines: law and philosophy.) I deliver lectures and other sorts of public or semi-public addresses as a key part of my job. I know a fair bit about writing and a little bit about spoken presentation.

When I referee an article and send it back for rewriting because it's confused; or when I mark up a student's work and tell her or him how it needs to be restructured to make the argument clear; these are not literary considerations. They have nothing to do with evoking emotion through the use of formal compositional/recitational devices.

I guess someone somewhere once has been moved by the ingenuity of the Ikea instructions - the world is full of all types - but I don't think anyone is expecting the instruction drafter to be nominated for the Nobel prize.
So, in your mind, an RPG is akin to technical writing? No emotion whatsoever. The only emotional connection comes when you put together that shelf, as it were?

I would imagine, as well, when writing academic papers, that evoking an emotional response would not be the point either.

But, when writing a scenario for an RPG, evoking an emotional response very much IS the point.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
What do you think a module is? If not a rough script? Since this whole conversation came out of the notion of using boxed text for modules, it does seem rather apropos. Come right down to it, what do you think happens in most RGP sessions? Do you really believe that most RPG sessions don't have a rough script, typically written by the GM, although, that can vary with more "pass the story stick" style games?
)
Some do have a rough script but many don't.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
I would imagine, as well, when writing academic papers, that evoking an emotional response would not be the point either.

But, when writing a scenario for an RPG, evoking an emotional response very much IS the point.
I think it is a mix. You definitely want modules* to excite interest in the GM. And there are different ways to do that. But ultimately a module needs to be run smoothly at the table, so I think greater priority is often given to clearly places concise information that the GM can grab hold of in the heat of play. There is also definitely room for evocative stuff, but I think that is best placed in the introduction and in other places that you are not sifting through live in play (or at least keeping the evocative stuff brief so it doesn't make look-up too difficult).

*Trying to respond to your post about modules as well here
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A complication for me in responding to Lanefan's question is what is the story which is not progressing?
For these purposes it doesn't matter. The session consists of the characters sitting on a ship, or around a campfire or at some other uninterrupted down-ish-time, just carrying on a conversation that's all done via in-character role-play at the table. This conversation could reference stuff the characters have already done/met in the established fiction (i.e. they're telling war stories from past adventures), or could reference their backgrounds and histories ("so how did you end up here anyway?"), or their outlooks toward things ("if the Duke upped his taxes by half, would you pay them?" "When you raid a village of Orcs, do you kill the young?") - whatever, as long as they're talking in character.

When I referee an article and send it back for rewriting because it's confused; or when I mark up a student's work and tell her or him how it needs to be restructured to make the argument clear; these are not literary considerations. They have nothing to do with evoking emotion through the use of formal compositional/recitational devices.
Might not have anything to do with emotion, but clarity is still a significant element of presentation no matter what you're presenting or why. Thus, editing for grammar and-or clarity is very much a literary consideration.

Going back to the family-letter example - if the handwriting is nearly unreadable (like mine!) the letter is by default going to have less impact than if the handwriting was clear and legible, because the reader will face a greater struggle to comprehend it. Ditto if the spelling is all over the place, and (to a lesser extent) the grammar.
 

Hussar

Legend
Some do have a rough script but many don't.
What module does not have a rough script? I have several years of Dungeon Magazine as well as a pretty hefty collection of other modules, and, AFAIK, a rough script is exactly what a module is. Heck, if you make a simple dungeon crawl, all that really is is a flowchart with decision points of a rough script.

In what way is a module not a rough script? It tells you what happens where and when. What more does a script need?
 

Henry

Autoexreginated
“Can be?” Yes, absolutely. See everything from Dragonlance, to Sepulchrave’s Story Hour, here on these very forums. (I would argue Sepluchrave’s “Tales of Wyre” are an even purer form of that, since it arose directly from play.)

“Is, as in always?” Absolutely not. Some games can be basically Doom or Duke Nukem, writ large in a fantasy setting. For every “Tales of Wyre”, there are three tables of players shouting, “STOP TALKING TO MY EXPERIENCE POINTS!!”
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
And this is why the discussion isn't really going anywhere, it is about this divide. I certainly don't mind being entertained by others, I just don't see it as why I am there to game. I am there for the immersive experience and for the interaction with my friends. If I viewed it as them being there to entertain me, it just feels strange. Doesn't mean the session isn't lively, people don't talk in character, or that people don't make one another laugh (they frequently do). It just isn't consciously performative.
If the player is talking in character, it is performative, though. Stepping into the character first person is you performing what the character is saying. Talking about what the character says in third person would not be. Third person is not talking in character. It's just descriptive.
 

