Is RPGing a *literary* endeavour?

Riley37

Villager
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.
That is true if TRPG is literary, and it is also true if TRPG is not literary.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
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.
I see the quality as important but not vital. A more descriptive and-or evocative narration of the scene, setting and situation is more likely to engage the players than a less descriptive narration...but within reason; it's of course very possible to go right over the top into the realm of overkill and thus lose all the interest you just generated. (I once had a player tell me the boxed descriptions in a module I was running (that I didn't write!) were what Vogon poetry must sound like, for any who get the reference) Also, not every table or even every player is the same - a level and-or quality of narration that will completely engage one player might bore the hell out of the next, for example, and so the DM has to find a suitable average for her table that ideally works perfectly for everyone but more likely just minimizes the collective pain. :)

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.
Absolutely, and a more "literary" - as in expressive, evocative, maybe even a little flowery - description and narration gives IMO a better chance of achieving this. And I'll be the first to admit I'm not nearly as good at this as I'd like to be. :)

That is, that the situation engage and motivate the players as players, not as an audience to a performance.
I'd rather go for a third result: that the situation engage and motivate the players as if they were their characters.

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!"
That can be tough. While one hopes as a DM to get back what one gives out it doesn't always work that way: some players simply aren't that expressive even when in theory speaking in character.

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.
In the moment, yes. After the fact, the game log of said fiction can be very literary. :)
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
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.
I think that enough people play with various elements that they might focus upon that the best you should say is, "RPG play is *usually* not a literary endeavor, because the quality of form is not a common focus."

Going beyond that is making claims on the community that nobody really has the power to do, hey what?
 

pemerton

Legend
Hriston said:
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.
I think that enough people play with various elements that they might focus upon that the best you should say is, "RPG play is *usually* not a literary endeavor, because the quality of form is not a common focus."

Going beyond that is making claims on the community that nobody really has the power to do, hey what?
I've bolded a part of [MENTION=6787503]Hriston[/MENTION]'s post that you (Umbran) perhaps did not notice.

The "light" by which Hriston is examining RPGing is the same light as I deployed in the OP. The OP is making a claim about the aesthetics of RPGing: that the strength of RPGing is engaged participation, not artistic performance and narration.

I appreciate that this will not be a universal view: that's why the thread title takes the form of a question, and why the OP offers my answer.

I don't even know if [MENTION=6787503]Hriston[/MENTION] agrees with me - I took his post to be an attempt to restate my position, which he did very well, but not necessarily an endorsement of it.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
To the question in the thread title, I answered yes.

If you qualify it by asking if such is a primary concern, or if it is more important than some other element of RPGing, then that answer could change.

In the sense that RPGing involves the crafting of a story and related elements, I think the simple answer is yes. As to the concern over literary quality....that will vary quite a bit, I imagine, not only from group to group, but even within the same group across different instances of play.

Is the literary quality more important than being an engaging game? I'd say almost certainly not, except perhaps in the most extreme of cases. I think the game aspect of RPGing is definitely more important than the literary quality of the narration and story elements.

But those things aren't really mutually exclusive.
 

Hriston

Explorer
I think that enough people play with various elements that they might focus upon that the best you should say is, "RPG play is *usually* not a literary endeavor, because the quality of form is not a common focus."

Going beyond that is making claims on the community that nobody really has the power to do, hey what?
If quality of form is a focus, I think it would be secondary to making meaningful choices as your character in reaction to situations presented in the game. Otherwise, I wonder why RPGing is being chosen as an activity, as opposed to other forms of narrative art that may be more to conducive to quality control.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
Some recent threads have discussed aspects of GM and player narration in RPGing. Which hase prompted me to start this thread.
So, I think this is what Permerton said in the other thread (on boxed text) that received so much pushback that required (??) this thread:

When I play a RPG I am not going to experience fear because of the referee's narration. That's a response appropriate to a book or film, perhaps, but not a RPG.

In a RPG, my emotional responses are generated by the context for, and consequences of, the actions I declare for my character. I'll give an example to explain what I mean. In the first session of BW that I played as a player (rather than GM), my PC and his companion were investigating an abandoned farmstead. As we were doing this, orcs attacked. What generated my emotional response to the orcs was not the GM's narration of them: it was the fact that I knew - given my knowledge of the game mechanics and the character's stats - that my companion was in danger from the orcs, and that it might be hard for me to both protect here and make sure the orcs didn't get to my horse, which was tethered to a post outside the farm house. Or to put it another way, it was my knowledge of the possibilities implicit in the circumstances of play that generated an emotional response.
(Emphasis supplied).

This point was not met with universal acclaim (I can sometimes be a little deadpan), hence this thread.

Again, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is a very bizarre point to make. The effect of any form of communication (whether it's music, or a conversation, or a film, or a book) is to have an effect on the listener (we can discuss issues of rhetoric and what not, but whatever).

There are many types of emergent gameplay, and it certainly appropriate to say that TTRPGs are not the same as a book, or a film, or a videogame*, just as a person could say (for example) that the film and the book of Naked Lunch are both good despite being good in different ways. Different art, different media, can be literary in different ways; the same things things that evoke fear in a book, for example, would not in a movie (and vice versa, unless you think that jump scares are effective in books).

Where we start to go to crazytown is when we get arguments such as this one, which is more theory than actual play; no one would (or should) seriously argue that, for example, the quality of play doesn't matter, even if different people have different preferences for TTRPGs. So the idea that a group of people narrating their actions verbally (in addition to dice roles) have absolutely no effect on either each other or the emergent gameplay is ludicrous.

Whether you want to tie that into ersatz and ridiculous definitions of "literary" or not.



*Yes, Virginia, videogames can be "literary" despite being interactive.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
I'm going with the consensus from the thread: It CAN be literary, but does not have to be.
My reasoning is that it is indeed cresting story, but "literary" has the strong connotation of producing quality fiction, and that is not a requirement, or even (in my experience as a GM) the norm. Maybe one in 10 of my campaigns have been literary (Dracula Dossier being the most recent).

So, my answer might be that the answer to the OP is the same as "Is RPGing a comic endeavor?" sometimes, yes, but always? No.
 

pemerton

Legend
So, I think this is what Permerton said in the other thread (on boxed text) that received so much pushback that required (??) this thread
I didn't realise you were the overseer of what threads are allowed to be created, or what topics are approved for discussion on these boards.

Duly noted.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
I didn't realise you were the overseer of what threads are allowed to be created, or what topics are approved for discussion on these boards.

Duly noted.
I’m not. Usually, when I create a thread based on another one, I refer to it.

But our difference are ... duly noted.
 

pemerton

Legend
I’m not. Usually, when I create a thread based on another one, I refer to it.
(1) As the OP says, this thread is a response to multiple threads.

(2) Last time I did what you suggest here, I was criticised for linking the two threads. So this time I took a different approach. Apparently I can't please all of the people all of the time.
 

lowkey13

I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that.
(1) As the OP says, this thread is a response to multiple threads.

(2) Last time I did what you suggest here, I was criticised for linking the two threads. So this time I took a different approach. Apparently I can't please all of the people all of the time.
Well, it really helps people understand where you’re coming from if they understand where you just have been.

As someone not completely familiar with your works, but very familiar with the conversation of the last day prior to this thread, it would certainly assist me (and I am sure, the others who don’t understand the random denigration of TTRPGs as not “literary”) if you could point them to the genesis of your thoughts.

Of course, as I wrote I always try to either link to or refer to the other thread that provides the basis (bases) to any given thread of mine, as applicable, and I haven’t had a problem of people complaining about that.

Different approaches, right?
 

MarkB

Hero
[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.
Performance is also absent from literary works, so I don't see how your viewpoint makes RPGs un-literary. Engaging with the fiction is precisely the response that a literary writer is hoping to evoke in the reader, after all. And ultimately, if there's a fiction there in the first place to be engaged with, it's because the GM and players crafted it through playing - which, again, doesn't feel like the opposite of literary.
 

pemerton

Legend
Performance is also absent from literary works, so I don't see how your viewpoint makes RPGs un-literary. Engaging with the fiction is precisely the response that a literary writer is hoping to evoke in the reader, after all.
Literary work and artistic performance have something in common - the goal to evoke a response at least in part through the quality of form. (The two can overlap when the performance is, say, a play.)