Hussar

Legend
If the player is talking in character, it is performative, though. Stepping into the character first person is you performing what the character is saying. Talking about what the character says in third person would not be. Third person is not talking in character. It's just descriptive.
But, even in third person, it can still be performative. "Grgur walks cautiously down the hallway, looking carefully to see if there is anything out of place" is perfomative - you have desciptors like "cautiously" and "carefully". Compared to "Grgur strides down the hall." Both are third person, but, both are using language specifically chosen to evoke a particular scene. A non-descriptive would simply be, "Grgur moves down the hall". That's content without performance.
[MENTION=158]Henry[/MENTION], I SO am stealing that line for my next D&D session. :D

A perfect example of a dungeon that is pure content without any literary elements would be the dungeon I attached to this post. Would anyone say that this is what a module looks like?
 

Attachments

pemerton

Legend
I think you missed a quote tag in your quote of me, so, if I missed something there, my bad))
Thanks for the heads up - I've deleted the stray material in that post.

this whole conversation came out of the notion of using boxed text for modules
As per the OP, it came from multiple recent threads. One was the boxed text thread. Another was the action declaration thread ("DC to know a NPC is telling the truth"). In that second thread, there were some posters who seemed to equate describing a PC's action as a component of action declaration with a florid or literary account of what the PC is doing.

What do you think a module is? If not a rough script?

<snip>

what do you think happens in most RGP sessions? Do you really believe that most RPG sessions don't have a rough script, typically written by the GM

<snip>

Unless your DM/GM is really, really good at improvising every single session, every single time, and has zero idea where the campaign is moving towards, you have a rough script. And, certainly, if you are using a module, or moreso with an Adventure Path, you have a very strong "rough script".
I would normally think of a module as a series of situations. Invitations to action declaration.

If there is really a rough script then the outcomes of those action declarations must be known in advance. Which is to say that the action declarations don't really matter to how things unfold. If that is how someone is approaching RPGing, then I can see how my characterisation of it in the OP might have little applicability. And how they might look at performance as central to what is going on.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
What module does not have a rough script? I have several years of Dungeon Magazine as well as a pretty hefty collection of other modules, and, AFAIK, a rough script is exactly what a module is. Heck, if you make a simple dungeon crawl, all that really is is a flowchart with decision points of a rough script.

In what way is a module not a rough script? It tells you what happens where and when. What more does a script need?
That isn't a rough script. A rough script would be something like an adventure path where there is a clear sense of direction. There are plenty of modules that are just explorations of regions for example. Isle of Dread, once your there, is pretty open in that respect. Living Adventures, Situational Adventures and Sandboxes, are just a few examples of module structures that avoid rough scripts. These days it is very easy to get modules that completely avoid rough script in favor of more sandbox-like material. Some might have traces of rough script in them here and there (though a lot of times those are just there for training wheels purposes, and intended to be ignored by solid GMs, like Scourge of the Demon Wolf). When I write adventure modules I specifically avoid anything that feels like rough script. I may provide a hook or some kind of starting point for the sake of convenience. But once the module starts it is more about the exploration of locations, the interactions of living NPCs, and the dynamic produced by all that once you drop in PCs. Maybe we just disagree on what a rough script is. But I would definitely not regard these kinds of modules as being that.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, in your mind, an RPG is akin to technical writing? No emotion whatsoever.
Not at all.
[MENTION=48965]Imaro[/MENTION] is the person who introduced clarity as a desideratum. My point was that clarity is not really connected to literary quality, and pointed to instructions as an example.

If you agree that instructions don't typically display literary quality, then I think you should agree that - to the extent that clarity matters in RPGing - then that doesn't really bear on the issues raised in the OP.

The comparisons that I have made to the sort of communication that takes place in RPGing are other forms of more-or-less intimate communications where artifice and literary quality are not pre-eminent concerns, such as conversation and letters. These don't evoke emotions because of their literary qualities. They invoke emotions because they pertain to things the interlocutor cares about. In conversations and letters, the caring is about actual things that matter to the interlocutor. In RPGing, the caring is the result of the player wanting to play his/her PC - because that's the point of the game - and feeling the invitation to do so in the situation the GM presents.
[MENTION=85555]Bedrockgames[/MENTION] describes this as immersion in the character and situation. I haven't myself used this term, because it brings baggage with it that I don't feel is helpful for my purposes. When I want a phrase to describe what is going on here, I tend to refer to "inhabitation" of the PC. But regardless of the particular terminology used, I hope the general notion is clear enough.

This is why I keep coming back to action declaration and protagonism.

When writing a scenario for an RPG, evoking an emotional response very much IS the point.
Who disagrees with that? (Subject to presently irrelevant exceptions - I don't think a dungeon crawl like ToH or even B2 is really supposed to evoke emotions, any more than a typical wargame is - but I don't think either of us has that in mind as the paradigm we're talking about.)

The OP is about the manner whereby this evoking of emotions occurs.

You definitely want modules* to excite interest in the GM.
What excites me about a module - as a GM - is not the quality of its writing but the power of the situation it presents. Four examples, each a module, or a bit of a module, that has excited my interest enough for me to use it (spoilers, but mostly for very old adventures):

* The Haunted Manse (?), a mini-module in Best of White Dwarf Scenarios vol 2, put together by Albie Fiore using monsters submitted by readers for the Fiend Factory column. I remember nothing about the prose, and the layout is typical of an early-80s magazine. But the idea of a son returned home with 12 dwarven retainers, who is in fact a shapechanged demon with 12 dream demon companions, has always caught my imagination.

* The evil priest in B2. B2 has terrible prose and layout. But the idea of an evil priest - whom I've always treated as part of the cult in the caves - who befriends the PCs and then tries to bring them into evil ways or sacrifice them to evil has always been compelling to me. It emphasises the whole tone of the Keep, that there are borderlands in which chaos can seep into and undermine ordinary civilised life.

* The old man in Death Frost Doom, who can tell the name of a dead person by touching them. I first read this module in its original form (before Zak S prettied it up). The layout is bare bones and the prose is nothing special. But this idea really grabbed me, and a version of this NPC was at the centre of one particular situation in my 4e game.

* Robin Laws Demon of the Red Grove scenario in his HeroWars Narrator's Book. I thought the ideas in this scenario - which begins with an apple grove that is not bearing fruit because it's haunted - were imaginative and engaging. I adapted it to Epic Tier 4e play, setting it in the Feywild.​

It's a scenario's promise for play that excites me as a GM.

A perfect example of a dungeon that is pure content without any literary elements would be the dungeon I attached to this post. Would anyone say that this is what a module looks like?
That's not remotely compelling. It has no situation at all.
 

pemerton

Legend
"Grgur walks cautiously down the hallway, looking carefully to see if there is anything out of place" is perfomative - you have desciptors like "cautiously" and "carefully". Compared to "Grgur strides down the hall." Both are third person, but, both are using language specifically chosen to evoke a particular scene. A non-descriptive would simply be, "Grgur moves down the hall". That's content without performance.
Notice that you've got three different action declarations here. Two of them are contrasting:

* Grgur walks down the hallway, be cautious and looking carefully to see if anything is out of place.

* Grugr strides down the hallway.​

And one is less specific:

* Grugr moves down the hallway.​

I don't know why you think that the extra information in the two contrasting declarations doesn't count as "content" in the way you're using that word - that extra information is all about what Grugr is doing.

And I don't know why you think this shows that RPGing is importantly literary. I don't care how eloquently or poetically the player conveys the manner in which Grugr proceeds down the hall; but knowing what that manner is may (in some systems) be highly relevant to action resolution.
 

Bedrockgames

Adventurer
What excites me about a module - as a GM - is not the quality of its writing but the power of the situation it presents. Four examples, each a module, or a bit of a module, that has excited my interest enough for me to use it (spoilers, but mostly for very old adventures):

* The Haunted Manse (?), a mini-module in Best of White Dwarf Scenarios vol 2, put together by Albie Fiore using monsters submitted by readers for the Fiend Factory column. I remember nothing about the prose, and the layout is typical of an early-80s magazine. But the idea of a son returned home with 12 dwarven retainers, who is in fact a shapechanged demon with 12 dream demon companions, has always caught my imagination.