Word choice, and meter, and assonance, and sentence length, and the like, are formal features of language that affect how a work evokes a response. Here are two opening sentences, by two different authors (REH and EM Forster). Each has a certain "something" to it:

One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.​

Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night.​

We learn that there is a character called Helen, who has a sister, to whom she writes letters. This establishes expectations, and - together with the construciton "one may" - sets a certain tone (middle class, for lack of a better term).

We learn that the events are happening in "the east", at night, presumably in some sort of urban area (it has a proper name - the Maul) but on a pre-modern street (it's lit by murkily-flaring torches) with sordid partying taking place - drunkenness, streetwalkers, pick-pockets, daggers in alleys are not mentioned, but we can certainly anticipate them turning up.

There are other ways to convey the same information. For instance:

These events concern Helen, and her sister. The easiest way to get a handle on them is to consider the letters the former wrote to the latter.​

These events take place in a mediaeval city in the east, in an area called the Maul. At night, the streets are lit by torches. The Maul is a favoured place for thieves and similar sorts of people to hang out, and at night they really live it up.​

From the point of view of literary endeavour, the difference between the quoted story openings, and my restatements, is big. My view is that from the point of view of RPGing, the difference between the quoted story openings, and my restatements, is small.

In a written medium, it's harder to convey the same point about performance, but I'll try. Consider the following two episodes of narration:

These events take place in a mediaeval city <pause> in the east <pause> in an area called the Maul. <pause for audience uptake> At night, the streets are lit by torches, which <increasing volume/emphasis> flare with murky light! <pause for audience to form mental picture> The Maul is a favoured place for thieves and the like to hang out <pause> especially at night when <increasing volume/emphasis> they really live it up!​

These events take place in a mediaeval city in the east. <pause for breath> The area of the city is called the Maul. <pause for breath> At night, the streets are lit by torches. <pause for breath> The Maul is a favoured place for thieves and the like to hang out. <pause for breath> At night, they really live it up!​

From the point of view of oratorical performance, I think there is a difference between these two - I hope I've managed to convey that, and to make it clear why the first might seem a more engaging performance than the second. Again, my assertion is that from the point of view of RPGing, the difference is not all that significant.

Engaging with the fiction is precisely the response that a literary writer is hoping to evoke in the reader, after all.
The writer's purpose is to lure the reader into the work and compel him/her to read on. I think both REH and EM Forster have successful openings in this regard. Moreso than my retellings.

But in my view an RPG is different. The player isn't being invited to read on - to learn more about this engaging work. The player is invited to adopt the perspective of the PC, and from that perspective to make a choice. This is a completely different from of engagement. From that point of view neither of the openings is a success, because neither invites action from a protagonist.

if there's a fiction there in the first place to be engaged with, it's because the GM and players crafted it through playing - which, again, doesn't feel like the opposite of literary.
In RPGing, the fiction is engaged with qua fiction, not qua work.

Here's another sentence from The Tower of the Elephant, a little over a page in:

A touch on his tunic sleeve made him turn his head . . .​

From the literary point of view we have multiple alliterations (touch, tunic, turn; his, him, his, head). We also have a series of short, mostly one-syllable, words that bring out this alliteration.

If we rework this as a piece of RPG narration, here are two possibilities:

You feel a touch on your tunic sleeve - their's somebody behind you.​

There's a pull on your shirt sleeve. You can feel that the person who's pulled on your sleeve is behind you.​

These are different works. I think they have different literary qualities: neither is anything special, but I nevertheless think they can be ranked from the literary point of view.

But from the point of view of RPGing they convey the same fiction and invite the same engagement by the player. My view is that when we think about things from the point of view of RPGing, this common invitation to engagement is much more important than the issue of which has more literary merit.
 

ParanoydStyle

Peace Among Worlds
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.
Literary work and artistic performance have something in common - the goal to evoke a response at least in part through the quality of form. (The two can overlap when the performance is, say, a play.)