* The evil priest in B2. B2 has terrible prose and layout. But the idea of an evil priest - whom I've always treated as part of the cult in the caves - who befriends the PCs and then tries to bring them into evil ways or sacrifice them to evil has always been compelling to me. It emphasises the whole tone of the Keep, that there are borderlands in which chaos can seep into and undermine ordinary civilised life.

* The old man in Death Frost Doom, who can tell the name of a dead person by touching them. I first read this module in its original form (before Zak S prettied it up). The layout is bare bones and the prose is nothing special. But this idea really grabbed me, and a version of this NPC was at the centre of one particular situation in my 4e game.

* Robin Laws Demon of the Red Grove scenario in his HeroWars Narrator's Book. I thought the ideas in this scenario - which begins with an apple grove that is not bearing fruit because it's haunted - were imaginative and engaging. I adapted it to Epic Tier 4e play, setting it in the Feywild.​

It's a scenario's promise for play that excites me as a GM.

That's not remotely compelling. It has no situation at all.
And I think that is an example of why it is so hard to say in RPG writing "it must be X". Because what excites each Gm will be very subjective. I share some of this preference you express, and I also share some of what Hussar says. I think ultimately for me, I want a dash of colorful language here or there to catch my eye and inspire, but more importantly I want the moving parts to be things I can imagine using in a wide variety of ways. I don't need good writing for the latter either, and good writing is very, very far down on the list of things I look for in a module. The same way that I never bothered to judge the Risk rules book on writing grounds. That wasn't the point for me. I can admire good writing and some people have a rare talent for blending good design with good writing. But by and large I don't think the quality of the writing reveals much about the quality of the design.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
But, even in third person, it can still be performative. "Grgur walks cautiously down the hallway, looking carefully to see if there is anything out of place" is perfomative - you have desciptors like "cautiously" and "carefully". Compared to "Grgur strides down the hall." Both are third person, but, both are using language specifically chosen to evoke a particular scene. A non-descriptive would simply be, "Grgur moves down the hall". That's content without performance.
Description isn't automatically performance. If you describe something in third person, you aren't performing the act of being cautious or careful, and you aren't performing by stepping into character(first person).

Look at it like this. When the director tells the actor playing Hunter Maximus that Hunter is stalking his prey quietly through the jungle, he is not performing anything. When the actor playing Hunter starts moving quietly through the jungle in front of the camera, stopping occasionally to look for signs of the prey, he is performing.
 

uzirath

Explorer
For these purposes it doesn't matter. The session consists of the characters sitting on a ship, or around a campfire or at some other uninterrupted down-ish-time, just carrying on a conversation that's all done via in-character role-play at the table. This conversation could reference stuff the characters have already done/met in the established fiction (i.e. they're telling war stories from past adventures), or could reference their backgrounds and histories ("so how did you end up here anyway?"), or their outlooks toward things ("if the Duke upped his taxes by half, would you pay them?" "When you raid a village of Orcs, do you kill the young?") - whatever, as long as they're talking in character.
Thanks for this clarification (I had a similar question to [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]). I would have been a solid 10 for this in my gaming years in high school, college, and in my twenties. Now, in my forties, time is at more of a premium and gaming is more infrequent, so I do like to see the plot moving. But I'd still likely be at a 7-8. I do love it when role-playing happens during a game for no purpose other than to have a good time exploring our characters. My only hesitation is that I often find that this works best when it arises spontaneously. I'm less interested in the idea of everyone doing their homework and then sharing the cool stories they created than I am in spontaneously generated material in response to unexpected questions and prompts.
 

Sadras

Explorer
Thanks for this clarification (I had a similar question to [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]). I would have been a solid 10 for this in my gaming years in high school, college, and in my twenties. Now, in my forties, time is at more of a premium and gaming is more infrequent, so I do like to see the plot moving.
Pretty much agree with this. Frequency of play varies from table to table, so Lanefan might be hugely fortunate to be playing every week - so this kind of social exchange is possible to explore during roleplaying, but for someone with less free time (which I have recently experienced), I tend to push towards resolution of story arcs, downtime a few things and just resolve some things offscreen, so to speak, but nothing like the showruiners did on GoT.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Thanks for this clarification (I had a similar question to @pemerton). I would have been a solid 10 for this in my gaming years in high school, college, and in my twenties. Now, in my forties, time is at more of a premium and gaming is more infrequent, so I do like to see the plot moving. But I'd still likely be at a 7-8. I do love it when role-playing happens during a game for no purpose other than to have a good time exploring our characters. My only hesitation is that I often find that this works best when it arises spontaneously. I'm less interested in the idea of everyone doing their homework and then sharing the cool stories they created than I am in spontaneously generated material in response to unexpected questions and prompts.
I'm in between you and [MENTION=29398]Lanefan[/MENTION] I don't mind taking time to discuss old times with other PCs, but I'm also going to want to talk to the captain about what we can expect on the voyage and at the port we are heading to. Perhaps climb up the crows nest and watch for ships in the distance with the crew member, while talking to him about the captain and other officers, in order to get a better gauge on what kind of people they are. And so on. I don't mind the entire session being discussion, but I don't want to spend the entire time just shooting the breeze amongst the other players.
 