Word choice, and meter, and assonance, and sentence length, and the like, are formal features of language that affect how a work evokes a response. Here are two opening sentences, by two different authors (REH and EM Forster). Each has a certain "something" to it:
One may as well begin with Helen's letters to her sister.​
Torches flared murkily on the revels in the Maul, where the thieves of the east held carnival by night.​


Hey, I'm a writer with the gall to call himself a literary writer even though I write genre stuff--I don't think that genre fiction can't be literary by default like way too many lit crits still think, even in a post Neil Gaiman world. As a PC or a DM I can and do make up, on the fly, prose of a quality closer to those opening lines you quoted than your later examples, as well as other dialogue and descriptions which sound more like something you'd read in a novel. So yes, I freestyle novel quality prose to my table, which I realize puts me in the minority if not outright marks me as a freak. But does that mean MY roleplaying is a literary endeavor and no one else's is? (It's a rhetorical question, but my answer is I don't think so.)

For what it's worth, I also usually make an effort to ensure that my dialogue when portraying a character is delivered as well as it would be by a professional actor, including body language, accents, etcetera. Of course I'm a retired veteran LARPer and LARP, at least any one worth playing, is a theatrical endeavor.

How do we define "literary: some people use it to mean 'like a book', some people use it to mean 'like serious literature'. With the latter definition, I would say no, at least the VAST majority of RPG sessions and campaigns don't achieve (or aspire to) 'literary' status, although I also think a handful do (and I'm positive they're not the ones being streamed, but that's neither here nor there). With the former definition um, well...I think the OP answered their own question. It is different from a book in that it is interactive, which is kind of a duh. Well, I guess Choose Your Own Adventure books would be an exception.

Personally, my goal when I am GMing is to create an interactive but 'CINEMATIC' experience. Actually, what I'm going for is 'seriously good TV quality' but there isn't one word to define that like there is for cinematic. But basically the HBO/AMC pioneered hour-long drama is the 'format' I aim to make interactive. Those shows (Sopranos, Breaking Bad, True Detective, Legion, American Gods et al.) definitely manage to be art as well as entertainment, which is something else I go for in my games. The caveats here would be that I expect most GMs take their campaigns much less seriously, and I am totally fine with that, and also that I haven't been able to actually run a campaign to my own standards in a long, long time (going on two years).
 
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Manbearcat

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.
Good OP for discussion!

If you broadly distilled TTRPGing down to its absolute minimum constituent parts, I think, as you've said, the answer has to be a firm "no."

However, I think there is going to be some overlap in specific moments of play that may not be possible to divorce entirely from an investment in quality of form.

For instance, a few things come to mind.

1) When I'm deriving a dungeon/adventuring site in Torchbearer, I'm using the content generation methodology expressed in the book. However, when I'm filling in blanks of theme and sorting out a unique Twists table, I'm referencing (a) PC build components (Beliefs, Nature et al) and (b) prior play resolution.

2) When I'm running a first session of Dungeon World, that Earthdeep Prison Colony that was cleaved in two by the Lightning Borne Cleft one of my players added to the map, and their subsequent ideas of what that may entail is central for setting and situation to come. It may also hook into the Druid's Defeat and Unnatural Threat.

When a Discern Realities requires a response from me and I ask a question about the familiar NPC chain-gang they encounter crawling from the cleft in the opening scene of play, I discover that the Fighter did hard time here and made enemies everywhere. I'm using that.

When we review the End of Session questions, resolve Bonds and Alignment and write down our answers about how they know this NPC that is running, the answers to these questions has relevance to future Front (merely because I know what they're interested in or how they see the fiction that just emerged from the last session).

3) I think understanding how pacing and a dramatic arc compels emotion and investment in content (even if you aren't scripting them to railroad a set of players through) are extremely important aspects of both GMing and writing a game (particularly a game like My Life With Master where you're running through a pre-conceived, but not pre-rendered, thematic arc with a diversity of ultimate outcomes).


How do you think the 3 above intersect (or not) with your premise?
 

Tonguez

Adventurer
if by literary you mean the creation of a cohesive narrative then yes, absolutely RPGs are a literary endeavour.

The particular quality and internal cohesiveness of the work might be debated but that doesnt change the fact of its existence as an imagined shared 'text'
 

pemerton

Legend
As a PC or a DM I can and do make up, on the fly, prose of a quality closer to those opening lines you quoted than your later examples, as well as other dialogue and descriptions which sound more like something you'd read in a novel. So yes, I freestyle novel quality prose to my table, which I realize puts me in the minority if not outright marks me as a freak.

<snip>

For what it's worth, I also usually make an effort to ensure that my dialogue when portraying a character is delivered as well as it would be by a professional actor, including body language, accents, etcetera. Of course I'm a retired veteran LARPer and LARP, at least any one worth playing, is a theatrical endeavor.
What you describe here is certainly what I have in mind by referring to a "literary endeavour" or a "performance in the artistic sense".

My view - which I think you disagre with?, though you also recognise that most RPGing won't live up to your aesthetic standards - is that this is inessential to RPGing in a way that it is not inessential to writing fiction or performing plays. That the core of RPGing is the invitation to choose from the perspective of a protagonist, and that this doesn't depend upon being entertaining and aesthetically pleasing in the way you describe. Those are, in a sense, "extras". (Analogous, in a way that I hope you won't take as derogatory, to the quality of finish of a board game's components.)

(An exception to how I describe RPGing would be classic skilled play dungeon crawling of the sort Gygax describes in his PHB. That's not about the "invitation to choose" I have described, but it's not literary either. It's much close to a wargame in the traditional sense.)
 

pemerton

Legend
Good OP for discussion!

If you broadly distilled TTRPGing down to its absolute minimum constituent parts, I think, as you've said, the answer has to be a firm "no."

However, I think there is going to be some overlap in specific moments of play that may not be possible to divorce entirely from an investment in quality of form.

For instance, a few things come to mind.

1) When I'm deriving a dungeon/adventuring site in Torchbearer, I'm using the content generation methodology expressed in the book. However, when I'm filling in blanks of theme and sorting out a unique Twists table, I'm referencing (a) PC build components (Beliefs, Nature et al) and (b) prior play resolution.

2) When I'm running a first session of Dungeon World, that Earthdeep Prison Colony that was cleaved in two by the Lightning Borne Cleft one of my players added to the map, and their subsequent ideas of what that may entail is central for setting and situation to come. It may also hook into the Druid's Defeat and Unnatural Threat.

When a Discern Realities requires a response from me and I ask a question about the familiar NPC chain-gang they encounter crawling from the cleft in the opening scene of play, I discover that the Fighter did hard time here and made enemies everywhere. I'm using that.

When we review the End of Session questions, resolve Bonds and Alignment and write down our answers about how they know this NPC that is running, the answers to these questions has relevance to future Front (merely because I know what they're interested in or how they see the fiction that just emerged from the last session).

3) I think understanding how pacing and a dramatic arc compels emotion and investment in content (even if you aren't scripting them to railroad a set of players through) are extremely important aspects of both GMing and writing a game (particularly a game like My Life With Master where you're running through a pre-conceived, but not pre-rendered, thematic arc with a diversity of ultimate outcomes).

How do you think the 3 above intersect (or not) with your premise?
I think (1) and (2) are - at their core - about extrapolating from established to new fiction by reference to theme/interest. That fits well with my description, in my post not far upthread of your post, of the GM's narration inviting the players to engage as a protagonist. What stirs the player, what rouses emotion, is not the fluency of the GM's narration but the power of that invitation.

I think a GM can do this although s/he has no great skill as a writer (in the sense of writing beautiful prose). My belief here is grounded firmly in my experience!

I think your (3) puts more pressure on my contention - I would describe the source of this being that it puts pressure on the contrast between form and content - this is the contrast that [MENTION=6787503]Hriston[/MENTION] has helpfully articulated upthread, and that I also tried to capture (via some examples, and comments around them) in my post not too far upthread from yours.

This is because dramatic pacing (probably) can't be completely divorced from the words - the form - whereby the content is conveyed.

In the context of a RPG, though, where the pacing concerns - at least the sort that you refer to - are more at the "scene" level than the line-by-line level, I think the dependence of pacing on words becomes pretty lose. A GM who can't control his/her words at all is going to have troube wrapping up a scene, or cutting to the next situation, in a smooth way; but I think the threshold of skill to be able to do this falls well short of being able to write an evocative opening or closing line.

I'll finish this post by saying that, in denying that RPGing is a *literary* endeavour I'm not denying that it has an important aesthetic component. But I think that the aesthetic component is much more connected to a sense of motion and drama in human affairs, than to a sense of beauty in composition or performance.
 

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