Last edited:

Satyrn

Villager
Quick survey for the regulars here:

Let's say that for whatever reason you know going in that tonight's session, where you're playing a well-developed character you're familiar with and enjoy playing, is highly likely to consist of nothing but in-character roleplaying and interactions with other PCs (and maybe NPCs) with no story progress likely to be made and maybe little if any reference to the story at all, and little if any chance of combat (unless the PCs decide to throw down vs each other for some reason). It's not a bookkeeping session, though. Maybe you've decided to play out in detail some discussions the PCs have while on a long ship voyage.

On a scale of 1 (dread) to 10 (bursting) how enthusiastic would you be when looking forward to the session.

I'd be somewhere between 8 and 10, with the variance dependent on situation.
1. That's not why I play D&D. That stuff can be fun, and is fun, but I really don't want a whole session of that. I probably don't want more than 10 minutes of that at a time.

And I know it's a 1, because I've met a group where they'd be at 10, and I've tried playing with other groups who would be 8+.

All D&D.
 
Last edited:

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
A perfect example of a dungeon that is pure content without any literary elements would be the dungeon I attached to this post. Would anyone say that this is what a module looks like?
Unfortunately, it isn't what a module looks like...but it certainly could be, because really - at the absolute root of it all, what more does a DM need? (well, perhaps a few things - see below)

It doesn't have its own backstory incuded? Great! 95+% of the time included backstory in a module is just wasted space for me: I'm going to ignore it and replace it with my own anyway. Even the one-line "dungeon history" that's given is more than I need.

It doesn't have boxed descriptions? Fine - though a case could be made to add them for the benefit of those new to DMing.

It doesn't have pre-gen characters? Again fine, and again a case could be made for adding them in either for one-off play or as NPC ideas for the DM to add to an existing party if so desired.

It doesn't indicate where the wandering monsters come from, or are based? This is a flaw.

The only other big change I'd make is the room numbering sequence. Given where the stairs are, explorers are highly likely to enter room 3 before any other room; so for the DM's convenience that should be room 1, then the current sequence 4-5-1-7-6-2 would become 2-7. In a tiny module like this it doesn't matter much, but in anything with a larger page count any reduction in page-flipping is a plus.

In any case, it then falls squarely on the DM to provide the colour and dungeon dressing and so forth when describing what the PCs see/hear/smell as they venture though this place, using the sparse guidelines in the module as a framework. (pleasant side effect here is potential reusability - two different DMs might describe this differently enough that the players may not even realize they're replaying the same module until a fair ways in)
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Thanks for this clarification (I had a similar question to [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION]). I would have been a solid 10 for this in my gaming years in high school, college, and in my twenties. Now, in my forties, time is at more of a premium and gaming is more infrequent, so I do like to see the plot moving. But I'd still likely be at a 7-8. I do love it when role-playing happens during a game for no purpose other than to have a good time exploring our characters. My only hesitation is that I often find that this works best when it arises spontaneously. I'm less interested in the idea of everyone doing their homework and then sharing the cool stories they created than I am in spontaneously generated material in response to unexpected questions and prompts.
I agree completely. Problem is, for purposes of presenting a common-to-all 'survey question' I couldn't think of a way to frame it as a level of anticipation without having it be a bit premeditated.

I could have framed it more like "On 1-10, how would you rate a session you had just played where the whole session was spent on in-character conversation that didn't advance the story but did advance the PCs' chaacterization?", and almost did; but the unavoidable variable there that would prevent clear answers would be "What was the conversation about?".
 

Advertisement

Top